Learning Danish

How much do you really know about one of the happiest countries in the world – Denmark? Surely, you have heard of the Vikings, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlsberg beer or Lego, but there is much more to Denmark than this. Not many people would find Denmark a good match for a summer vacation, but before you jump to conclusions too early, let me introduce you a bit to the amazing land that Denmark is.

Imagine yourself spending a day sightseeing a lovely little town, with hundreds or even thousands of years of history and heritage, relaxing on a long sandy beach, trying out delicious Danish pastries and enjoying a cold glass of good beer with your friends. That little cozy feeling of enjoyment and togetherness that you felt is a big deal in Denmark, and Danes call it ‘hygge’.

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you a bit more about the Danish language. Danes know that their language is a little hard to learn, or even pronounce, but Danes would be very happy to see that you are trying. So, stay with me, because this article will come in handy when in Denmark.

The Little Mermaid bronze statue, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Danish Language

Dansk sprog’ or Danish language is spoken by nearly six million people all across Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Southern Schleswig region in northern Germany. A descendant of Old Norse (the language of the Germanic peoples that lived in Scandinavia in the Viking Era), Danish derives from the East Norse dialect group, or, according to a newer classification, is one of the ‘mainland Scandinavian’ languages.

Danish consists of 29 letters, and has an unusual prosody. Danes speak very informal and rapid, and this makes it difficult for foreigners to learn or understand the language. Several vowels may be unnatural for some people to pronounce, such as: æ, ø or å, and people may say that Danish sounds like a person speaking with a potato in their mouth, but, eventually, that is what makes Danish different and unique.

If you try to learn to pronounce these vowels you may get some interesting analogies on how these should be pronounced. For example, to pronounce the ‘å’ vowel, you should try and say ‘Oh my god’. That first ‘oh’ sound is nearly how the Danish ‘å’ should sound like.

To pronounce the ‘æ’, just pretend that you are not sure about something, and you are just thinking out loud. It is a combination of ‘a’ and ‘e’, and sounds like something between ‘ahh’ and ‘ehh’. It works similarly about the ‘ø’, but this time it should be somewhere between ‘o’ and ‘e’.

It is super important to know how to properly use these vowels, as the whole meaning of the word can change depending on it. For example, ‘hær’ means ‘army’, ‘hør’ means ‘hear’, and ‘hår’ means hair. Mixing these up could get you into a pretty weird or awkward situation (you do not want your hairdresser to wash your army, right?!)

Useful Danish Phrases

Now that you’ve got pronunciation covered, you are ready to learn some every-day, basic Danish phrases. Make no mistake, you will hardly ever get into a conversation with strangers in Denmark, unless you initiate it. Privacy is very important to Danes, so they will not do anything to violate yours. But, if you are in the mood for getting to know Danish people, here are some conversation starters:

Danes may pronounce your name in their specific Danish way. The letter ‘d’ can be silent, or pronounced as a soft ‘l’ (unless it is in the beginning of the word), so, if your name is David, this is what you should expect it to sound like, written phonetically – ‘Dejvil’.

Assuming you are a first time visitor, Danes will not expect you to be able to speak Danish. As a matter of fact, most of them speak English perfectly. But, if you want to show them that you respect their culture and language, you should definitely try and use some Danish words – Danes will appreciate that. So, here are a few words, that every foreigner should know:

If you want to greet someone, use these phrases:

Danes use the word ‘Tak’ - ‘Thanks’ all the time, and they have a number of ways of expressing it. ‘Tak’ is a manner of showing that you are polite, or, as Danes would say ‘høflig’. Amongst the other expressions, these are a few ways for you to say thank you:

As previously mentioned, Danes are not social butterflies, but they have their special way of being together. What they do most, is the so-called ‘hygge’, which could be translated to something like ‘coziness’ in English. They are very close to a group of people that they have known for a long time (probably since primary or high school), they get together, have some food, usually some good meat with potatoes, they watch a movie and they ‘hygge sig’ – get cozy together.

However, this is not the case with younger people or teenagers. One thing that gets them more relaxed and socially open is alcohol. Danes like to enjoy a good glass of beer, mostly the domestic ones such as Carlsberg or Tuborg.

Picture this: you enter a bar on a fun Friday night and you want to order a drink. Two scenarios could happen. In the first scenario (and the more convenient one for you), the bartender walks up to you and asks:

At this point, you can only answer by saying what your preferred drink would be, and of course, with a ‘thank you’ at the end. In Danish, it goes like this:

Or, if you are the ambitious kind, you could give a nice full answer like:

And yes, in this case, they use ‘tak’ more as a ‘please’ than ‘thank you’. It is a very universal word that Danes use many times a day, so make sure you remember it!

If you want to get the real Danish experience, you will for sure end up with a glass of beer in your hand, lifted up in the air, saying:

When you are in Denmark, you do not just go by without buying some gummy bears, marzipan, liquorish or the Danish ‘fluff balls’ called ‘flødeboller’. And of course, you want to buy a bit more, so you can bring back to your friends or family, so they can have a taste of Denmark as well.

So, you are in a candy shop, you want to buy some delicious treats, and you are wondering what the price is. This is how you ask:

Practical Danish Phrases

You are in Denmark for the first time, and you need to ask people for directions, or any other possible information that you might need. When you approach a person, the first thing you should ask is if they speak English:

Danes are not fond or hierarchies, and they tend to speak to each other in an informal manner, mostly using first names, or referring to someone with ‘du’ - ‘you’, instead of the polite ‘De’ – ‘You’.

It is highly likely that people will speak English, but in the case of the contrary, you should be prepared to hear an answer that would go like this:

Hopefully you will not get into this situation, but in case you need help, or you need a doctor, here is how you say it in Danish:

Denmark is one of the safest and happiest countries in the world, but, a traveler should be prepared for everything. In case you lose something valuable, you would probably get it back soon, from the lovely person who found it on the street. Danes are very calm and rational people, and they always avoid conflict. However, for you to understand their sense of humor, you should get used to hearing a lot of sarcastic jokes.

In case you are stuck at the bus stop with a stranger for too long, here are some phrases that you can use to break the ice and get that conversation going:

or the more probable one (except the few summer months June-August)

However, if you ask a Danish person, they would say:

One warning though, Danish people are very concerned with privacy, and they will never invade yours. So, before you ask someone ‘Hvordan går det?’ - ‘How are you?’, make sure, that you REALLY want to know what is going on in their lives. It is just the Danish lifestyle.

For the romantic souls out there, here are some expressions to use:

Denmark may not be an exotic destination for your summer vacation, but it is definitely a country that is worth visiting. Apart from the main land, there are 1419 Danish islands, out of which 78 are inhibited and open for adventurous visitors to create great memories.