Smoothies, schmoudees, smuuhsies, whatever

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On Facebook, Bert Vaux posted about a fascinating bit of Danish loanword phonology.

While watching the Danish show Borgen last night I noticed that Kasper, when talking about ordering a smoothie, first said [smu:di] and then later said [smu:ði]. The first form in particular but also the variation pleased me, so I asked Anna Jespersen about it and look at this bonanza she came up with! (What follows is a paraphrase of what she sent me.)

Smoothie is a newly borrowed word, and I think it's the only one we have encountered with a non-initial [ð]. Consequently, there's a lot of variation. [ð] and [d] would be the most common variants but there are lots of other options. Check out these two ads from McDonald's:

i. In the attached print ad, the line below the smoothies reads "Try our new, refreshing smoothies (no matter how you pronounce them)".

 ii. And here's the video to go with it: (also note the annoying breathy-voiced announcer at the end of the commercial).

There's some further interesting discussion in the comments to Bert's post.

Joe Perry: I thought most Danish /d/s ended up being pronounced [ð]. Or am I thinking of another language [Faroese?]?

Anna Jespersen: That's right, Joe, but our own [ð] is lowered to an approximant, so the pronunciation is quite different from the English fricative.

Joe Perry: So the ð-pronouncers in smoothies have a contrast between [ð] and [ð̞]? That's pretty cool…

Bert Vaux: is this that L-ish retracted sound you were telling me about, Anna? Now I hear it whenever they say <tid> on Borgen.

Anna Jespersen: Yep, that would be the one, Bert. And yup, Joe!

And Patrick Taylor notes that Danish smoothie variation is a good example of how "all bets are off in loanword phonology (even more so in literate populations)."

John Wells has some relevant observations about Danish phonetics in this blog post:

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.

It's trickiness like this that leads Wells to say that Danish has "the most difficult phonetics (for the outsider)" of all the European languages. (If you'd like to read a charming story about an American confronting these difficulties for courtship purposes, check out Lane Greene's essay for Schwa Fire, "Wooing in Danish.") But it appears that Danish speakers can be just as stymied by English phonology, at least when it comes to ordering smoothies.


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 9:30 am

    It seems to me that if you try to speak Danish more or less as it's written, you end up speaking Norwegian (of the "Standard østnorsk" type).

  2. Lane said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    I've never heard that "all the plosives are voiceless" before.

    Coby, that sounds partly right to me, but the Norwegians have simplified the spellings too. I'm thinking for example that Danes and Norwegians both say "noen" [some], but the Danes keep the old spelling "nogen". So my wife (the one I wooed in the piece Ben kindly links above) says that Danes joke that Norwegian is fonedikally spelled.

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 2:23 pm

    Here is what Norewegian (bokmål) Wikipedia says, about Standard østnorsk: "Denne mer skriftrette uttalen av dansk representerer den mest konservative formen for dansk uttale, ettersom dansk skriftspråk var og er konservativt i forhold til talemålet i Danmark." I translate this (corrections welcome) as "that more writing-based pronunciation of Danish represents the most conservative form of Danish pronunciation, since the written Danish language was and is conservative in relation to the spoken language in Denmark."

  4. Sili said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 2:48 pm

    nce the written Danish language was and is conservative in relation to the spoken language in Denmark

    "conservative" is too kind.

    Reactionary bordering on fascistoid describes Danish orthography better.

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    I'm impressed by how rapidly spoken Danish has changed. In 1950 I learned pretty good Danish working in a joint Danish/US weather station in Greenland. I visited Denmark several times during the next 10 or so years and had no trouble at all getting around. After about 1960, though, I found it hard to understand young people and by 2000 people could understand me but needed to make an effort for me to understand them.

    There used to be a dialect called Gøtudansk (street Danish) in the Færoes and south-eastern Norway. It was basically Danish with all the consonants pronounced as written and without the stød (glottal stop).

    Swedes say that Danish is not a language; it's a throat disease.

  6. Lane said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 4:03 am

    Coby, that sounds right. Because I tend to pronounce letters that most Danes ignore, my wife sometimes says I talk like the queen.

  7. Lars said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 10:35 am

    On the subject of the thread, our family (four native Danish speakers) called them [ˈsm̥uːtʰis] (plural) when speaking Danish, and of course I thought everyone else did the same…

    Dan: I don't know if I'd use the word impressed — as a Dane born and bred but living in Sweden for the last almost nine years, I already get that 'what have they done to my language' feeling when listening to TV newsreaders. And I'm sure people in Denmark think that I speak conservatively by now… (let's not talk about the interference from the local dialect of Scandinavian here in Stockholm).

    I've met native Danes who have lived abroad for maybe 30 years, and the difference from the current norm is very striking.

