The Danish Language - An Overview

July 20th, 2013

Danish is a small language of a small country that has had a large influence on the world and its history.

Despite its small size, the native language of Denmark, Danish, has an outsize influence all its own, owing to two major factors: It’s Norse lineage and the large Danish diaspora around the world.

Old Norse

About six million people speak Danish in the world; the majority of those native speakers live in Denmark, of course, with a small population living in the Southern Schleswig region in northern Germany (where Danish has official status as a minority language). You can also find large Danish-speaking communities in the United States, Argentina, and Canada, and about 20% of the population of Greenland speak Danish as well.

Danish, like most other Scandinavian languages, stems from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and once the common language of the region. Over time, dialects of Norse formed, and these dialects naturally evolved into distinct languages. Not too distinct, however. Danish is actually close enough to Norwegian and Swedish as to be mutually intelligible – most Danes can understand what a Norwegian or Swede is saying without a formal knowledge of the language, and vice versa.

Danish

Unlike most other Scandinavian languages, Danish is relatively monochrome, with the “Copenhagen Dialect” being dominant more or less throughout the country. Still, there are some regional dialects in the rural areas, divided up into three main categories: Insular Danish (ømål), Jutlandic (jysk), and Bornholmsk (Bornholmian). These in turn are subdivided into about thirty sub-dialects. All of these dialects are mutually intelligible.

Danish has a lot of vowels. There are about 17 distinct vowel sounds in its pronunciation, making it a very difficult but quite musical language to speak. However, in terms of grammar Danish is not too difficult; verbs are conjugated only for tense, not for object or number – for example, the word spise (“to eat”) becomes in the present tense spiser but it doesn’t matter it is singular, plural, first, second, or third person – it’s just spiser.

While there is gender in Danish – common and neuter in Standard Danish, with masculine, feminine appearing in some small dialect groups – most words in Danish are common and thus you can get by without a clear grasp on gender.

What’s interesting is that Danish and English, both derivatives of the Germanic language family, have some deep and non-obvious ties. Danish had a great influence on Old English, and as a result there are a lot of similar words in both languages where the main difference is pronunciation – many English speakers are surprised to recognise a great many words in written Danish!

Image courtesy denmark.dk