Artistic touristic linguistics

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Andrew Spitz and Momo Miyazaki, students at Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, posted this charming video of their cross-linguistic art project:

WTPh? (What the Phonics) is an interactive installation set in the touristic areas of Copenhagen. Street names in Denmark are close to impossible for foreigners to pronounce, so we did a little intervention :-)

More info here:

We recorded a Danish person speaking the street names then split up each syllable. In true karaoke style, we placed lights above the matching syllable so that in real-time, you can see which part of the word is being spoken. When participants lift the speaker off the wall, it starts playing. We used Max/MSP and Arduino to build the installation.

Dan Goodman points out on Twitter that "people from the same country can also need this. Houston St. NYC; Devon Ave. Chicago; Nicollet Ave. Minneapolis…."

(h/t opedr)

[Update: For more, see this post on the Economist's Johnson blog by Robert Lane Greene, who knows a thing or two about the pitfalls of pronouncing Danish.]


  1. Circe said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    Sometimes, though, inability to pronounce a city's name may have more to with memory than the difficult phonetics: for example in the case of the ceremonial name of the city of Bangkok.

  2. Circe said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    ..And when that happens, you encode the name in a pop song, so people don't have trouble remembering it.

  3. blahedo said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    I object! This video is deficient. It shows street names and foreigners mispronouncing them, without ever giving the correct pronunciation! :P

    Cute project, though.

  4. Sili said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

    I object! This video is deficient. It shows street names and foreigners mispronouncing them, without ever giving the correct pronunciation! :P

    Did you not watch the finished product? It sounds like a nice, little old lady doing the pronunciations to help someone who's a bit slow, but harmless.

  5. Harry said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    Alas, this would never be allowed in the US. Or maybe just not allowed in Boston, which has a history of overreaction. see

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 18, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    "Can need" seems to me a very strange construction. A German woman I know uses it rather often, but I don't believe I've ever encountered it anywhere else.

  7. Sarah Glover said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 1:14 am

    "Can need" sounds perfectly natural to me in England.

  8. johnesh said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 3:30 am

    I am an native BrE speaker living in London and "can need" sounds very strange to me too. I don't think I've ever heard or read it anywhere before. I would say "could need" in this context.

  9. maidhc said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:05 am

    I seem to remember a news story recently about audio versions of street names in New York being pronounced with a strong Brooklyn accent.

    [(bgz) Maybe you even read about it here.]

  10. Lone Sæderup said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 4:29 am

    Cool project! As a teacher of Danish as a second language I know exactly how difficult Danish pronounciation can be for foreigners. And as Dan Goodman points out, this can be very useful for native speakers as well. Many street names in Copenhagen are pronounced in a specific Copenhagen manner, for example Farimagsgade and Gothersgade, and pronouncing them wrong immediately reveals you as a tourist or someone new to the city.

    Also, it's funny how the world comes together in unexpected ways. I've often see these two people at my regular hangout in Copenhagen and now I know what they been working on so intently.

  11. Amy Stoller said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 6:43 am

    Love this! Houston Street, as Dan Goodman remarked, is a big "tell" here in New York. Quite a few in Brooklyn: Joralemon springs to mind.

    And then there are entire cities, such as Cairo, IL.

  12. Brian T said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    I drive past a cousin of Cairo, Ill., every day: Versailles, Ky., which is pronounced ver-SALES. A co-worker once told me he passed through the tiny town of Egypt in Jackson County, Ky. He told a local, "I've always dreamed of visiting Egypt," and she said, "Oh, we pronounce it egg-wiped." She was kidding, but it makes me want to move there and make her joke come true.

  13. Rod Johnson said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    Somehow I knew there would be ukuleles.

  14. Stomu said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    I heard they made this project (from the initial idea to the video presentation) in just 3 days !!
    I was in Copenhagen. I could not read any street signs.. I felt I was in totally strange place and not grounded…
    With this devise, I would be interested in exploring the origin of the language, people, culture, history and etc. It's funny this little devise makes me feel "I want to know more about the place". Without it, it's just an unknown foreign place forever.

  15. Steve F said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    Many British place names are notoriously difficult even for English-speaking visitors, including such well-known ones as the capital city of Scotland.

    My favourite is Beaulieu, which is indeed a beautiful place, (it's in the New Forest in Hampshire,) but a knowledge of French is not helpful for its pronunciation, which is 'Bewley'.

  16. Steve F said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    Oh, and I meant to add, I'm with Sarah Glover – there's absolutely nothing wrong with 'can need'.

  17. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    Danish has undergone a huge change in pronunciation in the past 50 years. To me, who learned Danish in the '50s, everyone sounds like a dock-worker. I watched a Danish movie from about 1950 with the family of a friend; the adults (>50) could understand the dialog OK, but the 12-year-old girls were completely lost.

    The Danish spoken in the Faeroes (Gøtudansk) is pretty conservative and easy to understand. It's the real Faeroese, mostly a modern reconstruction that's orthographically challenged, that's hard, partly because the reconstructors tried to get it as close to Icelandic as possible. The revival of Faeroese is a fascinating study in socio-linguistics.

  18. Jacob Sjúrður said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    @ Dan Lufkin:
    Gøtudansk is not so common any more when Faroese speak to Danish. It is more the older generations born in the first decades of the last century. The Faroese have been getting better in speaking a more "pure" Danish. Faroese language has undergone a big change just the last 10-20 years to be more alike old Norse and yes Icelandic. I remember when I started speaking Faroese at age 12, I used quite Faroese words like útvarp (radio) when all of my friends said radio (presure on the "r"). Now útvarp is totally common and few use "radio". Faroese is now a days like the Norwegian Nynorsk (compared to bokmål) back to the original roots. :-)

  19. Lane said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 11:29 am

    Dan, what was the movie?

  20. blahedo said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    @Sili: yes, I watched the whole video, but the sample names they mispronounced at the beginning (e.g. "Nyhavn", which I suspect is /'ny.haun/ but I'm not sure) were not the ones they showed samples of finished products for.

  21. Lane said,

    July 19, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    Blahedo, your guess on Nyhavn is very close.

  22. nico said,

    August 19, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    As an Argentinian student of Electronic Engineering and English Studies, I find this fascinating. Latin America could benefit from this great invention, since regional dialects spoken here are the result of a mixture between languages of the indigenous and those of the twentieth century european migrations.

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