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Soft D’s Are Not Hard Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Pronunciation

If there was a Miss Denmark contest for sounds of speech, the soft D (blødt D) would run off with the gold medal. Danes love asking foreigners to pronounce the phrase

rødgrød med fløde (which, as you may remember, means ”red fruit pudding with cream”). That’s four of the difficult ladies, lined up with exotic Ø’s and R’s in-between.

Well, they aren’t that difficult… We Danes like to think that our language is harder than it is – it is a way of keeping it for ourselves, I guess. 😉
But really – if you can say the soft ’th’ sound of English mother, you can pronounce the soft D of Danish. They are both kinds of soft D’s, the difference is that in English, the tip of your tongue touches your teeth. In Danish, it should be a little bit more retracted.

Here’s a tip: Put your fingers in your mouth, with the nails touching the back of your upper front teeth (make sure you’ve got clean hands!) Now say the English word mother. Notice how your tongue strives to reach your teeth… Now remove your hand, and try to repeat the word as if your fingers were still there… If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a soft D with no teeth contact, and if you’re even more lucky, it’ll sound like Danish! 🙂

To many foreigners, the soft D of Danish sounds like an L. I’ve had pupils who pronounced the word Gud (God) like gul (yellow). If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that there is a world of difference…

The soft D only appears after vowels, as in mad ’food’, gade ’street’, gødning ’fertilizer’. In most other positions, the letter ’D’ is pronounced as in English: dyr ’animal’, dreng ’boy’. After ’L’, ’R’, ’N’ and in front of ’S’ and ’T’, the letter ’D’ is usually not pronounced at all: vild [vil] ’wild’, jord [yoᵒʳ] ’earth’, land [lan] ’country’, plads [plas] ’place’, fedt! [fet] ’cool!’ (literally: fat!).

You can do better than these kids!

 


Note to linguists: As Simon and Kevin note in the comments, the Danish soft D is also velarised (the back of the tongue is raised towards the velum). This makes it a bit different than the English th of ’than” – which is still a good shortcut for beginners trying to learn the language.

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About the Author:Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.


Comments:

  1. Bjørn A. Bojesen:

    The video was missing until now; sorry about that!

  2. Kevin Flynn:

    >> To many foreigners, the soft D of Danish sounds like an L. I’ve had pupils who pronounced the word Gud (God) like gul (yellow). If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that there is a world of difference… <<

    Yes, there's a world of difference between "Gud" and "gul". But that's because you're comparing two _Danish_ words. On the other hand there is very little difference between Danish "Gud" and English "ghoul" (as pronounced by very many, if not most, English-speakers): the chief distinction, in fact, is in the vowel, which is longer in English.

    In short, Danish has one L sound (what we'd call "clear L") and two D sounds; English has one D sound and two L sounds ("clear L" and "dark L"). And dark L [ɫ] does indeed sound very like blødt D!

    PS – Matters are not helped by the fact that blødt D is usually transcribed as [ð] — but is nothing like the English sound also transcribed [ð] (and heard, for example, in "the").

    English [ð] is an voiced dental fricative, while
    Danish [ð] is an alveolar velarised retracted approximant.
    English [ɫ] is an alveolar velarised lateral approximant.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Kevin Flynn @Kevin
      Thank you very much for your explanation. I’m keeping it and will look into the technical stuff – maybe write a follow-up post. 🙂
      To my Danish ears, the soft D of Danish always sounded very close to the English ’th’ sound of ”mother”. In fact, the first times I spoke English, I just inserted the Danish sound — and people seemed to understand me. Then again, the soft D has become much ”broader” during the last 20 years – my old grandparents are complaining that people ”nowadays” are pronouncing the soft D in such an ugly way! 😀 I’ll look into it.

      • Anna:

        @Bjørn A. Bojesen Thank you Kevin and Bjørn for a very detailed explanation – exactly what I needed to wrap my mind around the phoneme, which of course doesn’t make it any easier to pronounce. Well, challenge accepted I guess… It’s interesting to hear how people’s production and perception of native sounds has changed over the years, by saying broader do you mean that there has gradually come to be less of a closure between the tongue and the teeth/alveolar ridge in the articulation of the soft d compared to how it used to be X generations ago?

        • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

          @Anna @Anna, yes, the closure has been ”opening up”, I guess. For example, my cousin has a ”back tongue” soft D – which could easily sound like an L to foreign ears. My soft D is slightly more ”front tongue”, sounding slightly more like the English th of ”father”.

