Danish phonology

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Danish is a Scandinavian language related closely to Swedish and Norwegian, and more distantly to Icelandic and Faroese as well as to the other Germanic languages. However, Danish phonology is highly distinct from those found in these other languages. For example Danish has a suprasegmental feature known as stød to distinguish certain words. Its use of approximants in place of certain consonants is greater than its neighbors', though the Scandinavian languages are largely mutually intelligible, and Danish can easily be read by Swedes and Norwegians.

Consonants

In distinct pronunciation it is possible to distinguish at least 20 consonants in most variants of Danish:12

Labial Alveolar Alveolo
-palatal
Velar Uvular/
pharyngeal
Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop ɡ̊
Fricative f s ɕ h
Approximant ʋ ð j ʁ
Vocoid ʊ̯ ɪ̯ ɐ̯
Lateral l
Table of allophones
Phoneme Pronunciation
in syllable onset in syllable coda
/p/ [pʰ] [b̥]
/b/ [b̥] [b̥]
/t/ [tˢ] [d̥]
/d/ [d̥] [ð̞ˠ̠]
/k/ [kʰ] [ɡ̊]
/ɡ/ [ɡ̊] [ɪ̯] after front vowels,

[ʊ̯] after back vowels

/f/ [f] [f]
/s/ [s] [s]
/h/ [h]  
/v/ [ʋ] [ʊ̯]
/j/ [j], [ɕ] after [s] or [tˢ] [ɪ̯]
/r/ [ʁ] [ɐ̯]
/l/ [l] [l]
/m/ [m] [m]
/n/ [n] [n], [ŋ] before /ɡ k/

The Danish allophones can be analyzed into 15 distinctive consonant phonemes, /p t k b d ɡ m n f s h v j r l/, where /p t k d ɡ v j r/ have different pronunciation in syllable onset vs. syllable coda.3

[ɕ] occurs only after /s/ or /t/. Since [j] doesn't occur after these phonemes, [ɕ] can be analyzed as /j/, which is devoiced after voiceless alveolar frication. This makes it unnecessary to postulate a /ɕ/-phoneme in Danish.4

Instances of [ŋ] can be analyzed as /n/ as it only occurs before /ɡ/ or /k/ and isn't contrasting with [n]. This makes it unnecessary to postulate an /ŋ/-phoneme in Danish.5

/p, t, k/ are voiceless and aspirated in syllable onset: [pʰ, tˢ, kʰ] (some scholars6 analyse them as voiceless aspirated lenis: [b̥ʰ, d̥ˢ, ɡ̊ʰ]). Aspiration is lost in syllable coda.7

/b, d, ɡ/ are voiceless and lenis in syllable onset: [b̥, d̥, ɡ̊]. In syllable coda /d, ɡ/ and sometimes /b/ are opened: [ʊ̯ ð̞ˠ̠ ɪ̯/ʊ̯]. /ɡ/ becomes [ɪ̯] after front vowels and [ʊ̯] after back vowels.8

/s/ is apico-alveolar.910

[ʋ, ʁ] may have slight frication, but are usually pronounced as pure approximants.

According to Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), /ʁ/ is actually a voiced pharyngeal approximant.11

In syllable coda, /v/ and /r/ are normally pronounced [ʊ̯] and [ɐ̯]. In slow and careful speech /v/ is often = [ʋ]). /r/ forms a diphthong with the preceding tautosyllabic vowel: e.g. stor "big" [ˈsd̥oɐ̯ˀ], næring "nourishment" [ˈnɛɐ̯eŋ]. /a(ː)r/ and /ɔːr/ / /ɔr/ coalesce into the long vowels [aː] and [ɒː] respectively. /ər/, /rə/ and /rər/ are all rendered as [ɐ], e.g. læger "doctors" = lære "teach, learn; doctrine" = lærer "teaches, learns; teacher" [ˈlɛːɐ].citation needed

/v.ə/, /j.ə/ and /d.ə/ (/əd/) are normally rendered as the vowels [ʊ], [ɪ] and [ð̩]. [ʊ], [ɪ] are pretty close to [o] and [e], e.g. leve "live" = Leo [leːʊ]. /v.əd/ and especially /j.əd/ are frequently assimilated to [ð̞̩] (in the case of /v.əd/ normally, but not exclusively, with an indication of a rounding at the outset),clarification needed e.g. meget "much, very" [ˈmɑːð̞̩], Strøget "a central shopping street" [ˈsd̥ʁʌð̞ˀð̞̩]. In Jutlandic Standard Danish, the word-final phoneme is /t/, so these words are normally pronounced [ˈmɑːɪd̥], [ˈsd̥ʁʌɪ̯ˀɪd̥] in that variety.citation needed

Vowels

Monophthongs of Danish, from Grønnum (1998:100)

Modern Standard Danish has around 20 different vowel qualities. These vowels are shown here in a narrow transcription. In the rest of the article and in IPA transcriptions of Danish in Wikipedia the diacritics are usually omitted.

