Learning Danish, Part 1

The Danish claim (brag?) that their language is especially difficult for outsiders to master. This may simply be an expression of xenophobia, or of pre-emptively/perversely claiming a weakness as a strength (c.f. deaf culture and unix users). Or it may be true. I had my first Danish class tonight, so I’ll certainly keep you posted. Meanwhile, here’s a factoid to help you reach a premature conclusion.

Take the sentence "Hvem er det?" If you've studied anything besides English which uses the Latin alphabet, you will already be familiar with the notion that this might not be pronounced "huh-vem errr deht?" And if in addition you have any experience with the International Phonetic Alphabet, you are probably already sympathetic to the notion of replacing the Latin alphabet with IPA. As for me, the first language I studied and forgot was Russian. But Cyrillic is almost perfectly phonetic, and the second language I failed to learn was German, which as a root of English doesn't seem all that quirky. Thus Chinese pinyin (e.g. "cu zuo zai nar?", pronounced just like it's spelled) threw me for loop, but I'm better now, and I can sound out pinyin correctly if they bother to put in tonal markings (even the Chinese usually don't, which makes Pinyin worthless for most uses). So I'm over that now, and I'm ready to tackle Danish, which when you read alound with American English pronunciations puts you about as far from native spoken Danish as would the same exercise with Pinyin.

Back to "hvem er det," character by character. The H is both silent and ineffective, a legacy presumably of the Viking era, which shows up in modern Danish life only when they drive. (The Swedes, we are told, already omit the H, having moved further from their marauder roots and into the furniture business.)

The "v" is as you would expect, a voiced consonant with the upper teeth over the lower lip. The e is a fairly neutral, central e, if I remember correctly, not too far from our friend the schwa.

The e does hold our first real Danish trick, though: Kissinger Speak. If the word "hvem," which means who, is a stressed word, and we determine stress the same way as in English - stressed words are those which are most important to the meaning of the sentence in context, so that when you ask "who are you," you stress "who" if you want to draw attention to the fact that you want identity information that perhaps the other person seems to think you already have, and you stress "you" if you want to direct the question to a new person you suddenly switched focus towards - then you must remember that the Danish language, like the Danish land, is very flat, so that stress is expressed horizontally, in pauses and timing, rather than vertically, with pitch, and so you slow the delivery of the word "hvem," and you then note that the "e" in its stressed form is pronounced loosely and weakly, in the throat, as if Nixon were asking his lieutenant how to deal with the witnesses: "make (h)ve.e.e.e.e.m di.i.isssapea.a.a.r."

The "m" is like a Steven Seagal film: "Silent but Marked." "Marked" is a linguist's word meaning "pronounced deceptively." So the correct way to pronounce "hvem er" (and I will end the suspense of the rest of the sentence by revealing that "er" is simply "er," same schwa, normal arr, and the "t" at the end of "det" is either silent or possibly a very gently, almost inaudible "d") is, put your upper teeth over your lower lip, make a gutteral clicking sound with schwa modulation for as long as you like, and then come to a glottal stop. Then, after you have stopped emitting any air, move your lips to the "m" configuration, pressed together and slightly forward. This is the "marking."

This is like follow-through in a baseball swing. Although you won't actually make an "emmm" sound, your pronunciation of the vowel is in theory altered by the foreknowledge of the consonent to come. And this is supposed to happen even if you know the trick.

You then make the "er" normally, but since you have left your lips in an "emmm" position from the last word (you have left your lips in an "emm" position, haven't you?), it will come out "mer." However, and the fact that the school I am attending teaching this distinction is the cause of the three-month waiting list of whose top I just passed, there is a difference between marking the "m" as followthrough on the first word's vowel versus choosing to start the second word with your lips in an "m" position. It is a difference performed unconsciously by every Dane, learned in childhood and as inexplicable by an untrained Dane as grammar is to an untrained ... to most of us, really. It's a difference that had a student fuming in the hallway, "Seven years I live here. The Danes they do not say this thing. It is 'veh mer de.'" But every Dane can hear this subtle difference. And Danes, having some of the same "face-saving" issues as the Chinese, will if you fail to pronounce your sounds properly to this level subconsiously flag everything you say as suspect and refuse to take any action based upon it, because there exists a minute possibility that you didn't say what you (in context almost certainly) did say, and the risk of losing face by doing the wrong thing in response to spoken Danish is unacceptable, and therefore you must not have spoken Danish.

So for the next three weeks of class we are learning to speak, letter by letter, consciously and deliberately making all of the critical mental gyrations which will eventually because automatic and which will produce Proper Danish. Which sounds like Henry Kissinger gargling.