The Danish language belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family. This means it has many similarities with German, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, and so on. Although English is also a member of the Germanic branch, it shares less (but still enough) similarities with the mentioned languages.
This is due to the centuries of Latin influence on English, as a result of which it has become a fusion of Latin (original source for Roman languages like Spanish, Italian, French, etc.) and Common German (original source for languages like German, Gothic, Swedish, etc). As a result, knowledge of English and German will be a good asset when starting the Danish language.
Although there is only one Standard Danish (the official language of the country, mainly spoken around Copenhagen area), its dialects differ depending on the regions. The differences between the dialects may sometimes be very high and cause misunderstandings even between the locals. This doesn’t mean you have to know all the dialects or even try to understand them. Whenever you hear something strange and unusual, don’t panic, you’re still in Denmark, and you can still communicate in Standard Danish or English.
Danish dialects split into three main categories: Eastern, Jutlandic and Island Danish. These three dialects are mainly spoken in rural areas of the country. With the technological developments, particularly the wide-spread media, the language of which is the Standard Danish, the usage of dialects has decreased over time, and more people have started to use Standard Danish.
The eastern Danish (also known as the Bornholmsk dialect) is spoken, as the name itself suggests, on the island of Bornholm. Some part of the Eastern Danish dialect is currently in Sweden, which is why the correct classification of this dialect can be questioned.
Jutlandic Danish (also known as the Western Danish dialect) is spoken on the island of Jutland. It stands out with its differences with Standard Danish, which is the main reason why people living in the eastern part of the country often have a difficulty understanding this dialect.
The island Danish is mainly spoken on the islands, like Zealand, Fyn and so on. It is said that this dialect corresponds to the Standard Danish the most.
Although it would be highly appreciated by the locals if you spoke Danish, English will also be understood in most parts of Denmark. Schools teach English from the second (some from the third) grade, and the majority of population understands and speaks basic English. In urban areas, specifically in large cities like Copenhagen, the overwhelming majority speaks fluent English.
As Danish is one of the most difficult languages to learn, the locals would prefer you speak good English rather than broken Danish. Very often, once they have identified an English-speaking foreigner in front of them, they will switch to English before you can say a word, otherwise they will have a hard time understanding an accent-flavored Danish. This makes Denmark one of the most comfortable countries to visit, being sure you will be understood wherever you go. On the other hand, you will have to warn them beforehand if you want to keep practicing speaking Danish, and hope that they will have enough patience to help you out.
However, this criterion applies only to tourists. If you plan to work, study or live in Denmark for longer period, some basic Danish will be appreciated and in some cases even required. One of the fastest and most effective ways of learning the language is taking a special course.
Danish language courses are mainly offered by public and private schools. These courses offer introductory education about the Danish culture and traditions as well.
If you plan to move to Denmark, you will need to know some Danish to fully integrate into the society. If you are over 18, have a residence permit and a registration number, you can start a three-year language course, organized by your municipal authority.
The language course is absolutely free of charge and must be provided in no later than a month after your application has been received. The only payment you might make is the participation fee.
After the language course is assigned by the municipality, the course provider enrolls you in one of the three levels of the Danish language. The course ends with a language proficiency test. The language proficiency certificate will allow you to be admitted to Danish universities.
Note that all three levels will include the so-called background knowledge, i.e. first-hand information on Danish traditions, local labor market and democratic values.
For newcomers, language courses are a great way of meeting new friends and making useful acquaintances. It will also open new opportunities and a chance to become an equal member of the Danish society.
Learning the Alphabet
Until the 18th century, Danish people have put the Runic alphabet into use. Now Denmark and Norway share the exact same alphabet. It consists of 29 letters, the first 26 of which are the letters of the English alphabet.
There are three additional letters at the end: æ, ø and å. Even if you don’t know the Danish language, the knowledge of the alphabet and the correct pronunciation of the letters will help you avoid misunderstandings when asking directions, naming Denmark cities and reading the signs around the country (especially when driving).
As you are most probably familiar with the first 26 letters (considering you can read and understand this text), clarification may be needed on the last three Scandinavian-peculiar letters.
- The letter ‘æ’ stands for ‘ae’ and is pronounced like the ‘a’ in the word ‘cat’ (phonetic transcription [kæt]).
- The letter ‘ø’ is the new variant of ‘oe’ or ‘ö’. It is pronounced the same way as the ‘u’ in the word ‘murder’ (phonetic transcription [mərdər]).
- The letter ‘å’ has been incorporated into the alphabet just recently, in 1948, to replace the letter combination ‘aa.’ The letter is pronounced as short ‘o’ (phonetic transcription [ɒ]). Although modern Danish includes this letter wherever necessary, there are some words and names, which have survived in their original form, others are used according to new rules. Examples of these are Aalborg and Århus.
Danish Words and Phrases
Even if you know English perfectly, a couple of Danish words and phrases will always please the locals and come handy. Here are a few easy-to-learn phrases for travelers to start a topic and ask for help.
- Hello — Goddag (formal) /Hej (informal)
- Can you help me, please? – Kan du hjælpe mig?
- Yes/No – Ja/Nej
- What’s your name? – Hvad hedder du?
- My name is … – Jeg hedder …
- Where are you from? – Hvorfra kommer du?
- I’m from … – Jeg kommer fra …
- How are you? – Hvordan har du det?
- I’m fine, thanks. – Jeg har det fint, tak.
- I’m looking for … – Jeg leder efter …
- How much is it? – Hvor meget koster
- Excuse me – Undskyld
- Thanks – Tak
- Goodbye – Farvel
Official language – Danish
Language Family – Indo-European
Branch – Germanic
Second language – English
Alphabet – 29 letters
Dialects – Eastern, Jutlandic, Island Danish