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Danish language

Danish (d̥ænsɡ̊) is one of the North Germanic languages (also called Scandinavian languages), a sub-group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages. It is spoken by around 6 million people, mainly in Denmark; the language is also used by the 50,000 Danes in the northern parts of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany where it holds the status of minority language . Danish also holds official status and is a mandatory subject in school in the Danish territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which now enjoy limited autonomy. In Iceland and the Faroe Islands, Danish is taught as a compulsory foreign language in schools. There are also Danish language communities in Argentina, the U.S. and Canada.


Danish, together with Swedish, derives from the East Norse dialect group, while Norwegian is classified as a West Norse language together with Faroese and Icelandic. A more recent classification based on mutual intelligibility separates modern spoken Danish, Norwegian and Swedish into a Mainland Scandianvian group while Icelandic and Faroese are placed in a separate category labeled Insular Scandinavian.

Written Danish and Norwegian Bokmål are particularly close, though the phonology (that is, the system of relationships among the speech sounds that constitute the fundamental components of the language) and the prosody (the patterns of stress and intonation) differ somewhat. Proficient speakers of any of the three languages can understand the others, though studies have shown that speakers of Norwegian generally understand both Danish and Swedish far better than Swedes or Danes understand each other. Both Swedes and Danes also understand Norwegian better than they understand each other's languages.


In the 8th century, the common Germanic language of Scandinavia, Proto-Norse, had undergone some changes and evolved into Old Norse. This language began to undergo new changes that did not spread to all of Scandinavia, which resulted in the appearance of two similar dialects, Old West Norse (Norway and Iceland) and Old East Norse (Denmark and Sweden).

Old East Norse is in Sweden called Runic Swedish and in east Denmark Runic Danish, but until the 12th century, the dialect was roughly the same in the two countries. The dialects are called runic due to the fact that the main body of text appears in the runic alphabet. Unlike Proto-Norse, which was written with the Elder Futhark alphabet, Old Norse was written with the Younger Futhark alphabet, which only had 16 letters. Due to the limited number of runes, some runes were used for a range of phonemes, such as the rune for the vowel u which was also used for the vowels o, ø and y, and the rune for i which was also used for e.

A change that separated Old East Norse (Runic Swedish/Danish) from Old West Norse was the change of the diphthong æi (Old West Norse ei) to the monophthong e, as in stæin to sten. This is reflected in runic inscriptions where the older read stain and the later stin. There was also a change of au as in dauðr into ø as in døðr. This change is shown in runic inscriptions as a change from tauþr into tuþr. Moreover, the øy (Old West Norse ey) diphthong changed into ø as well, as in the Old Norse word for "island".

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).

Danish was once widely spoken in the northeast counties of England. Many Danish derived words, such as "gate" (gade) for street, still survive in Yorkshire and other parts of eastern England colonized by Danish Vikings. The city of York was once the Danish settlement of Jorvik.

The first printed book in Danish dates from 1495. The first complete translation of the Bible in Danish was published in 1550.

Geographical distribution

Danish is the national language of Denmark, one of two official languages of Greenland (the other being Greenlandic), and one of two official languages of the Faroes (the other being Faroese). In addition, there is a small community of Danish speakers in Southern Schleswig, the portion of Germany bordering Denmark, where it is an officially recognized regional language, just as German is north of the border. Furthermore, Danish is one of the official languages of the European Union and one of the working languages of the Nordic Council. Under the Nordic Language Convention, citizens of the Nordic countries speaking Danish have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable to any interpretation or translation costs.

There is no law stipulating an official language for Denmark, making Danish the de facto language only. The Code of Civil Procedure does, however, lay down Danish as the language of the courts. Since 1997 public authorities have been obliged to observe the official spelling by way of the Orthography Law.


Standard Danish (rigsdansk) is the language based on dialects spoken in and around the capital of Copenhagen. Unlike Swedish and Norwegian, Danish does not have more than one regional speech norm. More than 25% of all Danish speakers live in the metropolitan area of the capital and most government agencies, institutions and major businesses keep their main offices in Copenhagen, something that has resulted in a very homogeneous national speech norm. In contrast, though Oslo (Norway) and Stockholm (Sweden) are quite dominant in terms of speech standards, cities like Bergen, Gothenburg and the Malmö-Lund region are large and influential enough to create secondary regional norms, making the standard language more varied than is the case with Danish. The general agreement is that Standard Danish is based on a form of Copenhagen dialect, but the specific norm is, as with most language norms, difficult to pinpoint for both laypeople and scholars. Historically Standard Danish emerged as a compromise between the dialect of Zealand and Scania. The first layers of it can be seen in east Danish provincial law texts such as Skånske Lov, just as we can recognize west Danish in laws from the same ages in Jyske Lov.

