9 February 2015

Liveability, Tolerance and Language

By Associate Professor Martha Sif Karrebæk

In both 2013 and 2014 the life-style journal Monocle elected Copenhagen as the World’s most livable city. To celebrate this Monocle made a short movie on the “Quality of Life” where the viewers are taken on a guided tour through a sunny, blonde, female and bicycle dominated Copenhagen. The voice-over emphasizes that in this city, the ‘human scale’ is cherished, but what is the human scale? In the Monocle version, the human scale is said to be a “human centric urban planning”, and it is contrasted with cities where cars are given highest priority. As if cars were not tightly connected to the goals, aspirations and opportunities of human beings, and as if a car-centric perspective could not be argued also to favour the human scale… I certainly cherish my bicycle, and I am not in favour of promoting cars, of giving them primacy in the city or in political decision making processes regarding the city, I am sure that many people would argue that cars are part of a human centric perspective. However, I do have quite a different perspective on what the human scale may mean, as well as on liveability, and this perspective is sociolinguistic.

So, with this paper I wish to give a maybe somewhat provocative contribution on the degree to which Copenhagen can be considered liveable for specific groups of people from a sociolinguistic point of view.

The sociolinguistic perspective

I will turn to the issue of tolerance. Tolerance figures among the parameters used by Monocle to rank cities in terms of liveability. As Copenhagen was ranked first, it is reasonable to assume that Copenhagen has scored high on tolerance, and I will challenge this on the basis of recent sociolinguistic insights in two areas: Copenhagen versus the rest of Denmark, and Copenhagen as a city characterised by diversity.

Denmark as a linguistically monocentric country

I will start with the - sociolinguistic - relation between the linguistic resources used within or associated with Copenhagen vs. those used in and associated with the rest of the country. We call these other resources ‘local’. This part of my talk is based on a sociolinguistic study which is being carried out by a number of my colleagues from The Lanchart Center at the University of Copenhagen. This project has investigated language change in Denmark based on old and new recordings of speakers at a number of regional locations, namely: Vinderup (Jylland), Odder (Jylland), Vissenbjerg (Fyn), Køge and Næstved (Sjælland), and Bornholm (http://dgcss.hum.ku.dk; see e.g. Maegaard et al. 2013). Language, and language change at these locations, has been compared to the variety of Danish spoken in Copenhagen. On the basis of extensive data material and meticulous analyses, they have concluded that compared to most other European countries the process of language standardisation has been particularly powerful in Denmark. From the 1960s, the rising generations have abandoned the traditional dialects, and doing so, they apparently only looked to Copenhagen for new ways of speaking. And I will quote prof. Tore Kristiansen: “The result is that the Danish language of today is more homogeneous than maybe any other language with millions of speakers.” (Kristiansen 2009). So, in Denmark, standardization is Copenhagenization.

Motivation for language change

The next question of course is why is this the case? There is no certain answer to this, but we can see a variety of reasons. First, Copenhagen is the all-dominant center in the country, politically, economically, and culturally, and it has been like that for hundreds of years. Second, Copenhagen is the largest city, inhabited by more than a fourth of the population, and the process of urbanization is still going strong. So Copenhagen is growing.

But in fact such observations do not explain much in themselves. Language does not spread like a disease. And even people who never moved to Copenhagen approach the CPH way of speaking, so regardless of geographical proximity we see the same developments. 

We believe that language variation and change is driven by ‘social meaning making’, and that the motivation behind the standardization has socio-psychological and ideological elements. Let’s turn to the national media. Here the spoken language has almost exclusively been standard - Copenhagen - speech. We have only in recent years seen small changes, and yet most speech with a ‘local’ flavour is still relegated to the sports programs or the weather report. This reflects the fact that Copenhagen is not only the centre of language change, but also a centre of ideological attention. In the LANCHART study this is evidenced in the patterns of evaluations found among the young generation. The Copenhagen flavoured linguistic variables have been shown to be associated with intelligence and success, and linguistic variables with local association have been less favourably evaluated in comparison.

