Some of you know that learning foreign languages is my hobby. As I like to say, I can get into trouble in 12 languages and back out (more or less) in eight. But Danish? Okay. A little background. Some 15 months after my first wife died, a Danish friend invited me to visit her in Copenhagen. So I ended up spending three months there, the full time allotted on a visitor’s visa, from mid-January through mid-April, 2008. Now Danish, like English, Dutch, German, and the other Scandinavian languages, belongs to the Germanic family of tongues. Since I speak English and German fluently, I thought Danish would be easy to learn. Well, reading and writing are fairly straightforward. But speaking and understanding other people are a totally different matter. For unlike Spanish, German, Italian, Indonesian, even the romanizations of Japanese and Chinese Mandarin, Danish is unphonetic. In short, what you see on paper is not what you hear when certain words or parts of words are spoken...
Let’s take a few examples. The first one that I stumbled on was the Danish for “too” or “very.” It’s spelled MEGET. So, as a good German speaker, I assumed it would be pronounced MEGG-ETT and did in fact pronounce it that way. The locals looked at me like I was crazy. Finally, a middle-school girl who was the daughter of a friend of my hostess took me aside and said in fluent English, “Reynold, what are you saying? We pronounce that word MAHL.” “What?!” I countered. “How do you get from MEGET to MAHL?” “Oh,” she replied. “We learned in school that our spelling is based on how Danish was pronounced in the 16th century.” Another example is the Danish for bread: brød. Okay, it looks like the German word for bread, Brot, which is pronounced just as it is written. But watch out, folks. The Danish version sounds more like our “broil.” Or here’s a whole sentence for you to marvel at. It’s written Var du ved at kalde på mig? And means ”Were you about to call on me?” Well, the first two words in Danish are what you would expect. Then things get dicey. If I tried to approximate how the whole question would sound, here’s what I would write: VAR DU VILL AT CAL-IE PUMA? In the words of my ancestors, ”Oy!”
But here’s a secret. I went back to Denmark for the last three months of 2008, this time as a guest professor at a teacher-training college on the Island of Fyn. My dansk got marginally better, but my students and colleagues, all of whom spoke beautiful, generally British-accented English still had to be patient as I mangled their spoken language. However, motivated recently by watching the Danish soap-opera SEASIDE HOTEL, I’m now doing Danish daily via DuoLingo.com, and slowly but surely my version is sounding more like that of the native speakers. And as my Danish friends pointed out, you English speakers shouldn’t complain. After all, how many ways do you pronounce words with ”-ough” like ”though,” ”cough,” ”through,” and ”thought,” to name just a few? So, with that rejoinder in mind, back to DuoLingo and Dansk.