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Silent Letters in Danish Posted by on Jul 31, 2018 in spelling

Ever thought about all the letters we don’t say out loud – like the h in ’hour’? Just like English, Danish is notorious for its strange relationship between pronunciation and spelling, including a bunch of stumme bogstaver (silent letters, literally ”mute letters”).

(Free image from Pixabay; no copyright.)

Hvem, hvad, hvor og hvornår? (Who, what, where and when?) The H of the question words is not pronounced at all… In fact, it’s silent both in front of V and J. Hvem vil hjem? [vem vil yem] (Who wants to go home?) Fun fact: In some older Danish dialects, this H is pronounced… I’ve heard both [hyem] and [hwalp] (for hvalp, puppy) in Northern Jutland.

The most frequent silent letter in Danish is D. In none of the following words the D has any sound: begynde, vand, mand, kvinde, vild, kulde, sværd, værd, krudt, blødt, plads, lakrids, tilfreds (begin, water, man, woman, wild, cold, sword, worth, gunpowder, soft, space, liquorice, pleased). I have no idea why the medieval scribes who helped shape Danish were so enamoured of this letter, but once you get used to it, it’s actually not that hard… 🙂 You see, the D is often used to distinguish between words that sound a bit similar but are not identical (oh, Danish!): gul (yellow) guld (gold); at spille (to play) – at spilde (to spill).

Lots of common words are written with an extra consonant that used to be pronounced back in the day, for example sølv (søl’, silver), gulv (gul’, floor), god morgen (go’ mor’en, good morning), jeg siger [ya see-or] (je’ si’er, I say). Once again, these ”extra” letters are useful to tell the words apart from other words…

Sometimes a silent letter can be ”unmuted” in special contexts. For example hvad (what) often turns out as [va] – but if you don’t hear what somebody is saying, you might turn it into a full-blown hvad? [vath]. Også (too) is usually pronounced [osse], but in formal settings the complete [owsaw] appears, too.

There are probably many silent letters in Danish that I have overlooked, but here at least you have an intro to get past the worst hurdles when reading Danish aloud…

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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. Jayne:

    Thank you, for another interesting post. I really look forward to them.

    I love all the similarities between Danish and English.
    The English word for puppy is ‘whelp’ with a silent H!

    I am forever boring my partner with with ‘guess what the Danish word for such and such is!’ But I am never bored with your lovely language and I especially enjoy the pronunciation!

    Thank again for your blog.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Jayne @Jayne – thank you for your kind comment; much appreciated! 🙂 Many Danes think their language is ugly – good to hear a different point of view… ”whelp” and hvalp – yes, that’s interesting.

  2. Tom Dawkes:

    And it’s important to remember that Danish, like English, has lots of reduced forms in pronouns, prepositions, and other frequent function words. Elias Bredsdorff’s lovely book “Danish, am elementary grammar and reader” devotes over a page to this topic, emphasising how odd it would sound to use the full or spelling pronunciations for these words. (He also cautioned readers about not seeing English sound values in “rødgrød med fløde”, but it was many years before I actually hear this phrase spoken! See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQkvqJJvR9U.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Tom Dawkes @Tom – Thank you for the book tip! Yes, you’re right about the reduced forms – I didn’t think about that when posting. Maybe I’ll do another post about reductions; thanks for the idea…