Peculiarities of the Danish Alphabet

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Peculiarities of the Danish alphabet

By Gert V. Jensen, [email protected] 11 December 1997

The Danish alphabet is slightly different from the English. The first 26 letters (the entire English alphabet) are identical, but after “z” comes the following three special letters, making a total of 29:

letter 27: æ, Capital: 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 transscribed “ae”, which is sometimes done when quoting Danish litterature internationally. Another possible transscription is the a-umlaut (an a with two small dots above it), which is used in Swedish.

letter 28: ø, Capital: Ø
This should look like the letter “o” with a slash “/” through it, and indeed this combination may be used in an emergency (like when using a typewriter with a non-Danish keyboard). It may also be transscribed “oe”, or even “o”, and the pronounciation is something like the letters “o” and “e” simultaniously, which tend to be extremely difficult for foreigners. Another possible transscription is the o-umlaut, 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 toungue-twister for them. The words are the name of a (not very popular) dessert, red gelly with cream. In the mathematical discipline of set teory, the letter Ø represents an empty set. Some have suggested that this constitutes Denmarks sole contribution to the science of mathematics!

letter 29: å, Capital: Å
This should look like the letter “a” with a small ring hovering very slightly above it, or sometimes just touching it. The pronounciation is something like the long “oo” in “ooh, no!”. The letter was not officially introduced into Danish untill 1955, and it replaces the double-a: “aa”, capital “Aa”, except in the names of people and (some) places. Thus, most (but not all) people who have the letter in their names, have retained the “aa” spelling, and there is considerable confusion with place names, too, as individual city councils have been allowed to decide for them selves how to officially spell their city names, some changing to “å” and some not. Obviously, the letter may be transscribed “aa” without doing too much harm, causing only mild irritation. A very small minority of elderly people actually refuse to use the å at all and insist on the “aa”, causing slight annoyance to their readers. 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. Far from 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 propper Danish without the use of the 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 our typewriters and computer keyboards are equipped with propper 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”, and “å” is to the right of “p”. They usually replace rarely-used characters such as square brackets and some punctuation keys, which have been rearranged to make room for the (much more important) letters.

The real problem with the letters, computerwise, is that they are not part of the old 7-bit ASCII standard. ASCII 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”). This means that there are 128 different characters in the standard, which is sufficient for the English alphabet (upper- and lowercase), numbers and various punctuation marks, but NOT for some languages requiering special characters, like Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and French, and we are not even thinking about non-latin alphabets like Russian, Arabic or Chineese. The problem has been partially resolved by adding an extra bit, since that with 8 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 alphabets” (character sets), but quite a variety of 8-bit character sets are in use, some including the Danish letters, and some not, and not even giving them the same numbers! This causes no end of trouble, and we are quite used to seeing strange representations of our poor 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 freaks have even suggested abolishing the Danish letters alltogether, but this radical approach is only really useable in e-mail and other forms of electronic documents.

We are so used to these problems, that anyone buying a computer/printer (or using one for the first time), will often as his first test of the system print something like “Hello World! 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, or even the printer driver used. For these reasons, one is generally advised to stay clear of the 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 transscribe 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 occationally. Probably the best method, in the text editing program Word for Windows, is to use the option Insert - Symbol and selecting the letters there. Shortcuts may be defined such as alt-e for æ, alt-o for ø and 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 used. (Note: alt-143 means to press and hold the “Alt”-key (NOT the “Alt Gr”-key!) while keying in the number 143, and then releasing the Alt-key). 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:

letter number transscription
æ 145 lowercase ae
Æ 146 uppercase AE
ø 155 lowercase oe
Ø 157 uppercase OE
å 134 lowercase aa
Å 143 uppercase AA

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 using non-CP850, 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, with the above suggestions as a starting point! Good luck!!

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