Jeg forstår ikke...

Aug 30, 2006 • Karen

Even from when I first showed up in Denmark, I could understand written Danish. Most of the words have cognates in English or French. Or you can just figure it out from context. Danish is very easy to read. Easy to learn, then, right?


Here's a basic sentence in Danish:

Hej! Jeg hedder Karen og jeg bor på folkehøjskole i Ullerød.

Care to guess how one would pronounce that? Here's a phoneticization:

Hi! Ya hilleh Karen oh ya bo'uh poe foe-kuh-hoy-skole ee Ool-lih-rhole.

That's a really crappy phoneticization--there's a lot of vowel intonations and glottal stops that I can't even pronounce, let alone type. It doesn't capture the accent at all. But maybe it illustrates to you how FRICKING INSANE Danish spelling is. I count at least five dropped consonants, one *extra* vowel, and two d's magically transformed into l's for God knows what reason. (They're called "soft" d's. Bullcrap, I say.) And, as far as I can tell thus far, there really aren't any rules in Danish for when to mangle the pronounciation and when to leave it alone (relatively speaking). You just have to know.

Apparently the pronounciation has drifted so far from the written Danish that even young Danes have trouble with it. They get tired of their own language and speak English instead!

I'm not worried about Danish *class*. None of my classmates are doing any better with pronounciation. I'll do fine. The problem is that I pass for a Dane on the street or on the train unless I speak first. People immediately default to Danish when addressing me. I can hardly understand my classmates' Danish--let alone a native's! It feels so awkward--how does one gracefully tell a stranger, "Um, I'm an American, I have no idea what you just said..."? And I feel a little guilty, too, for being unable to follow the native language--considering many Americans' attitude toward non-English-speaking residents ("Speak English or get out! Grawr!"), I feel like I have an obligation to understand Danish.