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Peculiarities of the Danish Alphabet

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The Danish alphabet is slightly different from the English. The first 26 letters are identical to the English alphabet, but after 'z' comes the following three special letters, making a total of 29.

Letter 27 - æ and Æ

This should look like the letters 'a and 'e' combined, and is pronounced something like a combination of the two letters if you try to say them both at once. The sound is rather short and flat. It may be transcribed 'ae', which is sometimes done when Danish literature is quoted outside Denmark. Another possible transcription is the ä, a letter which is used in Swedish.

Letter 28 - ø and Ø

This should look like the letter 'o' with a slash through it, and indeed this combination may be used in an emergency. It may also be transcribed 'oe', or even 'o', and the pronunciation is something like the letters 'o' and 'e' simultaneously, which tends to be extremely difficult for anyone who's not Danish. Another possible transcription is the ö, which is used in Swedish. On older computers, mostly mainframes, the number zero is sometimes printed with a slash through it, causing considerable confusion and irritation in Denmark.

The letter ø is also a one-letter word, meaning 'island'. Danish place names ending with ø are usually the names of islands. Danes sometimes like to make foreign tourists try to pronounce the words Rødgrød med Fløde, simply because it seems to be a bit of a tongue twister for them. Rødgrød med Fløde is actually the name of a not very popular red jelly1 dessert, with cream. In the mathematical discipline of set theory, the letter Ø represents an empty set. Some have suggested that this constitutes Denmark's sole contribution to the science of mathematics!

Letter 29 - å and Å

This should look like the letter 'a' with a small ring hovering very slightly above it, or sometimes just touching it. The pronunciation is something like the long 'oo' in 'ooh' or in 'no'. The letter was not officially introduced into Danish until 1955, and it replaces cases of double-a 'aa' in words, except in the names of people and some places.

Most people who have the letter in their names, have retained the 'aa' spelling. In addition there is considerable confusion with the spellings of place names with a å or double-a, as individual city councils have been allowed to decide for themselves how to officially spell their city names. Some have changed to å and some have not.

Obviously, the letter may be transcribed 'aa' without doing too much harm, causing only mild irritation. A very small minority of elderly people in Denmark actually refuse to use å at all and insist on using 'aa' instead. When looking for a name beginning with 'Aa' in a Danish directory, remember to look at the end rather than at the beginning of the book! This is because the 'aa' and the å are considered to be equivalent and appear as the 29th letter of the alphabet rather than as a double first letter. Not all computer sorting programs can handle this, however, causing strange effects. The letter å is also a one-letter word, meaning 'stream' or 'small river'.

The Danish Alphabet and Computers.

It is not really possible to write proper Danish without the use of these three special letters, since they occur constantly and randomly in almost any Danish sentence. Their use must be considered an integral part of the Danish language. Therefore, all Danish typewriters and computer keyboards are equipped with proper keys for the letters, as you will quickly notice when you see one. They are added on the right side in the two top letter rows, as follows:

  • æ is immediately to the right of 'l'
  • ø is to the right of æ
  • å is to the right of 'p'

These letters usually replace rarely-used characters such as square brackets and some punctuation keys, which have been re-arranged to make room for these, more important letters.

The real problem with the letters, computer-wise, is that they are not part of the old seven-bit ASCII2 standard. This means that there are 128 different characters in the standard, which is sufficient for the English upper and lowercase alphabet, numbers and various punctuation marks, but not for some languages requiring special characters, like Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and French3.

The problem has been partially resolved by adding an extra bit, since that with eight bits, 256 different characters are possible. To the great misfortune and grief of many Danes, no universal agreement was reached on just what these characters should represent. Thankfully, the meaning of the first 128 characters remains the same in all computer character sets, but quite a variety of eight bit character sets are in use, some including the Danish letters, and some not. This causes no end of trouble, and Danes are quite used to seeing strange representations of their letters such as yen-signs, cent-signs, slashes, square brackets and lately even strange multi-letter combinations which makes the text almost unreadable. Some hard-core computer people have even suggested abolishing the Danish letters altogether, but this radical approach is only really useable in e-mail and other forms of electronic documents.

The Danes are so used to these problems that anyone buying, or using for the first time, a computer or printer will often, as their first test of the system, print something like 'Hello World!' or, as it appears in Danish, æøå ÆØÅ, including the three letters in lower and uppercase to make sure that they actually make it to the paper. Quite frequently, they do not. It will then be necessary to investigate what character sets are used by the computer and printer. For these reasons, one is generally advised to stay clear of the three extra Danish letters in file names, computer users names and passwords.

How to Write Danish on Non-Danish Computers

Foreigners (or Danes abroad) trying to write Danish on non-Danish keyboards will certainly have a problem. One possibility is to transcribe the letters as outlined above, which will annoy the reader. Another might be to set up his entire system for the Danish language, which would be too much to ask if Danish is only used occasionally. Probably the best method, in the text-editing program Word for Windows, is to use the option Insert, scroll down to Symbol and select the required letters there.

Shortcuts may be defined such as alt-e for æ, alt-o for ø and alt-a for å, making the typing slightly easier. Alternatively, in most programs, it may be possible to use the combination alt-xxx, where 'xxx' is whatever number is assigned to the letter of interest in the particular character set used4. For example, the character set code page 850 or code page 865 is usually found on Danish computers. In this character set, the following are the numbers to press with the alt-xxx sequence to obtain the letters indicated:

  • æ = alt-145
  • Æ = alt-146
  • ø = alt-155
  • Ø = alt-157
  • å = alt-134
  • Å = alt-143

Pressing these combinations on a computer that uses another character set will probably result in different symbols appearing on the screen. Not to worry, if the file is subsequently read on a computer using code page 850, they should appear correctly, which was presumably the purpose of the exercise. However, in some rare instances, the alt-xxx sequence may have unexpected results on a computer not using code page 850, such as the character colour switching to black on a black background or skipping half a page, both of which phenomena have been observed in practice.

In general, it can only be said that the situation is so chaotic that the best suggestion is to go by trial and error, using the above suggestions as a starting point!

1Or Jell-O as it is known in the USA.2ASCII stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange, where each character is represented by a combination of seven binary bits, each having the possible values '1' or '0'.3Then there are the non-Latin alphabets which cannot be represented in ASCII, like Russian, Arabic and Chinese.4'Alt-123' means to press and hold the 'Alt' while keying in the number '123', and then releasing the 'Alt' key.

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