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Five Danish words I now use in English

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Five Danish words I now use in English
"Kommune" is a lot easier to say than "municipality". Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

One of the consequences of learning a foreign language is that some words end up slipping into your everyday English, whether intentionally or subconsciously.

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Getting to a stage where I felt entirely comfortable using the Danish language, regardless of who I was speaking to or the nature of the conversation, was a long process which took a number of years.

Even today, with many years in Denmark under my belt, I still get frustrated when I feel unable to express myself as clearly as I would in English.

But one thing I didn’t expect about becoming a Danish speaker was that I would find myself using Danish words in my everyday English, too.

READ ALSO: The seven stages of learning Danish every foreigner goes through

Sometimes it’s due to laziness or sometimes for conciseness, but I often use these words amongst Danish-speaking friends instead of their English equivalents. 

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Kommune 

The local government in Denmark is called a kommune, a word which is most accurately translated as “municipality”.

City municipalities are a common concept in many countries, but in the United Kingdom, where I grew up, the local authority is usually termed the “town council”, “city council”, “district council” or, most commonly in everyday speech, simply “the council”.

This probably why I find the word “municipality” doesn’t roll off the tongue very well and so, when speaking to Danes in English or foreigners who live in Denmark, I skip the proper translation and just go with kommune.

Barsel

The catch-all term for pregnancy leave and parental leave in Danish is barsel.

There are various forms and extensions of this word: barselsorlov refers more directly to the actual time off that you take during parental leave; while barselsdagpenge means the pay you receive from your employer or from the state while off work to take care of your baby.

Barsel can be applied to both mothers and fathers and so is a lot easier to say than either “maternity leave” or “paternity leave”. The gender neutral “parental leave” is used less frequently than barsel is in Danish, and the latter word has fewer syllables and is much easier to say. Which comes in handy when you’re down on sleep and struggling to string more than a few coherent words together.

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Gymnasium

A gymnasium is not a gym (which are called fitness center in Danish) but an “upper secondary school”, a further education institution typically attended by young people age 17-19 between elementary school and university.

Like some of the other words in this list, my preference for saying this word (with its Danish pronunciation) when speaking English is that it is the only word that accurately signifies what I’m trying to say, because education systems vary between countries.

If I called gymnasium “sixth form”, it would probably be nonsense to anyone not from the UK. “College” might work but not for people from the United States, who associate the word with university. The normal translation in written language, “upper secondary school”, is too much of a mouthful and also not very clear.

This makes gymnasium by far the best option provided the listener knows what one is and doesn’t mind the clunkiness of a Danish-sounding word in an English sentence.

Børnehave/vuggestue

Denmark’s high standard of childcare provisions mean that it’s very common for small children to start attending daycare before their second birthday.

Initially, this will be at a creche or nursery which caters for the needs of smaller children with naps, nappy (diaper) changes and smaller groups. The is a vuggestue or literally a “cradle room”.

Just before little ones turn three, they leave vuggestue and start at børnehave, the Danish word for “kindergarten”. At børnehave, children are mostly toilet trained, don’t nap and things go at a much faster pace with play and activities that help promote the development of kids aged 3-5.

These words tell the listener not just that a child goes to daycare, but also their age group and the type of nursery they attend, and therefore convey a lot more information than an English translation would be able to.

READ ALSO: Vuggestue or dagpleje? The difference between early Danish childcare options

Kasse

I use this Danish word (often inadvertently) because it's easier than having to find the right equivalent word in English.  

For example, in English we have separate words for "checkout", "till", "paypoint" and "cash register", but in Danish, the word kasse covers them all. It's also a slang term for "goal".

So this is an example of a Danish word being less specific than English while also being short and easy to say. 

It also means “box”, although should be used with caution in this sense because two other words can also mean “box”: æske for a smaller box like a gift box or shoe box; and sometimes the loan word boks.

For this reason, I usually say “box” when I mean “box”, but might find myself saying kasse when talking about paying in a store.

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