It’s always hard to learn a new language and Danish is no exception - especially when it comes to it’s pronunciation.
The Danish language is filled with silent D’s and a lot of vowel sounds. They even have some extra vowels known as Æ,Ø,Å. And then there’s the standing joke about Danes having potatoes in their mouth when they speak. What is that about?
In this podcast episode, we speak with two different language schools to get their insight into what separates Danish from other languages. Sam and Josefine are also joined by What the Denmark researcher Eli who has been digging through the history of the Danish language.
After reading this, we hope you’ll have a better understanding of the Danish language and maybe you even got a bit curious about learning it yourself.
The episode starts with an introduction of What the Denmark Researcher Eli, who has been researching the topics surrounding the Danish language and it’s pronunciation.
“I think we don’t really know much about why we do certain things because language learning is so innate in a way” Eli points out.
So the thing is that we actually don’t think about why we speak as we do. It’s just a fact. And that’s why people love hearing foreigners speak their language - especially danes.
Josefine also explains that the Danish language is very flat in it’s pronunciation.
She’s wondering if there could be any kind of connection between a language and the geographical location of a country.
The Danish country is really flat, whereas Norway and Sweden have a lot of hills, snowy mountains etc. And in comparison to Danish the Swedish and Norwegian language is far more hilly and bouncy.
“Then actually our language is super flat and that means that we don’t have that beautiful bouncy feel that English have when they speak”
So what distinguishes Danish from other languages?
Eli explains that danes have a tendency to assimilate the words. And because they also speak really fast, Danes don't pronounce the entirety of a word. They simply throw the endings away.
Here’s Eli’s example:
Danish: Det bliver ved med at gøre ondt.
English: It still hurts.
So even though there are actually 7 words in the Danish sentence, it almost sounds like one long word when spoken.
As Eli explains, another distinction is the difference between written and spoken Danish. Danes don’t write and pronounce the same way so there’s actually no coalition between the two languages.
Sam and Josefine also had a chat with the language expert, Signe Tofte Brantelid. She tells that:
“I used to say that there are things that are difficult when you learn danish. One is the pronunciation. And secondly, to understand the Danes when they speak.”
So because of the distinction between written and spoken Danish, Danish children are actually learning to read and write later than children in Sweden and Norway. As Josefine points out “It’s rough to be a Danish kid”.
Continuing the exploration of the Danish language, Eli talks about The theory of universal grammar - A theory about how and when people learn different languages.
The main thesis is that children from the age of zero to about 10 months old are able to distinguish any sound from any language across all languages.
But as soon as the child hits the 10-12 month mark, they lose the ability to distinguish the sounds. After that they will only focus on the sounds from their parents and people close around them.
The lesson is then to actually talk different languages to your child, so the sounds sound natural to them.
The conversation continues about the difference between written and spoken Danish.
Sam talks about his time in Kenya where he was trying to learn Swahili. Swahili is a very phonetic language and therefore not that difficult to read. But as he points out Swahili was purely an oral language until 100 years ago.
His theory is then, that because Danish is such an old language and has been written down in centuries, the language had time to evolve orally but not in written form.
Eli approves his theory and adds that the Danish language can be tracked all the way back to the Vikings. At that time everything was written in runes and you can still to this day find stones filled with runes in Denmark.
“Danish has actually existed since runes. It predates the Roman alphabet. So I think that’s important to remember that Danish has been spoken longer than it has been written down as well” Eli tells.
As Sam, Josefine and Eli continue to track the Danish language it's also important to notice that Danish has been influenced by so many different languages.
The Danish language has been influenced by Swedish and Norwegian. But it is also influenced by German, French and Latin. And that’s why Danish has all these different characteristics.
The influence happened partly because of geographical reasons. Whereas Norway was a bit remote for merchants, Denmark was geographically connected to the mainland of Europe.
So back in the day people from Europe could travel to Denmark quite easily and a lot of these people settled in Denmark. Eli comments:
“And I think that is why Danish has these very distinct things from the other Scandinavian languages. Of course, we’ve also been travelling and trading with Norway and Sweden, but they have not had the same direct link to the other European languages in the same way. They might have been more influenced by Finland and some of the other slavic languages.”
