The phonology of Danish is similar to that of the other closely related Scandinavian languages, Swedish and Norwegian, but it also has distinct features setting it apart. For example, Danish has a suprasegmental feature known as stød which is a kind of laryngeal phonation that is used phonemically. It also exhibits extensive lenition of plosives, which is noticeably more common than in the neighboring languages. Because of these and a few other features, spoken Danish can be challenging for Norwegians and Swedes to understand without training, although they can easily read written Danish.
Danish has at least 17 consonant phonemes:
|Plosive||p b||t d||k ɡ|
|[ŋ]||/ŋ/||—|||nɡ|, |ŋ|,[a] |
/p, t, k, h/ occur only syllable-initially and [ŋ, ð, w] only syllable-finally. [ɕ] is phonemically /sj/ and [w] is the syllable-final allophone of /v/. [w] also occurs syllable-initially in English loans, along with [ɹ], but syllable-initial [w] is in free variation with [v] and these are not considered part of the phonological inventory of Danish.
/ŋ/ occurs only before short vowels and stems morphophonologically, in native words, from |nɡ| or |n| preceding |k| and, in French loans, from a distinct |ŋ|. Beyond morphological boundaries, [ŋ] may also appear as the result of an optional assimilation of /n/ before /k, ɡ/.
/n, t, d, s, l/ are apical alveolar [n̺, t̺s̺ʰ, t̺, s̺, l̺], although some speakers realize /s/ dentally ([s̪]).
/p, t, k/ are voiceless aspirated, with /t/ also affricated: [pʰ, tsʰ, kʰ]. The affricate [tsʰ] is often transcribed with ⟨tˢ⟩. In some varieties of standard Danish (but not the Copenhagen dialect), /t/ is just aspirated, without the affrication.
/b, d, ɡ/ are voiceless unaspirated [p, t, k]. In syllable codas, weak, partial voicing may accompany them especially when between voiced sounds. In spontaneous speech recorded in 1996, 38% of intervocalic /b, d, ɡ/ were voiced. Utterance-final /b, d, ɡ/ may be realized as [pʰ, t(s)ʰ, kʰ], particularly in distinct speech. Intervocalic /d/ may be realized as a voiced flap [ɾ], as in nordisk [ˈnoɐ̯ɾisk] 'Nordic'.
/h/ is only weakly fricated. Between vowels, it is often voiced [ɦ].
/v/ can be a voiced fricative [v], but is most often a voiced approximant [ʋ].
/ð/ – the so-called "soft d" (Danish: blødt d) – is a velarized laminal alveolar approximant [ð̠˕ˠ]. It is acoustically similar to the cardinal vowels [ɯ] and [ɨ]. It is commonly perceived by non-native speakers of Danish as [l]. Very rarely, /ð/ can be realized as a fricative.
Syllable-initially, /r/ is a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ] or, more commonly, an approximant [ʁ̞]. According to Nina Grønnum, the fricative variant is voiceless [χ]. Its precise place of articulation has been described as pharyngeal, or more broadly, as "supra-pharyngeal". When emphasizing a word, word-initial /r/ may be realized as a voiced uvular fricative trill [ʀ̝]. In syllable-final position, /r/ is realized as [ɐ̯].
The alveolar realization [r] of /r/ is very rare. According to Torp (2001), it occurs in some varieties of Jutlandic dialect, and only for some speakers (mostly the elderly). The alveolar realization is considered non-standard, even in classical opera singing – it is probably the only European language in which this is the case. According to Basbøll (2005), it occurs (or used to occur until recently) in very old forms of certain conservative dialects in Northern Jutland and Bornholm.
/l, j, r/ are voiceless [l̥, ç~ɕ, χ] after /p, t, k/, where the aspiration is realized as devoicing of the following consonant, so that /tj/ is normally realized as an alveolo-palatal affricate [tɕ].
A voiced velar continuant [ɣ] occurred distinctively in older Standard Danish. Some older speakers still use it in high register, most often as an approximant [ɣ˕]. It corresponds to [w], after back vowels and /r/, and to /j/, after front vowels and /l/, in contemporary Standard Danish.
/j/ is elided after /iː, yː/, and possibly also after /eː, øː/, and less commonly after /ɛː, aː/. Similarly, /v/ is elided after /uː/, and possibly also after /oː/, and less commonly after /ɔː/.
Modern Standard Danish has around 20 different vowel qualities. These vowels are shown below in a narrow transcription.
/ə/ and /ɐ/ occur only in unstressed syllables and thus can only be short. Long vowels may have stød, thus making it possible to distinguish 30 different vowels in stressed syllables. However, vowel length and stød are most likely features of the syllable rather than of the vowel.
