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Danish (language)

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Danish (language)

Pronunciation [d̥anˀsɡ̊]
Native to Denmark, Greenland, Schleswig-Holstein (Germany)
Native speakers 5.6 million  (2007)Template:Infobox language/ref
Language family
Bornholmian (Eastern Danish)
Writing system Latin script (Danish alphabet)
Danish Braille
Official status
Official language in  Denmark
 Faroe Islands
 European Union
 Nordic Council
Recognised minority language in  Germany
Regulated by Dansk Sprognævn ("Danish Language Committee")
Language codes
ISO 639-1 da
ISO 639-2 dan
ISO 639-3 Either:
jut – Jutlandic
Linguist List Template:Infobox language/linguistlist
  Template:Infobox language/linguistlist
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Linguasphere 52-AAA-bf & -ca to -cj
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Danish (dansk, pronounced [d̥anˀsɡ̊]Template:IPA audio link; dansk sprog, [ˈd̥anˀsɡ̊ ˈsb̥ʁɔʊ̯ˀ]) is a North Germanic language spoken by around six million people, principally in the country of Denmark and in the region of Southern Schleswig in northern Germany, where it holds minority language status.[1] There are also significant Danish-speaking communities in USA, Canada and Argentina. Due to immigration and language shift in urban areas around 15-20% of the population of Greenland speaks Danish as their home language.

Danish is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Swedish. 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.[2]

Along with the other North Germanic languages, Danish is a descendant of Old Norse, the common language of the Germanic peoples living in Scandinavia during the Viking Era. Danish, together with Swedish, derives from the East Norse dialect group, while the Old Norwegian dialects before the influence of Danish and Norwegian Bokmål 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 Scandinavian group while Icelandic and Faroese are placed in a separate category labelled Insular Scandinavian.

Danish has a relatively large vowel inventory consisting of 16 phonemes and is distinguished by the many pharyngealized sounds, including both vowels and consonants. 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.

Danish is a mandatory subject in school in the Danish dependencies of the Faroe Islands (where it is also an official language after Faroese) and Greenland (where, however, the only official language since 2009 is Kalaallisut and the language is now spoken as lingua franca), as well as the former crown holding of Iceland.


Main article: History of Danish

By 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 called Runic Swedish in Sweden and Runic Danish in East Denmark, but until the 12th century, the dialect was roughly the same in the two countries. The dialects are called runic because 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".

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).

Old East Norse was once widely spoken in the northeast counties of England. Many words derived from Norse, such as "gate" (gade) for street, still survive in Yorkshire and the East Midlands (parts of eastern England) colonized by Danish Vikings. The city of York was once the Viking settlement of Jorvik. Several other English words also derive from Old East Norse, for example, "knife" (kniv), "husband" (husbond), and "egg" (æg).[3] The suffix "-by" for 'town' is common in place names in Yorkshire and the East Midlands that is, Selby, Whitby, Derby and Grimsby. The word dale in Yorkshire and Derbyshire is commonly used in place of valley.

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

Geographical distribution

Danish is the national language of Denmark and one of two official languages of the Faroe Islands (alongside Faroese). Until 2009, it had also been one of two official languages of Greenland (alongside Greenlandic). Danish is widely spoken in Greenland now as lingua franca, and an unknown portion of the native Greenlandic population has Danish as their first language; nearly all of the native Greenlandic population speak Danish as a second language since its introduction into the education system as a compulsory language in 1928. Danish was an official language in Iceland until 1944 but is today still widely used and is a mandatory subject in school.[4] In addition, there is a noticeable community of Danish speakers in Southern Schleswig, the portion of Germany bordering Denmark, where it is an officially recognised 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.[5] Under the Nordic Language Convention, Danish-speaking citizens of the Nordic countries have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable for any interpretation or translation costs.[5]

The more widespread of the two varieties of Norwegian, Bokmål, is a daughter language of Danish. Until 1814, Danish was the official language of Norway. Bokmål is based on Danish unlike the other variety of Norwegian, Nynorsk, which is based on the Norwegian dialects, with Old Norwegian as an important reference point. From a linguistic point of view, Bokmål and Danish are the same language.[6]

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, 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, as with most language norms, is 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 centralized 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 in 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.[7]

Danish is divided into three distinct dialect groups,[8] which are further subdivided in about 30 dialektområder:[9]

The term Eastern Danish[10] is occasionally used for Bornholmian, but including the dialects of Scania (particularly in a historical context). The background for this lies in the loss of the originally Danish provinces of Blekinge, Halland and Scania to Sweden in 1658. The island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea also belongs to this group, but returned to Danish rule in 1660. This means that the spoken language in this part of Sweden is descended from a regional variant of Danish, while the written language used is standard Swedish, which evolved in Uppsala and Stockholm. Similarly, the Norwegian language is classified as a descendant of West Norse, while the written language used by the vast majority in Norway is derived from an older variant of standard 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 and Standard Danish vocabulary has generally meant that Scanian and Bornholmian are closer to the modern national standards of their respective host nations than to each other. The Bornholmian dialect has also maintained to this day many ancient features, such as a distinction between three grammatical genders, which the central Insular Danish dialects gave up during the 20th century. Standard Danish has two genders and the definite form of nouns is formed by the use of suffixes, while Western Jutlandic has only one gender and the definite form of nouns uses an article before the noun itself, in the same fashion as West Germanic languages. Today, Standard Danish is most similar to the Insular Danish dialect group.

