Danish: spelling out loud words containing æ/a/e and å/o


Hej allesammen,

I'm a beginner in Danish, so forgive this simple question. To me, when æ/a/e are pronounced when reciting the alphabet, they sound extremely close to one another. So, when spelling out loud a word or a name containing æ, a or e, does the listener immediately understand which one is meant? Obviously with common words like lært, være etc, native speakers wouldn't need spelling, but let's say one is calling the police center to tell the plate number of a car that contains an A. For me, it would be pretty hard to make myself clear, without providing sample words.

The same story for å and o.

Do you have any hints for that?
  • TheGist

    Senior Member
    Hej Rallino,

    Jeg havde det samme problem med vokalerne, da jeg begydte at lære dansk :) The Danish vowels can sound quite similar to a foreigner, but they are, in fact, very different to a native. If you're serious about learning languages, make yourself comfortable with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and use this dictionary for Danish as much as possible. It has IPA transcription, audio samples and can clarify lots of misunderstandings, though I'm still looking for a more comprehensive phonetic reference, which probably doesn't exist at the moment.

    With that in mind, here are some basic guidelines for you. The letters "æ", "a" and "e", are pronounced like this in isolation: [ˈεˀ], [ˈæˀ], [ˈeˀ], respectively. Just like the English words "man" and "men" sound very different to an English speaker, so do "æ", "a" and "e" to a Danish speaker.

    a [ˈæˀ] is the most open among the three and is similar to "e" in the English "hen"
    æ [ˈεˀ] is closer than [ˈæˀ] and is similar to "a" in the English "main"
    e [ˈeˀ] is the closest and similar to "i" in "pin"

    Note that there are no exact equivalents in English, so these are just some rough approximations, even though the IPA symbols might look exactly the same to their English counterparts. To understand why this is the case, you can read this article on the Danish phonology in Wikipedia. As a rule of thumb, remember that the Danish vowels are usually closer than what the basic IPA symbols normally represent.

    "å" and "o" are very different as well. The first one is pronounced like [ˈɔˀ] and the second one like [ˈoˀ].

    å [ˈɔˀ] is similar to "ou" in the British English "thought".
    o [ˈoˀ] is similar to "o" in "home" or "eau" in the French "beaucoup"

    All these letters can be pronounced differently depending on their position in a word. For example å [ˈɔˀ] turns to [ˈɒˀ] in "år" (which is similar to "o" in the British English "hot").

    Although it might seem intimidating, Danish is pretty regular in terms of spelling. There are some clear patterns that can be learned, but as I said, it's better to always check IPA transcription in a good dictionary, because you should also see where the "stød" is, and it's a bit harder to predict.

    Surprisingly enough, all these vowels can be easily distinguished by a Dane in normal circumstances, otherwise the Danish language wouldn't exist like we know it today. But wait for a native speaker who can share their personal experience about whether they have ever had any trouble with these sounds in real life. ;)
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    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    Hej Rallino,

    First off, the question you're asking is definitely not simple, in my opinion. You've received very good advice above, so I just wanted to add that the pronunciation of the vowels is very much dependent on the surrounding consonants and the placement of the vowel in a given word. You should also keep in mind that the pronunciation varies from one part of the country to another and generally the older generations seem to distinguish more clearly between the various vowels whereas the younger generations let many of the vowels blend together so that words like for instance kraft (force) and kræft (cancer) become indistinguishable phonetically.

    Den danske ordbog as referenced above, is a good source and you may want to take a look at this specific page which details the pronunciation of the various vowels with examples. Udtale — ordnet.dk (Examples listed under Lydskrift)

    Good luck to you ;)
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    Tak så meget til alle :)

    Very helpful comments! I was more curious about how to be more clear when you pronounce those letters in isolate, rather than in a word. Like, giving a code to someone on the phone: "P - Æ ...", and the other person goes: "Wait, A or Æ? Give me a word with that." Does this ever happen, or is it always immediately clear?

    But judging from the comments, I guess that's always clear to the native speakers. :)


    Senior Member
    As already stated above, your question is a very good one. E an Æ often have the same Æ-pronunciation, for example, and A, already a front vowel in Danish, is "moving" towards Æ in younger speakers.
    Uncertainties do arise, often, so to be explicit, you would typically choose words with long stand-alone initial vowels
    you'll notice that I arrange the vowels in phonetically logic order
    I som Ida, e som evig, æ som æble, a som abe
    y som ymer, ø som øre
    u som ugle, o som Ole, å som Åse
    consonants - off the top of my head, the important thing is to find words that are quite distinct
    b som Børge, c som citron, d som Dorthe, f som fane, g som Gertrud, h som hest, j som Jens, k som Karen, l som lørdag, m som moster, n som Niels, p som politi, q som quizz, r som rose, s som Søren, t som tavle, v som vidunderlig, x som xylofon, z som Zakarias

    tak så meget til alle - sounds to me like a Swedish idiom translated (?) Tack så mycket åt alla (?)
    In Danish we'd say
    Mange tak, alle sammen.