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Danish culture and language (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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Danish culture and language

 

3.2.4 Population & culture

Denmark was settled already 10,000 years ago, when the ice retreated from Scandinavia. Danes descend from various Germanic tribes, including the Jutes and Angles who settled England in the 5th century. There is a small German minority living in southern Jutland and a Danish minority living in North Germany. Danish is a Germanic language of the Nordic branch, mutually intelligible (with some practice) with Norwegian and Swedish.

The kingdom of Denmark includes also the autonomous areas of Greenland (area: 2.2 mill. km², pop. 53,000) and Faroe Islands (area: 1,400 km², pop. 48,000). The inhabitants speak a language (Faroese) resembling Icelandic and some Western Norwegian dialects. Eskimos speaking Greenlandic (a language based on a mid-19th century creation of a single literary language out of many Inuit dialects) form the largest group of Greenlanders; the inhabitants of Faroe Islands descend from the Viking settlers who arrived in the 9th century and the Irish monks and slaves who also made it to the Island.

As can be expected Danish culture could be called more Central European in character than that of other Nordic countries. Particularly it could be noted that mentality and


 are rather similar from Holland to Scania.

Important figures include e. g. the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), the composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), the astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the authors Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) and Karen Blixen (1885-1962), the architect Jørn Utzon (1918-), the painter P. S. Krøyer (1851-1909), the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1768-1844), and the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr (1885-1962).

 

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3.2.5 The Danish language

This is a brief description of some of the characteristics of the Danish language and some of the differences and similarities between Danish and the other North Germanic languages.

How do I identify a Danish text if I don't know the language?
Look for the letters æ, ø, and å. If you find all three of them, you have narrowed your choices down to Danish or Norwegian (both bokmål and nynorsk). Telling written Danish from Norwegian (especially bokmål) can be fairly difficult; you sometimes come across whole sentences that are absolutely identical in the two languages. The easiest might be to look for double consonants at the end of words, Norwegian often has words ending in -ss, -kk, etc. while this is never the case in Danish.

How is Danish pronunciation different from Swedish/Norwegian?
The spoken Danish has a rather poor reputation for some reason. The many soft d's and g's are often a cause of much amusement among other Nordics (of course, _their_ languages sound pretty funny in our ears too :-).

The soft Danish d's and g's are reasonably close to their Spanish (!) equivalents; this might give you an idea about the pronunciation. D's and g's tend to get soft between vowels but never at the beginning of a word.

On the other hand, contemporary Danish does not have the Swedish or Norwegian "soft k" (in Swedish/Norwegian a k/kj is pronounced something like sh/ch before a front vowel - e, i, y, ä/æ, or ö/ø). In Danish (probably due to German influence) the k is always pronounced as a "hard k", i.e. like the English "key". However, this is a fairly recent thing; old spellings like "Kjøbenhavn" indicate that also Danish had "soft k" (only a century ago?). And also the dialects of Bornholm and Northern Jutland (these areas are often the last to pick up pronunciation trends originating in the capital) still follow "Swedish pronunciation rules" with regard to k (and g).

The glottal stop ("stød" in Danish) is another characterstic feature. It is similiar to the non-pronunciation of "tt" in the Cockney "bottle".

Genders and definite articles.
Like Swedish, Danish has two genders: The common gender (originally there were both masculine and feminine) and the neuter gender. Some Danish dialects (e.g. in North Jutland) still have all three genders; dialects in western and southern Jutland have only the common gender.

Like the other North Germanic languages Danish has the definite article at the end of the word, thus "a man" = "en mand", but "the man" = "manden". Surprisingly, dialects of western and southern Jutland follow the more usual system of English, German, French, etc.: "A man" = "en mand", "the man" = "æ mand". It is not clear why one of Europe's most significant linguistic borders (separating areas having the definite article before/after the word) is running straight through Jutland!

 

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3.2.6 The Danish alphabet

Danish has three additional letters compared to the English alphabet: æ, ø, and å.

A question often asked by non-Danes is: "Why are Århus and Ålborg sometimes spelt with double-a and sometimes with a-with-circle? What's the difference?" Well, it is a matter of old and new spelling conventions. According to Søren Hornstrup <horn@login.dkuug.dk> the "Nudansk ordbog" (Concurrent Danish) quotes "Retskrivningsordbogen" for the proper usage of å versus aa:

The letter å was substituted for aa in 1948 as the token for å-sound. It is still possible to use aa for å in Danish personal and place names. In personal names you should follow the way the named person uses. [...]

In Danish place names Å, å is always the correct spelling, e.g., Århus, Tåstrup, Grenå. Only if you want to respect strong local traditions you could use Aa, aa, e.g., Ålborg or Aalborg, Åbenrå or Aabenraa. In Nordic place names you should use Å, å, e.g., Ålesund, Skåne.

And from "Håndbog i Nudansk":
It is always correct to use å in Danish place names. But you should know that you might offend the local residents. [...]

Until 1984 the central administration (statsadministrationen) had to use å, but in 1984 it was allowed to follow local traditions.

More from the same book:
The Danish alphabet has 29 letters in the following order:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z æ ø å (aa)

The letter aa is placed in parentheses. This is because it is not normally used in the language, only in names. Also note that the capitalization of the double-a is "Aa" and not "AA".

Århus was among the first cities to adopt the a-ring; Ålborg on the contrary, has been insisting on using the double-a. Since the central administration between 1948 and 1984 only recognized the å-spelling, all road signs etc. said "Ålborg". After 1984 when a number of cities successfully readopted the old spelling with double-a, the new road signs said "Aalborg". So if you see a sign with the old spelling (double-a) it is probably a new sign, and if you see a sign with the new spelling (a-ring) it is probably an old sign ... confused?

Surprisingly perhaps, the reason for cities like Ålborg, Åbenrå, and Grenå to readopt the double-a is not one of internationalization (though double-a is surely more "ASCII-friendly" than a-ring) but rather one of nostalgia, it seems.

The alphabetical sorting is not affected by the aa/å controversy; Danish person names and place names with aa are alphabetized as if they were spelt with å (i.e. last in the alphabet), but _only_ when the aa represents the å sound rather than a "long a". Thus, in a Danish encyclopedia the city Aabenraa and the author Jeppe Aakjær are at the end of the encyclopaedia, while the German city Aachen and Finnish architect Alvar Aalto are found in the beginning!

< A comment from Byrial Ole Jensen: >

This is not quite correct. aa should be alphabetized as å when it is pronounced as one sound even if it is an "a" sound. So the right place to search for Aachen in a Danish encyclopaedia is a little after Åbenrå near the end of the encyclopaedia.

This is according to official rules for the Danish language which is found in Retskrivningsordbogen (The Dictionary of Correct Writing??). But I must admit that only few people know this alphabetizing rule and it is likely that even not dictionaries follow it in order to not confuse people not knowing the rule. Retskrivningsordbogen itself places the word "kraal" BOTH between "kr." and "krabask" AND between "krøsus" and "kråse".



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© Copyright 1994-2001 by Antti Lahelma and Johan Olofsson.
You are free to quote this page as long as you mention the URL.
The line of flags is modified after a picture at det Åländska skoldatanätet.
This page was last updated March the 19th in the year of 2001.

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