Sound system

Main article: Danish phonology

The sound system of Danish is in many ways unusual among the world's languages. From the perspective of the written language, the spoken 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 (for example, bønder "peasants" with stød versus bønner "beans" or "prayers" without). The distribution of stød in the lexicon is clearly related to the distribution of the common Scandinavian pitch 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 [ˈbilist] "cheapest" and bilist [biˈlist] "car driver".


In most modern variants of Danish, it is possible to distinguish at least 17 different vowel qualities in distinct pronunciation. The table below shows the approximate distribution of the vowels as pronounced in Modern Standard Danish, and the symbol used in IPA for Danish.

Front Central Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core
Near-close Template:IPA link/core
Close-mid Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core
Mid Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core
Open-mid Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core
Near-open Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core Template:IPA link/core, Template:IPA link/core
Template:IPA link/core

All but four of these vowels may be either long or short, the exceptions being [a], [ʌ], [ə] and [ɐ] which are always short. [ə] and [ɐ] occur only in unstressed syllables.

The many different vowels can be analyzed to represent ten distinctive vowel phonemes: /i e ɛ a y ø œ u o ɔ/, and /ə/ that only occurs in unstressed syllables. These phonemes often have different allophones depending on length, and in conjunction with /r/. For example, /ø/ is lowered when it occurs either before or after /r/, and /a/ is pronounced [æ] when it is long.


In distinct pronunciation it is possible to distinguish at least 21 consonants in most variants of Danish:

Labial Alveolar Alveolo
Velar Uvular/
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive ɡ̊
Fricative f s (ɕ) h
Approximant ʋ ð j ʁ
Vocoid ʊ̯ ɪ̯ ɐ̯
Lateral l

These consonants can be analyzed to represent 15 phonemes: /m n p t k b d ɡ f s h v j r l/. Many of these phonemes have quite different allophones in onset and coda. /p t k/ are aspirated in onset, not in coda. /d ɡ v j r/ are contoid in onset and vocoid in coda.

[ʋ, ð] often have slight frication, but are usually pronounced as approximants.

[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.[11]

In onset /r/ is realized as a uvular approximant, [ʁ], but in coda it is either realized as a non-syllabic low central vowel, [ɐ̯] (which is almost identical to how /r/ is often pronounced in syllable-final position in German) or simply coalesces with the preceding vowel. The phenomenon is also comparable to non-rhotic pronunciations of English. The Danish pronunciation of /r/ distinguishes the language from those varieties of Norwegian and Swedish that use trilled [r], and makes it sound to speakers of those languages as if Danes speak with a German accent.


Main article: Danish grammar

The infinitive forms of Danish verbs end in a vowel, which in almost all cases is a schwa, represented in writing by 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 compensated by the large number of 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. 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 national handball team", illustrates that it does so to a significantly higher degree than English. In some cases, nouns are joined with an extra s, originally possessive in function, 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").


The majority of Danish words are derived from the Old Norse language. However, 35-40% of Danish words hail from Middle Low German and were borrowed in the late medieval era (explaining the relative similarity of its vocabulary with modern Dutch), for example, betale (to pay). In the 17th and 18th Centuries standard German and French superseded Low German influence and in the 20th Century English became the main supplier of loan words – especially after World War II. Although many old Nordic words remain, some were replaced with borrowed synonyms, such as can be seen with æde (to eat) which became less common when the Low German spise came into fashion. Besides borrowing new words are typically formed by compounding existing words.

Because of the shared history between Danish and English — both are Germanic languages and Danish exerted a strong influence on Old English in the early medieval period — many common words are very similar in the two languages. For example, Danish words for commonly used nouns and prepositions are easily recognizable in their written form to English speakers, such as have, over, under, for, give, flag, salt, and kat. However, when pronounced, most of these words sound quite different from their English equivalents; not so much due to the Great Vowel Shift of English, as Danish a and e were affected similarly, but due to the Danish tendency to slur soft consonants such as d, g, and v (resulting in what sounds to English ears as ha'e, o'er, un'er, gi'e, and flay). Similarly, some other words are almost identical to their Scottish equivalents, e.g., kirke (Scottish kirk, i.e. 'church') or barn (Scottish bairn, i.e. 'child'). In addition, the word by, meaning "village" or "town", occurs in many English place-names, such as Whitby and Selby, as remnants of the Viking occupation. During the latter period, English adopted "are", the third person plural form of the verb "to be", as well as the corresponding personal pronoun form "they" from contemporary Danish.


