Sunday, 2 October 2016

ENG: Learn to Understand Spoken Danish – an Introduction

Let me open up this article series with a revelation: after three years in Switzerland, it is much easier for me to understand Swiss German than Danish. Through my involvement in the Nordic Rowing Club of Zurich, every week I am reminded of this weakness.

Danish feels very difficult although I grew up in Halmstad, a Swedish town with a Danish history where we had access to Danish TV (this was long before the Internet ...).

It might well be that we southern Swedes have less problems than the average person from Stockholm, but is that really an excuse when we are actually embarrassingly weak in our neighbour language?

Therefore, in five articles I will try to make Danish more accessible to those students of Scandinavian languages who already speak Swedish or (possibly) Norwegian. Here is an introduction, thereafter I will take on the topics of reduction, the Danish stød (creaky voice/glottal stop), as well as the individual vowel and diftong- and consonant sounds.


The Difference is Anything but a Small Detail

Let me start by emphasising the obvious. Had a reasonably large part of the Danes pronounced their language as many Norwegians in Oslo speak Norwegian, we would have a completely different language situation in Scandinavia. A major advantage of Standard Eastern Norwegian (standardøstnorsk) - as well as Standard Swedish (rikssvenska) is that the modern pronunciation has largely been adapted to how words are written.

True, there are differences in our Scandinavian written languages but they are very systematic and you can therefore easily learn them. To find a starting point in a spoken language which coincides with the written version clearly facilitates the learning, not least for us adults. Relatively soon, you can then assume the challenges which dialects bring.

Here, however, Danish differs from other the other two Scandinavian languages. In all Danish dialects today’s pronunciation sharply contrasts with the written words. That is anything but a small detail.


On the Choice of Phonetic Transcription

That Danish pronunciation is not easy is in my eyes confirmed by the fact that the Danes have created their own onomatopoeic (phonetic) script. It's name is Dania and it is considered better at explaining unique Danish features, such as some /r/- and vowel sounds as well as the thrust (stød). Some people even claim that Dania is more readily comprehensible for those who do not specialise in langugae studies (linguistics).

My own experience is that Dania is not perceived as intuitive, at least not by Swedes. For this reason I choose to use the international phonetic alphabet, IPA, and supplement it with an own attempt to write phonetically, based on Standard Swedish pronunciation. How Danes say otherwise anderledes, I will consequently explain by annålets (IPA: [ˈɑnɔˌleːð̩s]), but do not add the Dania version [ˈαnɹ̩ˌleːḍs].


Would a Spelling Reform be a Solution?

There are forces in Denmark who wish to carry out a spelling reform to improve the consistency between the written language and modern Danish pronunciation. Most likely, this would make it easier for Danish children to begin to write. Studies show that these actually need more time to learn the words of their language.

From my perspective – i.e. that of a Swede who wants to learn to understand Danish - this would be disastrous. It would create a huge gap between, on the one hand, Swedish and Norwegian, and, on the other hand, Danish. Danish pronunciation is already a big enough challenge if we want to be able to communicate with each other in Scandinavian. If we lose the written language, only our common language history would remain.


An Improved Understanding is Enough!

Admittedly, I originally intended to learn to speak Danish. "You will rapidly make it, since you master so many languages," my friends encouraged me. However, after opening the first textbook I have quickly limited myself. Already the word Danmark reveals why: here are two short /a/ sounds, but pronounced differently. No wonder the country is called Denmark in English and Dänemark in German.

If you aim at speaking Danish flawlessly you must learn these sounds, in many cases word by word.

If you confine yourself to be better at understanding Danish the road to the goal will be considerably shorter. It is here where I want to be of support.

Next there will be an article about a Danish reduction. I hope that you will enjoy the reading.

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I have never studied Danish at the university, so I warmly welcome all proposals to improve and correct this article.

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Earlier related articles: Differences between Danish and Norwegian –Infografic on the Written Languages

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Swedish version - all five articles: Introduktion, Reduktion, Stöd, Vokalljud och Diftonger samt Konsonantljud.

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