Danish (/ˈdeɪnɪʃ/ (listen); danskpronounced [ˈtænˀsk] (listen), dansk sprog[ˈtænˀsk ˈspʁɔwˀ]) is a North Germanic language spoken by about six million people, principally in Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and in the region of Southern Schleswig in northern Germany, where it has minority language status. Also, minor Danish-speaking communities are found in Norway, Sweden, Spain, the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina. Due to immigration and language shift in urban areas, about 15–20% of the population of Greenland speak Danish as their first language.
Along with the other North Germanic languages, Danish is a descendant of Old Norse, the common language of the Germanic peoples who lived in Scandinavia during the Viking Era. Danish, together with Swedish, derives from the East Norse dialect group, while the Middle Norwegian language (before the influence of Danish) and Norwegian Bokmål are classified as West Norse along with Faroese and Icelandic. A more recent classification based on mutual intelligibility separates modern spoken Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish as “mainland Scandinavian”, while Icelandic and Faroese are classified as “insular Scandinavian”. Although the written languages are compatible, spoken Danish is distinctly different from Norwegian and Swedish and thus the degree of mutual intelligibility with either is variable between regions and speakers.
Until the 16th century, Danish was a continuum of dialects spoken from Schleswig to Scania with no standard variety or spelling conventions. With the Protestant Reformation and the introduction of the printing press, a standard language was developed which was based on the educated Copenhagen dialect. It spread through use in the education system and administration, though German and Latin continued to be the most important written languages well into the 17th century. Following the loss of territory to Germany and Sweden, a nationalist movement adopted the language as a token of Danish identity, and the language experienced a strong surge in use and popularity, with major works of literature produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, traditional Danish dialects have all but disappeared, though regional variants of the standard language exist. The main differences in language are between generations, with youth language being particularly innovative.
Danish has a very large vowel inventory consisting of 27 phonemically distinctive vowels, and its prosody is characterized by the distinctive phenomenon stød, a kind of laryngeal phonation type. Due to the many pronunciation differences that set Danish apart from its neighboring languages, particularly the vowels, difficult prosody and “weakly” pronounced consonants, it is sometimes considered to be a “difficult language to learn, acquire and understand”, and some evidence shows that children are slower to acquire the phonological distinctions of Danish compared to other languages. The grammar is moderately inflective with strong (irregular) and weak (regular) conjugations and inflections. Nouns and demonstrative pronouns distinguish common and neutral gender. Like English, Danish only has remnants of a former case system, particularly in the pronouns. Unlike English, it has lost all person marking on verbs. Its syntax is V2 word order, with the finite verb always occupying the second slot in the sentence.
Danish is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Swedish. Proficient speakers of any of the three languages can often understand the others fairly well, 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. The reason Norwegian occupies a middle position in terms of intelligibility is because of its shared border with Sweden resulting in a similarity in pronunciation, combined with the long tradition of having Danish as a written language which has led to similarities in vocabulary. Among younger Danes, Copenhageners are worse at understanding Swedish than Danes from the provinces. In general, younger Danes are not as good at understanding the neighboring languages as are Norwegian and Swedish youths.
Danish was an official language in Iceland until 1944, but is today still widely used and is a mandatory subject in school taught as a second foreign language after English. Iceland was a territory ruled by Denmark-Norway, one of whose official languages was Danish.
In addition, a noticeable community of Danish speakers is 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, 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.
The more widespread of the two varieties of written Norwegian, Bokmål, is very close to Danish, because standard Danish was used as the de facto administrative language until 1814 and one of the official languages of Denmark-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.
No law stipulates 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. In the 21st century, discussions have been held regarding creating a language law that would make Danish the official language of Denmark.
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, which has resulted in a very homogeneous national speech norm.
Danish dialects can be divided into the traditional dialects, which differ from modern Standard Danish in both phonology and grammar, and the Danish accents or regional languages, which are local varieties of the Standard language distinguished mostly by pronunciation and local vocabulary colored by traditional dialects. Traditional dialects are now mostly extinct in Denmark, with only the oldest generations still speaking them.
Danish traditional dialects are divided into three main dialect areas:
- Insular Danish (ømål), including dialects of the Danish islands of Zealand, Funen, Lolland, Falster, and Møn
- Jutlandic (jysk), further divided in North, East, West, and South Jutlandic Bornholmian (bornholmsk), the dialect of the island of Bornholm
Jutlandic is further divided into Southern Jutlandic and Northern Jutlandic, with Northern Jutlandic subdivided into North Jutlandic and West Jutlandic. Insular Danish is divided into Zealand, Funen, Møn, and Lolland-Falster dialect areas―each with addition internal variation. The term “Eastern Danish” is occasionally used for Bornholmian, but including the dialects of Scania (particularly in a historical context)―Jutlandic dialect, Insular Danish, and Bornholmian. Bornholmian is the only Eastern Danish dialect spoken in Denmark, since the other Eastern Danish dialects were spoken in areas ceded to Sweden and subsequently swedified.
