Julie Larsen, who teaches Danish at the University of Edinburgh, takes us through some rules of Danish spelling and pronunciation – and demystifies their complicated relationship.
Writing versus speaking
A tricky thing about learning Danish is the frequent mismatch between speech and writing. The last major spelling reform happened in 1892, so most changes in pronunciation since then are not reflected in the written language.
However, English is not straightforward either. In the word ‘straightforward’, the ‘gh’ is silent, but in the word ‘tough’, ‘gh’ sounds like an ‘f’. No wonder students of English can get confused too - I can easily forget the challenges of my own mother tongue.
Difficult Danish vowels
Danish has three 'extra' letters compared to the English alphabet: Æ, Ø and Å.
‘Å’ is the youngest; it was introduced as part of the spelling reform of 1948 by the Danish Ministry of Education, as substitution of the ‘AA’. It is pronounced a bit like the first part of the exclamation 'oh!'
After the introduction of Å, only names for individuals and places could retain the double-a. But recently the spelling of the city Aarhus (the second-largest in Denmark) has been changed back from Århus to Aarhus, perhaps to increase its attractions internationally. The spelling of the town of Aalborg in Northern Jutland always kept the double-a and the town is endearingly called Dobbelt-A, immortalised by the rapper Niarn in his song Dobbelt A.
Æ is (you guessed it) a combination of ‘a’ and ‘e’ and is pronounced like ‘e’ in ‘Ben’. Ø is a rounded version of ‘e’, found in for example ø (island), øl (beer), møs (slang for kiss). And øh… is the sound Danes make when they hesitate. That can be useful when stringing your first couple of sentences together.
The full vowel list is a, e, i, o, u, y, æ, ø, å. In practice, however, some vowels can have slightly more open or closed pronunciations, and most vowels can be pronounced both long, short and with stød. This results in a full inventory of about 40 vowel sounds, and that is unusually large amongst the world’s languages.
The stød is an extra, small sound that appears with certain vowels and consonants. It sounds like a creaky voice or a small glottal stop. The stød has similarities to some English pronunciations of the word ‘what’ and ‘water’ where instead of ‘t’ we can hear a sudden short break in the word. The only difference you would hear in the word pairs aftale (agreement/date) and aftale (agree/arrange) and ven (friend) and vend (to turn – the ‘d’ is silent) is the presence of stød in the latter word of each of the pairs.
Stød can be attached to a long vowel or certain consonants, in some but not all words. Generally, It will be difficult to predict whether a word has stød or not. Luckily for students of Danish, stød is not necessary. Most Danes living in the southern parts of Denmark don’t use stød at all. They will know from the context whether we are talking about a mor (mother) or about a mord (murder).
Speaking with stød has the benefit of making your Danish sound natural for most Danes, but if you put a stød where it shouldn’t be, it will sound very strange. It’s an interesting feature, but it isn’t a necessary one to use. As long as you know it exists, you shouldn’t be too shocked when it sounds like your Danish friend is hiccuping in the middle of a word.
A few tricky sounds in Danish
Let’s take the words bage, bagt, bagværk (to bake, baked, baked goods). Bage is pronounced something like 'ba-ay' (g is silent, or, at the most, j), bagt is pronounced like 'bagt', and bagværk 'bow-vairk' (bow rhyming with ‘pow!’). That’s three different realisations of ‘g’: silent or j, ‘g’, and ‘w’. When the ‘g’ remains in the spelling, it is so we can see these words all have the same stem and essence of meaning – relatedness to baking.
Another example is the words held and heldig (luck and lucky). The ‘d’ is silent in held but not in heldig. To keep the relationship between the words obvious, the silent ‘d’ remains in the spelling.
Talking about ‘d’, it can also manifest as an odd sound - the ‘soft d’. The classic example is rødgrød med fløde (it’s a classic dessert as well as a classic phrase the Danes will amuse themselves getting non-Danes to pronounce).
In the phrase, the ds are pronounced like an English dark ‘l’ but with the tip of the tongue behind the bottom teeth instead of the upper teeth. In fact, this soft ‘d’ doesn’t sound much at all like ‘d’, but it’s a common sound when ‘d’ is not in the beginning of a word or syllable. Again, this sound is not used throughout the whole country.
A nice word that combines a silent ‘g’ with a soft ‘d’ is Strøget – the long shopping street in central Copenhagen. It’s something like 'struh'+ soft ‘d’
English is famous for its many tongue twisters, but Danish can compete too. How would you like fem flade flødeboller på et fladt flødebollefad? (five flat chocolate covered marshmallows on a flat chocolate-covered-marshmallow tray). Or would you agree that Man plukker frisk frugt med en brugt frugtplukker (one picks fresh fruit with a used fruit picker)? Perhaps when you were little you wondered about the fluffy white animals in the fields: - Far, får får får? and he said Nej, får får lam (Dad, do sheep get sheep? No sheep get lamb).
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