Learning (and learning to be) Danish

Some non-cartoon related musings about Denmark.

"Danish queen raps radical Islam"

the queen is quoted as voicing disapproval of "these people for whom religion is their entire life".

I’m not sure how I feel about this point.  I certainly object to the way some Muslims subject every aspect of life and the world to a narrow, sometimes, purritanical conception of Islam, BUT I fear that this is not what she’s talking about.  My worry is that the Queen considers a desire to apply religious principles in one’s own life more strictly than others to be extremist.   That puts you on a slippery slope to (ir)religious tyrrany.

In a truly inclusive, free and democratic society, religious people shouldn’t have to become secular and/or non-practicing to be granted that most coveted of all political designations, normalcy.

One hopes that there is more uniting Danes today than drinking Carlsberg beer,  eating leverpostej (Liver pâté , a pork dish), or wearing tight jeans.   With its rich culture,  proud history and dynamic society, there certainly should be.

The queen said Muslims should learn Danish properly, so they would not feel excluded from society.

As the Queen’s husband can attest–The Prince Consort Henrik (Danish for "Henry") is a Frenchman who was well known, and widely resented, in Denmark for speaking Danish poorly and with a thick French accent–Danish is a difficult language to learn. 

Granted, grammatically, Danish is easy as pie–e.g., its verbs are even easier than English (in English, I run, you run, he runs, we run, …; in Danish, jeg render, du render, han render, vi render, …)–but its pronunciation is cruelly whimsical. 

Danish intonation is tricky, there are all sorts of subtle glottal stops, and Danish has a wealth of nuanced vowel sounds.  A Danish Foreign Ministry brief introduction to the Danish language sums it up well:

Many foreign observers of spoken Danish have noticed something unique about the pronunciation. A 16th century Swedish statement claims that Danes press out the words as though they are about to cough. The word ‘cough‘ must be a reference to the Danish glottal stop, a means of expression which is extremely rare in other languages, but in Danish is used in the pronunciation to distinguish between numerous words which would otherwise be identical, for instance: anden (second) – anden (the duck); kørende (driving) – køerne (the cows/queues); møller (miller/mills) – Møller (surname); garret (combined) -garret (the pair).

The glottal stop is a powerful braking of the vibrations of the vocal cords, approaching closure, and this may undoubtedly sound discordant, staccatoish, like a kind of brief, dry cough. Danes avoid glottal stops in art song.

Altogether many non-Danes find it very difficult to decode Danish pronunciation. Danish is a very vowel-rich language, with important distinctions between for instance mile, mele, mæle, male (dune, flour, voice, paint) and ugle, Ole, åle, Me (owl, proper name, chaff, early). The final sounds in hav, leg, bær, flad (sea, game, berry, flat), which are very common, can also cause problems
[You really have to hear these words spoken in quick succession to grasp how subtle these shifts in pronunciation are. And how arbitrary the final sounds in the last set of words sound to non-Danes.  -Svend]

It is difficult to deduce the pronunciation from the written word. Vejr, hver, vær, værd (weather, each, be, worth) are thus pronounced identically [Roughly, VAIR as in "air". -Svend] as are hjul and jul (wheel, Christmas). [YOOL . -Svend]  Seks (6) is pronounced ‘sex‘, seksten (16) ‘sajsten‘. [I'd render it "SIGH-sten". -Svend] The way from spoken to written word can also be difficult to predict. The diphthong ‘aj‘ can be written ej, eg ail ig as in sejl, regn, maj, sig (sail, rain, May, oneself) – and in even more ways in words of foreign origin. The Danish t is different from other t-sounds in being slightly sibilant.

They also could have mentioned how letters in Danish are often pronunced based on the grammatical role played by the word. Let’s take the letters "af" as an example:

  • kaffe [coffee] is pronounced "KAH-fuh";
  • en aftale [an agreement] is pronounced "een OW-ta-luh"
  • Slap af! ["Relax", literally "slap off"] is pronounced "slap AY".

Intuitive, right?

Another reason the writer of this introduction concedes that it is "difficult to deduce the pronunciation from the written word" is that many written letters dissappear when pronounced.  There are a million examples, but perhaps the most obvious one for me is how the ‘d’ in "Svend" is silent.

This account also neglected to mention how, as Danes always say, "Danish is not so much a language as a throat disease."  The Danish sounds of

  • æ‘ [Think of the sound an English speaker makes when he nervously mumbles, "ehhh".],
  • y‘ [Identical to the gutteral French 'u' and the German 'ü'.],
  • å‘ [An extended "oh" sound.] , &
  • ø‘ [Think of the sound a seal makes to get you throw it a fish.]

arent’ easy even for other Scandinavians.

Keep in mind that the mother tongues of many Muslim immigrants in Denmark are diametrically opposite to Danish in terms of pronunciation.  Both Arabic and Urdu, for example, are spoken more or less how they are written (let’s not get in `Ammiyya vs. Fusha issue; most languages have dialects and a high/colloquial dichotomy).  I genuinely feel for a middle-aged Arab immigrant, whose mother tongue has relatively few vowel sounds–What are there, 6 vowel sounds in Arabic?  In Danish there are over 20, more than consonants.–trying to learn to distinguish all these subtle Danish vowels.