Josefine also points out that Norway was actually ruled by Denmark until not long ago. But somehow the Norwegian people clung on to their Norwegian sounds which is still a better reflection of their written language than Danish.
And that’s because Norway (unlike Denmark) makes up their own words to make sure that people continue to speak Norwegian in the same way. Josefine explains it here:
“So, whereas in Danish, you might just use the word Internet, Computer or Laptop, they’re (as in Norway) really particular on not using foreign words.”
Josefine experienced the same when she moved to France. She tried to learn French and was surprised they didn’t have the same word for a computer. (In French it’s “Ordinateur”).
“And I was thinking, good god, do they really have to have a word for everything? Making it even more difficult for me to have to learn this language. If I could just steal a little bit from the global world where we have the same words” she admits.
This leads Sam, Josefine and Eli to begin speaking about the danglification.
Josefine explains that Danes are actually making fun of the way many danes speak English. Because the Danish accent is so thick and flat (as we spoke of earlier). But "danglification" is also about adding English words to a Danish sentence.
Sam is very curious about this phenomenon and asks for an example. So Josefine introduces the studio to an old Danish tv-series called “The Julekalender”.
It’s a Christmas show from 1991 and was made by a comedy group called “De nattergale”. The whole show was about making fun of the Danish accent in English and Danes loved the show. This song is also the perfect example of Danglish:
With “It’s hard to be a nissemand” fresh in the memory, Sam, Josefine and Eli went on to talk about the pronunciation of Danish.
In his research Sam has noticed that Danish is a vowel language, whereas most other languages are a consonant language.
English has around 11 vowel sounds. In comparison Danish has around 16-20. And if you want to talk about variations in the different Danish dialects you can count up to 30 vowel sounds.
Denmark is filled with different dialects. Josefine explains that even though the Danish language is partly flat, there are places in Denmark where the dialect is more bouncy.
An example is the island Bornholm, which is called The sunshine island by danes. Another example is Fyn, a bigger island in the middle of Denmark.
Josefine has actually been told that fynsk (the dialect of Fyn) is one of the easiest dialects to learn as a foreigner.
Sam, who is the native English speaker in the group, then continues the conversation about the different Danish vowel sounds.
He explains that there are two main things to do when learning Danish:
Sam gives an example with four female names: Lene, Lena, Line, Lina. For him all the names sound the same, but they’re quite different in the pronunciation.
But it isn't just Sam who has difficulties learning a new language.
He asks Josefine and Eli if they ever had difficulties pronouncing an English word.
Eli admits that they sometimes struggle with the English A. An example is the difference between Heart vs. Hard.
“You have so many A’s in English. It is ridiculous. You need to stop!"
On that note, Josefine explains that the example with Heart and Hard is also interesting because of the endings. It’s normal that Danes mix up the T’s and D’s because the English endings do not exist in the Danish language.
She instead has some difficulties with other endings like Cup vs. Cub. And she always gets teased by her English husband when she says the word “Dog”.
“And you know, you often say dog because you see a cute dog and he’s like, oh, he loves it. It’s really annoying. I want to get it right. But I just can’t say that word”.
Eli also has a quite interesting take on the difference between English and Danish.
They explain that Danish usually only have monophthongs, which is a vowel with only one sound. Whereas English has a lot of diphthongs, which means that one vowel sound will glide into the other.
An example is the word: Glide. The I is almost gliding into the E.
Another difficult part of learning a new language is intonation. Intonation describes how a voice rises and falls in speech.
And that can be difficult in danish. Josefine explains that intonation is one of the key factors when foreigners try to learn Danish. But it’s also a key factor for Danes trying to understand foreigners.
Sam has also been working with intonation and in his research he found a method called “The mimic method”.
He explains that when you are learning a new language you first have to learn how to make all the noises in that language. Once you do that, you have to start combining them into words, so your mouth gets comfortable with the sounds.
So as part of learning Danish Sam spent a lot of time on Youtube watching how to say the different vowels.
