THE EMETIC NATURE OF DANISH.

From Lauren Collins’s “Letter from Copenhagen: Danish Postmodern” (“Why are so many people fans of Scandinavian TV?”) from the January 7 New Yorker (sorry, only the summary is available to nonsubscribers):

To quote from “The Killing Handbook,” by Emma Kennedy, “A virus has swept the Great British islands, blown in on a north wind; and it has brought with it the murky Nordic noir televisual blockbusters that have gripped the nation ever since.” The reception of the shows was unexpected, even for Danes. When asked by the Guardian to account for the popularity of Danish television overseas, the actress Sidse Babett Knudsen [Danish pronunciation: ˈsisə b̥ab̥ɛd̥ ˈkʰnusn̩]—who plays Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female statsminister, on “Borgen” [Danish pronunciation: ˈb̥ɒːˀwən]—replied, “I’ve no idea, because our language is one of the most ugly and limited around. You can’t seduce anyone in Danish; it sounds like you are throwing up.”

Incidentally, I was perplexed by the verb in the earlier sentence “The BBC was, of course, drafting on the recent success of noirish northern fare such as ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,'” but my wife explained to me that “draft” in this sense means to ride close behind someone to take advantage of their slipstream. That’s what I get for not following bike racing.
Addendum. Later in the piece, Collins writes “Because Denmark is small and relatively heterogeneous, DR can attempt to appeal to almost everyone.” This makes no sense unless “heterogeneous” should read “homogeneous”; what happened to the magazine’s famed high standard of editing?

Comments

  1. The Guardian offered a three-minute crash course in Danish for Forbrytelsen fans, given by a delightful young man from UCL. Incidentally outside his office window you can see one of the plane trees in Malet Street Gardens, a lovely little square near the British Museum.

  2. You can’t seduce anyone in Danish; it sounds like you are throwing up.”
    Supposedly when the last speaker of Eyak was trying to teach the language to her one granddaughter, the granddaughter refused. She said it sounded like “you were throwing up.” Teenagers.
    And now it’s extinct.

  3. it sounds like you are throwing up
    Well, um, not that I would condone this sort of linguistic prejudice… Let me put it this way: I recently watched Headhunters/Hodejegerne, a Norwegian movie which featured Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of Game of Thrones fame). He turns out to be Danish and (if I’m not mistaken) spoke Danish in the movie while other characters spoke Norwegian. Boy, what a contrast!

  4. des von bladet says:

    NRC Handelsblad remarked, in its coverage of this phenomenon, that another important factor is German money: the Germans are also mad for Krimis, and ZDF puts up cash for the ‘Wegian productions. (It was also an early adopter of ‘Wegian Krimis in book form.)
    (I follow bicycle racing, but only in the original Belgian, so I would have missed that usage too. What happened to “slipstream”?)

  5. That’s a nice video, K. de C. AJP Ú.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    “drafting” in that sense is also used in American English in redblooded populist contexts like NASCAR racing. (Not sure about Formula One; it may be more/less valuable/efficient depending on the general shape of the vehicles involved.)

  7. Sir JCass says:

    Not sure about Formula One; it may be more/less valuable/efficient depending on the general shape of the vehicles involved
    It’s called “slipstreaming”, but it’s difficult to do because when you come up to the back of a car you get caught in its “dirty” (i.e. turbulent) air, which reduces your downforce. So you tend to get stuck within a second or two of the car in front for lap after lap, even if you are faster. This is why in 2011 they introduced the DRS (drag reduction system) to make overtaking easier.

  8. I promise you, you can seduce someone in Danish if you’re as good-looking as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Mads Mikkelsen, Vigo Mortensen (Danish-American, spent time living there, speaks OK Danish apparently), Helena Christiansen, Iben Hjejle, etc. The country does seem to produce pretty attractive people, though Danes will charmingly put totally ordinary-looking actors in marquee roles in TV and movies.
    This Norwegian video, still, remains the last word on the ridiculous pronunciation.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-mOy8VUEBk
    John Wells has said “It is the only (standard literary) European language whose vowels I feel despairingly uncertain about identifying, and even the consonants are not without problems.”
    http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2010/11/danish.html
    I’ll declare my interest – my wife is Danish. I obviously found her pretty seductive. And I was at least in part seduced by the challenge of trying to learn the language…

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Is it just me, or are the last paragraph and all the comments (including date, etc) in BOLD? (I am writing this with regular format).

  10. marie-lucie says:

    I guess everything has turned to BOLD here.
    Heterogeneous vs homogeneous: Some years ago when I was a (mature) graduate student, I used the word heterogeneous in front of some classmates, and one girl looked puzzled and said “I never know which is which, homogeneous or heterogeneous”. I said “Think of homosexual and heterosexual, and you won’t get confused”, and all the others stared at me with a shocked look on their faces, as if I had said something really obscene.

