Written Danish: a couple of quirks Posted by Bjørn A. Bojesen on Sep 1, 2011 in Grammar
When learning Danish, one of the most confusing things is the huge distance between the written and the spoken forms of the language. In a way it resembles the problem faced by people learning English as a foreign language, who have to get a grip on the strange fact that women in a queue is actually pronounced ”weemen in a cue”. Let’s take a look at some of the peculiarities of Danish orthography:
Squeezing out some e’s
In Danish, e is often a very weak sound. In words terminating in el or en it tends to drop out when an ending is added:
mirakel – mirakler ’miracle(s)’
ørken – ørkner ’desert(s)’
In Danish, as in English, there is a distinction between short and long vowels. When a vowel is followed by more than one consonant, it is short in 99 % of the cases, like in mælk ’milk’ or ønske ’wish’ (with a handful of exceptions like kvalt ’choked’, which is pronounced like ”kvaalt”). And conversely, when it is followed by a single consonant, it is often long: maler ’painter’, vise ’song, tune’, bål ’bonfire’.
However, in some cases a vowel is short even when it’s in front of only one consonant sound. The medieval scribes laying the foundations of Danish writing had a brilliant idea: Such a short vowel ought to be highlighted by writing the following consonant twice! Thus hallen (’the hall’), pronounced with a short a, has a completely different meaning that halen (’the tail’), pronounced with a long a. Unfortunately, those clever scribes chose never to double a consonant at the end of a word… (I know, Norwegians and Swedes are more consequent…) Therefore, Danish can sometimes trick you: should hal be pronounced with a short a, meaning ’hall’, or with a long a, meaning ’haul!’? As there are no rules of thumb, you’d better keep your good habit of always learning the plurals… Check it out:
dal – dale ’valley(s)’ but bal – baller ’dance party (parties), ball(s)’
gren – grene ’bough(s)’ but ven – venner ’friend(s)’
hus – huse ’house(s)’ but plus – plusser ’plus sign(s)’
It might cheer you up to know that only a few loanwords can have a long vowel in front of k, p, t and m. So you are absolutely right assuming a short vowel in words like
stok – stokke ’stick(s)’
top – toppe ’summit(s)’
kat – katte ’cat(s)’
dam – damme ’dam(s)’
There are loads of Danish words containing the cluster nd or ld. Whenever you run across one, think ’nn’ or ’ll’, ’cause the only function of the d is to show that the preceding vowel is short! It is not pronounced – save in a fistful of words (like bande ’gang’). It should be as silent as the b in English climb: mand, kvinde, sende, fuld, falde, kilde…
The d is also never heard in the combinations ds and dt, as in plads or lidt. It’s just there to make the vowel short!
Also note that the h in the combinations hj and hv is silent (except in a few old dialects of Northern Jutland). So, when you don’t understand something, make sure at least to drop the h should you incredulously let out a
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3rd generation Dane. Learning gradually since my grandfather did not pass the language on as he wanted to be an American! Enjoy your blog and learn from it.
Bjørn A. Bojesen:
@Stafford Keer Tak! Thank you for the comment! 🙂
Held og lykke med studierne!
Great post! Thanks!