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Danish Voices in the Americas

Semper Ardens Research Project | 16.09.16

How could anything be more characteristic of the nation-state of Denmark than speaking the local language? On closer inspection it turns out that Danish was spoken a lot of places outside the kingdom. Two such places were the United States of America and Argentina. 

With some exceptions the Danish emigrants in USA quickly adapted to the surrounding speech community and abandoned their native Danish language in favour of English. This was not the case in Argentina, which  is why we have succeeded, based on a joint grant from the A.P. Møller Foundation and the Carlsberg Foundation, to record the last generation of Danish speaking Argentinians. With the Danish Americans we have had to rely on recordings from the 1970s and 1980s. 

The project Danish Voices in the Americas (2014-2018) will describe the Danish language spoken in USA and Argentina in order to illustrate how Danish had varied and what the influence from English and Spanish meant for the Danish language’s development. Furthermore, we will also explain why the fate of spoken Danish was so different in the two Americas.

Danish Voices in the Americas: Staff:

Karoline Kühl and Jan Heegård Petersen (Assoc. Professors), Gert Foget Hansen, post doc, Anna Sofie Hartling, Ph.D. student, and director Professor Frans Gregersen

Working with old tape recordings is a challenge. The analogical tapes have to be digitalised and there are countless ways of doing this – and innumerable ways of doing it wrong. It is part and parcel of our project to come up with new best practices on how to use old data so that they may reveal the treasures of the past which lie hidden in them.

Two Different Waves of Emigration from Denmark

During the latter half of the 19th century and until 1920 an enormous amount of Scandinavians left Norway, Sweden and Denmark in the search for a new existence in the United States of America. Although the Swedes and Norwegians were much more numerous than Danes, the migration from Denmark has rightfully been described as mass migration (by Torben Grøngaard Jeppesen who has documented it in detail). This is especially valid for the period 1870-1920 when in 1900 the Danes in the USA numbered 159,305 (Grøngaard Jeppesen 2005:184)

When Mogens Baumann Larsen and Iver Kjær started to record the American Danes this was already history. Their oldest recorded informant was born in 1876 and must have been part of the first or second generation of settlers; the youngest was from 1930. At the time of recording all of the informants were old but a good number of them were fluent in Danish though they had not used it for a very long time.

We have digitalised and transcribed most of the old interviews so that we now have around 300,000 words compiled in a searchable corpus of Dano-American produced by 153 different speakers. We have supplemented the old recordings with some few recordings from 2001 with speakers in the USA born between 1915 and 1965. 

This new material may give us an impression of how the Danish emigrants sounded. Finally we have recordings made by Tore Kristiansen who in 1996 visited the ‘Danish’ colony of Solvang in California. Other well-known Danish colonies in South Dakota, Idaho are represented in the old interviews along with settlers from the big cities of Chicago and Minneapolis.

The wave of emigrants from Denmark to Argentina was negligible in numbers compared to the Danish emigrants in America. The emigration to America took place at around the same time  but the numbers alone cannot explain why Danish is still spoken here by what we estimate to be between 2000 and 200 people. We have recorded 103 of them and firmly believe that we have thereby documented a cultural heritage outside Denmark. It is not only how they speak Danish which is of interest, but also their life histories are documented in detail.

Most of the Danes in Argentina settled in the so-called Danish triangle south of Buenos Aires, including the three cities of Tres Arroyos, Necochea and Tandil (cf. the map). This geographic concentration may be part of the explanation why the Danes kept their language, but they also brought with them a tradition for creating strong networks exclusive for Danes which came to good use in the exotic new place.

Digitalisation, a Challenge for Everyone

We have set up a system for the best possible digitalisation of old recordings. The old recordings in the USA were made using Nagra tape recorders. Newer recordings use digital recorders and the old sound has to be digitalised in order to be transcribed. Many pitfalls may be avoided if you know precisely which technical characteristics are valid for the original equipment. Once you know this you may make a digital fingerprint of the original recording preserving all the information and go on from there. 

Design: A Contrast of Sociolinguistic Situations

The Danes in the USA lost their language quite quickly. Many of them settled in the big cities. We all know that there were other expat communities large enough to keep their language in the USA but the Danes were far too few to match the Chinese, Russians or Germans. If instead we look at where the Danes were comparatively numerous, we are led to the American Midwest. Again, the Danes were outnumbered but the language was remembered, although only used at home.