  11. des von bladet says:

    If we’re just harshing on the kamalåså then I humbly submit:
    “Jerry Sadock, who had to learn it for his work on Greenlandic, used to say that Danish is the closest thing there is to a human language.” (Peter T. Daniels)
    But I have to admit: it is tempting. Sometimes I listen to the excellent Europa lige nu podcast from DR, and I can only assume I’d enjoy it even more if I could reliably understand more than 5% of what they are saying.

  12. NASCAR?!? Well before it migrated to that pseudo-sport it was a term used with great familiarity in harness racing–which I might add is as popular in Denmark as it once was at county fair meets throughout the US…

  13. “It is the only … European language whose vowels I feel despairingly uncertain about identifying, and even the consonants are not without problems.” That’s how I feel about the London accent my daughter now uses. I can’t make out much of what she says.

  14. Is it just me, or are the last paragraph and all the comments (including date, etc) in BOLD?
    Sorry about that; I forgot to close a tag on my addendum. I blame a lingering cold. Fixed now.
    If we’re just harshing on the kamalåså
    What do you mean, “just”? If you can’t harsh on the kamalåså, does life even have a meaning?
    “It is the only (standard literary) European language whose vowels I feel despairingly uncertain about identifying, and even the consonants are not without problems.”
    I feel that way about the Portuguese of Portugal.

  15. Besides, if I have to harsh on the kamalåså to pry you away from the fens of diaryland, then I’ll do what I have to do.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    I love Danish. And it’s really not the pronunciation that’s outrageous, it’s the orthography, using the same graphemes for the phonemes resulting from several rounds of lenition. Phonologically, Danish would be better served by Nynorsk. Or would have been before dialect levelling and hypercorrection norm stirred it all into phonoplasma.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    Emetic languages, is that a genetic or a typological grouping? Maybe it’s sociolinguistic, describing a cross-linguistic feature of the upper castes.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    Jim: Supposedly when the last speaker of Eyak was trying to teach the language to her one granddaughter, the granddaughter refused. She said it sounded like “you were throwing up.” Teenagers.
    Les élèves d’aujourd’hui ne supportent plus la grand-mère.

  19. Electric Dragon says:

    There were important precursors of the Danish pathogen – first of all French policier Engrenages (translated into English as “Spiral”), then Wallander (the Swedish version starring Krister Henriksson, rather than the other Swedish one, or the later English ones starring Sir Kenneth of Branagh).
    Incidentally, season 2 of Borgen starts on Saturday night at 9pm on BBC4.

  20. The first time I heard “drafting” was in Alabama about a year ago. The taxi driver was driving about 4 ft behind an 18-wheeler on the freeway, going about 70. I jokingly asked him if he was feeling suicidal, and he said “drafting saves gas.”

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: Supposedly when the last speaker of Eyak was trying to teach the language to her one granddaughter, the granddaughter refused. She said it sounded like “you were throwing up.” Teenagers.
    And now it’s extinct.
    I have never learned Arabic, but for years I tried to practice making pharyngeal sounds (which also exist on the North Pacific coast). It took me a very long time to make some of these sounds without gagging. The granddaughter was very rude, but her reaction is understandable.
    What many people don’t realize is that if they want the children to speak a certain language, they have to talk to them in that language. Thus, people who wanted their children to learn English (or French, or any locally dominant language) spoke to them in English (etc) since the time they were small. My high school English (ESL) teacher (who, unlike many, actually spoke English fluently), always spoke to his daughter in English, while her mother spoke to her in French (this was in France). Older children, especially teenagers, will rarely be interested in speaking the same way as their grandparents or great-grandparents if those elders have always communicated with them in the dominant language, sometimes using their own as a secret language in order to exclude the children. My own maternal grandparents spoke Occitan as their first language and, as in many minority language situations, had been punished in school for speaking it. I really wanted to learn it when I was a child, but they used it as a secret language which they did not want their children and grandchildren to know. Their neighbours and relatives, also Occitan-speaking, also tried to discourage me from trying to learn this “language of peasants”.
    If on top of everything the elders’ language sounds very different from the one the children use (between themselves as well as with all adults), and requires using unfamiliar speech mechanisms, only very rare teenagers (who are already long past the optimum age for language learning) will want to learn it. These will be “born linguists”, who are a very small minority in any population.

  22. Funny, I would have supposed that Collins’ usage of “drafting” was very common. It may have come into general circulation in my generation with the movie Breaking Away (1979). There was a memorable scene where the hero drafts behind an 18 wheeler at some very high speed.

