Danish is the official language of Denmark, and it’s also a language spoken by smaller communities in countries mainly in Germany and Greenland. It is one of the North Germanic languages, also called Scandinavian languages, spoken in the north of Europe, and, like the others, it uses the Latin alphabet. This makes Danish an easy language to read, things get interesting when we try to actually pronounce those words.

This lesson is part of the chapter “Learning Danish“.

Danish Alphabet and Pronunciation

With a quite astonishing number of up to 30 vowel sounds and variations on consonant pronunciation as well, Danish can be quite a challenging language to learn. But that also makes it an adventure – this is the language to learn if you are curious about learning new sounds or if you want to study phonology.

The Danish Alphabet

Letter (lower case) Letter (upper case) Name pronunciation English transcription (lower case) English transcription (upper case) Example in Danish
a A a a A samme (same)
b B b b B bede (ask)
c C c c C cykel (cycle)
d D d d D dag (day)
e E ee e E se (see)
f F f f F fin (fine)
g G gee g G gå (go)
h H ho h H hus (house)
i I ee i I dit (your)
j J jod j J jord (earth)
k K ko k K komme (come)
l L ell l L le (laugh)
m M emm m M mad (food)
n N enn n N navn (name)
o O oo o O ko (cow)
p P p p P på (on)
q Q koo q Q quiz (quiz)
r R r r R rød (red)
s S s s S vise (show)
t T t t T tage (take)
u U oo u U mus (mouse)
v V v v V verden (world)
w W double v w W watt (watt)
x X ex x X xylofon (xylophone)
y Y /yː/ (see pronunciation) y Y ny (new)
z Z zed z Z zebra (zebra)

Special Characters

Letter (lower case) Letter (upper case) Name pronunciation English transcription (lower case) English transcription (upper case) Example in Danish
æ Æ eh     knæ (knee)
ø Ø like the y     øl (beer)
å Å oh     hånd (hand)

The sounds of Danish

The vowel system of the Danish language has been a challenge to study for many linguists, there are several studies and approaches and yet these sources do not fully agree with one another on which are the exact sounds and how to use the IPA symbols. All in all, there are up to 30 vowel sounds, a bit less for some authors, but it’s still important to note that there are not many languages with millions of speakers that have this many vowels. For Hans Basbøll, one of the linguists that has studied this system most extensively, Danish has 16 full different vowels that can change while speaking. Some consonants can make a vowel sound, like the r, which changes how the vowels that follow or precede it sound as well, let’s see how it works according to Basbøll.

Pronunciation

Letter Pronunciation (English example) Phonetic notation
a bad [a], [aː], [ɑ], [ɑː], [æ], [æː]
b bed voiceless [b̥]; sometimes [b]
c cat [s] before e, i, y, æ and ø; otherwise [k]
d dog voiceless [d̥]; [ð] at the end of the syllable, this is hard to pronounce for English
speakers, it’s like a d close to an l, requieres practice to get right. Try to do an l sound
with the tip of the tongue touching the lower teeth.
e dress [e], [eː], [ɛ], [ɛː], [ə], [i]
f find [f]
g go voiceless [ɡ̊]; it becomes [ɪ̯] after vowels like e, o and u (front vowels) and [ʊ̯] after
vowels like a or o (back vowels).
h house [h], not pronounced before v or j
i bee [i], [iː], [e]
j yes [j]; [ɕ] after s or t
k kind [k]
l lie [l]
m morning [m]
n name [ŋ] before g or k; otherwise [n]
o boss [o], [oː]
p put aspirated [pʰ]; voiceless [b̥] at the end of the syllable
q quick [kv]
r No equivalent in English, the sound is made with the back of the tongue with a little
friction.
guttural [ʁ]; pronounced like a [ɐ̯] vowel at the end of the syllable
s send [s]
t take aspirated [tˢ]; voiceless [d̥] at the end of the syllable
u you [u], [uː], [o]
v very [ʋ]; pronounced like a [ʊ̯] vowel at the end of the syllable
w violin [ʋ]
x exact [s] at the beginning, otherwise [ks]
y No equivalent in English; this sound is made by pursing the lips and pronouncing an o [y], [yː]
z send [s]

Special Characters

Letter Pronunciation (English example) Phonetic notation
æ air [æ], [æː], [ɛ], [ɛː]
ø No equivalent in English; this sound is made by pursing the lips and pronouncing an e, has
a bit of an o sound
[ø], [øː], [œ], [œː]
å offer [ɔ], [ɔː]

The “r-colouring”

R-colouring brings vowels closer to the sound which resembles the vowel /ɑ/, the r can be absorbed by a vowel as well. These are the main changes:

Before r After r Before and after r
[œː] > [ɶː] [e] > [ɛ] [a] > [ɑ]
[ɔ] > [ɒ] [ø] > [œ] [ɛ] > [æ]
[ɛː] > [æː] [u] > [o] [œ] > [ɶ]
[ʌ] > [ɒ]   [ə] > [ɐ]

The stød

The stød is part of standard Danish even though it’s not used in some dialects. It’s usually translated as “glottal stop” because that’s one of its realizations, the other one is a creaky voice sound. To make this sound, you have to start pronouncing the word and then suddenly closing the vocal cords or just narrowing them, this results in a very brief pause. After that, the air is allowed to go through again creating the sound we are looking for.

Vowel combinations

air like the English i
au like ow
eu like eh-oo, but a bit closed
iu like ew
ou, åu like the o in offer
yu like the u in huge
æu like eh-oo
øi like eh-oo but with the lips rounded

Consonant combinations

Consonants can change their pronunciation depending on the word, sometimes they morph into vowels and they can even be omitted. For example, p could sound exactly like b, t like d and k like g. The way to go around this difficulty, just like with the vowels, is practicing a lot and listening to as much Danish as possible.

ch sounds like sh
sp sounds like sb
st sounds like sd
sk sounds like sg

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