Finally, there’s the fact that Danes speak English so darned well. What makes Denmark a dream tourism destination for Americans makes it all the more difficult, I suspect, for foreigners to motivate themselves to study Danish seriously.  You don’t need it in Denmark, as everyone speaks and understands English.   

If it’s tempting for Americans, Brits and Australians residing in Denmark to get by on just English–I took a Danish language course with such a group of expats in Odense (the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen) a decade ago and remember how getting them to study Danish was like pulling teeth.–imagine how tempting it must be for a Turk or an Arab to focus on improving their mastery Danish over the international lingua franca, English. 

In addition to English, Danes often speak German (especially in the south) and can understand Swedish and Norwegian, which are cognate languages. Being from a small country that engages heavily in international trade,it’s not surprising that Danes should be polyglots.  They don’t have a choice and, thus, grow up eagerly soaking up the internationallanguages.  The situation is different for people from America,Germany, China, Turkey, the Arabophone Middle East, etc..  Picking up a language later in life is harder when you’ve only spoken one up to that point.

As my father can attest–We spent a year in Denmark when I was young, and by the end he could barely order a cup of coffee på dansk (in Danish). –Danish is an exceedingly difficult language for people to acquire later in life.  That doesn’t justify laziness or change how important speaking the language of your society is, of course, but it does partly explain some of these problems.

Also, while I’ve certainly observed the phenomenon of foreigners refusing to learn Danish, I wonder whether this "problem" isn’t part of human nature to some extent.  I wonder whether a bunch of middle aged Danes plopped in the middle of Anatolia or Punjab would fare much better linguistically, whether they’d make much more of an attempt to integrate into the highly unfamiliar surrounding society if everyone around them spoke Danish well.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    Learning a difficult language is hard latter in life. I know it is said that you loose the ability to gain native fluency in Arabic after age 14. Arabs have the glottal stop, but I can imagine the vowels would be an issue.
    In my time i n Denmark I found it easy to get by. I speak German and English and found that both worked wonderfully. I noticed with Swedish and Danish that I could understand some of it based on my knowledge of German. Street signs, some nouns and such seemed very similiar to German, but much less so than Dutch.
    I think you are right when you say it is a human issue, not generally a refusal to learn a language. Learning a language later in your life is very hard, and one needs to keep in mind that many of the people in question are not well educated anyways, so trying to teach them a language is very hard. Explain the term “first person perfect” to a person who has the educatioon of a five grader in the west.
    Very hard. It is things like this that really test the tolerance of a nation. Here in the USA we have responded poorly to this. I have seen numerous “English only” bumper stickers on local cars, not to mention drives in some localities to make English the mandatory language on all government forms, ect.

  • http://bibizaynab.blogspot.com Hajar

    I agree, it’s very rude of a Dane or an American or anyone to assume that everyone should be able to learn to speak a certain language in order to deserve humane treatment and respect as members of the human race. I’d like to see the queen herself go to any Islamic country and learn to speak their language!
    For me it’s easy to pick up coloquial speech of any culture, because I am bilingual and I’ve always formed relationships with people from many different cultures and different languages… But most people do not have the good fortune of growing up multi-lingual.

  • Tarnima

    Interesting post.
    I have an off topic question (well not really since this post is somewhat about the Danish language and pronounciation)
    How do you pronounce the Danish name Svend? I’ve googled fruitlessly; I need the info, since that will be the name of a character in my current short story.

  • svend

    Didn’t know about the 14-year cut-off point, Abu Sinan, though I’m not very surprised. Looks like I’m 20 years too late then. :(
    I agree, Hajar. Am not familiar with the research, but I’ve heard that a learning a second language during your childhood makes future language acquisition much easier.
    BTW, I learned Danish fluently (as in without an accent) when I was nine–my family spent 16 months there, from 1981-1982–but lost it completely after our return to the States. To the extent that years later I couldn’t read my own notes, written in a Danish book.
    I relearned Danish as an adult, at the age of 21. My Danish is good and my accent light enough to occasionally “pass”, but I defintely don’t speak it like I did when I was a kid.
    People assume that I just eventually remembered the Danish of my childhood, but I’m not so sure. For one thing, no one could even tell that I was an American then, whereas now I often have an accent. Also, I can often remember when I learned my current vocabulary (e.g., I learned X word or expression reading Y book), which I suspect wouldn’t be the case if I simply re-accessed my old Danish.
    Of course, the fact that I once spoke it must have helped me pick up Danish grammar and pronunciation again. But it’s not clear to me exactly how. My French is/was pretty close to my Danish and I never spoke that as a child.
    Anyway, it’s all very mysterious.
    The ‘d’ is silent, Tarnima. Danish is full of unsounded letters and counterintuitively pronounced ones.
    I always tell people it’s like the word “seven”, except minus the first syllable.