Although Danish belongs to the North Germanic language family – which also includes Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic, all of which sprout from Old Norse – the language spoken in Denmark is unique. Danish is spoken by nearly 6 million people in Denmark, as well as by the Danish minority in Southern Schleswig, in the Faroe Islands and in Greenland – the latter two being self-governing territories of the Kingdom of Denmark.
Danish has 27 different vowel sounds, and is distinctive for the use of stød – a phonological phenomenon unique to Danish that describes a glottal consonant used in its pronunciation. To further confuse anyone learning Danish, the written language has changed little since the 16th century, meaning there’s a big difference between the language that is commonly spoken and the way in which it is written. Visitors to Denmark who attempt to get to grips with the local language will be greeted with kindness by the Danes, so don’t hesitate to ask for help with pronouncing the language’s many sounds.
Whether the Danish hej (pronounced ‘hey’) originates from the Swedish hej or the English ‘hi’ isn’t all that clear, but this simple word is conveniently straightforward to say. The informal greeting is widely used, especially among young people – not just among friends and family, but also to say hello when entering, for example, a restaurant or a shop. The more formal version of hello in Danish is goddag, which means ‘good day’. This more official version is also widely used, and it’s not unlikely that a waiter, bus driver or bartender will greet customers with goddag as an expression of politeness. But, while historically the use of these two phrases depended on factors such as social status and age, they are now used interchangeably. Most young people, though, simply go with the informal hej.
If you want to say goodbye in Denmark in a less formal way than the proper goodbye (which is farvel in Danish), just add another hej to hej. This, hej hej, is the informal Danish phrase to use for saying goodbye.
Though the Danish expression of gratitude originates from the funny-looking Old Norse word þökk and the Old English þanc, tak (tag) is more straightforward. Phonetically, the k is pronounced more like a g, but the short and sharp word is easy for non-Danish speakers to wrap their heads round.
While the Danish yes, ja (pronounced ‘yeh’), might be a close relative of the English yes, this tiny yet important word originates from the Old Norse já and Old English gea. Be aware that the Danish j sound is different to that used in English or even German, and sounds more similar to the y in ‘Yamaha’.
Its opposite, nej (naj), is just like the word used for ‘no’ in neighbouring Sweden. However, it’s also speculated that Denmark’s nej derives from the Old Norse néeigi, which literally means ‘not in anyone’s time’.
Literally, det var så lidt means ‘that was so little’. Somewhat poetic in meaning, it can also be tricky for visitors to pronounce. The word det (the English ‘that’) has no t sound at all. Phonetically, the word is simply pronounced ‘de’, as in ‘deliberate’.
The next challenge, then, would be the word var, which means ‘was’ or ‘were’. This deep sound, similar to the German war (and with the same meaning), is pronounced in the throat rather than up in the mouth.
Then, there’s the little funny-looking så. For a vowel that is already foreign to most, it doesn’t help that its phonetics are complicated, too. The Danish vowel å is pronounced differently depending on the context. In this example, it would be ‘sa’.
The last word, lidt (a little) derives from the older Danish adjectives liden and lidet, which are no longer in use today. Don’t let the dt sound confuse you – if you aim for the English word ‘lid’, you are well on your way.
Vi ses literally means ‘we will see one another’. And though the phrase looks simple enough to read from the point of view of an English speaker, it’s not straightforward. The i in vi is nothing like the English i. Rather, it’s pronounced more like the English ee sound. However, don’t linger on the final vowel – this is a snappy little word that comes to a rapid halt.
The second half of the phrase, ses, which comes from the Danish se, meaning ‘to see’, is a bit simpler to pronounce. It originates from the Old Norse sjá and the Gothic saihwan, which merged to take the meaning of the word Danes now understand as ‘noticing’ and ‘seeing’.
The Danish word skål literally translates as ‘bowl’ and originates from a time when Danes would raise the bowl from which they drank as a way to salute one another. The word itself originates from the Old Norse skál and the German Schale. It’s pronounced to rhyme with ‘hole’. Given the impressive drinking habits of Danes, you will soon familiarise yourself with this word when visiting Denmark.
Jeg (pronounced with a y sound, to rhyme with ‘pie’) originates from the Old Norse ek and the Old English ic with the Latin influence of ego, all of which contribute to its meaning of ‘I’ in Danish. These roots combined to create the old Danish forms of ‘I’, iak and æk, and the modern version, jeg, derives from the former.
The Danish hedder (pronounced like a soft ‘heather’) is the equivalent of the transitive English verb of being called or named. The double d in hedder – like all other double d sounds in Danish – sounds almost like the English th – that is, soft and gentle.
This is a particularly useful phrase for visitors to Denmark, who are likely to need to ask “Where is the museum/the station/the restaurant?” Danish has a whole plethora of words starting with hv, but in all such formations, the h is fully silent.
Many Danish words starting with hv are interrogative words, used to ask questions, and thus quite central to the language. Other important hv words to know are hvem (who), hvad (what) and hvornår (when).
It’s the inevitable question when travelling. You strike up a conversation with someone, and if you don’t ask first, the other person will: “Where are you from?” This is Hvor er du fra? in Danish. The correct answer to that question would be Jeg er fra… (I am from…). Jeg is pronounced as in the phrase Jeg hedder, and er as it looks. Fra is a spoken from the throat rather than whirled off the tongue as in the English from, and is of Old Norse and Gothic origin.
Fedt usually means ‘fat’ in Danish, but det er fedt or just fedt is a slang phrase used quite often by Danes when they want to point out that something is cool or great.
For those who’ve never heard of the Danish term hygge, this expression is used by Danes in order to describe a cosy evening, often spent with friends.
Må jeg bede om en øl? and the more polite version of the same phrase, Jeg vil gerne bede om en øl, are the most commons expressions used in Danish to order a beer. In fact, just saying en øl is also fine, especially in the late hours when not even Danes bother using formalities.
Don’t worry about verbs changing according to person and number as they do in so many languages, including Spanish and English. In Danish, whoever eats or walks or watches – I or you or she or we – the verb stays the same. For example, jeg hedder (my name is), hun hedder (her name is) or vi hedder (our names are).
This article is an updated version of a story originally created by Aliki Seferou.