Symbols in forward slashes are phonemes according to Grønnum (1998) and/or Basbøll (2005). Other scholars may not agree with this analysis.

  • Stressed vowels
    • /i/ is close front unrounded i.1213141516
    • /y/ is close near-front rounded ÿ.121315
    • /u/ is close back rounded u.12131517
    • /e/ has been variously described as near-close front unrounded 12131416 and close-mid front unrounded e.15
      • The close-mid articulation is used mainly by older speakers.
    • /ø/ is close-mid near-front rounded ø̠.121315
    • /o/ is close-mid back rounded o.121315
    • /ɛ/ has been variously described as close-mid front unrounded e,121314 mid front unrounded ɛ̝16 and open-mid front unrounded ɛ.15
      • The open-mid articulation is used mainly by older speakers.
    • /œ/ has been variously described as mid near-front rounded œ̝̈1213 and slightly raised open-mid near-front rounded œ̠.15
    • /ʌ/ is near-open near-back unrounded,1213 also described as somewhat rounded.18
      • Basbøll (2005) states that many Standard Copenhagen speakers of his generation generally pronounce [ʌʊ̯] as [ɒʊ̯],19 and that it is the main variant among younger speakers of Standard Copenhagen.19
    • /ɔ/ has been variously described as slightly advanced mid back rounded ,13 mid near-back rounded ö̞1218 and slightly raised open-mid back rounded ɔ̝.15
    • /æ/ is open-mid front unrounded ɛ.121314
    • /a/ is slightly retracted near-open front unrounded æ̠.121315 For certain older or upper-class speakers, it may be somewhat lower.20
    • /ɶ/ is near-open near-front rounded ɶ̝̈.1213
      • Grønnum (1998) includes an additional phoneme, namely /œ̞/, which phonetically is œ̠.1213 Basbøll (2005) writes that "Nina Grønnum uses two different symbols for the vowels in these and similar words: gøre she transcribes with [œ̞] (semi-narrow transcription) and [œ] (narrow transcription), and grøn she transcribes with [ɶ] (semi-narrow transcription) and [ɶ̝] (narrow transcription). Clearly, there is variation within Standard Danish on this point, cf. the end of the present s. 2.2."17
    • /ɑ/ has been variously described as open central unrounded ä,121317 somewhat raised open central unrounded ä̝15 and advanced open back unrounded ɑ̟.21
    • /ɒ/ has been variously described as somewhat lowered open-mid back rounded ɔ̞121318 and somewhat raised open advanced back rounded ɒ̝̈.15
  • Unstressed vowels
    • [ə] is mid central ə.22
    • [ɐ] may be any of the following: near open central unrounded ɐ,19 retracted mid central unrounded ə̠,19 or simply the same as stressed /ʌ/.23 Basbøll (2005) states that /ɐ/ - /ʌ/ merger is "probably the normal case."19 Grønnum (1998) transcribes both /ʌ/ and /ɐ/ as /ʌ/.
    • [ɪ] is a lax, relatively close unrounded neutral front vowel.19 It is an assimilatory variant of [ɪ̯ə].19
    • [ʊ] is a lax, relatively close rounded neutral back vowel, which may be realized the same as short /o/.19 It is an assimilatory variant of [ʊ̯ə].19
  • Non-syllabic vowels
    • [ɪ̯] is a non-syllabic, lax, relatively close unrounded neutral front vowel.24 Grønnum (1998) transcribes it the same as [j].
    • [ʊ̯] is a non-syllabic, lax, relatively close rounded neutral back vowel.24 Grønnum (1998) transcribes it as [w].
    • [ɐ̯] is a non-syllabic, central retracted neutral vowel (pharyngeal glide),24 which may be a non-syllabic equivalent of /ʌ/.23 Grønnum (1998) transcribes it as [ʌ̯].
Some vowel allophones2526
Phoneme Pronunciation
default before /r/ after /r/
/iː/ [iː]
/i/ [i]
/eː/ [eː] [ɛː] ~ [æː]
/e/ [e] [ɛ] ~ [æ]
/ɛː/ [ɛː] [æː] [æː] / [ɑ]1
/ɛ/ [ɛ] [æ] ~ [a] [a] / [ɑ]2
/aː/ [æː] [ɑː]
/a/ [a] ~ [æ] / [ɑ]3 [ɑ]
/yː/ [yː]
/y/ [y]
/øː/ [øː] [œː]
/ø/ [ø] [œ] / [ɶ]4
/œː/ [œː] ~ [ɶː] [œː] NA
/œ/ [œ] [ɶ] ~ [ʌ] [œ] ~ [ɶ]
/uː/ [uː] [uː] ~ [oː]
/u/ [u] [u] ~ [o]
/oː/ [oː]
/o/ [o]5 / [ɔ] [o] [o]5 / [ɔ]
/ɔː/ [ɔː] [ɒː] [ɔː]
/ɔ/ [ʌ] / [ɒ]4 [ɒ] [ʌ] / [ɒ]4
/ə/ [ə] [ɐ]
  1. Before /d/
  2. Before labials and alveolars
  3. Before labials and velars
  4. Before /v/
  5. In open syllables