What has this to do with tolerance and liveability? Part of the sociolinguistic investigation showed that young Copenhageners are not positive towards ways of speaking other than those associated with Copenhagen itself. Moving to Copenhagen may be believed to necessitate a shift of language, in order to have success and to be regarded as cool and with a great potential. Even when staying home, people may change their way of speaking to appear more dynamic, future-oriented, and modern. This understanding is evidenced by a study where the language of individuals who moved to Copenhagen as adults or young adults was compared to the language of individuals who stayed in the local environment. Those that moved had abandoned the local way of speaking already around the age of 15 or so (Monka 2013). From my point of view, it does not make Copenhagen a particularly liveable city if people feel the need to change their way of speaking in order to be taken seriously.

Copenhagen & diversity

My second overall point has to do with Copenhagen as a city characterized by diversity. It is striking that neither Monocle’s ranking, nor the movie they produced, mention diversity. This is entirely erased – despite the fact that diversity is the essence of cities. As Chríost (2007) writes: it is peculiar intensity of social relations that define city life, where contrasting worlds are juxtaposed in close physical proximity, where multiple and contested senses of place are negotiated. But also: ”Arising from this are various urban tensions relating to community and difference, movement and settlements and order and disorder” (Chríost 2007: 9). In fact, the diversity perspective can be extended, as as soon as people come together, difference is created because we see difference when comparing ourselves to others. We may even change our behavior to show or emphasize how we are dis-similar. Cities are constituted by difference, and cities have been considered a center for linguistic creativity.

These days, demographic difference have become more or less synonymous with ethno-linguistic heterogeneity, and newer studies of language change often focus on creativity in urban youth groups of mixed ethnicity and on the creative uses of linguistic resources associated with immigrant languages, in Denmark and elsewhere around Europe. Such linguistic styles are now spreading into mainstream society, even into non-urban contexts, through popular culture and media, or just as the result of conviviality in ethnolinguistically mixed groups of people (Madsen 2013; Stæhr & Madsen 2015; Quist 2008).  

Such usage is a sign of a positive evaluation, on a low and local scale, of what we may call hybrid language. Yet, this forms a contrast to the higher-scale level and to wide-spread mono-lingual ideologies, founded on an understanding that homogeneity and stability constitute the unmarked, normal, and best societal situation. One language to rule them all. In general the horizontal distribution of languages (that is, the evaluation of languages in relation to a political power center) does not mirror the vertical distribution of languages, that is, how different languages are present in the Copenhagen space.

Higher scale level attitudes towards linguistic minority children

I will present a brief note on such linguistic hegemony in the Danish educational system. This is particularly enlightening as a perspective on the degree of tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, as schools are powerful participants in the socialization of children into state-licensed ideologies. In Denmark young citizens with minority language background are met with political statements such as the following:

-  the state abolished its economic support for language tuition in immigrant languages in 2002;  

-  increasingly powerful legislative moves since the 1990s have ensured that young children with minority background attend pre-schools in order for them to be able to speak Danish at a native level when they enter school;

-  we recurrently hear high ranking politicians declare that if you are born in Denmark your mother tongue is or should be Danish;

-  some preschools discourage the use of other languages than Danish – at home in minority families; 

-  use of minority languages may be banned during school recess

With this insight, it does not come as a surprise that an OECD report from 2010 concluded that in Denmark minority languages are not attributed with educational value (Nusche et al. 2010), a lack of recognition well-known from other European countries.

Now, in Copenhagen, a fourth of the student body are born, or have parents that were born, outside of Denmark (Danmarks Statistik 2012). Politically (and tragically also by some academics), it is assumed that minority children reach a higher level of majority language competence if other language skills are suppressed. We have no support for that academically. Also, it is believed that improving minority students’ skills in the majority language is the most effective way of fighting school failure – yet although the majority language focus has dominated in Denmark for decades, the level of academic achievement is still much lower for children categorized as second language users than for those categorized as native speakers of Danish – and it is not higher for second generation immigrant children than for first generation. So despite the very strong focus on eradicating linguistic diversity in Copenhagen, this has not had a positive educational effect. Of course, members of minority groups often support the hegemonic position of Danish because they regard standard language competence as an entry ticket into mainstream society – and they may be right to do so. Just like people with an ethnic and linguistic background in Denmark but outside of Copenhagen may be right to abandon their local linguistic features to position themselves more favorably (see also Holmen & Jørgensen 2010; Karrebæk 2013, forthc.; Karrebæk, Madsen, Møller Forthc.). 

