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Johan I. Borgos:

The Nordic Characters

Note: In this text 'Nordic' refers only to Norway, Sweden and Denmark for practical reasons.

Reading genealogy sources that are written in a foreign language can be a frustrating task. In addition to all the words you don't know the meaning of, you may also find strange accents and foreign-looking characters. It's very tempting to drop the accents or simplify the characters, but then vital information may get lost and the pronunciation changes very much.

Norway, Sweden and Denmark have 29 characters in their alphabets. From A to Z these alphabets are identical with the English one, after the 'z' three special characters are added. They represent three vowels found in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish (as a matter of fact in English, too!). Unfortunately there are two sets of characters for these sounds - the Swedish and the Norwegian-Danish. And of course the pronunciation may change a little bit from language to language and from dialect to dialect.

æ/Æ - ä/Ä

These letters represent a sound that's roughly like the vowel in 'hat' and 'man' . The Swedes use the characters ä/Ä (small/capital), in Norway and Denmark they use æ/Æ. As you will see, the Swedish solution is to put two dots over the letter 'a'. The other two countries have fused together 'a' and 'e' to make one character.

The Danish/Norwegian letter is often called 'ae-diphthong' and sometimes written 'ae'. That's quite misleading since there is no gliding from one sound to another. In Norwegian the æ/Æ sound is long, usually the most stressed vowel in the word, and it is never combined with other vowels.

In the Swedish alphabet 'ä/Ä' is the 28th letter, in Norway and Denmark 'æ/Æ' is placed as number 27.

ø/Ø - ö/Ö

These letters are pronounced something like the vowel in 'bird' and 'heard'. The Swedes again use the 'two dots solution' and write it ö/Ö. In Norway and Denmark the solution is different: ø/Ø, also called 'o-slash'. English-speaking people use to write it as 'oe', another misleading custom: ø/Ø is not a diphthong!

'Ø/ø' can represent short as well as long sounds. The letter 'ø' can be combined with 'y' to make a diphthong, as in the Norwegian word 'øy', which means 'island'. Since there are plenty of islands in this country, many Norwegian place names have 'øy' as their two last letters.

In Sweden 'ö/Ö' is the 29th and last letter in the alphabet, in Norway and Denmark 'ø/Ø' is number 28.

å/Å (aa/Aa)

The last letter in the Danish/Norwegian alphabet (and number 27 in Sweden) sounds like the vowel in 'fall' and 'more'. Norway and Sweden opted for the a-ring solution many decades ago, Denmark waited a little longer. All the Nordic countries now use å/Å (a-ring), but you may still find the old 'aa' in Danish writings, especially in place names and surnames (and in some Norwegian surnames, too). The pronunciation is not affected by this.

The Danish 'double a' shows the origin of this sound: It started as a long 'a'. In Norwegian most of the å/Å should be pronounced as a long sound. If it's short, then it will be written as 'o'. By the way, at least four places in Norway are called Å, which is an old word for river (still used in all the three countries), and related to Latin 'aqua'.

Here is a simplified overview showing all of the extra Nordic characters:

27th character 28th character 29th character
Norway æ/Æ ø/Ø å/Å
Denmark æ/Æ ø/Ø å /Å(aa/Aa)
Sweden å/Å ä/Ä ö/Ö

My advice is: Be careful to copy these letters correctly, their shape as well as their sound. It's quite a distance between Lovik to Løvik, in miles as well as in sound! You will find that it's quite easy to learn the correct pronunciation, and every Windows word processor of some quality can print them on paper and on screen.

You may not find them on the keyboard, but it's very simple to assign a key combination for each of them. Your word processor will probably have a drop menu called 'Insert' or something like that. Choose 'Symbols', and look there for instructions. Most programs for creating websites can do the same trick, or you'll find the special characters in a table somewhere.

You didn't find them? Well then, below you'll find the HTML code for each of them. Don't forget the ampersand (&) and the semicolon (;)!

æ Æ ä Ä ø Ø ö Ö å Å

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