Danish is an old language spoken today by around 6 million people mostly in Denmark and the northern parts of the neighbouring Germany, where it has minority language status. It is also widely spoken in Greenland – an autonomous region of the Kingdom of Denmark. Modern-day Danish is actually derived from Old Norse and belongs in the North Germanic language group. It is also the language in which Hans Christian Andersen wrote his timeless tales.
Below, you’ll find more interesting facts about the Danish language and culture. If you’re interested in learning even more about the language, why not sign up for lessons with one of our private Danish teachers?
1. Three-in-one language
Due to centuries of close contact (and colonisation), Danish is such a close relative to Norwegian and Swedish that the three languages are still largely mutually intelligible. In fact, they are much more closely connected than various varieties of Chinese, making them more like dialects than separate languages.
Much like German, Danish also allows the creation of new nouns by simply stringing words together. These compounds can reach lengths of over 50 letters. The one example provided is the longest Danish word ever used in an official context and it means “period of plan stabilising for a specialist doctor’s practice”.
However, this word itself was out-done by Hans Christian Andersen when he created edebukkebensoverogundergeneralkrigskommandersergenten – a parody of Danish military titles – meaning “the goaty-legged-above-and-under-general-war-commanding-sergeant”.
3. Creaky voice
In Danish, using creaky voice actually carries a meaning. Creaky voice, or vocal fry, is essentially what you do to your vocal chords when producing what can be best characterised as “bored voice”. In Danish, however, stød is sounded in creaky voice (or as a glottal stop), making it a vital part of the language. It is the only difference in the pronunciation of words such hun (“she”) and hund (“dog”). You can see how not mastering the stød can get you into trouble.
4. Two times two genders
As in many languages, Danish nouns get divided into genders. But unlike many languages, Danish has both natural and grammatical genders. Natural genders correspond to the biological sex of whatever you are talking about – so a woman is of the feminine gender. For grammatical genders, however, Danish has fused together the masculine and feminine (which is how Romance languages categorise their nouns, for example) into the common gender. The other grammatical gender is the neuter. So you have natural masculine and feminine genders in addition to the grammatical common and neuter.
5. A Danish singular “they”
But because Danish still categorises nouns based on natural sex, it faces the same problems as English when it comes to gender-neutral pronouns. The neighbouring Sweden has recently introduced the pronoun hen to refer to a person of an unknown sex. In Denmark, however, not much progress has been made on the topic. So, de/dem (they/them) can currently fill the same place as they do in English.
6. Confusing numbers
As in German and Old English, Danish starts counting the number 21 from the cardinals, resulting in numbers such as one-and-twenty or enogtyve. But in addition to that, Danish also counts its higher numbers based on the number 20. So, the number 60 in Danish is tres, which in older versions of the language meant tre sinds tyve (“three times twenty”).
Where things get even more complicated, however, is with numbers that don’t divide exactly by twenty. To say 70, you need to do some advanced mental gymnastics because the word for that number – halvfjerds – actually means “half-fourth-t(imes-of-twenty)”, combining not only the numbering system based on 20 but also adding a fossilised term for “four and a half”.
It’s probably just easier to memorise the numbers and not ask too many questions.
Now that you’re more familiar with the interesting aspects of Danish, why not sign up for Danish lessons below? Or, if you’re not ready to take that step, take a look at other interesting facts for Czech, French, or Albanian.