READERS REVEAL: The best untranslatable words in Danish

The number of English loan words in the Danish dictionary is growing. We asked our readers in Denmark which Danish words they’d like to see travel in the opposite direction.

A lot of Danish words don't have a direct English equivalent, but which ones would be a great addition for anglophones? We asked our readers.
A lot of Danish words don't have a direct English equivalent, but which ones would be a great addition for anglophones? We asked our readers. Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

The authoritative dictionary of the Danish language, Den Danske Ordbog, was last week updated with 214 new words.

As is usually the case when new words are added to the Danish dictionary, a significant number are popular English loan words.

This year’s additions include cringe, disrupte (‘to disrupt’ with Danish grammar), snooze and gamechanger (contracted into a single word grammatically in Danish).

This got us thinking about Danish words that don’t have a direct equivalent in English, but probably should. So we asked for your input – thanks to all who got in touch.

We’ll start with what was by far the most popular choice. Over two thirds of readers nominated hygge or some variation of it (hyggeligt, hyggelig etc.). The word has in fact already been adopted into the English language, so it technically doesn’t qualify for nomination.

But given its obvious popularity, we’ve little choice but to accept it as the winner of our straw poll and recognise that it just has that certain something that’s hard to define with alternative vocab.

“I’m told it’s so much more than just ‘cosy’ and I try to describe it to my friends in Nova Scotia but it’s not that easy!”, wrote Sonja Bent.

Matheus, meanwhile, said that hygge is “unique, and can be used on many occasions”.

“It’s so very close to all that is Danish. Many English speaking people I know already use it but have little idea what it actually is. If this was part of the English language more would seek to understand it’s real meaning. It’s not just atmospheric, it’s lighting, seating, tone, colours and design,” wrote Scott Wilson.

We can definitely get on board with those sentiments – and we also agree with Walt, who wrote that hygge “doesn’t directly translate, is endemic to Danish culture”.

Other words chosen by our readers include sur, selvfølgelig, hils and forgårs.

Hils, the imperative of at hilse (to greet) – is “efficient and lovely – giving regards to a third party,” one reader wrote to us.

The multi-syllabled selvfølgelig (‘naturally’ or ‘of course’), meanwhile, is “very rhythmic”, another reader said. The noun form of the word, selvfølge means something that is a logical consequence of something else. It’s a word that doesn’t translate to an obvious English equivalent, so we agree it’s a good bet for our list.

Forgårs was praised for its ability to convey a concept that takes handful of words to express in English. “The simplicity of using one word to communicate ‘the day before yesterday’” is a great time saver, Salvador wrote to us.

Sur, literally ‘sour’ but more commonly used to mean ‘angry’, is “very expressive”, one of our readers wrote in to say. Perhaps you could describe a person as being ‘sour’ in English, but we’d say it doesn’t quite have the same impact as the Danish version.

READ ALSO: Five essential words you need when applying for a job in Denmark

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The seven stages of learning Danish every foreigner goes through

You've got your dansk ordbog, you've downloaded all the apps, you are ready and willing to learn Danish. Then you move to Denmark and reality hits. Optimism, overwhelm, delight and then over it: These are some of the emotions familiar to those of us trying to learn the language, writes Emma Firth.

The seven stages of learning Danish every foreigner goes through

Stage one: Optimism 

You’ve decided to move to Denmark. You’ve watched The Killing and Borgen and can pick out the words ‘tak’ and ‘hej hej’, so you’re sure that within a year or so of actually living in the Scandinavian country, you’ll be sounding like Sarah Lund herself. You can’t wait to get started.

Tip: Hold onto the optimism because you’re about to have the shock of your life.

Stage two: Overwhelm

You arrive in Denmark, you’re overwhelmed by the next level life admin and you do not understand a word, not a word, of what is going on around you. You start to recognise written words while you’re out and about; ‘s-tog’, ‘gade’, ‘rugbrød’, but when you say them out loud, oh dear. You soon realise that you can’t learn Danish by reading it in your head. This is a language that needs to be listened to, at slow-speed, then de-coded, put back together and practiced. But you’re too tired for that because you’ve just moved country.

Tip: Enrol in the government’s free Danish language course as soon as you can. It will give you structure and motivation for starting to learn some useful vocabulary and vowel sounds. Duolingo and Google Translate are also your friends.

Stage three: Quiet delight

You’ve passed your first module of your Danish language course. You had a little chat in Danish and explained which country you come from, where you now live with and how many siblings and/or pets you have. This is it. You are going to be fluent in 18 months’ time (after Module 5). There’s tangible progress in your language skills and you are on your way to deciphering Danish.

Tip: Remember this feeling of progression and how good it feels because you’re going to have to keep it going for quite some time. Speak the little Danish you know, over and over again to gain confidence in hearing yourself make the sounds.

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

Stage four: Incredulity

You’re now half way through the language school modules. You’ve put hours and hours into learning this language. You know enough vocabulary to use in everyday life – it’s there in your head – you even know how to spell and conjugate the word. So why, when you go to say the sentence to the person behind the check-out, do they look at you in bewilderment and after another failed attempt, switch to English?

You start to feel like the hard work has been a waste, or perhaps you’re terrible at languages, maybe you’ve actually got an undetected speech impediment. The truth is, Danish takes a lot of hard work and practice to get to conversational stage. The vowel sounds are subtle and plentiful; the only way to master them is to keep speaking Danish. 

Tip: Don’t give up – you know far more than you sound like. Keep talking Danish wherever you can and push past those awkward exchanges, which unfortunately have to happen in order to progress to the next level. Force Danish speakers to stick to Danish, even just for five or ten minutes, or mix up a bit of English into your Danish so you can keep to the general thread of Danish conversation.

READ MORE: The best podcasts for learning and perfecting your Danish

Stage five: Reinforcements

The reason you can’t be understood is not you, it’s Danish. You realise that the language course alone is not going to make you fluent. You need reinforcements. You sign up to a language cafe, force yourself to listen to some Danish podcasts, start to watch more Danish TV and read some children’s books.

Tip: If you haven’t got a Danish person living with you, go and find one who will help you practice. There are schemes where a Danish volunteer can sit with you and help you practice speaking, or you can volunteer yourself in a local charity shop. If you have a cheerleader who reassures you that you can and will be understood, then you will get over that barrier many face after language school finishes.

Stage six: Breakthrough

You are being understood more than you’re not, you can read posters, apartment notices, letters in your e-boks. You are not so embarrassed by the vowel sounds coming out of your mouth and people are impressed you can understand a Danish exchange. 

Tip: Don’t take your foot off the pedal just yet. Keep going with the podcasts, the TV and the reading because stage four can and will still happen, and it can knock you off your course.

Stage seven: Acceptance

Despite your breakthroughs and miles on the clock, you realise you no longer know what fluency feels like. You will never sound exactly like a Dane; there will always be new words or expressions to learn; there will always be someone who responds with a “hvad?” to what you’re saying. But what you now accept is that this is the case with any language and we are all learning every day.

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll enjoy it. One day, you may even find yourself sounding like Sarah Lund, to the untrained ear.