As our move to Denmark loomed, a friend sent me a self-help book on adapting to expatriate life. I am an incorrigible fan of self-help books. When clearing out shelves for our move I found works ranging from ‘Think Yourself Thin’ to ‘Seven Habits of Successful People’. There would have been enough self-help books to build a small garden shed, if only there had been a volume called ‘Build Your Own Garden Shed’.
‘Expat Expert’, as the aforementioned self-help book was called, was aimed at the spouses of diplomats preparing for drastic moves abroad. On that score I felt pretty lucky – we were just going next door. On the other hand, many ‘Expat Expert’ readers were looking at short-term postings, while ours is open-ended. Last month we celebrated the two-year anniversary of our arrival in Copenhagen.
There’s a warning in ‘Expat Expert’ about the stage we are at. There’s a dip where the novelty has worn off, but the comfort of true familiarity has yet to take effect. In expat terms these are the ‘terrible twos’. We’re not cute newbies any more, we are tantrum-throwing toddlers driven wild with frustration that those around us don’t understand our carefully-crafted googoo gaagaa sentences.
The toddler analogy carries because, despite best efforts, I am still misunderstood at times. I’m in good company as there are people who have been here more than 20 years still get the blinking “Hvad sagde du?” I may be projecting all my linguistic neuroses onto one phoneme, but I blame ‘Soft D’.
It’s not soft in a cuddly way, it’s more of a sinister softness like ‘The Blob’ in that old horror movie. At first I thought it was a relative of ‘th’ in English and that we could be friends. I was wrong. Anxious to lift this barrier between me and the diminutive Danish-speaking world, I decide to seek expert opinion from Nicolai Pharao, an associate professor in the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen.
“It’s an unusual sound, there are not many languages with a sound made in this way,” he said. According to Pharao, back in the 15th century it was a proper ‘d’ and this is why, 600 years later, it is still written that way. I guess no-one likes to be hasty with spelling rules.
“It’s not really a consonant, it’s more like a vowel,” he continued encouragingly. “When you say a ‘d’, the tip of your tongue touches the alveolar ridge, behind the front teeth. Whereas when you say a soft ‘d’, you take the tip of your tongue down behind your bottom front teeth.”
He freely admits that this is “just not normal”, and that even phoneticians who do nothing all day but study weird utterances are foxed by it.
However, the ‘soft d’ may not be from such a distant planet for English speakers. The ‘l’ sound in milk (quite different from the ‘l’ in lumbago) is close to a soft ‘d’.
Usually, teachers tell language students to practise sounds in front of a mirror. With Danish this is not advisable – the resulting contortions can only make you feel worse. So how can you know if you are doing it right?
“With your tongue in position behind your bottom front teeth, flex your tongue to say the sound, then breathe in. If you feel cold air along the centre of your tongue (not the sides) you’ve got it right,” Pharao said.
It’s a lot to think about in the middle of a word. However, I’m feeling quite buoyed by this new knowledge and am toying with the idea of Pharao and I writing a self-help book entitled ‘Embracing Your Inner ‘Soft D’’ or perhaps ‘Feel Like a Plonker and Do It Anyway’. I aim high.
“Rødgrød med flødeskum,” I said to my neighbour cheerily while taking out a rubbish bag and inhaling appropriately to check my tongue position.
“Hvad siger du?” she replied blankly.