A Tangential (and Reassuring) Moment re: Danish Linguistics in Jo Nesbø’s New Novel, Headhunters

Image courtesy of The Copenhagen Post

I was sitting on the subway reading Jo Nesbø’s newly translated stand-alone novel Headhunters today when I stumbled over an interesting tidbit about the Danish language that just had to be researched further. The main character, a Norwegian man named Roger Brown (British father), is having an affair with a Danish woman. During a morning tryst, he recalls:

“This morning…she had whispered something Danish in my ear that I didn’t understand, since from an objective standpoint Danish is a difficult language–Danish children learn to speak later than any other children in Europe…”

In terms of the novel, this is a bit of a tangential aside, but it didn’t seem like a factoid that Nesbø would just make up completely. So I did some light googling and voila! I easily found an interesting and brief article on this very subject published recently in The Copenhagen Post: “The Danish Language’s Irritable Vowel Syndrome.” According the (amusingly titled) article,

“A 15-month-old Croatian child understands approximately 150 words, while a Danish child of the same age understands just 84 on average.

It’s not because Danish kids are dumb, or because Croatian kids are geniuses. It’s because Danish has too many vowel sounds, says Dorthe Bleses, a linguist at the Center for Child Language at the University of Southern Denmark.”

The article goes on to explain that there are nine vowel sounds in Danish, but to make matters even more difficult, much of Danish pronunciation is swallowed. (I can personally attest to this: one of my Danish instructors remarked that in order to correctly pronounce a word in Danish, you had to follow the “three potato rule”: pretend you have three potatoes in your mouth and then say a word. That’s when you’ve got it right. I only ever made it up to one/one and a half potatoes, I am sorry to say…)

The linguist in the article, Dorthe Bleses, compared the rate at which children growing up with seven different languages–Danish, Swedish, Dutch, French, American English, Croatian, and Galician–learn to speak their native tongue. And Danish definitely gave children the hardest time. But never fear, says Bleses. The Danes do catch up:

“‘…the difference between the Croatian child and the Danish child doesn’t persist. Once the children have reached the third or fourth grade, the linguistic code has been cracked, and then other things have significance for whether the student learns well,’ she added.

In other words, according to the linguist, it takes Danish children with Danish parents until they are nine or ten years old – in the third or fourth grade – to “crack the code” of the Danish language.”

So head’s up for those of you learning Danish as adults: it’s a long, hard road–even for native speakers–but you’ll get there!


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