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Number of Speakers: Approximately 5.5 million

Key Dialects: Østdansk (Eastern Danish); Ødansk (island Danish); Vestdansk (West Danish) spoken on Jyland (Jutland)

Geographical Center: Kingdom of Denmark, an official language on Faroe Islands and Greenland (spoken by 8,000)

Danish is the official language in Denmark. It also an official language on its autonomous territories of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. . It is an obligatory school subject on these islands. Danish is also spoken south of the Danish border with Germany, in the province Schlesvig-Holstein, where it is a minority language, with a newspaper and a language of instruction in more than 50 schools. Outside of the Nordic countries, a very small community continues to speak Danish in the US and Canada, mostly children or descendents of immigrants.

Danish belongs to the Northern branch of the Germanic language family of Indo-European. Other Northern Germanic languages are Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Norwegian. Historically Old Danish is classified as an East- Scandinavian language (along with Swedish). Danish has been less conservative than Swedish in its morphology, thus there the unstressed vowel inventory morphological endings is smaller than Swedish, resulting in a simpler system than other non-English Germanic languages. In judging internordic oral comprehension, a recent survey reported that 23% of Swedes claim that they understand Danish ‘very well.’

Dialects include Østdansk (Eastern Danish) spoken on the Bornholm; Ødansk (island Danish) spoken on Sjæland (Zealand), Fyn, and the southern islands; Vestdansk (West Danish) spoken on Jyland (Jutland).

A recent socio-linguistic study by Tore Kristiansen and J. Normann Jørgensen notes that for several sociological reasons (leveling, educational advantages, egalitarianism), there is less overall variation among speakers of Danish than neighboring languages (Dutch, German, and Norwegian). The language of Copenhagen’s middleclass continues to spread throughout Denmark as the national linguistic norm

Danish uses the standard 26 letters of other European languages, plus three additional vowels æ, ø, å which follow z in the alphabet. The letters q, w, x and z are used almost exclusively in borrowed terms and names. Double consonants and consonant clusters generally indicate that the preceding vowel is short. Otherwise it is long. But some word-final consonants (e.g., m, p, and t) while written as a single letter, represent an underlying double (geminate) consonant, thus predict a short preceding vowel. The spelling reform of 1948 changed the older form aa into the newer å, and the capitalization of nouns was discontinued.

In general, native Danish words are stressed on their first syllables. Exception abound, however, including many borrowed prefixes (be-, for-, for) and verbs ending in –ere (e.g., studere, which stress the penultimate syllable). In contrast to Norwegian and Swedish (spoken in Sweden), Danish does not have meaningful word-tones. The so-called “stød” a glottal catch, can distinguish otherwise identically pronounced words. Stød occurs only in some stressed syllable, and cannot occur in voiceless environments. For example ‘man’ (without stød) means ‘one’ while ‘mand’ (with stød) means ‘man.’

Nouns in Danish belong to one of two classes, so-called common gender (en is the indefinite singular article) or neuter gender (et is the indefinite singular article). Definite nouns use postposed articles, En mand “a man” but manden ‘the man’. Definite plural forms of nouns also attach a suffix to show definiteness. (æbler ‘apples’ æblerne ‘the apples.’ Verbs are either weak (with a dental consonant (d or t) in the past tense and past participle (e.g., at køre ‘to drive’, kørte ‘drove’ kørt ‘driven’) or strong, showing a change in the root vowel in past tense (e.g,, at give ‘to give’, gav ‘gave’ givet ‘given’. Adjectives agree in gender and number with the nouns they modify (en stor bil ‘a big car,’ et stort hus ‘a big house,’ store biler ‘big cars,’ store huse ‘big houses.’ Word order in general follows the English patterns, but inversion of subject and verb occurs after a non-subject element starts the sentence: ‘Hun rejser i dag’ She is traveling today’ compared to I dag rejser hun literally: ‘Today travels she.’

Modern Danish is a unifying factor in a country that, to a large extent, values conforming to social norms. The language helps in modern times to lessen differences in social and geographic layers. Modern communication networks like radio and tv, and for the written language, the Internet, support the leveling process.

Runic inscriptions (using the futhark) are the oldest records of writing in Denmark, preserving the most ancient records all of Scandinavia. The most famous Runic inscription was found on the Gold Horn of Gallehus, from Southern Jutland. The younger futhark (with fewer characters than the older futhark) flourished in Denmark, with approximately 410 inscriptions, dating from around 800 to well into the Christian period, ceasing in the mid 1300s CE. Latin letters were introduced to manuscript writing before the twelfth century CE. Old Danish, an East Scandinavian reflex of Common Scandinavian showed traits of monophthongization of original diphthongs, long o vs long u in the west, and lack of umlauted forms, for example takenn ‘took’ vs tekinn in the west. Earliest East Scandinavian texts show relatively few clear differences between Old Swedish and Old Danish, but after 1300, Old Danish began to record a weakening in both intervocalic consonants (current ‘ude’ out vs ‘ute’) and in morphological endings, where the original weak vowels a, i, and u were merged to æ or e. Swedish still maintains a larger inventory than Danish of weak vowels in morphological endings. The Modern Danish period is generally dated from 1529 (although such precise dating of large and slow movements in language change should be regarded with skepticism) with the publication of the Christiern Pedersen’s translation of the New Testament. The Danish language commission (Dansk Sprognævn) is the official institution in Denmark in deciding correct orthography, and in tracking language developments.

Academic American Encyclopedia. 1993. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier.

Asher, R. E., ed. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

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Dansk Sprognævn website []

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

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Molde, B. and Karker, A, eds, Språkene i Norden. Nordisk språksekretariat, 1983.

Kristiansen, Tore and J. Normann Jørgensen. “The Sociolinguistics of Danish.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language, vol 159 (2003), 1-7. (file downloaded on May 16, 2005.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Vikør, Lars The Nordic languages: their status and interrelations 1993. Oslo : Novus Press, 1993.

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