I am writer.

I speak two languages and spend about as much time thinking about that on a meta level as I do speaking either of them out loud. Today I’m thinking about expressions of identity and career and a quirky difference between English and Danish.

When you identify yourself with your career in Danish, the syntax is a little different from the way it’s done in English. For example, if you happen to spend your prime working hours conjuring and obliterating words on pages or in pixels –– no matter whether those hours are the wee ones, conventionally corporate ones, or the ones filled with owls — in English you say,

“I am a writer” or, more likely, “I’m a writer.”

In Danish, however, you would say, “Jeg er forfatter” — that is, “I am writer.” The dansk has no indefinite article introducing the object of the sentence. It’s just one tiny word’s worth of difference, and in terms of word count, the switch is small.  But in terms of self-identification, the distance between them feels dramatic.

For speakers of English, the sentence, “I am a or an [fill in your chosen career, hobby or other affiliation] means that you are one among many of those whatever-you-saids. It means that like all of the others who have filled their time with, for example, writing, you can categorize yourself as a member of the group because you do the same thing, write, as all the others who claim the label. Whereas in Danish, the removal of the article almost gives the impression that you stand alone, an incarnation of the occupation you name. More like an identity. Or like your name. Kind of like “I Am Legend”, only less apocalyptic. You are not just a member of a group, but a living representation of the activity itself. Not necessarily a quintessential representation, as in “I am the writer”, but nevertheless fully identified with the job as more than just your day gig.

Granted, no Danish-speakers understand that sentence as anything other than one person telling another what they do for a living. And no responsible translator from Danish to English would ever omit the “a” or “an”  from the translated sentence in the interest of making their target audience stand up and applaud. “I am writer” is just a distortion of the original text — and a bad translation, to boot. 

But I’m just playing with language here.

And isn’t the difference in structure between the two intriguing? When I look at the two sentences side by side and consider what it means to say what I do versus what I am, I get curious about all sorts of things other than grammar. Like, for example, who do I really think I am? Just how important is that work to me?

When people ask me what I do, I usually say “I’m a writer” and wait for either awe or puzzlement while managing my spiking anxiety about the inevitable second question: “What do you write?” And since I write a lot of different things and do a lot of things other than write, my fumbly answer aloud is more like pick a card, any card than any coherent statement about genre or publications. In other words, I dodge the question.

But the whole time, no matter whether I’m working on a chapter for a book or something as un-wordish as planting beans, my internal name plate reads, “Hello! My name is Writer.”