The Danish language has long been an influential Scandinavian languages, thanks to Denmark’s intriguing history of political power and influence.
Even today, Danish is still considered significant among the Scandinavian languages. It serves as one of the official languages of the European Union, is a working language of the Nordic Council, and is also a requirement in the school systems of many other Scandinavian countries.
Classification and Early History of the Danish Language
The Danish language is classified as part of the East Scandinavian branch of the North Germanic languages, from which most of today’s Scandinavian languages developed. Although the Scandinavian languages were all quite similar at one time, the Danish language began to develop distinct characteristics around AD 1000.
Having initially developed from the Old Norse language disseminated throughout Northern Europe by the Vikings, early Danish utilized a runic alphabet. The oldest Danish records written in runic date from circa AD 250. The first manuscripts written in a distinctly Danish language are believed to date from the 13th century.
Copenhagen: The Early Center of the Danish Language
By the 14th century, Copenhagen was considered to be the cultural and political capital of Denmark. The first printed Danish-language books were based on the standardized Danish language of the royal chancery in Copenhagen.
This written form of Danish was held as a high standard and not based on any particular dialect. As a result, many spoken forms of Danish at the time were eliminated to meet this standard. Even some of the dialects spoken by the aristocracy were deemed vulgar in comparison. Consequently, a push was made in the upper classes toward a standardized form of spoken Danish which would match the standards of the written language.
Danish Language Distinctions from Other Scandinavian Languages
Most linguists agree that the Danish language has undergone more significant changes than any of the other old Scandinavian languages. Due to contact with Hanseatic traders in the Middle Ages, the Danish language acquired many words, prefixes, and suffixes from the Low German language. It also lost the old case system of the Norse language, combining masculine and feminine into a single gender.
Reforms in the 18th century worked to create a purer Danish language, as many French-origin loan words were replaced by their Danish equivalents. By the 19th century, written Danish was being used by many authors of Denmark and Norway.
The Danish Language in England
Denmark’s historical influence goes beyond other Scandinavian countries. The Danish language once was widely spoken in the northeast areas of England, due to colonization efforts by Danish Vikings. The Danish settlement of Jorvik, for example, existed in what is now the city of York.
Although the Viking influence in England was long ago, the Danish left their linguistic mark on the area. A number of modern regional terms in northeastern parts of England have roots tracing back to the times of Danish settlement, such as the word "gate" (gade, in Danish) for street. Other English words believed to have developed from the Danish language include "knife" (kniv) and "egg" (aeg).
Modern Danish Language Reforms
The modern Danish alphabet closely resembles the English language alphabet; however, three important letters are added: æ, ø, and å. The letter å – which is also used in the Norwegian and Swedish languages – was incorporated with a 1948 spelling reform intended to replace the letter "aa."
The spelling reform of 1948 also changed the spelling of a number of everyday words, allowing the written Danish language to more closely resemble the spoken form. Another aspect of the reform resulted in all nouns being written in the lower case, instead of being capitalized as they were until that time (and still are in the German language).
Dialects of the Modern Danish Language
Modern standard Danish is based on the dialect spoken around the area of Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. As the intellectual and business capital of the country, the Copenhagen-area dialect has long served as the basis for the standardized form of the Danish language.
Although Copenhagen has somewhat of a cultural, political, and linguistic monopoly in Denmark, alternate dialects still flourish in other areas of the country, especially in more rural regions. The Danish language is divided into three dialects: Eastern Danish, Jutlandic, and Island Danish. It is generally agreed that Island Danish is the dialect most resembling the standard Danish language spoken in the Copenhagen area.
The Danish Language Today
Today the Danish language serves as the official language of Denmark, where it is spoken by more than 5 million people. It also is spoken and taught in schools in Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. In addition, approximately 50,000 Danes residing in Northern Germany also speak Danish.
The Danish language has produced many influential writers, including the fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen, Nobel Prize laureate Johannes Vilhelm Jensen, and existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
The Powerful Influence of the Danish Language
Due to Denmark’s political power throughout history, the Danish language has exercised a significant amount of influence on other Scandinavian languages, including Swedish, Icelandic, and Norwegian. Notably, the union of Denmark and Norway in the 14th century resulted in the development of the Dano-Norwegian, or Norwegian Bokmal, language.
Despite a surge of nationalism after Norwegian independence and the development of a distinctly Norwegian language, known as New Norwegian or Norwegian Nynorsk, Dano-Norwegian retained its status in Norway and remains one of the official languages of the country to this day.
The historical links between Norwegian and Danish are still evident, as the two languages use an almost identical writing system. Although the languages remain very closely related in the written form, the Norwegian language and Danish language differ more significantly in the spoken form.
Danish Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Dansk, Central Danish, Sjaelland
Language Family: Indo-European, Germanic, North, East Scandinavian, Danish-Swedish, Danish-Riksmal
Spoken by Approximately 5,300,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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