For members


How did the Danish language end up with its crazy numbers?

From 'enoghalvtreds' (51) to 'nioghalvfems' (99), we look at how the Danish language ended up with such a bizarre numbering system.

How did the Danish language end up with its crazy numbers?
Photo: Andrew Buchanan on Unsplash

Any non-native person learning Danish will have noticed that the numbers – particularly from 50 to 99 – follow a, let’s call it eclectic system.

I’ve been speaking Danish as a second language for well over ten years and my brain still protests whenever someone tells me their telephone number in two-digit clusters. It’s just not that easy to immediately understand and write each set down. (‘Did they say 67? 77? 76? I’m going to need to ask them to repeat it…’)

Even Norwegians and Swedes, whose languages have perfectly normal numbering systems, will readily admit to finding numbers baffling in their Scandinavian sister tongue.

In Danish, the numbers are more or less child’s play until you get to 50, but then things get a little weird.

Single digit numbers and teens follow a pattern you would expect to see if translating number names directly from English.

Twenty (tyve), thirty (tredive) and forty (fyrre) also have their own words in Danish, albeit with somewhat strange spellings.

READ ALSO: Five tips that make it easier to learn Danish

To say a number between 20 and 49, the process is again straightforward: for example, 25 is ‘five-and-twenty’ (femogtyve), 32 is ‘two-and-thirty’ (toogtredive) and 49 is ‘nine-and-forty’ (niogfyrre).

Easy, right? It’s about to become less so.

The common names for numbers 50 (halvtreds), 60 (tres), 70 (halvfjerds), 80 (firs) and 90 (halvfems) are actually shortened versions of even longer number names: halvtredsindstyve, tresindstyve, halvfjerdsindstyve, firsindstyve and halvfemsindstyve.

All of these names have the suffix sindstyve, which comes from the archaic sinde meaning ‘to multiply’, and tyve (20). So the names of each of these numbers come from another number name ‘multiplied by 20’. Most people would think it’s easier to multiply by 10 than by 20, but you do you, Denmark.

We now need to explain where the first half of these number names comes from. This is where it gets flat-out bonkers.

You may have noticed that 50 (halvtreds), 70 (halvfjerds) and 90 (halvfems) each have a prefix as well as the aforementioned suffix. That is to say, they all begin with halv, the Danish word for ‘half’.

But the halv in each of these three cases does not mean the same thing. It is itself abbreviated from other, different words which all begin with halv: a series of old-fashioned Danish words for fractions which literally mean ‘this number minus a half’.

One of these words is still in use in modern Danish: halvanden, meaning one-and-a-half, is a very useful word in itself. It’s quite easy to see that halvanden comes from ‘two minus a half’, since anden means ‘second’ and halv, as we know, means ‘half’.

Still with me? Ok, on we go.

As mentioned, halvanden is one of a family of words for fractions, but the only one still commonly used. The full set is as follows:

  • halvanden: 1½ (literally, ‘the second minus a half’)
  • halvtredje: 2½ (‘the third minus a half’)
  • halvfjerde: 3½ (‘the fourth minus a half’)
  • halvfemte: 4½ (‘the fifth minus a half’)

Clear as crystal? I hope so. Because now we’re leaving this diversion and going back to our multiples of ten from 50-90.

  • 50, halvtreds, is constructed of halvtredje and sindstyve: 2½ times 20 equals 50.
  • 60, tres, is the more simple tre (three) and sindstyve: 3 times 20 equals 60.
  • 70, halvfjerds, is constructed of halvfjerde and sindstyve: 3½ times 20 equals 70.
  • 80, firs, is the more simple fire (four) and sindstyve: 4 times 20 equals 80.
  • 90, halvfems, is constructed of halvfemte and sindstyve: 4½ times 20 equals 90.

