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  • Hilde Huus

Why is Danish so... unusual?

If you have ever heard Danish spoken, perhaps when watching the tv series “Borgen,” or that wonderful classic Danish movie “Babette’s Feast,” you will no doubt have noticed its very, (um) unusual pronunciation.

As I was participating in Marianne Bournes introduction to speaking Danish, it really struck me that this would be a language that would take a lot of effort to learn to pronounce well, and maybe even just to understand! What is it about Danish, I wondered, and why is it like that? I had to find out so when I got home, I Googled “Why is Danish so w...d? (I don’t wish to offend any Danish speakers, but frankly, the “w word” popped up on my screen unbidden as soon as I typed in “Why is Danish so”)

Well it turns out that Danish really is VERY... unusual. Here are the features that distinguish it from the other Nordic languages (and most other languages too I imagine):

• Danish has an unusually large number of vowel sounds

• In informal speech, unstressed syllables are reduced (or maybe disappear entirely?)

• You end up with a lot of syllables that have no vowel sound at all

• The final consonants in a word are often dropped

• In Danish, prosody (the language feature that includes accent, stress, rhythm, tone, pitch,

and intonation) does not give you as many clues to the sentence structure as in most languages.

It is said that Danish is hard even for Danes to understand, to the point that it takes Danish- speaking children slightly longer to start putting words together in phrases than children learning other languages.

I could find no explanation for WHY Danish pronunciation has evolved in this particular way. Is it something about the flat, windswept landscape? Is it the character of the Danes themselves? But I did find this video, which made me feel a little better about my own struggle to pronounce even the most basic Danish phrases.

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