  23. @Trond Engen
    phonoplasma = gas composed of ionized phonemes?

  24. Bill Walderman says:

    The Danes are worried that their kids are falling behind because it takes more time to learn to speak Danish than other languages:
    http://cphpost.dk/culture/quotdanskquot/danish-languages-irritable-vowel-syndrome
    There’s a research center that studies this issue at the University of Southern Denmark:
    http://www.sdu.dk/en/Om_SDU/Institutter_centre/C_Boernesprog
    The most prominent expert on Danish phonology/phonetics is affiliated with the research center, and has just co-published a paper entitled “Why is Danish so hard to acquire?”:
    http://www.sdu.dk/ansat/hba

  25. Trond Engen says:

    MattF: phonoplasma = gas composed of ionized phonemes?
    Bill Walderman: The Danes are worried that their kids are falling behind because it takes more time to learn to speak Danish than other languages:
    They shouldn’t worry too much. Leave the language to itself, and it will soon innovate out of it. Danish is in some sort of transformational phase now, and there’s a process of reduction in the numner of phonemes going on. If this is an impediment, the language will develop new grammatical particles or something to distinguish sentence elements and homonyms. The problem is that Danish language culture (like that of any other litterate society) also seems helplessly backward-looking, so innovation is frowned upon.

  26. Trond Engen says:

    Heh. I seem to have deleted my reply to MattF. Something like “A continuous mass of indistinguishable phonetic elements filling all available vowel space.”

  27. On the “emetic” point, I’ve told my wife that the reason Danish sounds are so hard is that many of them don’t sound like anything we’d call a phoneme (as American English-speakers). The way the -et ending is pronounced, the stød, the final d in mad, glad, fed, med, and so on… All of them are sounds we only make when we’re making fun of someone trying not to throw up.

  28. Who would have thought that the erudite Sir JCass was also an expert in racing cars.
    I learnt about the trucks, traveling in convoys with only four feet between them, in a very long New Yorker article several years ago. It said they rotate lead position (the one who doesn’t benefit from the vacuum).

  29. “draft” in this sense means to ride close behind someone to take advantage of their slipstream. That’s what I get for not following bike racing.
    In cycling jargon I think this is called “wheel sucking” — sucer la roue in the Tour de France, which has been won by a Dane once upon a time if I’m not mistaken.

  30. Trond: The problem is that Danish language culture (like that of any other litterate society) also seems helplessly backward-looking, so innovation is frowned upon.
    Every literate society is helplessly backward-looking ? Surely the opposite is the case. It is illiterate societies that look backward, living off myths and legends of their origins and place in the scheme of things. Literate people impose closure on their past, and look forward to the next installment of Desperate Housewives.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: (trucks in convoys rotate lead position)
    … thus imitating migrating birds such as geese and ducks.

  32. Trond Engen says:

    Illiterate peoples are backward-looking too, and they see failings of contemporary life as lack of old-fashioned moral. But literate peoples have old books and, lately, old recordings, and so they tend to see lack of old-fashioned moral as intrinsically linked to linguistic change. My point was meant to be that the types of linguistic innovation that would be about to happen are likely to be frowned upon by the very people mourning the sad state of contemporary language.

  33. Trond Engen says:

    Also cyclists on team time trial do that. Surely, that original Belgian word has to be named after the plow formation of geese and ducks.

  34. Jens Knudsen (Sili) says:

    And it’s really not the pronunciation that’s outrageous, it’s the orthography, using the same graphemes for the phonemes resulting from several rounds of lenition. Phonologically, Danish would be better served by Nynorsk.

    I do occasionally fantasize about chopping the heads off Dansk Sprognævn (L’Academie Danoise), and letting spelling run wild for a coupla decades. Then perhaps we might get back to having some sort of direct relationship between spelling and pronunciation again.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    I wonder if similar things were said about English during the Great Vowel Shift. Apparently, Danish is undergoing such a thing right now.
    (And different Englishes are undergoing several such things right now, too.)
    *hands machete to Sili*

    Supposedly when the last speaker of Eyak was trying to teach the language to her one granddaughter, the granddaughter refused. She said it sounded like “you were throwing up.” Teenagers.

    Eyak is indeed peppered with glottal stops; often a syllable begins with an ejective consonant, then a vowel comes, and then there’s a glottal stop in front of another consonant…

    http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2010/11/danish.html

    Poor Professor Wells. The Danish /r/ is no ordinary uvular trill as he tried to make himself believe, it’s a truly valiant attempt at producing a pharyngeal trill. It’s a sound to behold.
    And yes, final d is coarticulated [ð̞] and [ɫ], while final l is just [ɫ]; it took me several attempts to even hear the difference, and I’m otherwise unusually good at hearing differences I’m not used to.