Tolerance in and in relation to Copenhagen: Sociolinguistic conclusions with implications for liveability

To conclude, from a sociolinguistic perspective, Denmark in general and Copenhagen too, is not characterized by tolerance, and whether Copenhagen is the world’s most liveable city or not, certainly depends on who it should be liveable for, and what kind of life people try to pursue within the city. Homogenization and standardization are treated as preconditions for obtaining successful lives and a well-functioning city. People with ethnic Danish background who are not born in Copenhagen seem to change their way of speaking and emulate what they think is the Copenhagen way, rather than a local way. Children whose family have immigration background must learn to suppress their minority linguistic resources in mainstream society if they are to succeed. We have evidence that they understand this from an early age. This shows how evaluations made on a higher scale level influence individual linguistic behaviour. I argue that in Copenhagen, as elsewhere, it is important to recognize a much wider range of linguistic experiences and repertoires. Students need to have the possibility of defining themselves positively rather than negatively (for instance, as ‘not a white middle-class mainstream child with Danish as a first language') because the identity as ‘different’ and ‘less resourceful’ does not aid children in seeing themselves as, and in becoming, academic high-achievers. This was also pointed out by the OECD. In their report they stated that ‘immigrants’ and their children represented an ‘underused potential’ in Denmark. It is an underused potential in many ways (Nusche et al. 2010). Notice that many of the languages spoken by immigrants to the country have between 70 and more than 100 mio speakers whereas Danish has 5.5. Both for economic and strategic reasons, citizens with linguistic repertoires that include resources from these languages could be considered assets. But at this point it does not seem to be politically possible to aim at a serious investment in the development of their competences, and one of the reasons has to do with a lack of linguistic tolerance. I don’t think that it is far-fetched to suggest that increased tolerance could lead to conviviality and thereby contribute to liveability, as well as maybe to the increased societal security and economic prosperity that are part of the Grand Challenges everybody is concerned with. 


Holmen, Anne & J. Normann Jørgensen. 2010. Skærpede holdninger til sproglig mangfoldighed i Danmark. In J. Normann Jørgensen & Anne Holmen (eds.), Sprogs status i Danmark år 2021. Københavnerstudier i tosprogethed 58.

Karrebæk, Martha Sif. 2013. “Don’t speak like that to her!” Linguistic minority children’s socialization into an ideology of monolingualism. Journal of Sociolinguistics 17/3.

Kristiansen, Tore. 2009. The macro-level social meanings of late-modern Danish accents. Acta Linguistica Hafniensa 41.

Madsen, Lian M. 2013. ”High” and ”Low” in urban Danish speech styles. Language in Society 42 (2)

Maegaard, Marie et al. 2013. Accomodation to a moving target. Journal of Sociolinguistics 17/1

Madsen, Lian M., Martha S. Karrebæk & Janus S. Møller (eds.) (forthc.). Everyday languaging: Studies of the language of children and youth in contemporary Copenhagen. Mouton de Gruyter.

Monka, Malene. 2013. Sted og Sprogforandring: En undersøgelse af sprogforandring I virkelig tid hos mobile og bofaste informanter fra Odder, Vinderup og Tinglev. København: Museum Tusculanum.

Nusche, D. et al. 2010. OECD Reviews of Migrant education: Denmark. www.oecd.org/denmark/44855206.pdf

Quist, Pia. 2008.  Sociolinguistic approaches to multiethnolect: Language variety and stylistic practice. International Journal of Bilingualism 12

About the author

Martha Sif Karrebæk is an Associate Professor at the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics. She completed her postdoc research (2009-12) on language socialization among school-starters. Currently, she is leading a project on mother tongue education financed by the Independent Research Council’s elite grant. Furthermore, she is part of the research group "Copenhagen Studies in Everyday Languaging". She has publications in Int Journal of Bilingualism, Journal of Pragmatics, Journal of Sociolinguistics, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Food, Culture and Society, Language & Communication etc, and she is a member of Urban Culture Lab's Steering Committee.