I have been asked a question about the English word “play”, which normally translates into either “lege” or “spille” in Danish.
Normally, we distinguish between activities with
1: Rules and regulations. Here we use “spille”: Jeg spiller fodbold (I play football); skal vi spille kort (do you want to play cards)?
2: No rules (or at least not fixed rules), often associated with children, creativity and freedom. Here we use “lege”: “Børnene legede i gården” (the children were playing in the yard); “skal vi lege fangeleg” (do you want to play catch; obviously children’s games like catch have rules, but they are not as fixed as, say, organised sports like football or games like chess. A curious case is The Olympic Games, which are called “De olympiske lege”).
You can sometimes see this difference when the same activity is viewed in different ways:
“Han spiller fodbold i en lille, lokal klub” (he plays football in a small, local club: focus is on the organised game).
“Han leger tit med sin nye fodbold” (he often plays with his new football: focus is on playing with the ball, but not as part of an organised activity, he is just having fun with it).
This difference is also seen from the fact that a (board) game is called “et spil” whereas a toy is called “(et stykke) legetøj” (curiously, “tøj”, which today means “clothes” when used on its own, but which we find in a number of otherwise unrelated words like “syltetøj” (jam), “utøj” (vermin), “køretøj” (vehicle), originally meant “noget der er fremstillet eller frembragt” (something that has been produced or made”: http://sproget.dk/raad-og-regler/artikler-mv/sporgsmal-og-svar-fra-ordnet.dk/syltetoj-verktoj-og-legetoj)).
If you look at the word used when talking about acting, a play can be translated into either “et skuespil” or “et teaterstykke” (literally a theatre piece). An actor is called “en skuespiller”. The word playwright can be either “skuespilforfatter” or “dramatiker” (which I would consider more common).
If you play an instrument, you use “spille”: Jeg spiller klaver (I play the piano: notice that we do not use an article with instruments in Danish); kan du spille guitar (do/can you play the guitar). But if you were not really playing the instrument but just having a bit of fun with it, you could answer the question “hvad laver du?” (what are you doing?) with “jeg leger bare lidt med din guitar” (I am just toying/playing a bit with your guitar).
This last “lege” can thus be used when referring to something you have been/are/will be doing. It then implies that you are not doing it/working very seriously (unless, of course, you are understating it), that you focus on the creative processes and not a rigid, work-like structure: “Jeg har leget lidt med idéen om at åbne mit eget firma” (I have toyed a bit with the idea of opening my own company); “jeg har leget lidt med at bygge mit eget skur i haven, men det er sværere end jeg troede” (I have been trying to build my own shed in the garden, but it is more difficult than I thought).
Finally, let us look at a few idioms:
“Lege med ilden” (play with fire)
“Lige børn leger bedst” (literally: Equal children play better with each other (i.e. one should stick to one’s own class))
“Som en leg” (when something is easy as a child’s game, when it goes smoothly)
“Sådan leger vi ikke” (a way of telling somebody that what they are suggesting/doing will not work or is not acceptable)
“Stoppe/holde mens legen er god” (to stop before things go wrong)
“Det spiller!” (used about something that works really well)
“Spille den af”/”tage en spiller” (to masturbate, normally about men)
“Spille op” (to be provocative)
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