    That’s how I feel about the London accent my daughter now uses. I can’t make out much of what she says.

    I’ve heard Britons turn the GOAT vowel into pure, unblemished [œy]. Is this sort of thing what you mean?

    dialect levelling and hypercorrection norm stirred it all into phonoplasma

    I admire the sheer power of this description. =8-)

    pharyngeal sounds (which also exist on the North Pacific coast)

    Dirty little secret: most or all of these are actually epiglottal.
    Next dirty little secret: they’re also epiglottal in some, or many, Arabic dialects, and in some, or many, other Afroasiatic languages. The origin of the Akkadian /e/ from loss of “pharyngeal” fricatives suddenly makes sense that way: epiglottals pull adjacent vowels towards [æ], not towards [ɑ].
    Sound files from the only language known to have both pharyngeals and epiglottals (as allophones of each other).

  36. Trond Engen says:

    David: I admire the sheer power of this description. =8-)
    Hah! That’s my normal power!

  37. Jens Knudsen (Sili) says:

    I have no idea what a flagyl it, but I sorta want one now.
    I suspect it might help improve my Danish. Kamalåse and all.

  38. Sili, I suppose it’s inevitable but I don’t think you ought to have to put up with this abuse about Danish. I used to think Danish was ugly myself, but I’ve grown to realise that it’s just great, sort of like the relation of a Cubist collage to beauty (and in contrast to a more Titianlike or Berninian language such as Italian or French).

  39. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve never thought of Danish as ugly. Like most Norwegians I find Danish very pleasant. What it is is weird, and more so the more you listen to it, but that’s something else.

  40. I agree, I don’t think it’s ugly either. But weird, who could deny?

  41. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: a more Titianlike or Berninian language such as Italian or French
    ??? Italian and French don’t sound the same at all, even though many words are similar because of their common origin.

  42. I never said they sounded alike. They’re traditionally both thought beautiful by certain Europeans and Americans. English is the language of bees knees, but French is zer language of lurve (also Italian).

  43. weird, who could deny?
    It’s weird only in the sense of being unusual to Norwegians and Germans and Italians who are used to a wysiwyg language, where you pronounce all the letters. I don’t find it weird in the other sense, i.e. that the Addams family might read Kirkegaard in the original, nor in comparison to so-called “British” English (as spoken for instance in London or Durham).

  44. …or in Belfast, Aberdeen, Cardiff or Dublin for that matter.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    Then French is also weird by these criteria.

  46. That’s right.

  47. des von bladet says:

    Danish is at least phonologically weird, by the standards of Yoorpean languages. No voiced/unvoiced opposition and a phonoplasma of lenited ex-consonants.
    A sign of its oddness is that it is usually not transcribed in IPA, since that would require an unreasonable amount of diacritical baggage. (I’ve seen it done; it isn’t pretty.)
    Grammatically and orthographically, of course, it is a very vanilla flavour of Scandiwegian. That’s part of the appeal to me: it seems mildly scandalous that I find it so hard to understand the spoken form. (Even after a non-trivial amount of trying.)

  48. This is what happens to many English speakers, from the shear strain of trying to cope with its weirdness.

  49. Sir JCass says:

    Who would have thought that the erudite Sir JCass was also an expert in racing cars?
    Hey thanks, but I don’t know about “erudite” compared to some of the big-hitters in LH’s comment threads. I’m a complete amateur and I’ve only dabbled in a few European languages.
    I’m also not an expert on cars (can’t even drive!), but I’ve spent enough Sunday afternoons as a couch potato watching Formula One to remember things like the “Trulli train”* in the days before DRS.
    *Trulli train: named after talented but underachieving Italian driver Jarno Trulli, who used to qualify well but liked to take things a bit easier in the race itself, toddling along in the midfield and acquiring a train of frustrated cars behind him (illustration at the top of the page here). Teams were known to plan their entire pit stop strategies around his predicted position on the track.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    French is zer language of lurve
    AJP, I know you are mocking the cliché, and I am not criticizing you, but I hate this kind of characterization: “X is the language of [whatever]”, like “English is the language of business”, etc. Any language has what is required to express all of its speakers’ communication needs, whatever the topic (and if it does not have a word, it creates one, or explains the topic, or – if in contact with another language – sometimes borrows one).
    p.s. According to your transcription, you must speak like an Englishman, not an American or Canadian.

  51. I hate this kind of characterization
    Yes, me too, that was my point.
    you must speak like an Englishman
    Yes, if you mean the Rs. I think Americans must write “luhve”.
    Sir J, you know Australian Paul who comments here is a retired F1 motor-racing journalist. I think he would love hearing from someone who could discuss the finer points of the sport.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    zer language of lurve

    Szerelemnyelv!
    (I’m way too proud of my memory sometimes.)

