Julie Larsen, who teaches Danish at the University of Edinburgh, explains the links between Danish and English, and gives advice for language learners.
When people learn that I’m a Danish language teacher, they often ask why someone chooses to study Danish. Could it be a love of Danish crime dramas, or an inclination to commuting by bicycle?
With the country's population at just over 5.7 million, Danish is one of the smaller European languages. Most Danes also speak fluent English. A lot of students of Danish are surprised – and probably relieved – that it has many similarities to English. Words like datter, hus, arm, sten (daughter, house, arm, stone) are examples of basic concepts and things, and their likeness to English shows the historical relationship between the two languages.
This likeness is even stronger in Scotland, where I teach. The Danish words kigge, kende, barn are similar to the Scots words keek, ken, bairn – look, know and child.
Both Danish and English belong to the Germanic language family. If we view this like a simplified family tree, we could say that Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are 'siblings', and that English, Dutch and German (who can be perceived as each other’s 'siblings') are their cousins. This close relation means that not only are many words recognisable – the grammar and the pronunciation aren’t so different either.
English has much more similarity with Danish than with, for example, Chinese, Russian or Basque. Another advantage of this language family is that once you know some Danish, you will be able to understand a good amount of Norwegian and Swedish.
Amongst Scandinavians, the Danish get teased for their difficult number system. But who says that numbers should be based on multiples of ten? Our calendars aren't. The Danes, like the Germans, say ‘one-and-twenty’ for 21, and after 49 it gets complicated. 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 are halvtreds, tres, halvfjerds, firs and halvfems respectively. To explain what’s going on here, tres is a shortened form of tre-sinds-tyve, meaning three times twenty, and firs the shortened form of fire-sinds-tyve. Halv is a half which you subtract, so 'half-three' is not three-and-a-half, but three minus a half. Some examples of 50, 70 and 90 are as follows:
Halv-tre-sinds-tyve ~ half three times twenty ~ 2.5 x 20 = 50
Halv-fjerd-sinds-tyve ~ half four times twenty ~ 3.5 x 20 = 70
Halv-fem-sinds-tyve ~ half five times twenty ~ 4.5 x 20 = 90
So is the Danish word for 100 'fems' (fem-sinds-tyve)? No, it’s hundrede.
Some nice Danish words and phrases
For an English speaker, Danish has some familiar vocabulary, and grammar shouldn’t be too big a challenge. But there are three extra vowels in the alphabet and about 40 vowel sounds, some strangely pronounced consonants and silent letters – not to mention confusing numbers. In addition there is a hiccup/abrupt stop. There are bound to be some interestingly pronounced words.
A common favourite is øjeblik meaning literally in the blink of an eye, from the German equivalent Augenblick. You can say lige et øjeblik (just a moment) if you need some time to think of your next Danish word. It’s pronounced something like leeeet oyy-blick.
Another useful word is selvfølgelig (of course, obviously, sure). The ‘v’ and the last ‘g’ are silent. The middle ‘g’ is pronounced as ‘y’ (as a consonant) and the ‘e’ is deleted and the syllable is taken over by ‘l’ (schwa-assimilation). Due to rapid speech, the ‘y’-sound disappears, and the two now adjacent I's are pronounced as one. What we could be left with is half the word – se-fø-li.
Saying 'thank you'
Danes, lacking a word for 'please', express politeness with grammar - but they do like to say thank you. They are specific when saying thanks, so it is tak for mad (thanks for food), tak for i dag (thanks for today), and tak for sidst (thanks for the last time – to text your host/date after a dinner/meeting).
How to learn Danish
The best way to learn Danish, in my opinion, is in a class. It can be in your own country, or in Denmark at a summer school. It’s great to be able to practise with other students of Danish in a supportive environment. The teacher can check if you’re pronouncing the ‘r’ just right, and if the stress is at the right place.
If you’re not able to take a class, there are some good websites and apps out there, which would also be a useful supplement to a language class. You should also dedicate time to practise on your own. In fact, the more you can expose yourself to Danish, the better.
You will need lots of listening practice because many Danes speak fast. You can watch Danish film and TV series, listen to Danish radio, listen to Danish music (especially rap, which can give a good idea about rhythm and rhymes). You can also check Danish news for a story you are already familiar with, or search for a Danish pen pal. And of course, if you’re able, try to use a little Danish on a trip to Denmark. The Danish barista may quickly and effortlessly switch to English when they notice you’re struggling to order your kaffe (coffee), but just say jeg vil gerne tale dansk (I would like to speak Danish). Hopefully, the answer will be selvfølgelig.
About the illustrator
Chris Tompkins is a print designer with a focus on book and poster design, identity creation/branding, illustration, layout and art direction. See more of his work at christompkinsdesign.com.