    Lane: Some people call /bdg/ 'breathy-voiced,' but to me it seems that release and voicing onset coincide completely. (In syllable onsets, that is; voicing contrast is neutralized in syllable codas, of course, and all plosives may be breathy-voiced in that position, I can't really tell).

  8. Simon P said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    There's a legend that Danish children are the slowest to learn to speak of all children (that have been studied), supposedly because the impossible phonology. Anyone know if there's any truth to this?

    As a Swede, I find I can understand written and spoken Norwegian with few problems (depending on the dialect), and written Danish is easy as pie, but spoken Danish is completely impenetrable. I once pretended to be an American when travelling in Denmark because people insisted on speaking Danish to me. I'm not proud of this and have vowed to learn to understand Danish before I go there again.

  9. Lazar said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 6:14 pm

    @Simon P: There was this study; you can read a bit more about it in this article. According to the researcher, Danish-speaking children have a smaller vocabulary at 15 months than those speaking Swedish, Dutch, French, American English, Croatian and Galician. (150 words for the Croatians; only 84 for the Danes.) I'm quite curious about this myself:

    – Is Danish a true outlier in this regard, or would a broader study find other languages with similar, or even smaller, vocabulary sizes at 15 months?

    – Does this pose a significant problem for children? Does having a smaller vocabulary at 15 months mean that their long-term linguistic development will be hindered in some way?

    – Does this serve as evidence for the popular idea that Danish is undergoing some sort of phonological collapse and becoming less intelligible even to its own speech community? What would this portend for the future of the language?

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 18, 2015 @ 9:49 pm

    @ Lazar — Actually Danish children at 15 months have an average vocabulary of about 250 words, but only 84 of them can be understood.

    I may have already recounted the time when I was watching an Easter program on Danish TV with Danish friends. The feature was a Danish film from the late 1940s about a pastor in a small Fynen town. I understood it easily and enjoyed it. My friends, a couple in their mid-40s, could understand it but had to concentrate so much they didn't like it. Their 12-year-old twin girls couldn't understand it at all and only watched for a few minutes. My friends say that I sound like a little old lady from Hillerød, a tony KBH suburb.

  11. a George said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 1:09 pm

    The curious phonetic transcription spellings of smoothie, leading to “no matter how you pronounce them” must be seen in a local Danish context, or the conclusions will be off the mark. In 1989 two Danish comedians were advertising an orange soda, called Squash (from the Carlsberg group) on TV and in cinemas. The scene was set in a “kiosk” (newsagent/sweets/refreshments), and the customer invariably had enormous difficulties in pronouncing this complicated word. He was able to get through the tongue-twister and make a sound that was more like “skvasj”, but somewhat differently every time. Many of these 30” sequences may be seen on
    In particular, from 2’25” there are several international attempts.

    Eventually, after several years, the Carlsberg group changed the name on the bottle to “Skvasj”, and most every Dane knows the background. Hence the scene was set for this gimmick. I prefer real-life drama to the synthetic Norscä shampoo!

  12. Usually Known as Dainichi said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

    I think the complication of Danish phonology is partially due to the fact that the spoken language has developed a lot, while the conservative orthography often leaves a conservative pronunciation as an option for many words.

    E.g. købe, buy, is [kø:bə] ~ [kø:b] ~ [kø:ʊ] (I'm leaving out lots of diacritics here)

    These are not (only) dialectal differences, as a native speaker of more or less standard Danish, I can use all 3 of them depending on various factors.

    These options seem to vary from lexeme to lexeme to some extent, for example the word løbe "run" offers the same 3 options, whereas svøbe "to wrap", døbe "to baptize" etc do not offer the third option with [ʊ]. Sure, you can probably analyze løbe and købe as special cases, but I can think of many similar phenomena.

    I can see how that can be hard to wrap one's head around as a new learner (foreign or baby).

    P.S. Am I the only one who has to try 10 times before my comments make it through the filter?

  13. Lane said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    Usually Known As: købe and løbe are a lot more common than svøbe and døbe, so it might just be that: erosion through use?

  14. Ian M said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

    Is it significant that in the ad the girl says it like in English while her dad says if the more 'Danish' way? It would be a bit depressed if the Danes were just to adopt all foreign pronunciations wholesale.

  15. Bean said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

    In three days since this was posted it has become an inside joke with my husband – who is, by numbers, 1/4 Danish, but in practice totally Canadian – mostly as our 2.5-year-old son struggles with certain English sounds and we retell his latest word-butcherings to each other. We just look at each other and start with the Smoovies? Smoofies? and crack up. So, thanks!

    I find the earnest daughter to be particularly cute. With that – I think they're trying to show that the young folks can actually pronounce the sound where the dad just plain can't get his tongue to do it. After all, this is often the case with young folks vs. older folks learning sounds they did not learn in infancy. Sometimes the old people can't even distinguish the sound from a similar, more familiar one, much less reproduce it. No doubt there is some official linguistic term to describe this phenomenon.

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