    Then French is also weird by these criteria.

    Well, apart from proper names and a few small common words, French is actually almost fully graphemic: when you see a word written, you can immediately tell how to pronounce it, with few if any further exceptions. That’s not the case even in German.

    Danish is at least phonologically weird, by the standards of Yoorpean languages. No voiced/unvoiced opposition

    That’s actually a bit more widespread. The High German consonant shift eliminated all voiced obstruents; Standard German as spoken on the North German plain (like here in Berlin) has reacquired them from its Low German substrate (High German sound system with mostly Low German sounds!), and Carinthian has reacquired them (with the notable exception of [z]) because it had its entire sound system reinterpreted in Slovene terms.
    Also, Icelandic and at least Scottish Gaelic.

    and a phonoplasma of lenited ex-consonants.

    En Graná no hay na. 🙂 But point taken, that’s not common.

    This is what happens to many English speakers, from the shear strain of trying to cope with its weirdness.

    …Oh, wow. That man must have listened very attentively indeed when he was in Wales!

  53. David Marjanović says:

    For me, the most difficult sounds of French are [b d g].

  54. David Marjanović says:

    *headdesk* English. Voicing is notoriously unreliable in English. The supposedly voiced obstruents are routinely devoiced, partially or entirely, at the beginnings of words; and while English lacks word-final devoicing, it does have utterance-final ( = prepausal) devoicing. On the other side, /p t k/ are aspirated at the beginnings of words, less so elsewhere (and glottalized because the aspiration is actively taken away), routinely unreleased at the ends of words and sometimes in other contexts, and often (maybe always) turn into voiceless lenes behind /s/ – something that doesn’t come naturally to me and that I sometimes forget about.

  55. toddling along in the midfield and acquiring a train of frustrated cars behind him
    I know I’m revealing my hopeless ignorance, but why can’t they just pass him?

  56. Oooh- I know this one! F1 cars leave a lot of turbulence in their wake, so that when a trailing car gets close to the one in front, the aerodynamics of the car are thrown off so it loses speed and steers poorly. (the cars depend on very finely tuned aerodynamics for down-force, since they’re relatively light weight.) Also, the curves of the racetracks sometimes make it hard to drive around the car in front without loosing too much speed and time.

  57. Sir JCass says:

    but why can’t they just pass him?
    What s/o said* – it’s the “dirty” (turbulent) air from the car in front ruining the aerodynamics. The authorities have tried to offset this by introducing DRS (a flap on the rear wing opens to give you more speed for a few seconds) and KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System – another way of getting a quick burst of power to improve your chances of overtaking).
    *Although “Priemiheli”‘s answer is also true in the case of some drivers: “They have difficulty making the transition from sleep state to fully awake and can take an hour or two to become fully awake.” He’s lost me with the pizza explanation though – as I say, I’m no expert in technical matters…

  58. natural oils on your fingers that could transfer gems and cause painful infections. Why?
    We demand to know.

  59. des von bladet says:

    [A]part from proper names and a few small common words, French is actually almost fully graphemic: when you see a word written, you can immediately tell how to pronounce it, with few if any further exceptions.

    But decidedly not vice-versa, in my experience.
    I liked the way your examples of languages that had lost voicing contrasts in obstruents included Icelandic and a bunch that had promptly reacquired it.
    Incidentally, is Dutch the Least Weird Language in Continental Europe? No silly aspiratings, no very odd consonants (some people make a lot of fuss about [x] but srsly), a fairly consistent if slightly non-mainstream orthography…

  60. Aren’t there any weird dialects that you can’t understand? South Amsterdam?

  61. Trond Engen says:

    I might vote for Czech. If not being Slavic and lacking most of the Western European graeco-latinate vocabulary counts as weird.

  62. des von bladet says:

    I can’t understand any of the Randstad dialects, or even much of the local Niedersakisch flavours.
    But I assume that’s true of all langwidges? I’m sure none of the Nynorsks would make much sense at first listen.

  63. Trond Engen says:

    :-@
    Emeticon!

  64. marie-lucie says:

    Spanish is very easy to both read and write – exceptions are few. French is relatively easy to read but not to write. English is hard both ways.

  65. I found I could understand a few phrases of my next-door neighbours’ dialect after I’d been living here for about fifteen years.

  66. exceptions are few.
    While b/v and s/c/z are in some sense “few,” they affect vast numbers of words, as can be seen by looking at the graffiti in any Spanish-speaking country.

