Danish is one of the Scandinavian languages, a sub-group of the Germanic group of the Indo-European language family.
Most Danish words are derived from the Old Norse language, with new words formed by compounding. A large percentage of Danish words, however, hails from Low German (e.g., betale = to pay, måske = maybe). Later on, High German and French and now English have superseded Low German influence. Because English and Danish are related languages, many common words are very similar in the two languages. For example, the following Danish words are easily recognizable in their written form to English speakers: have, over, under, for, kat. When pronounced, these words sound quite different from their English equivalents, however. In addition, the suffix by, meaning "town", occurs in several English placenames, such as Whitby and Selby, as remnants of the Viking occupation. The rules of Danish pronunciation are challenging for English speakers to learn; the written forms of words sometimes do not correspond to modern pronunciation.
Some famous authors of works in Danish are existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, prolific fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen, and playwright Ludvig Holberg. Three 20th-century Danish authors have become Nobel Prize laureates in Literature: Karl Adolph Gjellerup and Henrik Pontoppidan (joint recipients in 1917) and Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (awarded 1944).
The first translation of the Bible in Danish was published in 1550.
The closest relatives of Danish are the other North Germanic languages of Scandinavia: Norwegian and Swedish. Written Danish and Norwegian (Norwegian Bokmål) are particularly close, though the pronunciation of all three languages differs significantly. Proficient speakers of any of the three languages can understand the others. The similarities between the three languages are so large that some linguists classify them as dialects of one single language.
Distribution & official status
Danish is the official language of Denmark, one of two official languages of Greenland (the other is Greenlandic), and one of two official languages of the Faeroes (the other is Faeroese). In addition, there is a small community of Danish speakers in Schleswig, the portion of Germany bordering Denmark, where it is an officially recognized and protected regional language.
The main dialect groups are divided by the largest islands/peninsulas:
Dialects of Sjællandsk
Dialects of Jutlandic (Jysk)
Danish Dialects of Sweden
For historical reasons, the Scanian language has been considered in Denmark to be a Danish dialect, together with Bornholmsk as "East Danish". Today, Scanian is spoken in Sweden, and Swedes generally regard it as "South Swedish". Linguists consider Scanian to be a transitional language between Danish and Swedish.
'Rigsdansk' is the official Danish language taught in school. It is a 'neutral' form and is spoken in the big cities.
Countless dialects exist for smaller islands or communities within each area. Some dialects are similar, while others are virtually incomprehensible to anyone living more than 50km away from the area they are mainly spoken in. These dialects are still spoken by people in the more rural areas of Denmark, of which there are plenty. However, the younger individuals in these areas generally speak a 'regional Danish', i.e. an adaption of the local dialect to 'rigsdansk', making themselves comprehensible to Danes from all parts of Denmark.
- Main article: Danish pronunciation
Danish can be difficult to pronounce correctly for speakers of other languages. It is flat and monotone compared to Norwegian or Swedish where the tone goes up and down with every word. The 'r' is very deep and throaty, not at all rolling as in most Slavic or Romance languages.
The pronunciation of the Scandinavian letters æ, ø and å also often pose a problem to non-native speakers. A common Danish phrase told to foreigners is 'rødgrød med fløde' (red berry pudding with cream), a Danish speciality and a line very difficult for foreigners to say due to the three 'ø's (with two different pronunciations), the initial throaty 'r', the rough 'gr' sound and the soft 'd's.
- Æ – it is pronounced a little like the "e" in "met".
- Ø [ø] – it is particularly difficult for English-speakers. It is pronounced by rounding the lips while producing the "e" in "met". It is the same sound as the German 'umlaut o' or 'ö' and almost the same as the vowel in French 'feu'.
- Å [ɔ] – it is pronounced like the "aw" in law, but shorter.
Because of the difficulty experienced by foreigners in pronouncing Danish correctly, a joke often told by Danes themselves of their own language is that "Danish is not so much a language as a throat disease". Another description is "speaking with a big hot potato in your mouth".
Other features of Danish pronunciation are:
- the soft 'd' [ð], appearing four times in the phrase 'rødgrød med fløde'.
- the glottal stop.
- Main article: Danish grammar
The infinitive forms of Danish verbs end in a vowel, which in almost all cases is the letter e. Verbs are conjugated according to tense, but otherwise do not vary according to person or number. For example the present tense form of the Danish infinitive verb spise ("to eat") is spiser; this form is the same regardless of whether the subject is in the first, second, or third person, or whether it is singular or plural. This extreme ease of conjugating verbs is made up for by the many irregular verbs in the language. However, the latest official reform of Danish permits many previously irregular verbs to be conjugated regularly, and for some nouns to be spelled as they are pronounced.
Danish nouns fall into two grammatical genders: common and neuter. While the majority of nouns have the common gender and neuter is often used for inanimate objects, the genders of nouns are not generally predictable and must in most cases be memorized. A distinctive feature of the Scandinavian languages, including Danish, is an enclitic definite article. To demonstrate: The common gender word "a man" (indefinite) is en mand but "the man" (definite) is manden. In both cases the article is en. (However, Danish uses a separate word for the definite article when an adjective is employed: "the big man", den store mand). The neuter equivalent would be "a house" (indefinite) et hus, "the house" (definite) huset and "the big house", det store hus.
One significant feature of Danish grammar is the use of compound words. The rule of thumb is that if it sounds like one word it should be written like one word. A clear example is "kvindehåndboldlandsholdet", the female handball national team.
The numbers from one to twenty in Danish are: en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti, elleve, tolv, tretten, fjorten, femten, seksten, sytten, atten, nitten and tyve. Counting above forty is in part based on a base 20 number system, see vigesimal.
Twenty (tyve) is used as a base number in the Danish language: Tres (short for tresindstyve) means 3 times 20, i.e. 60; firs (short for firsindstyve) means 4 times 20 i.e. 80. halvtreds means (3 - 1/2) times 20 (literally, half of the third times 20), i.e. 50; halvfjerds means (4 - 1/2) times 20, i.e. 70; and halvfems means (5 - 1/2) times 20, i.e. 90.
This is unlike Swedish and Norwegian, which both use a decimal number system.
Danish is written using the Roman alphabet, with three additional letters: Æ/æ, Ø / ø, and Å / å, which come at the end of the Danish alphabet, in that order. Before an orthography reform in 1948, aa was used instead of å; the old usage still occurs in names and old documents. Aa is treated just like å in alphabetical sorting, even though it looks like two letters.
Modern Danish and modern Norwegian use an identical alphabet, although pronunciation varies considerably.
Note: /b/, /d/ and /g/ are voiceless; /p/, /t/ and /k/ are more precisely [bʰ], [tʃ] and gʰ].
- Danish: dansk /dænsg/
- hello: hej /hɑj/
- good-bye: farvel /fɑːvɛl/
- please: Vær så venlig (No direct English translation – "Vær så venlig" literally means "Be so kind".)
- thank you: tak /tɑg/
- this one: denne /ˈdɛnə/
- how much?: hvor meget? /vɔː ˈmɑjəd/
- English: engelsk /ˈɛŋəlsk/
- yes: ja /jæ/
- no: nej /nɑj/
- can I take your picture?: Må jeg tage et billede af dig?
- Where is the bathroom?: Hvor er toilettet? /toæˈlɛd/
- where do you come from?: Hvor kommer du fra?
- do you speak English?: Taler du engelsk? /ˈtæːlə du ˈɛŋəlsk/
- generic toast: skål /sgɔːl/