If you’ve ever visited Denmark, you must be familiar with the strange way Danes speak. Of course, most of them speak English on an excellent level, yet they have a rich and unique language of their own. Considering that you might be working in Denmark in the future, it makes sense to start getting into the mysteries of the Danish language. Just don’t let the seemingly difficult task of learning Danish scare you away. At Medicolink we offer free intensive language courses to our candidates before they start relocating to Denmark. But let’s see first how >>dansk<< has become the language that it is today.
The first Indo-European people arrived in the area that is called Denmark today in 2000 B.C. bringing their language with them. We will cover five main time periods in Danish language history and a few events that mark these periods: the North Germanic, the Old Danish, the Middle Danish, the Early Modern Danish, and the Modern Danish Period.
North Germanic (200 A.D. – 800 A.D.)
One of the most famous archaeological findings in ancient Danish history provides us proof of the language that has been used in the area some 2500 years ago: the horns of Gallehus, circa A.D. 400.
The old runic phrases found on stones and bones led to the recreation of the writing known as “Futhark,” a writing system similar to our own alphabet: the first six letters of the original 24-character set of runes are f, u, th, a, r, k. Another 16 rune-set took over around the middle of the 8th century A.D. and it’s been in use until the Middle Ages. Until the revision of the runic writing system, the language of Scandinavian peoples is unified with dialectic distinctions. At the beginning of the 9th century, an important linguistic separation occurred. The two new language variants became West and East Scandinavian, the former being spoken in Norway and the islands to the west, and the latter being spoken in the areas now known as Sweden and Denmark.
Old Danish (800A.D. – 1100A.D.)
After 800 A.D. however, as a consequence of the Vikings’ conquests, permanent settlements were established far away from Denmark. In the splendour of the Viking Age, the Danish empire covered Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, parts of England and Scotland, areas in the South Baltic region, and parts of Estonia. The language of these territories was mainly Old Norse with a few local differences. Because of the great distances, the influence of Old Norse has diminished throughout the centuries in most of these territories, but it did provide precursors for the North Germanic languages we recognize today. The Danelaw for example is still recognized in England due to the numerous Scandinavian place names and the large number of Danish loanwords in English.
Middle Danish (1100 – 1500)
Around the year 1000 Christianity indisputably stepped up as a powerful influence on Old Norse languages. A stone found near Jelling in Midtjylland, erected by Harald Blåtand between 983 and 987 A.D. contains a long inscription that proclaims that Harald converted the Danes to Christianity. Christianity brought with it numerous loanwords from Latin and Greek, often borrowed through Old English or Old Saxon. This religious invasion brought with it even greater changes: Scandinavian culture as it had been up to this point began to decline. The writing would give way to the Latin alphabet, though it was maintained by traditional scribes until the time of the Reformation.
These important cultural changes mark the beginning of Danish as an autonomous language, separate from its East Scandinavian counterpart, which became Swedish. These changes concluded in the separation of Swedish and Danish. Danish often borrowed from surrounding languages, mainly the Saxon language of Northern Germany, which encouraged Danish linguistic independence and further distinguished Danish from Swedish. The southern Danes and the Northern Germans had a common commercial interest and the Danish language, thus many new concepts were brought to Denmark, including plants, clothes, tools, products, etc., and the associated words were borrowed along with them, as well as more abstract terms, such as angst, lykke, klar, etc.
Early Modern Danish (1500 – 1700)
The next major influence came with the invention of printing, introduced in Denmark in 1482. The Protestant Reformation was stirring emotions throughout Europe, and it affected the Danes as well. In 1550 the first Danish translation of the Bible (the Bible of Christian) was published, mostly translated by Christiern Pedersen. This reform was brought about to simplify the written language.
The newly established spelling produced a consistent writing system, but it couldn’t be applied to the spoken language. Due in part to the spelling reform, the Danish dialects slowly began to merge into a “standard” dialect. The growth of cities, and especially Copenhagen brought together varied groups of dialects, ultimately resulting in a standard spoken language at the end of the 17th century.
This period brought a massive number of loanwords into Danish, borrowed from Dutch, French, and Italian. Dutch contributed sailing vocabulary, French brought in terms of fashion and cooking, and from Italian were borrowed musical and financial words. The Renaissance brought a renewal of science as well, and most of the Danish scientific terms stem from Latin or Greek.
Modern Danish (1700 – ?)
English is the latest language to bring extensive changes to Danish vocab. Most loanwords are found concerning topics like technology, sports, media, slang etc., and they are increasingly becoming in general use.
The standard Danish spoken today, also called Rigsmålet, has changed significantly in the past 300 years, and today it stands closer to the written standard than ever. Danish keeps borrowing words now as vigorously as in earlier periods and will definitely continue to change in the future just like every other language does.