  67. David Marjanović says:

    Incidentally, is Dutch the Least Weird Language in Continental Europe? No silly aspiratings

    Aspiration is rare in Europe*: only Gaelic and Germanic languages other than Dutch and High German have it. And then only for plosives. Want aspiration all over the place, go to Chhina.
    * If you don’t count the Caucasus. If you do, hardly anything is rare anymore.

    no very odd consonants (some people make a lot of fuss about [x] but srsly)

    Well, I can understand why: first, it isn’t [x] (velar), it’s [χ] (uvular); second, it’s the odd part in the odd consonant cluster sch [sχ]; third, in those accents that have merged the odd [ɣ] into it*, it’s very common indeed, almost reaching Swiss German levels**.
    * Occurs in Icelandic, Greek, and nothing in between (anymore) except Flemish and the like. Oh, and reportedly in Belarusian and loanwords with h in Lithuanian.
    ** Good old [ˈχuχːiχæʃtli], Küchenkästlein, “little kitchen cupboard”. Not sure if it’s Bärndütsch, Züridütsch or both.

    I found I could understand a few phrases of my next-door neighbours’ dialect after I’d been living here for about fifteen years.

    That’s pretty much how my dad feels about Austrian dialects after twice that time. 🙂

    French is relatively easy to read but not to write.

    My cousin who lives near Lausanne is on record as having stated that the French orthography was deliberately invented by an evil man to torment schoolchildren.

    While b/v and s/c/z are in some sense “few,” they affect vast numbers of words, as can be seen by looking at the graffiti in any Spanish-speaking country.

    Not quite any: s is kept distinct from c/z in most of Spain; been there, heard that.
    …Which brings us back to the topic of weirdness in Europe: this s is alveolar, as found in Portuguese (sort of), Basque, Greek, and really not much else. Outside of Europe, I know Haida has it…

  68. David Marjanović says:

    Flemish and the like

    Also Frisian and possibly in a few Low German dialects. And to go back to the topic of voice contrasts… there are Middle German accents (in Saxony for instance) that have devoiced this /ɣ/ but keep it as a fricative and keep it distinct from /x/ by a lenis-fortis contrast. Quite impressive to hear (as I did recently), especially because in those same accents /b d g/ and /p t k/ have completely merged, forming voiceless lenes.

  69. marie-lucie says:

    LH: Spanish b/v, s/c/z: the problem here is for writing, not reading.
    DM: the French orthography was deliberately invented by an evil man to torment schoolchildren
    In French as in English, the culprit was not a single diabolical individual but the invention of printing, which lead to spelling becoming more or less standardized and then largely maintained in spite of considerable changes in pronunciation over the centuries. But I think those two languages pale besides Gaelic.

  70. The orthography of Gaelic, whether Scottish or Irish, is no more complex than that of French, though foreigners probably have more trouble grasping it. In all three languages, pronunciation can be reliably predicted from spelling, though the converse is not true. In English orthography, neither is true.

  71. des von bladet says:

    Well, I can understand why: first, it isn’t [x] (velar), it’s [χ] (uvular)

    This surely qualifies for an “except when it isn’t”? But on closer inspection my own rendering does seem to be further down the throat than I had imagined. (As a non-native speaker this is of course of no interest to non-me persons.)

    second, it’s the odd part in the odd consonant cluster sch [sχ]
    If you can say [x] (or [χ]) you can say [sx] (or [sχ]), unless (famously) you are natively German-speaking. I encourage Engleeshes to pronounce “Schiphol” as “Amsterdam airport” to save us all the trouble.

  72. des von bladet says:

    (Sigh. Closing blockquotes doesn’t seem to be a Core Strength today.)

  73. Flagyl is a trade name for metronidazole, an instance where the marketers won in that it’s shorter and easier to remember than the generic name. You’ll end up on it (it’s an antibiotic) if you have a probably-foul-smelling infection in your abdomen or further south. Probably unnecessary with emesis, of whatever cause!

  74. My son has recently had to learn to pronounce some Irish Gaelic, for choral singing purposes. He has been telling me strange tales about the relation between spelling and sound. Is this the act of a single individual? I’m not saying diabolical, but …

  75. @Ø: It’s the act of some scribes in the 13th century trying to cover some very gnarly morphophonemics with 18 letters and one diacritic. It didn’t help that right after they figured it out, lenited apicals lost apicality. But when [t] still alternates with [h], for example, you’re stuck with it, or so they felt.

