Danish and German: How similar are these languages?

Danish and German are both Germanic languages which means that they both originate from a common ancestor language which linguists refer to as the Proto-Germanic language.

Because of this common ancestry, Danish and German share a number of similar vocabulary words. The small differences between these similar vocabulary words are not random: there are noticeable patterns.

Many of these patterns reflect a linguistic phenomenon called the high German consonant shift. Between the 3rd and the 8th century there were a series of pronunciation changes which occurred in the German language.

These consonant shifts occurred in German but not in the other Germanic languages like Danish, English, Dutch, etc..

Three of the main high German consonant shifts are the following:

Vocabulary similarities between Danish and German

The following tables present Danish and German vocabulary words side by side which illustrate these consonant shifts.

Some Danish and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (d→t) consonant shift :
English Danish German
cold kold kalt
day dag Tag
word ord Wort
good godt gut
door dør Tür
red d rot
rare sjælden selten
page side Seite
necessary dvendig notwendig
work arbejde Arbeit
Some Danish and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (k→ch) consonant shift :
English Norwegian German
people mennesker Menschen
milk mælk Milch
false falsk falsch
school skole Schule
shoe sko Schuh
secure sikker sicher
to wash vaske waschen
ship skib Schiff
writing skrivning Schreiben
six seks sechs
Some Danish and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (t→z) consonant shift :
English Danish German
heart hjerte Herz
train tog Zug
salt salt Salz
tool værktøj Werkzeug
ten ti zehn
two to zwei
coincidence tilfælde Zufall
to draw tegne zeichnen

The German letter z is generally pronounced ‘ts’. So this consonant shift amounts to adding an s sound after the t sound.

German has different rules for capitalization than Danish. In German all nouns are capitalized, this is not the case in Danish.

Danish vs. German alphabet and pronunciation

In German and in Danish, there are some letters which are pronounced differently from the way they are pronounced in English:

VIn many German words the letter v is pronounced like an English ‘f’ sound.
For example, the German word “Vogel” and the Danish word “fugl” (both translate to “bird”) are closer in pronunciation than in spelling.

JThe German letter j is pronounced like an English ‘y’. Similarly, the Danish letter j is often also pronounced like an English ‘y’ (except in loanwords). An example is the word ‘yes’ which translates to ‘Ja’ in both German and Danish (although they sound different both start with a y sound).

WThe German letter w is pronounced like an English ‘v’. While the letter w is not used in the spelling of Danish words (except in loanwords) it is common in German. For instance, German question words often start with a ‘w’: Was (what), Wer (who), Warum (why).

ZThe letter z does not occur in the spelling of native Danish words. In contrast, it occurs fairly often in the spelling of German words. In German the letter z is pronounced like a ‘ts’ sound and not like an English ‘z’

CBoth Danish and German spelling favor the letter ‘k’ over the letter ‘c’. The letter ‘c’ is not used in the spelling of native Danish words (although it occurs in some loanwords, such as “succes” - which comes from the French word “succès” meaning “success” )

While the letter ‘c’ occurs frequently in German spelling, it is generally in the ‘ch’ or ‘sch’ letter combinations. For a ‘k’ sound, German spelling will typically use the letter ‘k’ instead of the letter ‘c’ (except in loanwords)

German and Danish spelling favors the letter 'k' over the letter 'c' :
English Danish German
correct korrekt Korrekt
cold kold kalt
cat kat Katze
culture kultur Kultur
coffee kaffe Kaffee
music musik Musik

German Danish vocabulary false friends

Although there are many similar vocabulary words between Danish and German, there are few which appear to be similar while in fact meaning different things.

In the context of language learning the term “false friends” refers to pairs of words from two different languages which sound alike but have completely different meanings.

Some Danish-German vocabulary false friends :
Danish German
gift
(married)
Gift
(poison)
blød
(soft)
blöd
(stupid)
øl
(beer)
Öl
(oil)
ost
(cheese)
ost
(east)
dom
(judgment)
Dom
(cathedral)

So how close are Danish and German?

Although Danish and German are both Germanic languages which originate from the Proto-Germanic language they are not exactly siblings, instead they are more like distant cousins.

A more recent ancestor to the Danish language is old Norse, the language spoken in Scandinavia during the Viking age.

German (unlike Danish) does not descend from old Norse. German is a West Germanic language, while Danish is a North Germanic language.

Danish is much less close to German than it is to North Germanic languages like Swedish and Norwegian.

Danish and German differences and similarities in Grammar

German is considered to be a more difficult language than Danish for English speakers to learn.

In fact the US Foreign Service Institute ranks Danish as a category 1 language (the easiest category) while German is ranked as a category 2 language. They estimate that compared to Danish, studying German takes 33% longer to reach the same level of working proficiency.

The difference in difficulty between Danish and German is not a question of vocabulary: it is due to differences in grammar.

The German language has preserved some grammatical features which have disappeared from other Germanic languages such as Danish and English.

The aspect of German grammar which is the most challenging for English speakers is the use of declensions to indicate grammatical cases. These exist in the Danish parent language Old Norse but they have mostly disappeared from the Danish language used today.

English speakers are not accustomed to declensions for grammatical cases as these have mostly disappeared from the English language. In English there are only traces of these left, for example the distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ (which many English speakers don’t even use much).

PS: you can use our free language tool, VocabChat to record your own vocabulary and phrase lists.