[ə] and [ɐ] occur only in unstressed syllables. With the exception of [a], [ʌ], [ə] and [ɐ] all vowels may be either long and short. Long vowels may have stød, thus making it possible to distinguish 30 different vowels in stressed syllables. However, vowel length and stød are most likely features of the syllable rather than features of the vowel.

These allophones can be analyzed into 11 distinctive vowels, where allophonic alternation mainly depends on whether the vowel occurs before or after /r/. The vowel /ə/ only occurs in unstressed syllables. All other phonemes may occur both stressed and unstressed.

Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i y u
Close-mid e ø o
Mid ɛ œ ə ɔ
Open a

The three way distinction in front rounded vowels /y ø œ/ is upheld only before nasals, e.g. /syns sønˀs sœns/ synes, synds, søns ("seems, sin's, son's"). Furthermore, there are only three words where /y/ occurs before a nasal in a stressed syllable, i.e. synes, brynje, hymne ("seems, armor, hymn").27

The distribution of [a] and [ɑ] is largely in complementary distribution. However, a two-phoneme interpretation can be justified with reference to the unexpected vowel quality in words like [ɑndʁɐ ɑnɐleːð̩s] andre, anderledes ("others, different"), and an increasing number of loanwords.28

Long and short vowels

Long vowels occur in syllables which were originally open, i.e. there was not more than one short consonant after the vowel.citation needed Since the long consonants have been shortened, vowel quantity has become phonological: /baːnə/ bane "course" ≠ /banə/ bande "swear", /iːlə/ ile "hasten" ≠ /ilə/ ilde "badly".citation needed

There are long vowels in some syllables which were originally closed,citation needed especially in neuters of adjective stems ending in /s/ and /n/ (e.g. pænt "nice" /pɛːˀnt/) and in the preterites and participles of verb stems ending in /s/, /n/ and /t/ (e.g. /sbiːstə/ spiste "ate" [ˈsb̥iːsd̥ə], /føːtə/ fødte "gave birth to" [ˈføːd̥ə]).

The distinction between long and short vowels is neutralised before tautosyllabic /v, j, d, ɡ, r/ that are all realized as vocoids in coda position.citation needed

Current developments

The vowel system is unstable, and the contemporary language is experiencing a merger of more of these phonemes. Thus, many speakers tend to confuse /eː/ with /ɛː/, /e/ with /ɛ/, /øː/ with /œː/ and /ø/ with /œ/.29

Before labials and velars, /a/ is [ɑ] in most varieties: in other positions, it is [a] in the conservative speakers.clarification neededcitation needed

[a], the regular allophone of /ɛ/ after /r/ is [ɑ] before labials and alveolars in the language of most younger speakers, thus neutralizing the distinction between /rɛ/ and /ra/ before these consonants.citation needed Before velars, it is often realised as a diphthong [ɑɪ] by younger speakers; the difference between strække ([ˈsd̥ʁa̝ɡ̊ə]) "stretch" and strejke ([ˈsd̥ʁɑ̈jɡ̊ə]) "strike", the only minimal pair, is practically non-existent.citation needed

Prosody

Stress

Unlike the neighboring Mainland Scandinavian languages Swedish and Norwegian, the prosody of Danish does not have phonemic pitch. Stress is phonemic and distinguishes words like billigst [ˈb̥ilisd̥] "cheapest" and bilist [b̥iˈlisd̥] "car driver". The main rules for the position of the stress are:

  1. Inherited words are normally stressed on the first syllable.citation needed
  2. The prefixes be-, for-, ge-, u- are unstressed, e.g. for’stå "understand", be’tale "pay", u'mulig "impossible" (NB there is also a stressed for- in nouns corresponding to the verbal prefix fore-).citation needed
  3. In many compound adjectives, especially those ending in -ig and -lig, the stress is replaced from the first to the second syllable, e.g. vidt’løftig "circumstantial", sand'synlig "probable".citation needed
  4. Words of French origin are stressed on the last syllable (except /ə/), e.g. renæ’ssance, mil’jø.citation needed
  5. Words of Greek and Latin origin are stressed according to the Latin accent rules, i.e. stress on the penultimate if it is long or else on the antepenultimate, e.g. Ari’stoteles, Ho’rats.citation needed
  6. The suffixes borrowed from Romance languages -aner, -ansk, -ance, -a/ens, -a/ent, -ere, -i, -ik, -ion, -itet, -ør are stressed, e.g. finge’rere, situa’tion, poli’tik, århusi’aner. The preceding syllable is stressed before the latinate suffixes -isk, -iker, -or, e.g. po’lemisk, po’litiker, radi’ator. The suffix -or is stressed in the plural: radia’torer (colloquial: radi’atorer).citation needed
  7. Verbs lose their stress (and stød, if any) in certain positions:
  • With an object without a definite or indefinite article: e.g. ’Jens ’spiser et ’brød [ˈjɛns ˈsb̥iːˀsɐ ed̥ ˈb̥ʁœðˀ] "Jens eats a loaf" ~ ’Jens spiser ’brød [ˈjɛns sb̥isɐ ˈb̥ʁœðˀ] "Jens eats bread".30
  • In names, only the surname is stressed, e.g. [johan̩ luiːsə ˈhɑjb̥æɐ̯ˀ] Johanne Luise Heiberg.30
  • In a fixed phrase with an adverb or an adverbial: ’Helle ’sov ’længe [ˈhɛlə ˈsʌʊˀ ˈlɛŋə] "Helle slept for a long time" ~ ’Helle sov ’længe [ˈhɛlə sʌʊ ˈlɛŋə] "Helle slept late".citation needed
  • Before the direction adverbs af, hen, hjem, ind, indad, ned, nedad, op, opad, over, ud, udad, under (but not the location adverbs henne, inde, nede, oppe, ovre, ude): e.g. han ’går ’ude på ’gaden [hæn ˈɡɒːˀ ˈuːð̪̩ pʰɔ ˈɡ̊æːð̪̩n] "he walks on the street" ~ han går ’ud på ’gaden [hæn ɡɒ ˈuð̪ˀ pʰɔ ˈɡ̊æːð̪̩n] "he walks into the street".citation needed

Stød

The original pitch tone has been replaced by an opposition between syllables with and without the stød. The stød is not a separate phoneme, but a suprasegmental feature that may accompany certain syllables; those with a long vowel or that end with a voiced consonant.citation needed

The stød is phonemic since many words are kept apart on the basis of the presence or absence of the stød alone, e.g. løber "runner" [ˈløːb̥ɐ]løber "runs" [ˈløːˀb̥ɐ / ˈløʊ̯ˀɐ], ånden "breathing" [ˈʌnn̩]ånden "the spirit" [ˈʌnˀn̩].citation needed

It is impossible to predict the presence or absence of the stød;citation needed it has to be learned. However there are some main rules:

  1. Original monosyllabic words have stød. Words that ended in consonant + r, l, n in Old Danish have the stød even though an anaptyctic vowel was later developed. The postposed definite article, which has become an inseparable part of the word, does not influence the word.citation needed
  2. All umlauting plurals in -er (ODan. -r) have the stød, e.g. hænder [ˈhɛnˀɐ] "hands".citation needed
  3. Most presents from strong verbs (ODan. -r) have the stød, e.g. finder [ˈfenˀɐ] "finds". Many of the presents of verbs with a preterite in -te have the stød as well (but not the presents of verbs with a preterite in -ede).citation needed
  4. Monosyllabic words that originally ended in a short vowel + a single n, r, l, v, ð, g do not have the stød. However, when the definite suffix is added, the stød "returns", e.g. ven [ˈʋɛn] ~ vennen [ˈʋɛnˀn̩] "friend".citation needed
  5. Stød is frequently avoided in words with the combinations rp, rt, rk, rs, e.g. vers [ˈʋæɐ̯s] "verse", kort [ˈkʰɒːd̥] "card, map"/"short".citation needed
  6. Most (non-derived) words in -el, -er have the stød. Most words in -en do not have the stød. Nomina agentis in -er do not have the stød.citation needed
  7. All words with the unstressed prefixes be-, for-, ge- have the stød.citation needed
  8. There is stød in most compounds that have a replacement of the stress from first to the second syllable.citation needed
  9. There is frequently the stød in the second part of compound verbs.citation needed
  10. Monosyllables regularly lose the stød when they are the first part of a compound: mål [ˈmɔːˀl] "target, goal" ~ målmand [ˈmɔːlˌmænˀ] "goalkeeper". The vowel is sometimes shortened: tag [ˈtˢæːˀ] "roof" ~ tagterrasse [ˈtˢɑʊ̯tˢaˌʁɑsə] ”roof terrace”citation needed
  11. Words of Greek or Latin origin have the stød on a stressed antepenultimate syllable or a stressed last syllable. A stressed penultimate syllable has the stød if the word ends in -er.citation needed

Text sample

The sample text is a reading of The North Wind and the Sun.

Orthographic version

Nordenvinden og solen kom engang i strid om, hvem af dem der var den stærkeste. Da så de en vandringsmand, der kom gående, svøbt i en varm kappe. Og de enedes om, at den der først kunne få kappen af ham skulle anses for den stærkeste. Først tog nordenvinden fat, og han blæste og blæste, men jo mere han blæste, des tættere holdt manden kappen sammen om sig. Til sidst måtte nordenvinden give fortabt. Så tog solen fat. Og han skinnende og skinnende, og til sidst fik manden det for varmt og måtte tage kappen af. Da måtte nordenvinden indrømme, at solen var den stærkeste af de to.30

Phonetic transcription

[ˈnoʌ̯ʌnvenˀn̩ ʌ ˈsoːˀl̩n kʰʌm eŋˈɡ̊ɑŋˀ i ˈsd̥ʁiðˀ ˈʌmˀ ˈvɛmˀ ˈa b̥m̩ d̥ɑ vɑ d̥n̩ ˈsd̥æʌ̯ɡ̊əsd̥ə || ˈd̥a ˈsɔːˀ d̥i n̩ ˈvɑnd̥ʁæŋsmanˀ d̥ɑ kʰʌm ˈɡ̊ɔːɔnə | ˈsvøb̥d̥ i n̩ ˈvɑːˀm ˈkʰɑb̥ə | ʌ d̥i ˈeːnð̩ðəs ˈʌmˀ | a ˈd̥ɛnˀ d̥ɑ ˈfœ̞ʌ̯sd̥ kʰu fɔ ˈkʰɑbm̩ ˈa hɑm | sɡ̊u ˈanseːˀs fʌ d̥n̩ ˈsd̥æʌ̯ɡ̊əsd̥ə || ˈfœ̞ʌ̯sd̥ tˢo ˈnoʌ̯ʌnvenˀn̩ ˈfad̥ | ʌ han ˈblɛːsd̥ə ʌ ˈblɛːsd̥ə | mɛn jo ˈmeːʌ han ˈblɛːsd̥ə d̥ɛs ˈtˢɛd̥ʌʌ hʌld̥ ˈmanˀn̩ ˈkʰɑbm̩ ˈsɑmm̩ ˈʌmˀ sɑ || tˢe ˈsisd̥ mʌd̥ə ˈnoʌ̯ʌnvenˀn̩ ɡ̊i fʌˈtˢɑb̥d̥ || ˈsʌ tˢo ˈsoːˀl̩n ˈfad̥ | ʌ han ˈsɡ̊enð̩ðə ʌ ˈsɡ̊enð̩ðə | ʌ tˢe ˈsisd̥ ˈfeɡ̊ ˈmanˀn̩ d̥e fʌ ˈvɑːˀmd̥ ʌ mʌd̥ə tˢa ˈkʰɑb̥m̩ ˈæːˀ || ˈd̥a mʌd̥ə ˈnoʌ̯ʌnvenˀn̩ ˈenʁɶmˀə a ˈsoːˀl̩n vɑ d̥n̩ ˈsd̥æʌ̯ɡ̊əsd̥ə a d̥i ˈtˢoːˀ]30

References

Bibliography

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  • Uldall, Hans Jørgen (1933), A Danish Phonetic Reader, The London phonetic readers, London: University of London Press 


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