Saturday, 14 January 2017

ENG: Learn to understand spoken Danish - despite reduction

Reduction blurs the pronunciation

It is a fact that spoken Danish has changed markedly during the 20th century. Danish people tend to omit more and more syllables or sounds when they are not stressed or when they have a position at the end of a word. Linguists call this phenomenon reduction and it gradually distances Danish from the other two Scandinavian languages. Apparently, you do not have to go further back than the 1960s to find movies where the language sounds more typically Scandinavian than today.

Sometimes the pronunciation of words actually merges. For example, in modern Danish there is no difference between doctors læger (plural) and a teacher lærer (singular). Both words are pronounced lääå [ˈlæ:ɔ].

Do not despair

It is easy to despair but there is help: the reductions in Danish follow certain rules. Here is a presentation of those I consider most important.

The ending -a became an -e and was often then lost

That a short /e/ in an unstressed position results in a sound similar to that of Swedish /ö/ (more correctly [ə]) is a phenomenon which exists in many languages. Phoneticians call this short neutral vowel schwa.

Like in Danish, in Norwegian the old Scandinavian ending -a has evolved to an -e, but that is also how it is pronounced. By contrast, in Danish it has been reduced to schwa, affecting, among other things the basic form (infinitive) of all verbs. This is why tell tale is pronounced tälö [ˈtˢæ:lə].

In some cases, it has gone so far that the ending is not pronounced at all. With the word chin hage serving as an example, one can imagine how the evolution has occurred in stages: haka (like in Swedish) – hagö – häjö – häö - hää. When the speaker retains a suffix, modern pronunciation will be hääö [ˈhæ:ə], but many Danes pronounce this word Danes hää [ˈhæ:].

Alternatively: the ending -a became an –e, but was then assimilated

In Danish, the above mentioned schwa is so weak that, when it appears after another vowel, many speakers completely drop its original quality. We say that the sound is assimilated (adapted).

That is why the word for a living room stue (compare with stuga in Swedish) can be pronounced stuu [ˈsd̥uːu] and girl pige may sound like pii [ˈpʰiːi].

When /r/ becomes a vowel

Some Swedes cannot stop complaining about the Danish (and southern Swedish!) guttural /r/. However, they will rapidly start appreciating it, in case they want to learn to understand spoken Danish. For most Swedes, it is a far more odd phenomenon that the Danish /r/ has often turned into something very similar to a vowel; a so called vokoid. In combination with an anterior vowel this vokoid forms a diphthong. This, among other things, affects the in all Scandinavian languages highly common ending -er. The word for churches kirker is a good example because here we have two vokoid r-sounds. It is pronounced kiökö [ˈkʰiɔkʰəɔ].

Among Swedish dialects something similar can be observed around my hometown of Halmstad. Like in Danish, in these positions the r-sounds are replaced with diphthongs. Hence, we pronounce kyrkor (churches) kyökoö [ˈɕyːəkuːə].

One of two consonants is dropped

In many Danish words you will hear how letter combinations like -ld- and -nd- are simplified to one single sound; -ll- and -nn- respectively. As a consequence the verb want vilje and the plural of the adjective wild vilde are pronounced ville [ˈvilə].

Copenhagen Dialect instead of Standard Danish

In all honesty, reduction occurs in Swedish and Norwegian as well, but the Danish language lacks the counterforce which we have in Standard Swedish (rikssvenska) and Standard East Norwegian (standard østnorsk/ norsk standardtalemål), respectively. Standard Danish (rigsdansk) is no longer promoted by the media and therefore tends to be pushed out by the contemporary Copenhagen dialect. Here, unstressed syllables disappear to an even greater extent than elsewhere. This means that most of us Swedes base or picture of Danish on one of its most unclear dialect.  If people in Copenhagen say something which we perceive as Ka du gi m n ka, it is difficult for a Swede to understand that they are actually saying "Kan du give mig en kage?" The verb can kan is pronounced in exactly the same way as the desired cake, kage.

The written language as a bridge

If you want to learn to "hear" which word might hide behind the reduction, I would recommend you to read Danish regularly. This is probably why Norwegians are generally better at understanding our neighbour language than we Swedes - their written language bokmål is much more similar to Danish than written Swedish is.

A Swede will obviously feel confused, if they perceive uu [ˈuːu] where they expects to hear the word week (vecka in Swedish). Now, if you know that this word is written uge in Danish (uke in Norwegian Bokmål) it all becomes much easier.

In later articles we will immerse into the Danish vowel and consonant sounds. However, first we will take a closer look at a unique sound phenomenon which have irritated Swedes for centuries: the Danish stød.

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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
Learn to Understand Spoken Danish – an Introduction (part 1) 

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Swedish version 

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Snacka skandinaviska; Lindgren, Birgitta / Havaas, Anitha; Prodicta, 2012; sid. 24. 
Danska – Grundbog i dansk for studerende ved svenske universiteter; Købmand Petersen, Bjarne; BOD Books on Demand, 2012; sid. 18,-19, 129-137 och 230-235.
Fonetik og fonologi af Ruben Schachtenhaufen, ph.d.
Wikipedia in English: Danish phonology

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