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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READERS REVEAL: What learning Danish changes about your life in Denmark

We asked our readers in Denmark why they learned to speak Danish and what it has changed about their lives.

READERS REVEAL: What learning Danish changes about your life in Denmark

For the majority of foreigners who live in Denmark, learning the Danish language comes with the territory of relocating to the country. It’s not always an easy process, but it can be a rewarding one.

We asked our readers what learning Danish had changed for them. We received a lot of interesting answers and input – thanks to all who took the time to answer our survey.

Some said that learning Danish was a personal decision while for others, it was a requirement of immigration rules.

“It was my own decision to learn the language to be able to understand what is happening around me in daily life (on public transport, in the shop, on the street, what my colleagues are chatting about when they don’t use English), and with the hope that I can easier build up some social connections with locals! If I live in a foreign country, then it’s the minimum to speak and understand the language at some extent,” said Dorina.

“I’m still in module 1 [of the national language school programme, ed.], so no change (to my life) yet, but I can see that my colleagues are valuing my effort very much,” she added.

Pedro told us that “as a person who’s lived in a few countries since I was very young, I do understand the enormous value of completely emerging oneself and learning the language of your current home.”

“It opens up a whole new world in a sense and it helps you to be fully engaged into a new society. And I’ve felt that the locals truly appreciate it when someone knows their language,” he said.

“That’s especially true with Danish since relatively there are so few speakers in the world,” he added.

“Regardless of my own desire to learn I do need to learn to pass a few language exams to fulfil my visa requirements, for permanent residency and hopefully citizenship exams,” Pedro also said while adding that knowing Danish would likely broaden his career options while in Denmark.

Lizzie meanwhile said she had begun learning Danish “because I decided to stay in the country after graduation, so it made sense to learn Danish, so I can integrate easier.”

“I’m from outside the EU. It was compulsory for me to learn (Danish) on a reunification visa,” Barry said.

Being able to speak Danish had a range of impacts on the lives of our respondents.

“After 10 years I still work in a predominately English workplace,” Barry said, adding that he used the local language “when out shopping and (for) other simple everyday interactions.”

Learning Danish has “enabled me to engage and become involved in society, build a social circle independent of my wife’s social circle and become more eligible in my previous professional field,” wrote Lyle, who was required to learn the language to meet visa requirements.

“Danes hold you in a higher regard when you engage in Danish even if you attempt and you suck a bit,” he said.

Another reader, Iulian, said language classes were a good place to “meet people having the same obstacles and make new friends.”

“And it is free now,” he noted.

READ ALSO: More foreigners go to Danish language classes after fees scrapped

“I have a nice relation with my 70-plus year-old neighbour who speaks only Danish. He helped us with so many things so far, things I would have not known if he would not have told me. It was possible because I learned some Danish, enough to understand each other,” Iulian said.

“Finding work and internships I think has been easier” with Danish, wrote Lizzie, adding that even at international companies, Danish can help you feel more at home.

“Almost everyone speaks Danish in the breaks,” she said.

“It’s allowed me to communicate with others, especially at my son’s vuggestue [childcare] where many don’t speak English as much as the general population,” Pedro added.

Dorina told us that “A whole new world opens up by understanding what’s going on around me.”

“The biggest achievement of starting the language is that I can already catch some words from locals and be able to differentiate words within a sentence when they speak,” she said.