Occasional comments on this blog made by a Danish reader remind me of my impression that of all the languages of Europe the one with the most difficult phonetics (for the outsider) is Danish.
It is the only (standard literary) European language whose vowels I feel despairingly uncertain about identifying, and even the consonants are not without problems.
Why should this be?
- No two published sources seem to agree on the makeup of the vowel system or how to write the vowels in IPA. I try to follow the system used by Peter Molbæk Hansen in his Udtaleordbog (Gyldendal, 1990) — but he recognizes thirty distinct vowels (16 short, 14 long) as against the 20 [sic] or 17 [count them] listed in the Wikipedia article on Danish language or the 27 listed in its article on Danish phonology. (At least the latter article acknowledges that the vowel system is “unstable”, with various potential ongoing mergers.)
- Vowels undergo striking lowering when adjacent to /r/, which is uvular. After a vowel, (historical) /r/ gets vocalized and sometimes absorbed by the vowel, leading to further difficulties in identification.
- Several sets of adjacent vowels are very similar to one another.
That looks fine, but then you find that the eː is considerably closer than cardinal 2, the “ɛː” is about cardinal 2, and the “aː” is about cardinal 3. Everything is pushed forward and up. (I also get the impression that the “iː” is slightly centralized — a push-chain?) ˈmiːlə mile ˈmeːlə mele ˈmɛːlə mæle ˈmaːlə male
- All the plosives are voiceless, but with a contrast of aspiration, often verging on affrication. Postvocalically they are strikingly lenited, sometimes disappearing completely. There’s a suburb of Copenhagen called Amager which is ˈɑmɑːˀ. It must once have had a velar consonant corresponding to the written g. Someone who comes from Amager is an amager (uncapitalized), which is ˈɑmɑːˀɑ. Clear? Furthermore, the word mad ‘meal’ is supposed to be /mað/ (i.e. [mɛð̞]. But that final approximant sounds to me awfully like a lateral.
- There is a phonation phenomenon known as stød, represented in the examples just given by the ad hoc symbol ˀ. This is the phonologically contrastive use of creaky voice on a vowel or vowel plus sonorant. There are plenty of minimal pairs, such as mor moːɐ̯ ‘mother’ vs mord moːˀɐ̯ ‘murder’.
- As with English, the spelling does not enable you to predict the pronunciation with any certainty.