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Linguistics 450

A Very Brief History of Danish

The origins of Modern Danish reach back beyond our short English memories to the days before the Indo-Europeans. The first known inhabitants of the area now known as Denmark are estimated by archaeologists to have moved in around 10,000 B.C., ostensibly following a herd of reindeer. Their linguistic history begins to get interesting around 2000 B.C. when the first Indo-European immigrants, the “single-grave people,” take over Denmark, bringing their language with them. Since then, Danish has ranged from the language of the vast Viking empire to a language spoken only by the people in and around a small European country. The story of Danish chronicles much of the changing northern European culture for the past 4000 years, from the ethnically and linguistically unified Norsemen to the proud individual peoples in the Scandinavian countries today. A brief look at the orthogenetic line of Danish will provide some background for the language’s history: 


Common Germanic

North Germanic 
(Primitive Scandinavian) 

East Scandinavian 


Five main time periods appear, and these will be covered in chronological order, along with the events that mark their loosely defined boundaries: North Germanic/Primitive Scandinavian, Old Danish, Middle Danish, Early Modern Danish, and Modern Danish. 

North Germanic/Primitive Scandinavian (200A.D. - 800A.D.)

Our earliest information about Danish comes from runic inscriptions on stone or metal, the most interpretable of which stem from about A.D. 200, and the most famous coming from the horns of Gallehus, circa A.D. 400. The inscription on the shorter horn is as follows, according to Mitchell (13): 

“Ek hlewagastiR holtijaR horna tawido.”

(“I, Laegast, son of Holte made this horn.”)

The student of Old English will recognize the alliteration of h and the resonance of the vowels as reminiscent of Old English poetry, a clear connection between the two Germanic languages, only recently separated at the time of this inscription. 

The above collection of runic letters is known as the “Futhark,” a term directly analogous to our alphabet: just as the first two of our Greek/Roman letters are alpha and beta, the first six letters of the original 24 character set of runes are f, u, th, a, r, k, and k. A close examination shows that the runes bear a remarkable similarity to some of the letters of Old English, particularly R, B, M, and thorn (th). This system lasted until around 750 A.D., and was followed by the second period of runic writing, which lasted into the Middle Ages and used a 16 character system (Graham-Campbell 101). The writing becomes significant in our present study as evidence of the language of the early Danes. 

Until the revision of the runic writing system, the language of the entire Scandinavian community is unified, though certainly replete with dialects. This language is a descendant of the Common Germanic that through other lines gave rise to English and German, two languages that have had profound influence on Danish. Around 800 A.D., The first real linguistic separation can be recorded (Mitchell 12). We will refer to the two new tongues as 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.  This time would also mark the beginning of what is often termed the Viking Period.

Old Danish (800A.D. -1100A.D.)

The Vikings’ conquests in earlier times had little effect on the language, mainly because there were very few permanent settlements established. After 800 A.D. however, a dense population in much of Scandinavia began to overflow into quickly expanding territories, and permanent settlements were established great distances from Denmark. At the close of this period, the Danish empire covered Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, parts of England and Scotland, area in the South Baltic region, and parts of Estonia (Thomas & Oakley 4). The language of these territories was primarily Old Norse, though most likely with the flavors of the former inhabitants’ tongues. Some of these colonies remained unequivocally Norse (Iceland and the Faroe Islands), but many disappeared in the following few hundred years (such as the Danelaw, and other British Isle locations) (Skautrup 108). Because of the geographic spread, none of these would have a major impact on Danish, but they spread Norse language and culture over a distance that has resulted in the North Germanic languages we recognize today. The Danelaw is still recognized in England due to the numerous Scandinavian place names and the large number of Danish loanwords in English, even though the area was retaken by the Anglo-Saxons in the early 10th century.

Middle Danish (1100-1500)

The first real outside influences on the Norse language(s) arrives around 1000A.D. in the form of Christianity. A stone found near Jelling in mid-Jutland, erected by Harald Bluetooth between 983 and 987 A.D., contains a lengthy runic inscription that includes stating that Harald “made the Danes Christians.” Christianity brought with it numerous loanwords from Latin and Greek, often borrowed through Old English or Old Saxon: kirke, prFst, and degn stem from this period. Given names also reflected the Roman influence: Jens, Peder, and Kristine are examples of scriptural names borrowed into Norse (Skautrup 109). This religious invasion brought with it even greater changes: Scandinavian culture as it had been up to this point began to decline. The pagan heroism associated with the runic writings and Viking conquests would be gradually ousted by the ecclesiastical influence of the church, and even the writing itself would give way to the Latin alphabet, though it was maintained by traditional scribes until the time of the Reformation. 

