The vowels of the Danish accent of English

John Wells’s seminal work, Accents of English, introduced a list of standard words to describe the vowels of each variety of English, the so-called standard lexical set.

I thought it’d be interesting to describe the Danish accent of English in these terms.

First we need to define the Danish vowel phonemes. There are several possible analyses, and I might discuss my choice in another blog posting one day. However, for the present purpose I’ll use the vowel phonemes below:

Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i, iː
tit, vise
y, yː
tyk, gyse
u, uː
sut, suse
Close-mid e, eː
midt, snese
ø, øː
dødt, øse
o, oː
foto, pose
Mid ɛ, ɛː
tæt, læse
œ, œː
køn, høne
ə
komme
ɔ, ɔː
ost, låse
Open(-mid) æ, æː
tast, mase
(ɶ)
grøn
a, aː
tak, trane
ʌ, ʌː
råt/kommer, tårne

Please note that the Danish mid (incl. close-mid and open-mid) vowels are generally more closed than the corresponding cardinal vowels.

Now that we’ve defined the Danish vowel phonemes, we can populate John Wells’s standard lexical set with the Danish pronunciations:

KIT i, e1 FLEECE i: NEAR
DRESS ɛ FACE ɛi SQUARE æʌ
TRAP æ, æː2 PALM START
LOT ʌ3 THOUGHT ʌː NORTH ʌː
STRUT ʌ3 GOAT œu4 FORCE ʌː
FOOT u GOOSE CURE
BATH PRICE ai happY i
CLOTH ʌ CHOICE ʌi lettER ʌ5
NURSE œː MOUTH au commA æ

Footnotes:

  1. The English phoneme /ɪ/ has been split into two: /i/ and /e/.

    /e/ is used before a nasal consonant (e.g., “hint”, “drink”, “swim”, “simmer”), and in most other positions /i/ is used.

    However, some words are pronounced with /e/ although the following consonant isn’t nasal. This typically happens when the vowel is following by a sibilant, but it doesn’t seem to be covered by a rule, and more research is needed to explore this. Examples of words that many Danish speakers will pronounce with /e/ are “wish”, “mix” and “miss”. It might be worth adding another item to the standard lexical set and call this group of words the THIN set.

    Some speakers will also occasionally use the front rounded vowel phoneme /y/ in cases where /ɪ/ is written “y” and the word also exists in Danish, e.g., “symbol”.

  2. In general, the TRAP vowel is pronounced /æ/. However, in some cases it gets lengthened. Examples include “bad”, “man” and “ham”. More research is needed to establish under which circumstances this lengthening takes place.
  3. Danish English has completed a LOT/STRUT merger. This merger is so complete that most Danes have absolutely no idea that all native varieties of English keep these two sets apart.
  4. Whereas some Danes pronounce this phoneme as /œu/, others prefer /ʌu/. The former is probably seen as closer to RP, and the latter as closer to American English.
  5. Although Danish has a schwa phoneme (/ə/), it is pronounced very differently from the English schwa (it’s more like the French one), and the Danish phoneme /ʌ/ is used instead.

It might be quite instructive to put the vowels of Danish English into a vowel chart:

Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i, iː
bit, veal
(y)
(symbol)
u, uː
put, pool
Close-mid e
thin
Mid ɛ
pen
œː
nurse
Open(-mid) æ, æː
pat, bad

father
ʌ, ʌː
hot/hut/winner, north

There is clearly a lack of mid back vowels, and it’s interesting how many of the vowels have short and long varieties, whereas others have only one.

It doesn’t appear to be a very symmetrical system, and if Danish English ever becomes a native language, one would expect it would change to some extent.