Is Scandinavian actually one single language?
Danish is a Nordic – or North Germanic – language, and its closest relatives are Norwegian and Swedish. In fact, Norwegian and Swedish are so closely related to Danish that you could view all 3 languages as dialects of the same Scandinavian language. When Danes, Norwegians and Swedes speak to one another, they don’t have to speak English, but can speak their own individual languages. It’s kind of like when someone from New Zealand and India have a conversation in English: They may have some difficulty understanding one another, but they both do speak English, even if it sounds quite different. Or as when a German and a Swiss have a conversation in German: The two languages are very different, but both go by the designation “German”. When a Moroccan and an Egyptian talk, we also say that they both speak Arabic, even though they cannot understand one another.
Attitudes towards dialects
But the Danish language is not just Danish, it consists of a number of dialects that we together describe as Danish. There is, for example, several different kinds of dialects spoken in Jutland, Fyn and Bornholm. In Denmark today it is a rare thing for people speaking various dialects not to be able to understand one another, but it is not impossible. For example, many Danes in Southern Jutland and in Bornholm speak so strong a dialect that it can still be quite difficult to understand for people who are not from the area.
The Danish language in general has long approached the language spoken in Copenhagen. In fact, studies show that there is both status and prestige in sounding like you are from the capital: Subconsciously, the Copenhagen dialect is ranked higher than other dialects in Denmark, even if we are fond of other dialects and don’t speak with a Copenhagen dialect ourselves.
In Denmark, dialects are not ranked as high status, and for a long time there was a rule in radio and television that speakers were required take on a so-called standard Danish – something resembling what members of the Copenhagen upper class have traditionally spoken. People who move to Copenhagen often begin to speak like the Copenhageners and no longer speak their own dialect. In our neighboring country of Norway, it is quite different. There, people are proud of their dialects and will often continue to speak the dialect of their home town or region, even if they move to big cities like Oslo or Bergen.
When foreigners learn Danish in language schools, it is a form of Copenhagen standard Danish. Below, you can read about some of the biggest differences between the various Danish dialects.
The most striking difference between the types of Danish spoken across Denmark is intonation. The first thing you’ll notice when you travel from say Copenhagen to Aarhus, is how Copenhageners pronounce words with a rising inflection, where people from Aarhus pronounce words with a falling tone. So if someone from Copenhagen says “Denmark” (in Danish, that is), he will have a low voice on “Dan” and a higher voice on “mark”. If someone from Aarhus says “Denmark”, he will instead have a high voice on “Dan” and a low voice on “mark”.
1, 2 or 3 genders?
Originally, Danish had 3 grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, as in for example modern German, Icelandic, Russian, Tamil and Romanian. Today, all the words that used to be masculine or feminine belong to the same grammatical gender. We call it fælleskøn, or the collective or common gender, defined as the words we put the article ‘en’ in front of – as opposed to ‘et’. This means that there are a lot more words we put ‘en’ in front of, than words that require an ‘et’ article. So modern standard Danish only has two genders, namely the common gender and neuter.
In many areas of Denmark the traditional dialects still utilize the traditional three genders. These are the yellow areas on the map below. Note how Copenhagen is blue compared to the surrounding areas. The dialect spoken in Bornholm still has three genders. Let us try illustrating it by conjugating some words in standard Danish.
We have the common gender (known in Denmark as n-words, albeit with no connection to the offensive English language term!)
en stol, stolen, stole, stolene
en mark, marken, marker, markerne
We have neuter (known as t-words)
et hus, huset, huse, husene
et træ, træet, træer, træerne
We can see that the suffixes can be different within the same gender in standard Danish. As mentioned, the dialect of Bornholm still has the three genders, but even with the extra gender, the suffixes when conjugating are more regular:
Masculine: enj stol, stolinj, stola, stolana
Feminine: en mark, marken, marker, markarna
Neuter: et huz, huzed, huz, huzen – et træ, træed, træ, træn
On the other hand, the dialect of Western Jutland only has one gender, and here the definite article “æ” is placed in front of the word, like the English article “the”. Here you can see the same four words written in that dialect:
en stuo’l, æ stuo’l, stuol, æ stuol
en mark, æ mark, mar’ke, æ mar’ke
en hus, æ hus, huus, æ huus
en træ, æ træ, træ’e, æ træ’e
In Western Jutland, the gender of a word is also predictable: Countable nouns are all considered common gender, while uncountable nouns are neuter. This phenomenon is also known in standard Danish, where “noget vand” is water in general, while “en vand” is a specific amount of water, like in a bottle.
The famous ‘stød’ or glottal stop
When foreigners hear Danish, the glottal stop is often one of the first things they notice. That choppy, slightly squeaky voice that may well chop a syllable into two. Most variants of Danish have the glottal stop, but many Southern Danish dialects and Bornholm do not.
Even though the glottal stop is heard in most of the country, it differs what words we use it for around Denmark. In Copenhagen, for example, there is a glottal stop in the weekdays man’dag and søn’dag, but not in lørdag. In Jutland, it is often reversed: There, mandag and søndag are pronounced with no glottal stop, while lør’dag is pronounced with one.
In Western Jutland there is also something called the ‘Western Jutland glottal stop’. It is used before double consonants such as pp, tt and kk. Since it is also common in Western Jutland not to use the suffix -e, the glottal stop suddenly becomes the only difference in a lot of conjugations. For example, in standard Danish kat is the singular and katte is the plural, while in Western Jutland the equivalent words would be kat and ka’t, respectively.
No matter which dialect you speak or learn, fortunately, you will probably be understood by the vast majority of Danes. And often dialects will be perceived as a charming variation to all the standard Danish we hear on the radio and on TV.
The illustrations and many of the examples in this article are from the University of Copenhagen website about Danish dialects: http://dialekt.ku.dk, where you can also explore, read about and, not least, listen to various Danish dialects.