  76. By “stuck with it” I mean stuck with th = [h], for example. Plus dh merging with gh and then turning, when non-initial, into a variety of glides. Trust me, there’s only so much you can do to make this system transparent, and it isn’t much. Nevertheless, recent Scottish Gaelic spelling reforms: http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/gaidhlig/goc/conventions.html

  77. Des: You have the gall to sit there and tell me that a proper dutchophone (okay, okay, batavophone) would have absolutely no idea what an anglophone wants when he asks directions to Ship Hole airport? I mean, the etymology is right and everything! (Of francophones, I expect such things.)
    As for changing the orthography of Danish, that would only serve to make it incomprehensible in both speech and writing. What good is that? At least Real Germanics can currently communicate with Danes using scribbled notes.
    As it happens, I just took my final dose of metronidazole, thanks to a suspected infestation of C. difficile, a nasty little bug (as the name suggests) often found in the wake of, indeed, abdominal surgery. Having to grind it up and eat it as powder was about the last straw (except I am forbidden to use straws).

  78. J.W. Brewer says:

    Aidan: I think it is SOP for companies that are first to market with something to devise a generic name for the hitherto-unnamed product that is more of a mouthful than the trade name they want to use – that way it’s easier to protect the latter, catchier name as a trademark by virtue of having provided a boring/clunky/unappealing way for competitors to describe their product after yours goes off-patent or whatever. Compare e.g. NutraSweet to aspertame, or muilaV backwards [forwards is “questionable content”!] to mapezaid backwards [ditto . . .].

  79. Ivan S. Nielsen says:

    Bill Walderman:
    Is there anyway to get a copy of the paper “Why is Danish so hard to acquire”? I’m about to start helping a Chinese exchange student acquire Danish, so it would be rather relevant reading.

  80. J.W. Brewer, oh certainly, but often they don’t succeed as well as they did with metronidazole. E.g. diаzeраm is actually easy for medics to remember because the -azepam ending is common to the drug class, and there’s only one syllable beyond that; but -azole is commonest with antifungals, a different drug class entirely, and metronid- is opaque for me.
    Sildеnаfil is getting easier to remember as the years go on and other phosphodiesterase 5 inhibitors ending in -afil become common. Prochlorperazine is another reasonably common drug with an unwieldy name (mostly used as an anti-emetic, hahah), but as far as I can see that’s not because of marketers.

  81. @J. W. Brewer: Not to mention the ones that end in “-mumab.”

  82. David Marjanović says:

    This surely qualifies for an “except when it isn’t”?

    Most likely. I haven’t actually heard a lot of Dutch.
    BTW, the map next to that footnote is seriously outdated. Yes, all the Flemings I’ve heard still use [r]; yes, [ʀ] hasn’t progressed into German-speaking Switzerland beyond, AFAIK, Basel and the patrician sociolect of Berne; yes, [r] is now part of Bavarian tribal identity; but otherwise, [ʀ] and [ʁ] have swept Germany and Austria, even reaching into Slovenia, and it’s apparently common knowledge in Italy that the people in Milan can’t say [r]. In Austria, the advance of [ʀ] might have stopped recently, there are still a few children who use [r]; in Germany other than Bavaria, [r] is said to be restricted to the very edge of the North Sea (the Waterkant); I’ve never heard of any native French speaker using [r], except for the grandparent generation in rural Québec.

    Trust me, there’s only so much you can do to make this system transparent, and it isn’t much.

    I’ve long wanted to go Stalinist on it. Compare the orthographies of Mongolian in the Mongolian script and in Cyrillic.
    And why keep all this morphological information in the first place? Welsh and Breton never did.

  83. David Marjanović says:

    …Hm. On the other hand, concerning the map of uvular /r/, other Wikipedia articles say that there are still Breton speakers who use [r], while the map either claims otherwise or ignores the entire language.

  84. About twenty years ago during my only visit to Provence, I was interested to hear a child say something like /frantse/ for ‘France’. I’m pretty sure he didn’t use [ʀ] or [ʁ].

  85. marie-lucie says:

    David: there are still Breton speakers who use [r]
    I am sure this must be true about some very old speakers in remote rural areas. It is also possible that Breton nationalists who try to speak Breton almost exclusively and raise their children with Breton as their first language also use the traditional [r]. Not being Breton or having any ties with Brittany, I cannot say for sure.
    Bathrobe: Perhaps this child was being raised by largely Occitan-speaking grandparents (who might have spoken French with a heavier-than-usual Occitan accent). About the final vowel: I suppose you are using the letter e for [∂], as in French, not for “é” as with the IPA.
    I remember reading an article on Occitan use some years ago which said that switching to “uvular r” while speaking Occitan was a sign of imminent loss of the language, even by people whose dominant language was still Occitan, since they were using the French standard for this pronunciation.

  86. David Marjanović: That’s why you can’t find a Welsh or Breton word in the dictionary unless you know enough grammar to reconstruct the base form. Not that phonemic spelling doesn’t have its own strengths. But Brythonic phonemics are much simpler than Goidelic in the first place.

