Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Coffee and half-chewed Danish.

I've been living here in Denmark for three months now but I haven't done a lot of posting about it because (a) I've been kinda busy, (b) I've been crazy busy, or (c) some combination of (a) and (b).

It's an interesting place, occasionally dull, but dull in that way that extremely civilized countries can be. No bracing road duels with hillbillies in Hummers while riding your bike; no crazy people in the streets, cut loose by a shredded social safety net; and, unlike in North America, nearly everyone is trim, healthy and dressed like adults all with like dignity 'n' stuff.

The biggest challenge so far is that I can't understand a word anyone is saying, at least when they're speaking Danish. Now, that sounds kind of trivially obvious, Danish being a foreign language to me and all. So let me clarify. It's not that I don't know the meaning of the words that people are saying in this foreign language (though that too); it's that I can't understand what the hell they said. I could not take what someone says and transliterate it into a string of letters and then look up that string of letters in a Danish-English dictionary and determine the meaning of the word.

Danish stands out among languages for not being pronounced anything like how it is spelled. Consonants and syllables get smooshed together into this indistinct paste. The other day, one of my housemates asked another for the kitchen roll (i.e. paper towels.) The Danish word for this item is kokkenruller--superficially, four syllables, including a distinct k, n, r and l sound.

In fact, the word is pronounced with one and a half syllables: "kughghruh."

The closest analogy I can think of in English is where words like "worcestershire" get pronounced "wooster." Imagine that that rule applies to every word in the language and you start to understand the principle of Danish.

Actually, the "o" in kokkenruller is that Scandinavian o-like thing with a slash through it. Not only do they not pronounce their consonants, apparently they had to make up a bunch of new vowels that look a lot like existing vowels but make different sounds and--just to make things interesting--lie at the end of the alphabet. So o-with-a-slash, a-e dipthong, and a-with-an-orange-on-its-head all come after z, with evident implications for someone trying to look up a word.

I'll keep trying to learn the language. But if I need to wipe up a spill in a hurry, I'm liable to fall back on English.


  1. Yeah, i lived in Berlin, and I learned right quick that it was one part of Germany that took great liberties with the language, characterized by Turkish slang, gutteral slurrings, and broad creative licence with vowels. In a pinch, frantic arm motions and finger twitching help things along; plenty of affirmatives and courtesies sprinkled about and you have your linguistic opponent cornered, you can then fall back on the tried and true strategy of grinning idiotically. works for newbies here, back home. give it a shot.

  2. Why don't you try out Rosetta Stone? I know Danish is not a "universal" language, but what the heck. Maybe it's worth a try.