The 26 vowel phonemes of Standard Danish (14 short and 12 long) correspond to 21 morphophonemes (11 short and 10 long).
||r||||∅, D|||/ɛ/ or /ɑ/||[æ~ɑ]||[a~ɑ̈]||række||[ɑ] in innovative varieties.|
||r|||[eː~ɛː]||[eː~ɛː]||bære||[ɛː] in innovative varieties.|
||d|||/aː/ or /ɑː/||[æː~ɑː]||[æː~ɑ̈ː]||græde||[ɑː] in innovative varieties.|
||ar||||#|||var||Only in a handful of words.|
||r|||≠ |v, j, ɡ|||[œ̝~œ]||[œ̝~œ]||grynt||[œ] in innovative varieties.|
||r|||[œ̝ː~œː]||[œ̝ː~œː]||røbe||[œː] in innovative varieties.|
||r|||/u/||[u~o]||[u~o̝]||brusk||[o] in innovative varieties.|
||r|||/uː/ or /oː/||[uː~oː]||[uː~o̝ː]||ruse||[oː] in innovative varieties.|
||o||||∅, r|||/o/||[o]||[o̝]||sort ('black')|
||ɔr||||#|||/ɒ/||[ɒ]||[ɒ̝]||vor||Only in a handful of words.|
||rə|||ture||After long vowels.|
||jə|||/jə/||[ɪ]||[ɪ]||veje||See § Schwa-assimilation.|
The three way distinction in front rounded vowels /y ø œ/ is upheld only before nasals, e.g. /syns sønˀs sœns/ synes, synds, søns ('seems', 'sin's', 'son's').
/a/ and /aː/ on the one hand and /ɑ/ and /ɑː/ on the other are largely in complementary distribution. However, a two-phoneme interpretation can be justified with reference to the unexpected vowel quality in words like andre /ˈɑndrɐ/ 'others' or anderledes /ˈɑnɐˌleːðəs/ 'different', and an increasing number of loanwords.
Some phonemes and phones that only occur in unstressed position often merge with full phonemes and phones:
The vowel system is unstable, and according to a study by Ejstrup & Hansen (2004), the contemporary spoken language might be experiencing a merger of several of these vowels. The following vowel pairs may be merged by some speakers (only vowels not adjacent to |r| were analyzed):
In addition to /ɐ/, which stems from the fusion of |ər|, |rə|, or |rər|, /ə/ assimilates to adjacent sonorants in a variety of ways:
In casual speech, /ə/ may also be elided after an obstruent. If that occurs after a long vowel, the syllable with the elided /ə/ may be retained by lengthening the vowel preceding the consonant: /ˈhɔːbə/ → [ˈhɔ̝ː(ɔ̝)p] håbe 'hope'.
A word-initial vowel may be preceded by a glottal stop [ʔ] when preceded by a vowel. This is known as sprængansats.
Stress, stød and intonation are prosodic features used in Danish phonology. Durational distinctions are also present, but usually considered part of the vowel phonemes.
Unlike the neighboring Scandinavian languages Swedish and Norwegian, the prosody of Danish does not have phonemic pitch. Stress is phonemic and distinguishes words like billigst [ˈpilist] ('cheapest') and bilist [piˈlist] ('car driver'). In syntactic phrases, verbs lose their stress (and stød, if any) with an object without a definite or indefinite article: e.g. ˈJens ˈspiser et ˈbrød [ˈjens ˈspiˀsɐ e̝t ˈpʁœ̝ðˀ] ('Jens eats a loaf') ~ ˈJens spiser ˈbrød [ˈjens spisɐ ˈpʁœ̝ðˀ] ('Jens eats bread'). In names, only the surname is stressed, e.g. [johæn̩luiːsə ˈhɑjˌpɛɐ̯ˀ] Johanne Luise Heiberg.
Main article: Stød
In a number of words, stressed syllables with a long vowel or with a short vowel and a sonorant may exhibit a prosodic feature called stød ('thrust'). Acoustically, vowels with stød tend to be a little shorter and feature creaky voice. Historically, this feature operated as a redundant aspect of stress on monosyllabic words that had either a long vowel or final voiced consonant. Since the creation of new monosyllabic words, this association with monosyllables is no longer as strong. Some other tendencies include:
Diphthongs with an underlying long vowel always have stød.
Danish intonation reflects the combination of the stress group, sentence type and prosodic phrase, where the stress group is the main intonation unit. In Copenhagen Standard Danish, the stress group mainly has a certain pitch pattern that reaches its lowest peak on the stressed syllable followed by its highest peak on the immediately following unstressed syllable, after which it declines gradually until the next stress group. The peaks of stress groups in succession will generally be lower later in the utterance. However, the pitch pattern is placed differently in relation to the stressed syllable in other varieties of Danish The pitch pattern of an utterance can also vary depending on the type of utterance, with declaratives having a steep falling pitch and questions displaying a level pitch, with other categories in between. Nina Grønnum is known for her research on Danish intonation showing this.
Pitch in Danish can also reflect the interactional function of the utterance or other unit: The climax of a storytelling can be marked through a wide pitch pattern while pitch movements at the end of a turn can be used for the timing of turn-taking. A number of studies also treat various uses of interjections with different pitch patterns (such as okay with rising or falling pitch) as relating to the previous turn, such as for the purpose of matching a stance expressed by the previous speaker. Note that the realization of stød also affects pitch, while some varieties also realize it primarily with pitch.
The sample text is an indistinct reading of the first sentence of The North Wind and the Sun.
Nordenvinden og solen kom engang i strid om, hvem af dem der var den stærkeste.
[ˈnoɐ̯ɐnˌve̝nˀn̩ ʌ ˈsoˀl̩n kʰʌm e̝ŋˈkɑŋˀ i ˈstʁiðˀ ˈʌmˀ ˈvemˀ ˈæ pm̩ tɑ vɑ tn̩ ˈstɛɐ̯kəstə]