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How To Master The Very Tricky Rules Of Danish Pronunciation

Yes, Danish pronunciation can be a real challenge, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a struggle. One of our Danish experts gives her best tips for mastering the pronunciation of this tricky language!
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So you’ve come here to improve your Danish pronunciation. You might already know that Danish isn’t the easiest language to learn, but there is a big advantage you should know about: Danish and English are both Germanic languages so they have a lot in common. Many words look the same, the grammar is similar, and they both have a pronunciation that’s quite different from the written language. I can assure you the pronunciation is not what you’d expect — but with a few rules in mind, you’ll be able to master the most common aspects of Danish pronunciation! 

Silent Consonants

If you’re already learning Danish, you’ve probably asked yourself (or your instructor) on more than one occasion: “But what’s with all the extra letters? Don’t you have to pronounce them?The discrepancy between what’s written and what’s actually said is difficult for many learners to grasp. Silent consonants are one reason for that, so here are the most common instances to look out for: 

G

If you see a G anywhere besides the beginning of a word or syllable, you can be pretty confident that it won’t be pronounced. Most of our participants in the video intuitively pronounced both Gs in gulerodskage (carrot cake) but the second one is actually silent. The same goes for the ending –lig in words, like venlig (friendly) or årlig (yearly), so it might help to think of it as similar to the English “-ly” suffix.

D after N or L

There are many different ways that the letter D is pronounced in Danish. An easy pronunciation rule for D is that when it appears after N or L, it’s silent. So words like hånd (hand) and kold (cold) end up sounding more like [hon] and [kol].

H before V

The letter combination HV is an interesting one. It only occurs at the beginning of a word (or syllable) and is a relict of Old Norse that still exists in some of the Germanic languages. Compare for example English “white,” Danish hvid, and Icelandic hvítur to German weiß, Swedish vit, and Dutch wit. And just as the H in the English [wh] sound is silent, so is the H in the Danish HV pairing. This rule will help you pronounce words like hvad (what), hvor (where) or blåhval (blue whale) correctly.

Æ, Ø, Å And Other Vowels

Unfortunately, the many different vowel sounds in Danish are difficult to distinguish for most learners. Phonetically, there are more than 20 vowel sounds in the Danish language. Even written Danish has three more vowels than the English alphabet: Æ, Ø, and Å. Their pronunciation varies depending on the word, but Æ sounds roughly like the E in “women,” Å to the O in “rope,” and Ø — well, there is no exact equivalent in most English accents but it does sound like the [i] in “bird” in a Geordie accent.

If you see a written A in Danish, your safest option is to go with the pronunciation of the A in “cake.” This holds true for words like kage (cake), station or hvad (what). However, if an A appears together with an R, like in far (dad) or marzipan, it’s pronounced more openly, like the A in “harbor.”

Frequent Letter Combinations

Enough about Danish silent letters and vowels — let’s move onto some frequent letter combinations.

KK, PP, DD

Double consonants only appear in the middle of a word or syllable in Danish. They are always pronounced softer than you’d think. The KK in lækker (hot, tasty) sounds like a G, the PP in suppe (soup) sounds like a B, and the DD in jeg hedder (I’m called) sounds like a soft D. More about that particularly tricky rule in a bit.

EG, EJ

Okay, so we are back to vowel sounds but they are quite difficult to avoid in Danish. That’s why it’s important to keep watch for the EG or EJ combination within a syllable. For one, they’re both fairly common. You’ll see them in words like jeg (I), at rejse (to travel) or at lege (to play). Both combinations are pronounced like the [i] in “light.”

AV

København, Denmark’s capital, lufthavnen (the airport) and Den Lille Havfrue (the Little Mermaid), all have the letter combination AV in one syllable. This combination is pronounced like the [ou] sound in “house.” But be careful: In words like have (garden) or at lave (to make), the AV is not in one syllable but split between two, meaning the letters are pronounced separately.

The Soft D

Yes, I’ve saved the best — and most obvious — for last. Ask anyone who has learned Danish what they find most difficult about the pronunciation and I can guarantee the first answer will be “the soft D.” You can’t even introduce yourself without some serious tongue acrobatics! (Pro tip: If you say “Mit navn er,” meaning “My name is,” instead of “Jeg hedder,“ you’ll sound a bit more formal but you can avoid the soft D sound.)

Most participants in the video said that they heard an L-sound instead of a D in hedder and “rødgrød med fløde.” This makes total sense since the soft D is somewhere between the English [th] and [l] sound. But trust me: With some practice, you’ll soon get the hang of it! Worst-case scenario, there are some Danish dialects that actually don’t pronounce the soft D, so you can always tell people that’s where you learned Danish.

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