Despite the relative cultural monopoly of the capital and the centralised government, the divided geography of the country allowed distinct rural dialects to flourish during the centuries. Such "genuine" dialects were formerly spoken by a vast majority of the population, but have declined much since the 1960s. They still exist in communities out on the countryside, but most speakers in these areas generally speak a regionalized form of Standard Danish, when speaking with one who speaks to them in that same standard. Usually an adaptation of the local dialect to rigsdansk is spoken, though code-switching between the standard-like norm and a distinct dialect is common.

Danish is divided into three distinct dialect groups:

Historically, Eastern Danish includes what is occasionally considered Southern Swedish dialects. The background for this lies in the loss of the originally Danish provinces Blekinge, Halland and Scania to Sweden in 1658. The island Bornholm in the Baltic also belongs to this group, but remained Danish. A few generations ago, the classical dialects spoken in the southern Swedish provinces could still be argued to be more Eastern Danish than Swedish, being similar to the dialect of Bornholm. Today influx of Standard Swedish vocabulary has generally meant that Scanian and Bornholmish are closer to the modern national standards than to each other. The Bornholm dialect has also maintained to this day many ancient features, such as a distinction between three grammatical genders, which the central Island Danish dialects gave up during the 20th century. Standard Danish has two genders, and Western Jutlandic only one, similar to English.

Today, Standard Danish is most similar to the Island Danish dialect group.

Sound system

The sound system of Danish is in many ways unique among the world's languages. It is quite prone to considerable reduction and assimilation of both consonants and vowels even in very formal standard language. A rare feature is the presence of a prosodic feature called stød in Danish (lit. "push; thrust"). This is a form of laryngealization or creaky voice, only occasionally realized as a full glottal stop (especially in emphatic pronunciation). It can be the only distinguishing feature between certain words, thus creating minimal pairs (e.g. bønder "peasants" with stød vs. bønner "beans" without). The distribution of stød in the lexicon is clearly related to the distribution of the common Scandinavian tonal word accents found in most dialects of Norwegian and Swedish, including the national standard languages. Most linguists today believe that stød is a development of the word accents, rather than the other way round. Some have theorized it emerged from the overwhelming influence of Low German in medieval times, having flattened the originally Nordic melodic accent, but stød is absent in most southern Danish dialects where Low German impact would have been the greatest. Stød generally occurs in words that have "accent 1" in Swedish and Norwegian and that were monosyllabic in Old Norse, while no-stød occurs in words that have "accent 2" in Swedish and Norwegian and that were polysyllabic in Old Norse.

Unlike the neighboring Continental Scandinavian languages, the prosody of Danish does not have phonemic pitch. Stress is phonemic and distinguishes words such as billigst ['bilist] "cheapest" and bilist [bi'list] "car driver".


Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
i y u
Close-mid e ø o
Mid ə
Open-mid ɛ œ ɐ ɔ
a ɑ ɒ
Modern Standard Danish has 20 vowel phonemes. All but two of these vowels may be either long and short, with the exceptions being schwa and /ɐ/. The long and short realizations often differ in quality and there are several allophones that differ if they occur together with an /r/. For example, /ø/ is lowered when it occurs either before or after /r/ and /a/ is pronounced [æ] when it is long.


Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Alveolo-
Palatal Velar Uvu-
Nasals m n ŋ
Fricatives f s ɕ h
Approximants ʋ ð̞ j ʁ
are devoiced in all contexts. often have slight frication, but are usually pronounced as approximants. The distinction between /pʰ~b/, /tˢ~d/ and kʰ~g is only made in the beginning of a word or at the beginning of a stressed syllable. Hence lappe and labbe are rendered [lab̥ə]. The combination of /sj/ is realized as an alveolo-palatal fricative, [ɕ], making it possible to postulate a tentative /ɕ/-phoneme in Danish. /r/ can be described as "tautosyllabic", meaning that it takes the form of either a phonetic consonant or vowel. At the beginning of a word or after a consonant, it is pronounced as a uvular fricative, [ʁ], but in most other positions it is either realised as a non-syllabic low central vowel, [ɐ̯] (which is almost identical to how /r/ is often pronounced in German) or simply coalesces with the preceding vowel. The phenomenon is also comparable to non-rhotic pronunciations of English.


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.