Traditional dialects differ in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary from standard Danish. Phonologically, one of the most diagnostic differences is the presence or absence of stød. Four main regional variants for the realization of stød are known: In Southeastern Jutlandic, Southernmost Funen, Southern Langeland, and Ærø, no stød is used, but instead a pitch accent. South of a line (Danish: Stødgrænsen “The Stød border”) going through central South Jutland, crossing Southern Funen and central Langeland and north of Lolland-Falster, Møn, Southern Zealand and Bornholm neither stød nor pitch accent exists. Most of Jutland and on Zealand usestød, and in Zealandic traditional dialects and regional language, stød occurs more often than in the standard language. In Zealand, the stød line divides Southern Zealand (without stød), an area which used to be directly under the Crown, from the rest of the Island that used to be the property of various noble estates.
Grammatically, a dialectally significant feature is the number of grammatical genders. 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. The Bornholmian dialect has maintained to this day many archaic features, such as a distinction between three grammatical genders. Insular Danish traditional dialects also conserved three grammatical genders. By 1900, Zealand insular dialects had been reduced to two genders under influence from the standard language, but other Insular varieties, such as Funen dialect had not. Besides using three genders, the old Insular or Funen dialect, could also use personal pronouns (like he and she) in certain cases, particularly referring to animals. A classic example in traditional Funen dialect is the sentence: “Katti, han får unger”, literally The cat, he is having kittens, because cat is a masculine noun, thus is referred to as han (he), even if it is female cat.
|Class 1||Class 2||Class 3|
|Sg.||Pl.||Pl. definite.||Sg.||Pl.||Pl. definite.||Sg.||Pl.||Pl. definite.|
Definiteness is marked by two mutually exclusive articles, a preposed demonstrative article which occurs with nouns that are modified by an adjective or a postposed enclitic. Neuter nouns take the clitic -et, and common gender nouns take -en. Indefinite nouns take the articles en (common gender) or et (neuter). Hence, the common gender noun en mand “a man” (indefinite) has the definite form manden “the man”, whereas the neuter noun et hus “a house” (indefinite) has the definite form, “the house” (definite) huset.
There are three different types of regular plurals: Class 1 forms the plural with the suffix -er (indefinite) and -erne (definite), Class 2 with the suffix -e (indefinite) and -ene (definite.), and Class 3 takes no suffix for the plural indefinite form and -ene for the plural definite.
Most irregular nouns take an ablaut plural (with a change in the stem vowel), or combine ablaut stem-change with the suffix, and some have unique plural forms. Unique forms may be inherited (e.g. the plural of øje “eye”, which is the old dual form øjne), or for loan words they may be borrowed from the donor language (e.g. the word konto “account” which is borrowed from Italian and uses the Italian masculine plural form konti “accounts”).
|Person||Subjective case||Objective case||Possessive case/adjective|
|1st p. sg.||jeg|
|2nd p. sg.||du|
|3rd p. sg.||han/hun|
|1st p. pl.||vi|
|2nd p. pl.||I|
|3rd p. pl||de|
|3rd p. ref.||N/A||sig|
As does English, the Danish pronominal system retains a distinction between subjective and oblique case. The subjective case form of pronouns is used when pronouns occur as grammatical subject of a sentence, and oblique forms are used for all non-subjective occurrences including accusative, dative, predicative, comparative and other types of constructions. The third person singular pronouns also distinguish between and animate masculine (han “he”), animate feminine (hun “she”) forms, as well as inanimate neuter (det “it”) and inanimate common gender (den “it”).
Danish verbs are morphologically simple, marking very few grammatical categories. They do not mark person or number of subject, although the marking of plural subjects was still used in writing as late as the 19th century. Verbs have a past, non-past and infinitive form, past and present participle forms, and a passive, and an imperative.
Tense, aspect, mood, and voice
Verbs can be divided into two main classes, the strong/irregular verbs and the regular/weak verbs. The regular verbs are also divided into two classes, those that take the past suffix -te and those that take the suffix -ede.
The infinitive always ends in a vowel, usually -e (pronounced [ə]), infinitive forms are preceded by the article at (pronounced [ɒ]). The non-past or present tense takes the suffix -r, except for a few strong verbs that have irregular non-past forms. The past form does not necessarily mark past tense, but also counterfactuality or conditionality, and the non-past has many uses besides present tense time reference.
The present participle ends in -ende (e.g. løbende “running”), and the past participle ends in -et (e.g. løbet “run”), -t (e.g. købt “bought”). Perfect tense is constructed with at have (“to have”) and participial forms, like in English. But some transitive verbs can also form an imperfective perfect using at være (“to be”) instead.