In Argentina, the Danes were in different surroundings: They were still Lutherans unlike the Catholics, whom they were living among. Furthermore, they had no intention of blending in, and so intermarriage with Spanish speaking Argentinians has not been an option until recently. Finally, Spanish as a language has a quite different relationship to Danish than English.

For present day Danes, English is the international language and a lot of borrowing from the English language has influenced the Danish vocabulary since the Second World War. But when the emigrants left Denmark, they most often spoke dialects and very often dialects which are now lost. Spanish, on the other hand, is a living language of the Romance branch of Indo-European languages and, as such, uses a lot of the language roots which have entered the Danish language as older words borrowed from Latin (most of these are in fact also present in English as a separate layer in the lexicon). 

For our purposes, this is interesting: It means that Danes in Argentina under the influence of Spanish create and/or use more ‘Latin’ words in their Danish than do Danes in Denmark: PhD student Anna Sofie Hartling is presently investigating whether Dano-Argentinians may use words like traktere, investigere, kontaktere etc. in contexts unknown to Danes in Denmark.

A Central Theme: Fluency

When transcribing Danish spoken in contact situations anybody faces the dilemma of how to incorporate the passages where the contact language is used. In addition, some speakers may sound very rusty, their lexical storage has not been accessed daily and so they may find it difficult to produce the right Danish word(s). Karoline Kühl, Jan Heegård Petersen and Gert Foget Hansen of the project have developed a way of attacking the problem of measuring how ‘rusty’ an informant is. 

The project has delimited a number of words which may belong to both languages (ambiguous words) and words which contain elements from both languages. When you profile each speaker as to how many words he or she produces in which language during the sessions, how many pauses and self-corrections he or she produces and how many hybrids and ambiguous words, we feel confident that we know how well they master Danish. We aim to publish this measure during 2017.

Where Are We Now?

At the time of writing this presentation (end of May 2016 (year 2)), the Dano-American corpus is as documented in table 1. The Argentina-Danish corpus is simpler and is documented in table 2.

Table 1: The Dano-American corpus of recorded speech


Recorded (hours)

Transcribed (hours/words)

In process

American Danish 1




American Danish 2




American Danish 3








Table 2: The Dano-Argentinian corpus of recorded speech


Recorded (hours)

Transcribed (hours/words)

In process

Argentina Danish




As you can see from the two tables and bearing in mind the number of informants interviewed, the recordings with Danes in Argentina are far longer than the American recordings from 40 years ago. This means that we have a far better documentation of Danish in Argentina per speaker than we have in the case of Danish in the USA. Still the number of informants in the USA makes up for this difference in coverage (153 from USA vs. around 70 from Argentina). When we finish the job we have started, we will have what is probably the best corpus of any language outside its home base, viz. more than a million words.

Cultural Heritage Documented

Why do the two foundations support this project? There are two very good reasons: First of all, it is important to make Danes aware that Danish has been spoken outside Denmark and that this type of Danish probably had some characteristics due to the contact with the surroundings. Danish is not the sole property of the Danes in Denmark but also an expat language. Second of all, it is equally important to contribute to solving the riddles of how much and in what respects a language may vary and still be ‘the same’. Both Carlsberg and A.P. Møller are world companies. But both of them are also Danish.

Frans Gregersen about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation

As the PI of this project, the Semper Ardens grant from the Carlsberg Foundation, gives me the possibility of finishing my career as a research director by coming to grips with the mysteries of language structure and variation: Language mixing is not an exotic phenomenon in the real world; on the contrary. However, it is still treated as such in the theories of language. I want to contribute to solving this paradox and the Carlsberg Foundation made that possible.


Frans Gregersen: Danish Voices in the Americas, GLAC 22, Reykjavik Iceland 20-21. May 2016

Karoline Kühl and Jan Heegård Petersen: The position of Subject and Finite Verb in American Danish sentences with a fronted element, Journal of Language Contact (submitted)

Karoline Kühl and Liz Peterson: The remains of the Danes. The final stages of the language shift in Sanpete county Utah, Journal of Language Contact (in press 2016)