Standard Danish nouns fall into only two grammatical genders: common and neuter, while some dialects still often have masculine, feminine and neuter. West Jutlandic has only one gender, but has developed a distinction between countable and uncountable material (den træ "the tree", det træ, "the wood"). This is sometimes observed in Standard Danish as well (usually det mælk although strictly grammatically it should be den mælk "that milk"). While the majority of Danish nouns (ca. 75%) 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. The neuter equivalent would be "a house" (indefinite) et hus, "the house" (definite) huset. Even though the definite and indefinite articles have separate origins, they have become homographs in Danish. In the plural, the definite article is -(e)ne, as the plural endings are - / -e / -er. The enclitic article is not used when an adjective is added to the noun; here the demonstrative pronoun is used instead: den store mand "the big man", "the big house", det store hus.

Like most Germanic languages, Danish joins compound nouns. The example kvindehåndboldlandsholdet, "the female handball national team", illustrates that it does so to a significantly higher degree than English. In some cases, nouns are joined with an extra s, like landsmand (from land, "country", and mand, "man", meaning "compatriot"), but landmand (from same roots, meaning "farmer"). Some words are joined with an extra e, like gæstebog (from gæst and bog, meaning "guest book").


Danish words are largely derived from the Old Norse language, with new words formed by compounding. A large percentage of Danish words, however, hail from Middle Low German (for example, betale = to pay, måske = maybe). Later on, standard German and French and now English have superseded Low German influence - although many old Nordic words remain, they fall out of favor when the new come in, such as can be seen with æde (to eat) which became less common when the Low German spise came into fashion. 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, give, flag, salt, kat. When pronounced, these words sound quite different from their English equivalents, due to the Great Vowel Shift of English. In addition, the word by, meaning "village" or "town", occurs in several English placenames, such as Whitby and Selby, as remnants of the Viking occupation. A lot of Danish words are directly derived from English, such as harddisk, skateboard, computer and TV.


In Danish numerals, the tens and units digits of numbers above 20 are reversed when spoken or written, such that 21 is rendered enogtyve, i.e. one and twenty. This is similar to German, Dutch (and Afrikaans), some variants of Norwegian and Arabic.

The numeral halvanden means 1.5 (literally "half second"). The numerals halvtredje (2.5) and halvfjerde (3.5), likewise constructed by "overcounting", are rarely used and almost obsolete, but still implicitly used in the vigesimal system described below. Similarly, the time halv tre, literally "half three", is half past two.

Danish numerals from 50 to 90 are (like the French numerals 80 and 90) based on a vigesimal system, not shared with the other Scandinavian languages. This means that the score is used as a base number: Tres (short for tre-sinds-tyve) means 3 times 20, that is 60. Similarly, halvtreds (short for halvtredje-sinds-tyve) means 2.5 times 20, that is 50. The ending sindstyve is archaic in cardinal numbers, but still used in ordinal numbers. Thus, "fifty-two" is usually rendered to-og-halvtreds, whereas "fifty-second" is to-og-halvtredsindstyvende. An exception is in check-writing, where traditionally the ten-base without reversal is used to write out the amount above twenty; thus, fireti (4 times 10 or 40), seksti-to (6 times 10 plus 2 or 62), niti-syv (9 times 10 plus 7 or 97). Likewise, the Danish fifty-kroner note is labeled "Femti".

For large numbers (one billion or larger), Danish uses the long scale, so that e.g. one billion is called milliard, and one trillion is called billion.

Writing system

The oldest preserved examples of written Danish (from the Iron and Viking Ages) are in the Runic alphabet. The introduction of Christianity also brought the Latin alphabet to Denmark, and at the end of the High Middle Ages the Runes had more or less been replaced by the Latin letters.

As in Germany, the Fraktur types were still commonly used in the late 19th century (until 1875, Danish children were taught to read Fraktur letters in school), and most books were printed with Fraktur typesetting even in the beginning of the 20th century. Also as in German, nouns were capitalized until after World War II.

The modern Danish alphabet is similar to the English one, with three additional letters: æ, ø, and å, which come at the end of the alphabet, in that order. A spelling reform in 1948 introduced the letter å, already in use in Norwegian and Swedish, into the Danish alphabet to replace the letter aa; the old usage still occurs in some personal and geographical names and old documents (for example, the name of the city of Aalborg is spelled with Aa following a decision from the City Council in the 1970s). When representing the å sound, aa is treated just like å in alphabetical sorting, even though it looks like two letters. When the letters are not available (e.g., in URLs), they are replaced by ae (Æ, æ), oe (Ø, ø) or o, and aa (Å, å), respectively.

The same spelling reform changed the spelling of a few common words, such as the past tense vilde (would), kunde (could) and skulde (should), to their current forms of ville, kunne and skulle (making them identical to the infinitives in writing, as they are in speech), and did away with the practice of capitalising all nouns, which German still does. Modern Danish and Norwegian use the same alphabet, though spelling differs somewhat.

See also



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