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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:
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