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Four aspects of learning Danish that baffle English speakers (and one easy one)

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Four aspects of learning Danish that baffle English speakers (and one easy one)
Several aspects of Danish can be trying for learners. Photo: PeopleImages/GettyImages

Learning a language is a minefield of embarrassment, frustration and potential rudeness. From struggling to get the gender right to wrestling with inverted word order, here are some of the perils of learning Danish.

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Every language has its snares that certain nationalities are destined to get caught in at some point on their journey to fluency.

Here are just some of the ones that any of us who have had a punt at learning Danish will have experienced, and if you haven’t yet, the points below may save you from making the same mistakes we did – det var så lidt.

Let’s start with the most obvious, and frankly irritating, subject of...

Gender 

Many languages apply gender to inanimate objects, but if your first language is English – where this isn’t the case – it can be hard to get a grip on.

The version of noun gendering in Danish is not the straightforward ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ familiar from romance languages such as French or Spanish, but the even less logical ‘gendered’ and ‘ungendered’ (fælleskøn and intetkøn in Danish).

For the uninitiated, gendered nouns use the article en (for example, en bil/bilen = a car/the car), while ungendered nouns have the article et (for example, et hus/huset = a house/the house).

Why is a car gendered, but a house not? Why is an animal ungendered (et dyr), but a bird (en fugl) gendered? It’s a total mystery and can only really be mastered by memorisation. Frustratingly, the essentially irrelevant mistake of saying something like en hus can earn you a frown of confusion from a native speaker when trying to converse in Danish.

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Inverted verb/subject order

Like English, most Danish sentences are structured subject-verb-object (hun kører bilen = she drives/is driving the car).

However, the introduction of an adverb gives an inverted verb-subject order (with the verb being placed in front of the subject), something that doesn’t happen in English. For example, with nu kører hun bilen = 'now she is driving the car', you’ll notice the hun (‘she’) and kører (‘driving’) have swapped positions in the Danish version.

Note this also applies when the adverb comes later in the sentence, such as in det gør jeg aldrig (meaning ‘I never do that’ but words ordered as that-do-I-never).

This can easily catch out a native English speaker who is learning Danish, who would find it natural to say something like jeg gør rent, og så jeg laver mad instead of the grammatically correct jeg gør rent, og så laver jeg mad (‘I’ll clean and then I’ll make dinner’).

The former, incorrect version sounds jarring to Danes but is a very easy mistake to make, and one that has tripped me up on countless occasions.

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More or more?

There are two words for 'more' in Danish, mere and flere.

It’s relatively straightforward to explain the difference. Mere applies to something that can’t be counted (er der mere vand? = is there (any) more water?), while flere is used when the item is countable (er der flere kartofler? = are there (any) more potatoes?).

Generally, if you’re not sure which one to use, ask whether what you’re talking about can be counted, and you’ll pick the right word.

Unfortunately, this is muddied by the fact Danish considers money to be something that is always countable, rather than spoken about more abstractly like in English. So ‘a lot of money’ becomes mange penge – literally, ‘many monies’ (the Danish word for ‘a lot’ is meget).

This means you have to say flere instead of the more intuitive mere when talking about money in Danish: jeg har ikke flere penge is correct, even though it would mean ‘I don’t have any more monies’ if translated literally.

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When to say jo

Jo, like the word ja, means yes – but knowing which of the two to use is often tricky for Danish learners.

A reasonably simple rule to remember is that ja is used for affirmative answers to positive questions...

Taler du dansk? Ja ('Do you speak Danish?' 'Yes')

… and jo is used when answering negated questions in the affirmative:

Taler du ikke dansk? Jo ('Don't you speak Danish?' 'Yes [I do]')

It is also used to contradict a previous negation, like in an argument: Nej! Jo! Nej! Jo! (Yes! No! Yes! No!).

In other words, jo is used to mark that the answer to a negative question is not what might have been expected, or to express an opinion which is different from what someone else just said.

It also has a bunch of other nuances that I won’t go into here, other than to say: it’s a lot harder than just saying ‘yes’.

It’s not all bad… the verb ‘to be’

An area of Danish that is far easier than English is the verb ‘to be’. The infinitive form in Danish is at være, but then things get simple as it conjugates to er for first, second and third person present tense forms, in both plural and single:

I am = jeg er

We are = vi er

You are = du er

You (plural) are = I er

He is = han er

She is = hun er

They are = de er

This makes the verb ‘to be’, often an obstacle course in foreign languages, incredibly simple to learn in Danish.

On the flip side, it means Danes often struggle to choose the right version of ‘to be’ when speaking English. Mistakes like ‘he are’ or ‘they is’ are not uncommon when Danes speak English.

Do the examples given in this article resonate with you? Have I missed any good ones? Let me know and if I get enough suggestions, I’ll write a follow-up to this article.

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Comments (1)

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Winnie 2024/03/23 15:09
I like the grammar articles and would appreciate‘flere af dem.’

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