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Does nothing matter in Danish?

Around the world, “ø” means nothing.  In Denmark, it’s the 28th letter of the alphabet.

There is disagreement on how many letters the alphabet has. The child’s alphabet song teaches all young Danish-speakers that there are 28 letters in their alphabet. These are a-z, minus w, plus æ,ø and å.

So how do you teach a Danish child with a name like Willy Winch Winther how to spell his name?

Luckily for Willy, by the time he can read, he will learn that there is in fact a letter w. Both Gyldendal and Politiken, publishers of Denmark’s most well-respected dictionaries, include the letter w.

But how many letters are there in the Danish alphabet? Are there 28 (as the song teaches us) or 29 (as the dictionaries show us)?

(It’s lucky that only the existence of W has been called into question, because it’s one of five letters – the others being c, q, x, and z – that are not used to spell indigenous Danish words.)

Alphabet wars
Now, some of the indigenous letters might be at risk as well. Recently, one of the free daily papers, 24Timer, wrote an article citing internationalization and digitalization as the biggest threats to “the three extra” letters in the Danish alphabet – æ,ø and å.

Within two days, two of Denmark’s major newspapers, Jyllands-Posten and Berlingske Tidende, also published articles on the topic. The Berlingske Tidende article drew 55 comments – often quite heated – on its online forum. 

It’s clear from many of the comments that some people see changes to the Danish alphabet as a threat to national identity and sovereignty. While this might seem an overreaction, it does bring to mind the dangers of alphabetical warfare:

  • The Mormon Church invented its own temporary alphabet in 1849, Deseret, which was used for four religious books and one tombstone in Cedar City, Utah, before being abandoned.
  • Determination to eliminate a single letter in the alphabet caused protests and minor riots in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1922. The proposed change was reported to be a political fight between a peasant government and aristocrats clinging to tradition
  • In 1960, newly independent Somalia adopted a newly invented alphabet, Osmanian, blending Italian, Arabic, and Ethiopic scripts. This particular alphabet inspired a 1969 coup, and was officially abandoned in favor of a Latin alphabet in 1973.
  • In Azerbaijan, alphabet changes have served to isolate Northern Azerbaijan from Southern Azerbaijan, weakening the accumulative wealth of knowledge and culture of the nation. They are also blamed for creating financial strain on the society, which has to pay for transliteration of street signs, government documents and thousands of books.

 

Horror story or fairytale?
Might discussions about those three “extra letters” lead to civil unrest in Denmark? Doubtful. Arguably, people who have time to fight about things like letters must have it pretty good.

But it won’t hurt to clear up the issue once and for all – before this next generation of pre-schoolers grows up wondering which letter to use to begin typing in addresses on the World Wide Web.

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