'ʁøðgʁøːˀð mɛð 'fløːðɛ
(or in SAMPA)
"R2DgR2:?D mED "fl2:DE
The jumble of symbols at the top represents the phrase rødgrød med fløde in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. The IPA was designed as a notation system for recording phonemes as accurately as needed, allowing the illustration of the true sounds of words in any language. Considering the mess it makes of rødgrød med fløde, it seems no wonder this phrase is famed for its mouth-maiming pronunciation. Nonetheless, a little background in Danish and the tools to decode it yield something that, while difficult, is certainly not impossible to pronounce.
There are four trouble spots that render this phrase a cumbersome mouthful for English speakers (and barely better for other European language speakers). The first is the Danish r, represented in the IPA as [ʁ]. This symbol stands for an uvular fricative, more commonly known as the 'French r' (rue). It's also present in High German (Richtung) and Portuguese (carro). You make the consonant deep in the mouth by bringing the back of the tongue up to the uvula, the little hanging thing that lets you drink at an incline without getting a nasal enema. It sounds much harsher than the standard English r, but not quite as strong as the French r.
The next problem is the Danish ø, oddly enough represented by the IPA symbol [ø] in this context. This symbol denotes a rounded close-mid front vowel; an e (as in Spanish) with rounded lips. This sound is also present in French (feu), German (Söhne), and Hungarian (költői). To pronounce the vowel, begin with an ay sound as in bay. Because this is actually a diphthong in English, you need to cut off the final ee sound, leaving a pure vowel. It should strike you as foreign. Once you have this sound, you merely need to round your lips as if you were saying, "Oh!" This is the Danish ø. If a colonesque sign follows it in the phonetic transcription, like this [øː], it notes that the vowel should be held twice as long. Still the same vowel sound, just drawn out.
The third trouble spot is nothing challenging. It's merely a phoneme you can't deduce from the spelling without prior experience. In Danish, any d that follows a vowel is pronounced like the th in 'the' or 'bathing'. This is called an eth; it's represented in the IPA as [ð]. The only obstacle posed by this 'soft d' is that the Danes pronounce it much softer than the Anglo-Saxons, almost inaudible. Just press your tongue more lightly against your teeth and you'll have it.
We've finally gotten past the first syllable and there's only one problematic sound remaining. Unforunately, it's the kicker. First some background: the Danish language is extremely close to the two other East Scandanavian languages, Swedish and Norwegian. It is more for political than linguistic reasons that they are considered separate languages instead of dialects. The three are usually mutually intelligible. The Danes, however, are considered the hardest to understand, because their language has shed several features of pronunciation common to both Swedish and Norwegian. One of the major distinctions lost is pitch-accent, the system of tonal stress that causes Swedish and Norwegian to sound acutely sing-song to English ears. The tonal hysterics of the Swedish Chef are not a vast exageration. These pitch-accents distinguish two words that would otherwise be homonyms. For example, in Norwegian skriver with a falling tone translates to the noun 'scribe' or 'printer', while skriver with a rising tone translates to the present tense of the verb 'to write'. Linguists generally call the former accent 1 and the latter accent 2.
Through a complex process of tonal shifts and reductions, Danish lost its accent 1 and generalized its accent 2 to the point of neutralization. Because the pitch-accent plays an important role in the grammar, phonology, and morphology of the Scandanavian languages, Danish had to find a new way to preserve the difference between accent 1 and accent 2 homonyms. It did so with the stød. The stød is a glottal stop following a long vowel or consonant in the stressed syllable of a word. It generally occurs in cognates with Swedish or Norwegian that take accent 1 and is absent in cognates that take accent 2, but this correlation is often broken. The stød may also fall in an unstressed syllable (as is the case here), yielding rare words with multiple støder.
The glottal stop that composes the stød is a phoneme often heard in English but seldom recognized. It is the sound right in the middle of 'uh oh' and 'sofa end' in Standard American English, or the tt of 'bottle' and 'settle' in Estuary English: a brief tension deep in the throat. When tied to a syllable as in Danish, the glottal stop is noted in the IPA with a small hook above the modified vowel or consonant, here [øːˀ]. To master this phrase's first word, you should briefly cut off the long vowel sound of -grød with a glottal stop, then immediately follow it with a lightly pronounced soft d before moving on to the next word. For all the effort, you'll get a sound that's barely distinguishable from a stødless -grød, but at least the correct pronunciation.
The rest of the phrase is trivial in comparison. The [ɛ] is the e sound in 'bet' or 'fled'. The other characters you already know. Stress falls on the first syllable of each word. Putting it together, you say the rød- syllable with an uvular r, a short ø vowel, and a hard th sound. Grød- begins with a normal g, another uvular r, a longer ø vowel (held twice as long as the ø of rød-), a rapid glottal stop, and another hard th sound. Med is 'met' with a hard th replacing the final t. Flød is made up of an fl similar to that in 'flute', another long ø sound, and a final hard th (no stød, thank god). All in all, rødgrød med fløde rendered roughly in more familiar phonetic spelling reads: RØDH-grøø'dh mehdh FLØØ-dheh.
Torturous, eh? If you've made it this far and would like to double-check your pronunciation against that of a native speaker, visit http://www.speakdanish.dk/html/pronunciation_intro.htm to hear the phrase. You're now ready to impress any Dane you meet with your stunning mastery of his mumbling, grumbling, stuttering language (assuming he doesn't ask you to say anything else).
Research for this write-up took about half a day and was fueled by a manic curiousity disappointed with the lack of actual pronunciation help in the previous write-ups for this node. While I am confident that my phonetic rendering and explanation of rødgrød med fløde are correct based on the sources I gathered, I must warn the reader that I am neither a native speaker of Danish nor a formal student of the language. As such, this may be grotesquely inaccurate. I enthusiasticly welcome any corrections from those better versed in Dansk.
liveforever notes! "Stød" is not universally used in Danish. Regional dialects (Bornholm, Møn, Falster, Lolland, the [islands] south of Fyn, Als and parts of South Jutland) don't have stød. Plus, they may have other dialect features. In Fyn, it's "rø'grø' me' flø'e", for instance.
Those apostrophes represent ellided consonants, not glottal stops. This would explain why the pronunciation is so soft in the spoken example I linked to in the last paragraph. So if you're truly having trouble with the full-on standard Danish pronunciation of the phrase, go with RER-grer meh FLER-eh
SharQ notes! I believe dutch speakers will have little problem with this sentence - all the sounds exist in the language - as long as they manage to juggle their tongue. I am dutch, but learned Norwegian at a young age, and have no problem with the rødgrød :D.
And this is why everyone hates the Dutch. English speakers, take comfort at least that speakers of your noble cousin language will forge ahead with rødgrød med fløde if you can't complete the journey.
montecarlo notes! that my skrìver/skríver minimal pair doesn't actually work in Swedish, where the agentive suffix is -are instead of -er as in Danish. My own scrounging seems to say that the minimal pair in Bokmål Norwegian (basically Danish spoken with a Swedish accent) still works.
Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
Nina Grønnum and Hans Basbøll. Stø and vowel length: Acoustic and cognitive reality?. Fonetik 2002, vol. 44. Copenhagen University
Tomas Riad. Curl, stød, and generalized accent 2 - http://www.nordiska.su.se/personal/riad-t/fonet98.htm
Danish-English Basic Dictionary - http://users.cybercity.dk/~nmb3879/dictionary/danishdic.html
Introduction to Danish Pronunciation - http://www.speakdanish.dk/html/pronunciation_intro.htm
TalerRobert (machine pronunciation tool) - http://talesyntese.tdc.dk/default.asp