From here, the rest of the numbers between 50-99 are plain sailing, since they are spoken the same way as the lower double-figures. So 55 is ‘five-and-fifty’ (femoghalvtreds), 82 is ‘two-and-eighty’ (toogfirs) and 99 is ‘nine-and-ninety’ (nioghalvfems).

I suppose we could say that when you say a number like 55, you are technically saying ‘five-plus-two-and-a-half-times-twenty’… but let’s leave that for now.

So now the logic behind Denmark’s counting system is fully explained, right? Well, not quite, because there’s a dark horse: the number 40.

Earlier, I wrote that the word for 40 in Danish, fyrre, just means 40. But that’s not exactly correct. It’s actually an abbreviation of fyrretyve.

Fear not though, for this time there are no multiples of 20 involved. Fyrretyve comes from the Middle Danish word fyritiughu, which can be translated to ‘four tenners’. Someone, somewhere in Danish history, apparently did see the sense in using multiples of 10 after all.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What are the hardest things about moving to provincial Denmark as a foreigner?

Foreign residents who have moved to lesser-known regions of the country share their experiences of life in provincial Denmark. 

Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators?
Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators? Photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Editor’s note: there are of course also many positives about living in provincial Denmark, and people based in those areas were happy to share those too. Read what they said in this article.

When Lea Cesar moved from Slovenia to the town of Ringkøbing in 2011, she didn’t know much about the region of western Jutland. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t like how difficult it was to find a job as a foreigner in a smaller city,” Cesar told The Local. Back then she didn’t speak Danish, and that made it hard to find a job that matched her skills and qualifications. 

“I later took it as a challenge and started my own company,” Cesar said, opening a cafe and bakery called Baking Sins in central Ringkøbing. Once she’d taken things into her own hands, she thrived and came to love her town. 

“I love the small shops with handcrafted products,” she said, drawing a comparison to the big shops and chain stores of larger cities. “The culture here is totally different. Ringkøbing is a smaller town, but feels big enough for me.”

Considering the pros and cons of a life in lesser-known parts of Denmark has never been more relevant, as the Danish government amps up efforts to decentralise Denmark and municipalities look to internationals to balance out declining populations. 

READ ALSO: Is it easier for foreigners to find a job outside Denmark’s major cities?

There may be fewer job opportunities, depending on your industry and Danish language skills

Fewer job opportunities, Cesar said, is one of the primary differences between living in a town like Ringkøbing versus a larger city. 

“There aren’t as many companies here searching for employees that only speak English,” she said. “I think it’s important to speak at least basic Danish; otherwise it would be hard to come here.”

Antoniya Petkov, originally from Bulgaria, faced similar challenges finding work when she moved to Ringkøbing several years ago after her husband accepted a job at a wind energy company in the area. 

“Most of the job opportunities in my field in the area require a high level of Danish language, which I am still working toward,” Petkov told The Local. 

In the meantime, she continues to commute to Aarhus, where she works as a technical recruiter in systematics at a large Danish software firm. “However, there are a lot more opportunities for developers, engineers and people with a technical job profile where Danish isn’t required,” Petkov said.

Even in technical roles, Danish proficiency helps. 

Victor Balaban, originally from Moldova, moved to Vejle while working at Siemens Gamesa. Although he said there are plenty of job opportunities in the region, Balaban said his options would be significantly more limited if he didn’t speak Danish.

Candice Progler-Thomsen, an American living in Lolland, said Danish proficiency is “almost essential” to find a job in the municipality. “There will be greater job opportunities here for individuals who learn Danish,” she told The Local. 

And, because it’s a smaller area with fewer employers, Progler-Thomsen said people may need to be willing to commute or otherwise expand their job search.

READ ALSO: Why (and how) Danish provincial areas want to hire skilled foreign workers

On the other hand, there may also be less competition for jobs in lesser-known parts of Denmark, said Mariola Kajkowska. 

Originally from Poland, Kajkowska moved to Vejle in 2019, where she works as an employee retention consultant. “There are often fewer applicants for each job, which increases your chance to be selected for the position,” she said.

