Silent Letters in Danish Posted by Bjørn A. Bojesen 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”).
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…