So for instance the Danish language has the vowel Å. Sam says that the trick is to say the letter O and then stop halfway in the pronunciation. Here’s a video for learning:
Another letter that Sam found difficult was the R sounds. A good example is everyone’s favorite word at the moment: Corona. Sam tries the different intonations and Eli comments:
“You’re nailing what it is that you have to do because in English the R is a lot more in the front of the mouth and sometimes it’s even done with the tongue. But you have to go all the way back in the throat. You have to actually almost make an H sound. That’s how English speakers should say the Danish R. Pretend like you're about to say an H sound.”
They also talk about the silent D in the danish language which the English mouth muscles aren't capable of doing. A trick Sam learned is that the silent D sounds a bit like a L.
So the trick is when you, by example, say “Vesterbrogade” where the D in “gade” is silent, try to hold your tongue down instead of hitting the top of your mouth
To get a better understanding of the Danish pronunciation Josefine has brought a surprise.
The surprise is a children’s book called Halfdans ABC. It’s a very famous children’s book with a lot of fun rhymes starting from A and ending with Å. So there’s a rhyme for every letter.
And even better, it's actually a useful tool in learning all the different pronunciations. Josefine even knew some friends who used the book in their effort to talk Danish.
When reading Halfdans ABC you also get an introduction to Danish humor (the very blunt and morbid kind).
Sam and Josefine are taking turns reading a rhyme from the book.
One of the rhymes starts with the letter E. It’s a rhyme about a very large lady called Else who loves sausages and fur coats. She eats so much sausage that she actually bursts from overeating. Here is the illustrations:
Sam is surprised by how dark the humour is. The Danes are laughing.
“This is not like fun. Well, I mean, it’s fun, but they’re not like little, bright colors, cute little images. Like this is almost morbid. Like the sketch is really graphic.”
While waiting for Sam’s try on the letter K, Eli explains that they feels a bit nostalgic.
The Danes agree that Halfdans ABC could actually be described as the illustrations of children’s childhood in Denmark. Josefine would even say that about 90 % of Danish children will have the book on their shelf.
Josefine also compares the book with other fairy tales, which can also be quite dark and morbid (The original “The little mermaid” is actually really dark). Her thesis is that Danes do think it’s a good idea to show and tell their children some more morbid stories, so they don’t only grow up with magical, happy ending stories.
But she does admit that maybe the danes sometimes are a bit extreme.
They also talk a bit about the author, Halfan Rasmuusen.
Halfan Rasmussen was a freedom fighter during the German occupation of Denmark, and then he became a well-known and respected poet. But he also wrote a lot of poetry for adults during the war.
He's of course mostly known for his ABC book, but there's a lot of beautiful poetry and very meaningful texts that also tells the story of Denmark over the last 100 years.
Sam and Josefine had a chat with another language expert, Anders Basby. Anders explains that:
“All languages are difficult. Danish has a lot of sounds and a few of them you have to get used to. And we have a tendency to lose the consonants. Some of them become vowels. [...] But if you think it’s fun and you look at real Danes and you don’t stick to the textbook. Don’t think that you can squeeze out anything from written Danish because it’s different. You have to rely on listening.”
On that note, Sam and Josefine are talking about speaking Danish at home.
Josefine is living with her English husband, and she explains that the problem with speaking Danish with Danes is that when her husband tries to talk Danish they immediately switch to English.
Sam has noticed that in order to train his Danish mouth muscles, he has to set some boundaries in the conversation. He actually has some phrases he uses when chatting with a Dane. Here is some good phrases:
Danish: Undskyld, jeg lærer dansk. Kan du tale lidt langsomt?
English: Sorry, I’m learning Danish. Can we speak slowly?
Another good one is:
Danish: Kan vi snakke dansk i 5 minutter?
English: Can we speak Danish in 5 minutes?
A good advice from Sam: Practice with your Danish friends - because the best way to learn is to hear and see the way Danes pronounce the words.
Another great tip from Josefine is to have a whole day dedicated to one language.
She and her husband had Danish Tuesday when they lived abroad.
To sum it all up, it is possible to learn Danish. Of course it’s a bit difficult but if you get the pronunciation right, you're on the road to learning Danish.
Josefine’s last tip to the listeners is to bring a potato - If you’re really struggling, you can just pop that into your mouth and start talking and it’ll be good.
And Eli can only see pro’s on learning Danish. In the end you will have learned a language that only about 6 million other people can speak. A fun input at parties!
We wish you good luck!
Summing up the episode:
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