- Hun har gået. Flyet har fløjet: She has walked. The plane has flown
- Hun er gået. Flyet er fløjet: She has left. The plane has taken off
- Hun havde gået. Flyet havde fløjet: She had walked. The plane had flown
- Hun var gået. Flyet var fløjet: She had left. The plane had taken off
The passive form takes the suffix -s: avisen læses hver dag (“the newspaper is read every day”). Another passive construction uses the auxiliary verb at blive “to become”: avisen bliver læst hver dag.
The imperative mood is formed from the infinitive by removing the final schwa-vowel:
- løb!: “run!”
About 2 000 of Danish non-compound words are derived from the Old Norse language, and ultimately from Proto Indo-European. Of these 2 000 words, 1 200 are nouns, 500 are verbs, 180 are adjectives and the rest belong to other word classes. Danish has also absorbed a large number of loan words, most of which were borrowed from Middle Low German in the late medieval period. Out of the 500 most frequently used words in Danish, 100 are medieval loans from Middle Low German, as Low German is the other official language of Denmark-Norway. 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, as can be seen with æde (to eat) which became less common when the Low German spise came into fashion. As well as loan words, new words are freely formed by compounding existing words. In standard texts of contemporary Danish, Middle Low German loans account for about 16‒17% of the vocabulary, Graeco-Latin-loans 4‒8%, French 2‒4% and English about 1%.
Danish and English are both Germanic languages. Danish is a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse, and English is a West Germanic language descended from Old English. Old Norse exerted a strong influence on Old English in the early medieval period. To see their shared Germanic heritage, one merely has to note the many common words that are very similar in the two languages. For example, commonly used Danish nouns and prepositions such as have, over, under, for, give, flag, salt, and kat are easily recognizable in their written form to English speakers. Similarly, some other words are almost identical to their Scots equivalents, e.g., kirke (Scots kirk, i.e., ‘church’) or barn (Scots 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 Old Norse.
In the word forms of numbers above 20, the units are stated before the tens, so 21 is rendered enogtyve, literally “one and twenty”.
The numeral halvanden means 1½ (literally “half second”, implying “one plus half of the second one”). The numerals halvtredje (2½), halvfjerde (3½) and halvfemte (4½) 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.
One peculiar feature of the Danish language is that the numerals 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 are (as are the French numerals from 80 through 99) based on a vigesimal system, meaning that the score (20) is used as a base unit in counting. Tres (short for tre-sinds-tyve, “three times twenty”) means 60, while 50 is halvtreds (short for halvtredje-sinds-tyve, “half third times twenty”, implying two score plus half of the third score). The ending sindstyve meaning “times twenty” is no longer included in cardinal numbers, but may still be 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 tyve (derived from Old Danish tiughu, a haplology of tuttiughu, meaning ‘two tens’), while thirty is tredive (Old Danish þrjatiughu, “three tens”), and forty is fyrre (Old Danish fyritiughu, “four tens”, still used today as the archaism fyrretyve). Thus, the suffix -tyve should be understood as a plural of ti (10), though to modern Danes tyve means 20, making it hard to explain why fyrretyve is 40 (four tens) and not 80 (four twenties).
|Cardinal numeral||Danish||Literal translation||Ordinal numeral||Danish||Literal translation|
|1||én / ét||one||1st||første||first|
|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 forty (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-th|
|67||syvogtres(indstyve)||seven and three (score)||67th||syvogtresindstyvende||seven and three score-th|
|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-th|
|89||niogfirs(indstyve)||nine and four (score)||89th||niogfirsindstyvende||nine and four score-th|
|90||halvfems(indstyve)||[four score plus] half [of the] fifth (score)||90th||halvfemsindstyvende||[four score plus] half [of the] fifth score-th|
For large numbers (one billion or larger), Danish uses the long scale, so that the short-scale billion (1,000,000,000) is called milliard, and the short-scale trillion (1,000,000,000,000) is billion.
Danish keyboard with keys for Æ, Ø, and Å.
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 Runes had more or less been replaced by Latin letters.
Danish orthography is conservative, using most of the conventions established in the 16th century. The spoken language however has changed a lot since then, creating a gap between the spoken and written languages.
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. The letters c, q, w, x and z are only used in loan words. 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 continues to occur 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 and Aarhus decided to go back to Aa in 2011. When representing the å sound, aa is treated like å in alphabetical sorting, though it appears to be two letters. When the letters are not available due to technical limitations, 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). Modern Danish and Norwegian use the same alphabet, though spelling differs slightly, particularly with the phonetic spelling of loanwords; for example the spelling of station and garage in Danish remains identical to other languages, whereas in Norwegian, they are transliterated as stasjon and garasje.
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