  3. Megan:

    This helped me a lot! My boyfriend (who is danish and sadly went back to denmark yesterday) and have had many battles with the word “brod”.
    I am very new to danish.
    Do you make a podcast or can you recommend any?

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Megan @Megan
      Thanks for the nice feedback, I’m happy the post could be of use for you! 🙂
      I don’t make any podcast, but hey, it’s a good idea! Hm…
      Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any Danish podcast. But I found this: http://www.copenhagencast.com
      Maybe you should give it a try?

  4. Sergio:

    Dear Björn,

    in the course Colloquial Danish, in the 6th chapter, first dialogue, there is a character, Knud, who pronounces, in the following sentence: “Er du tosset? Saa er det paa tide, du faar en ny.”

    the word “tosset” as “toset” instead of “tossedh”
    and “tide” as “tiye” instead of “tidhe”.

    This character has a somewaht different accent in comparison with others. Is this a valid option? That would be easier for foreigners to reproduce.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Sergio Dear Sergio,

      interesting. I don’t know that particular course, but it seems/sounds like Knud is from the Århus area. ”toset” and ”tiye” are traditional pronunciations here (yes, I live in that area too). As a learner, I think you can use the -et (”toset”) pronunciation and still be understood. (It does sound a bit formal to me, as if you’re a stage actor taking care to ”enunciate clearly”. But by all means, use it if this pronunciation suits you! 🙂 ) But I wouldn’t go for the ”tiye” pronunciation – unless you’re trying to speak some old dialect. 🙂 (Some dialect speakers still say ”y” instead of soft D, making ”blød” sound like ”bloy”, for example.)

  5. Mianna:

    I think the explanation you gave in your post was great, easy to understand, and exactly what beginners in Danish need. I also greatly appreciated your comments in this post and some others you’ve done about Danish not being as hard as people say it is. At least, not for native English speakers. Mandarin Chinese, now that’s something I’d find hard! lol. But Danish is great. If more people had friends/family to practice pronunciation (with in a detailed and patient manner), I think they’d find it much easier to catch on to the language.

    • Mianna:

      @Mianna *pronunciation with (in a…

      (typo, lol)

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Mianna @Mianna Thank you for the comment. 🙂 And yes, I think you’re right: It’s very much a question of having a (patient!) conversation partner.

  6. Simon:

    As Kevin notes,

    Danish [ð] is an alveolar velarised retracted approximant

    Bjørn, It’s the velarisation that’s missing from your description, and it may be that you don’t notice it. The back of the tongue draws up and back towards, but not meeting the descending soft palate. It’s not that English doesn’t do this; it does. It’s the linguistic context that makes it unfamiliar, and it’s the unfamiliarity which makes it difficult for the English-speaker. Imagine riding a bicycle, but one where the pedals worked in the opposite direction; the principle would be understood, but there would still be lots of accidents.

    The other element missing is the famous Danish stød, which to English-speaking ears closes off the flow of sound so abruptly, and so often. To my ears, the soft D, velarised, instantly followed by the stød, sounds exactly like a tight L that is trying to behave like an unreleased plosive.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Simon @Kevin – thank you very much for this detailed description. I’ll perhaps add a bit of it at the end of the post, if you don’t mind? The problem is always – how to describe for non-linguists. Many people are just tourists and prefer rough shortcuts. Yes, when I wrote the post I did not notice this detail. Now, that my ears have become a little ”sharpened” (I feel like an Elf, haha!) I do hear a bit of the velarisation, as you say. Thanks. BTW, there IS a separate post about stød: http://blogs.transparent.com/danish/2013/02/20/how-to-hiccup-like-a-dane/ 🙂

  7. Alejandro:

    I’m really thankful for your explanation! As a comment said above, this is exactly what we foreigners need to better understand how the blødt D sounds like. I’m from Colombia but I’m moving for one year to Denmark on August and I’m so excited, but at the same time I’m a little bit nervous because of the language, probably because Danish is actually a very challenging language. Anyway, I guess once you “catch your rythm” for learning it, that becomes a passionate and rewarding process.

    I only hope that my proficiency in the language gets a lot better being in Denmark, and then I could finally be fluent speaking and especially understanding it!

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Alejandro @Alejandro – Thank you very much for your kind comment! 🙂 I hope you’ll enjoy being in Denmark. Don’t give up on Danish, even if everybody wants to speak English to you (or even Spanish, which many people are learning!) I have a friend who moved here from Mexico (a long time ago). He speaks fluent Danish, so I think it would be possible for you as well (with a Spanish-speaking background, I guess?) 🙂


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