Speaking Danish is important, professionally and socially

When Petkov first moved to Ringkøbing, it was challenging that she didn’t speak Danish. It was hard to do daily tasks, like communicate with workers at her children’s daycare or chat with her neighbours.

“People were distant at first when we bought our house in a typical Danish neighbourhood,” she said. 

It was very different from Aarhus, where they had lived before moving to Ringkøbing. “Aarhus has a huge international community,” she said. “We were always able to find friends and it was easy to get by speaking English.”

Petkov also missed the variety of English events and activities available in Aarhus. “But, we compensate by going to international events in the municipality,” she said.

Balaban, who established baseball clubs in both Herning and Vejle, said being a part of the community and getting involved is integral to building a social network and making friends in Vejle. “You have to be an active part of society,” he said.

Although learning Danish was a challenge, Petkov also saw it as an opportunity. “I’m not sure I would have learned Danish if we were living in Copenhagen or Aarhus,” she said. “You just don’t need it much there.”

Now, she’s learned enough Danish to engage in small talk with her neighbours. “Once people got used to us, we felt very welcome,” Petkov said, “though I don’t think we will ever blend completely.”

Chris Wantia, also a resident of Ringkøbing-Skjern Municipality, has found Danish to be integral to life in rural Denmark. 

He lives in the village of Bork Havn, population 300. “When I walk out of my house, I don’t expect my 65-year-old Danish neighbour to speak to me in English,” Wantia told The Local.

“English may be fine in the big cities, but speaking Danish here is important,” he said, adding that it would have been very challenging to purchase and renovate the two homes he and his wife, Janine, own in the municipality if he didn’t speak Danish. 

A second silver lining Petkov has identified is that living in Ringkøbing has also enabled her family to engage more deeply with Danes and Danish culture, adding that most of her friends are Danish. 

“If you really want to dive into Danish culture, a place like Ringkøbing is amazing,” she said.

There’s less to do, depending on your interests (and you might need to drive)

“You can count on one hand the number of good restaurants within 50 kilometres of Bork Havn,” Wantia told The Local. Although that wasn’t a dealbreaker for him and his wife, Janine, it might be worth some consideration before moving to a village like Bork Havn. 

“If you want many restaurants, parties, or meeting new people all the time, this isn’t the place for you,” he said. “It’s quiet here. Some people might not like that, but it’s perfect for us.”

Vejle, though much larger than Bork Havn with a population of 113,000, also isn’t a very lively city in terms of nightlife, according to Balaban.

“I’d say it’s a mature city,” he said. “It’s a quiet city that attracts a lot of families and people who are more settled down.”

Ultimately, having ‘things to do’ nearby depends on which activities you prefer. 

In Lolland, Progler-Thomsen said it’s “a bit of a sacrifice” to not have easy access to the cultural activities the family had in Copenhagen. 

READ ALSO: Are provincial parts of Denmark a good option for international families?

In exchange, her family has access to activities it enjoys that weren’t available in Copenhagen, including many outdoor activities and sports. “We love the Safari Park that’s only a 7-minute drive from our house,” Progler-Thomsen said. 

That’s something else to consider, though: driving. 

Kajkowska, in Vejle, said driving will play more of a role in one’s life, living in these parts of Denmark. “I was at a party the other night and two cars had driven one and a half hours from Sønderborg to come to the party,” she said.

READ ALSO: What benefits does life in provincial Denmark offer foreign residents?

For the most part, Petkov said she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out by living in Ringkøbing.

She enjoys several favorite cafes in town, an Italian restaurant where they are regulars and enjoy chatting with the owners, exploring the beaches and woods, and escaping to the wellness hotel near their house for mini-breaks. “In the summer, it feels like living at a resort,” Petkov said. 

“Ringkøbing is a great place for our family,” she said. “The benefits outweigh the drawbacks for us.”