  87. Rodger C: Actually, you can just use the tables to run the mutations backwards, at least for Welsh. It’s unlikely, though possible in principle, that a given unlisted (i.e. mutated) form might equally well be derived from two different base forms.

  88. @John Cowan: Well, mostly, but if I enocounter, say, “fy mugstomp” and “ei fugstomp” in a text, I don’t know whether to look up “mugstomp” or “bugstomp.”

  89. It’s unlikely, though possible in principle, that a given unlisted (i.e. mutated) form might equally well be derived from two different base forms.
    While “unlikely” is technically true, in that the likelihood is well under 50%, it’s not nearly as rare as you make it sound; any student of Welsh has had the experience Rodger C describes.

  90. Rodger: Yes, you have to look them both up, but what I’m saying is that it’s unlikely you find both of them defined. At least, that’s my experience. More tricky is being able to dissect compounds correctly, given that all but the first piece are probably mutated, making the point of juncture hard to recognize.

  91. David Marjanović says:

    Still sounds like Chinese dictionaries are worse. 🙂
    From way above:

    I liked the way your examples of languages that had lost voicing contrasts in obstruents included Icelandic and a bunch that had promptly reacquired it.

    Heh. I should have mentioned that in northern Standard German utterance-initial /b d g/ seem to be always voiceless, still quite unlike French or Russian or apparently Dutch.

  92. Hehe, well now you’re getting spam in Indonesian! Seems somehow fitting.

  93. What I found really weird was the spam comment from “football in myanmar.” Is there really such demand for information on that topic?

  94. Once they’re rich, power-crazy tycoons often seem to vent their weirdnesses on sports teams. Roman Abramovich bought my team, Chelsea, and ruined it just as Steinbrenner did with the Yankees. Now the whole of England hates Chelsea because any time they get in trouble they can buy their way out of it. Well apparently the Myanmar Football Federation is in the hands of someone called Zaw Zaw and Zaw Zaw may be happy to promote the MFF via a bit of spam. This is just my guess.

  95. Crown,
    I am a Red Sox fan, and even I think Steinbrenner was one of the best owners in baseball. Far from ruining the Yankees he made them relevant again in the 1970s. He was a rich asshole, but he truly loved his team and cared about the game more than profits. Compared to the current owners of the Sox (and now Liverpool) who care only about marketing and “product”, Steinbrenner practically represents a golden age.
    I share your sentiments about Abramovich though.

  96. @David Marjanović:

    Not sure if it’s Bärndütsch, Züridütsch or both.

    I believe Chuchichästli (as it’s usually written down; the gemination in the second /χ/ is not graphically represented) is as standard as you can get in Schwytzertüütsch, probably because of its historical role as a shibboleth distinguishing Alemmanic speakers from their HG cousings.
    The Zurich tram used to have a rake of wagons reconditioned and transformed into a restaurant by the name of Chuchichästli.

  97. Vanya, Perhaps I just react to his having been an asshole. Nobody likes a smug consistent winner. By “ruining” the team I mean that even half of New York hated the Yankees (or disproportionately many people relative to the number of Mets fans). Obviously they won a lot, just like Chelsea do now (and most of London hates Chelsea).

  98. David Marjanović says:

    From the other linguistics thread that was recently closed:

    Finally, of course, the language of the Klingons in the STAR TREK universe was created by a linguist whose specialty was an indigenous language of the North American West Coast, and Klingon phonology certainly bears a more than passing similarity to the human languages of that part of the world. Not coincidentally, this is a phonology that is about as maximally un-English-like as possible.

    Well, it’s as maximally un-human-like as possible while still being mostly pronounceable by monoglot English actors. So, all consonants are pulmonic.
    Mark Okrand, the creator, did work on Pacific Northwest languages, and did use some of their features for Klingon, but he says as soon as he noticed Klingon was getting too similar to anything on Earth, he put something from a completely different language in. …Ah, I found it: Is Klingon an Ohlonean language? − A Comparison of Mutsun and Klingon
    Incidentally, Klingon is the only language in the galaxy that distinguishes /qʰ/ from /q͡χ/. Which latter sound brings us back to Switzerland, though to Not-Quite-As-High Alemannic as the Chuchichästli.

  99. marie-lucie says:

    Mark Okrand’s main language of specialization was not that far North on the Pacific Coast: Mutsun and other Ohlonean languages used to be spoken in the San Francisco area, and they were not particularly hard to pronounce. But as you go North towards Alaska, the local languages tended to have more and more consonants, including more “difficult” ones, singly and in combination, and Mark O added some of those consonants to Klingon.

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