The Danish Language

Danish is another Scandinavian language which forms a group called the North Germanic language group. Around 6 million people speak it as a mother tongue, and obviously most of these speakers are found in Denmark. In Germany it also holds minority language status and around 50,000 Danes in Germany still widely use it. It is also an official language in Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which are Danish territories, and is taught in schools in Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

The Danish language shares a lot of its roots with Swedish, in that they both have evolved from the East Nordic group of dialects (as opposed to the West Nordic group which contains languages such as Icelandic and Faroese). Written Danish and Norwegian also share a lot of similar characteristics and are mutually comprehensible, which is to say that an individual who understands one of the languages will often understand the other. Danish is also very similar sounding to German, and an understanding of the German language can go a long way in helping to understand the Danish language.

Tracing the Danish language’s roots back as far as possible leads us to the 8th century and to the evolution of contemporary Germanic language into Old Norse. As time progressed Old Norse split into a Western and an Eastern version, which is reflected today in the differences between Norwegian and Icelandic (in the West), and Danish and Swedish (in the East).

During the Viking reign, the Danish language spread hugely, and was even widely spoken in the northeast counties of England. The city of York was once the Danish settlement of Jorvik. Some Danish words have been incorporated into the English language as a result of the Viking reign. 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 recognisable in their written form to English speakers: have, over, under, for, give, flag, salt. When pronounced, these words sound quite different from their English equivalents, due to the different way in which vowels are pronounced in English. In addition, the word by, meaning "village" or "town", occurs in several English place names, such as Whitby and Selby, as remnants of the Viking occupation.

Nowadays Danish is less widespread but still an important language, although it is interesting to learn that in Denmark itself there is no law specifying an official language, so strictly speaking Danish does not have official status there. This is not to say that Danish is under threat in Denmark, indeed it has been entrenched in law as the official language of the courts, which raises the question as to why it has not been proclaimed as the official language of the country. Also, since 1997 public authorities have been obliged to observe the official spelling by way of the Orthography Law. Maybe the answer is simply that the position of the language is so strong that no legal enactment is necessary.

In terms of Danish dialects, the standard form of the language is spoken in and around Copenhagen (the capital of Denmark). This is significant in terms of the demographic spread of the Danish population – more than 25% of all Danes live in and around Copenhagen, and all important governmental and business offices are also based very centrally. This has obvious important implications in terms of the use of standard Danish as against any regional dialects.

Despite the centralised nature of the government and major businesses, and the fact that a large proportion of the Danish population lives near the capital, the geography of the country is somewhat divided, which is a fact which has allowed rural dialects to flourish over time. These local dialects are numerous and widespread, although they have started to decline in the past forty to fifty years – as the rest of the country becomes more centralised. Most people who speak a Danish dialect also speak and understand standard Danish, as dialects seem to be evolving continuously, and taking on more characteristics of the standard form of the tongue. Nowadays there are three main dialect groups in Denmark: Eastern Danish, Island Danish and Jutlandic.

Danish pronunciation is unique and can prove difficult for foreigners to grasp. The main crux of the problem for those who are not native speakers is the fact that both consonants and vowels are considerably reduced in even very formal speech. Another distinguishing factor of the Danish language is the fact that all verb infinitives end in a vowel (usually the letter e). Further to this, and a good thing to know for prospective students of the language, verbs are conjugated according to tense but not to person or number. This means that students do not have to run a mental checklist to see whether they have put the correct ending on the verb to signify plurals, or according to the subject of the sentence. However, for those who are thinking that Danish verbs seem quite easy to grasp, it has to be said that even though conjugation is relatively simple, the vast amount of irregular verbs more than makes up for this fact.

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