Sunday, 22 January 2017

ENG: Learn to understand spoken Danish: stød (creaky voice/glottal stop)

According to a chronicle, already in 1554 a Swedish bishop expressed his annoyance over how Danes pressed out the words "as if they were trying to cough." On the one hand, this comment reveals, for minimally how long the Danes have spoken with stød (literally thrust) but also how disturbing this so characteristic feature can be to Swedish ears.

The importance of stød is critical in spoken Danish: basically it is only this linguistic phenomenon which differentiates the pronunciation of gul (yellow) [gulˀ] (with stød) from guld (gold) [gul] (without stød). The same applies to the difference between anden (the duck) which is pronounced ['andˀen] (with stød) and the pronoun anden (another) pronounced ['anden]  (without stød). We can also look at the noun for runner, løber [ˈløːb̥ɔ] (without stød), and contrast it with the present form of the verb run, løber [ˈløːˀb̥ɔ] (with stød). Farmers, bønder, take stød, while beans, bønner, is pronounced the same way but without it.

Those of you who want to speak flawless Danish simply cannot evade stød. For those who are satisfied with "only" understanding Danish – i.e. not using the language actively - everything is much easier. For us to realise if someone is talking about a yellow thing, or something made of gold, the context actually gives a far better support than the individual sounds of the language.

What remains, however, is to become comfortable with this coughing sound, I beg your pardon: stød. For my own acceptance of it there are two decisive explanations: the first relates to the actual sound, the second to its origin.

Baaahaha and Cockney butter ... or butter from the Swedish town of Eskilstuna

The Danish stød if often (not least in Copenhagen) pronounced through a complete closure of the vocal cords, a so called glottal stop. In Swedish, we do not have that sound, but can identify it, for example in how in English Cockney accent the sound /t / is replaced through a full glottal stop in the pronunciation of butter. Those who know Spanish will recognise the same in how the letter /s/ is replaced by a soft vocal cord closure when people in Andalusia say España (Spain).

All of us can pronounce this sound. If we imitate a sheep - baahaha – you clearly here it, which is why we add the letter /h/ to describe this bleating sound. If we bleat without closing the glottis completely, we get what phoneticians call the creaky voice. In many Danish dialects this is rather similar to how stød is pronounced and then we actually have direct parallels in Swedish dialects. Try to mimic how Swedish-speakers around the cities of Eskilstuna or Örebro say smör (butter) with a creaking vowel. Here, there is a narrowing of the vocal cords, but they do not close completely. Due to this dialect feature, this part of Sweden is often referred to as the “Whining belt” (Gnällbältet), although the “Creaking belt” would be a more suitable name.

Historical connection with pitch accent

Danish stød may seem strange if one does not take into account a phenomenon which among the Germanic languages is unique for the other two Scandinavian languages - Swedish and Norwegian – and thus can be expected to have existed in Danish as well: our pitch accent. In Swedish this (and only this) differentiates the pronunciation of stegen (the steps) and anden (the duck) - both with acute accent - from stegen (the ladder) and anden (the spirit) - the latter two with grave accent.

Scandinavian originally monosyllabic words like steg (step) and and (duck) take the acute accent in Swedish and Norwegian but in Danish they are pronounced with stød. Consequently, Scandinavian words which historically had two syllables are pronounced without stød in Danish.
Unfortunately, this simple principle is complicated by the fact that all the Scandinavian languages have a number of words which received their accent when they were still monosyllabic and have retained this although, subsequently, they have become polysyllabic. Historically, we did not say sitter (present tense of sit) in Swedish, but sitr. Hence, the Danish word sidder takes stød.

To further complicate predictability, there is a number of Danish monosyllabic words where stød is the only differentiating element. Examples of this can be found when we compare ven (friend) [vɛn] (without stød) with vend (the imperative of the verb turn) [vɛnˀ] (with stød). To comfort those of you want to learn to speak perfect Danish, this last example can be explained through the rules for when stød can occur in the language (so-called stødbasis).

Do not confuse stød with stress

Just like with the pitch accent of Swedish and Norwegian, in Danish we must distinguish between stød and stress. Examples of Danish words which can be told apart thanks to stress - not stød - we find in billigst (cheapest) [ˈb̥ilisd̥] och bilist (motorist) [b̥iˈlisd̥]. The first word has the stress on the first syllable, the second one on the final syllable.

Just get used to it!

In short: Do not sweat the stød in Danish. If you want to shorten your path to understanding spoken Danish, you had better focus on the similarities between this and the other Scandinavian languages. So, just get used to it! :) And, by the way, beware that the word stød is pronounced without stød.

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Several good videos in Danish about stød can be found here: 1, 2, 3.

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Earlier related articles: 
Differences between Danish and Norwegian –Infografic on the Written Languages
Learn to Understand Spoken Danish – an Introduction (part 1)  

Learn to Understand Spoken Danish Despite Reduction (part 2)

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Swedish version

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