In the word forms of numbers above 20, the units are stated before the tens, such that 21 is rendered enogtyve, literally "one and twenty". Similar constructions are found in German, Dutch, Afrikaans, certain varieties of Norwegian, Slovene and Arabic as well as in archaic and dialect English (compare the line "Four-and-twenty blackbirds" in the old nursery rhyme.)

The numeral halvanden means 1½ (literally "half second", implying "one plus half of the second one"). The numerals halvtredje (2½) and halvfjerde (3½) are obsolete, but still implicitly used in the vigesimal system described below. Similarly, the temporal designation klokken halv tre, literally "half three o'clock", is half past two o'clock.

One peculiar feature of the Danish language is the fact that numerals 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 are (somewhat like the French numerals from 80 through 99) based on a vigesimal system, formerly also used in Norwegian and Swedish. This means that the score is used as a base unit in counting: Tres (short for tre-sinds-tyve meaning "three times twenty") means sixty, while halvtreds (short for halvtredje-sinds-tyve meaning "half third times twenty", implying two score plus half of the third score) is fifty. The ending sindstyve meaning "times twenty" is no longer included in cardinal numbers, but still used in ordinal numbers. Thus, in modern Danish fifty-two is usually rendered as tooghalvtreds from the now obsolete tooghalvtredsindstyve, whereas 52nd is either tooghalvtredsende or tooghalvtredsindstyvende. Twenty is called tyve (derived from old Danish tiughu, a haplology of tuttiughu, meaning 'two tens'[12]), while thirty is tredive (derived from old Danish þrjatiughu meaning 'three tens'), and forty is called fyrre (derived from the old Danish fyritiughu meaning 'four tens'[13] via fyrretyve, still occasionally used in historical settings or for humorous effect). An exception to the way Danish numbers are formed is in writing cheques and legal amounts in banking, where traditionally the numbers are 10-based and spelled as they appear in numerical form; thus, fir(e)ti is forty (4 times 10) and seksti-to is sixty-two (6 times 10 plus 2).

Cardinal numeral Danish Literal English Ordinal numeral Danish Literal English
1 én / ét one 1st første first
12 tolv twelve 12th tolvte twelfth
23 treogtyve three and twenty 23rd treogtyvende three and 20th
34 fireogtredive four and thirty 34th fireogtred(i)vte four and 30th
45 femogfyrre(tyve) five and four (tens) 45th femogfyrretyvende five and four tens'th
56 seksoghalvtreds(indstyve) six and [two score plus] half [of the] third (score) 56th seksoghalvtredsindstyvende six and [two score plus] half [of the] third score-eth
67 syvogtres(indstyve) seven and three (score) 67th syvogtresindstyvende seven and three score-eth
78 otteoghalvfjerds(indstyve) eight and [three score plus] half [of the] fourth (score) 78th otteoghalvfjerdsindstyvende eight and [three score plus] half [of the] fourth score-eth
89 niogfirs(indstyve) nine and four (score) 89th niogfirsindstyvende nine and four score-eth
90 halvfems(indstyve) [four score plus] half [of the] fifth (score) 90th halvfemsindstyvende [four score plus] half [of the] fifth score-eth

For large numbers (one billion or larger), Danish uses the long scale, so that for example, one U.S. billion (1,000,000,000) is called milliard, and one U.S. trillion (1,000,000,000,000) is 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 script 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 (blackletter) types were still commonly used in the late 19th century (until 1875, Danish children were taught to read Fraktur letters in school), and many books were printed with Fraktur typesetting even in the beginning of the 20th century, particularly by conservatives. However, the Latin script was used by modernists, for example, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters changed style in 1799. Nouns were capitalized, as in German, until the 1948 spelling reform.

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 digraph aa; the old usage still occurs in some personal and geographical names (for example, the name of the city of Aalborg is spelled with Aa following a decision by 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 due to technical limitations (e.g., in URLs), they are often replaced by ae (Æ, æ), oe or o (Ø, ø), 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 capitalizing all nouns, which is still done in German. Modern Danish and Norwegian use the same alphabet, though spelling differs slightly.

Notes and references


External links

  • English online dictionary and grammar for Danish
  • "BBC Quickfix: Danish" 12 Danish phrases with audio
  • "Learning the Danish language online" a list of courses on
  • "GrammarExplorer Danish" an online Danish grammar
  • "Speakdanish" a commercial Danish course with audio
  • "Danish Online" a Danish course with audios, text-to-speech, picture dictionary facilities and many others
  • Danish Swadesh list of basic vocabulary words (from 's Swadesh list appendix)
  • "Danish as a second language" at Studieskolen
  • "" is the place on the internet where you can find guidance, information and answers to questions about the Danish language and language matters in Denmark (in Danish)

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