Though the church arrived in the late 10th century, it became firmly established approximately 100 years later, a time that marks the beginning of Danish as an autonomous language, separate from its East Scandinavian sister, which ultimately became Swedish. Evidence for the separation is based on several phenomena, including the loss of vowel quality in unstressed position, a characteristic Danish attribute. Around the same time, the Danes began voicing stop consonants between vowels. These two phonological changes can be seen in comparing the following words in Swedish and Danish:


(Skautrup 108)

These changes, though subtle, led to the complete separation of Swedish and Danish, and consequently to pride in language, culture, and literature that was uniquely Danish. During this time, Danish was borrowing extensively from surrounding languages, mainly the Saxon language of Northern Germany, which ironically encouraged Danish linguistic independence and further separated Danish from its sister language to the North. The southern Danes and the Northern Germans were in constant contact due to business interests, but the Danish language seems to have been more enriched by the relationship. Many new concepts were brought to Denmark, including nonnative plants, clothes, tools, products, etc., and the associated words were borrowed along with them, as well as more abstract notions: angst, lykke, klar, smik, ske. From a morphological standpoint, German/Saxon affixes were borrowed into Danish and became a necessary part of the language: examples are an-, be-, for-, und-, er-, ge-, -else, -eri, -hed, and -ske (Skautrup 111). These loanwords contributed to the Danish tongue mainly by providing language for new concepts rather than supplanting native terminology. Because of the close relation of the two languages, the words were easily both adopted and adapted into Danish both morphologically and phonologically. 

Early Modern Danish (1500-1700)

This exchange continued for three centuries, though few other eventful changes took place. Some loanwords entered from the High German, which had become more prominent, but due to phonological differences were not as easily integrated into Danish. The next major influence came with the art of printing, introduced in Denmark in 1482, which also spurs the period known as Early Modern Danish. The Protestant Reformation was stirring emotions throughout Europe, and nowhere less than in Germany. The fervor affected the Danes as well, and in 1550 the first Danish translation of the Bible (the Christian III Bible) was published, mostly translated by Christian Pedersen. Pedersen was also one of the major spelling reformers in the 16th century. This reform was brought about partly to simplify the duties of the typesetters, and partly to make the written language more internally consistent. Some examples: {d} replaced {th} as the first letter of words such as du, dig, den, and da, to more accurately reflect pronunciation; long and short [æ] vowels were separated, indicated by {æ} and {e} respectively, as in klæde and træ , but ende and legge (Skautrup 112). 

The solidification of Danish spelling was effective in producing a consistent writing system, but could not be applied to the spoken language. Until this time, every region of the country produced a particular dialect, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, due in part to the spelling reform, the dialects began to merge into what might be termed a standard dialect. The growth of cities, and especially Copenhagen brought together varied groups of dialects, ultimately resulting in a standard spoken language around 1700 (Skautrup 113). 

The 17th century brought a new group of loanwords into Danish, borrowed mainly from the Romance languages, primarily Dutch, French, and Italian. Because of the firm establishment of Danish by this point, most of these words affected only specific topics, rather than replacing many native words. Dutch contributed a large number of nautical terms (important in an insular country like Denmark), French brought in fashion and cooking vocabulary, and from Italian were borrowed terms for music and banking. The Renaissance brought a renewal of science as well, and most of the Danish scientific terms stem directly from Latin or Greek. 

Modern Danish (1700-?)

Danish is similar to other Scandinavian languages in both phonology and morphology, but has some unique features of its own. The phonological feature most associated exclusively with Danish among European tongues is the glottal stop or stød, which occurs frequently in many single syllable words, such as by’, go’d, and mand’ (the glottal stop is marked by the apostrophe) (Skautrup 108). As mentioned above, Danish also has uniquely relaxed vowel sounds, producing a schwa in unstressed position in contrast to the full vowels of Swedish and Norwegian. 

The most recent language affecting modern Danish is English, primarily from the United States. English is taught to all children in elementary school, and is continuing to increase in usage among all demographic divisions. Borrowings in areas such as technology, athletics, journalism, etc. dominate this group, and are becoming incorporated more often into general use.

The standard Danish spoken today , called the Rigsmålet, has undergone several changes since the Early Modern period, most of which have led it closer to the written standard. For example, silent letters have begun to be pronounced because of their inclusion in the spelling: sørre was formerly sørre, bolge was formerly pronounced bolle, and farve had been pronounced farre. More and more of the Danes have begun to speak the Rigsmålet as areas have become less isolated and more urban. Only 16 percent of the inhabitants lived in rural areas in 1974, compared to 75 percent in 1870 (Skautrup 1974). Even with the strict formalization of rules governing written and spoken Danish, some areas maintain their more rural dialects. The Jutland area provides good examples of dialectal variation. Though the Rigsmålet contains two genders, dialects in northern Jutland may use three, while those in western and southern Jutland often use only one! In addition, these dialects seem to have picked up the German method of placing the definite article before the word: ‘the man’ =oe mand. In the Rigsmålet , the North Germanic tradition is maintained: ‘a man’ = manden (Lahelma and Olofsson). 

Danish today appears to be borrowing as vigorously as in earlier periods, and will continue to change in the future. Its influences have included Latin missionaries, German businessmen, French and Italian artisans and musicians, and now Americans. The patriotic Danes will continue to take pride in their linguistic independence even as they incorporate more Americanisms into their common usage, simply repeating a pattern that has been in motion for 2000 years. 

Works Cited

Babaev, Cyril. Cyril Babaev Linguistic Studies (1999) Online. Internet: January 1999. Available:

Graham-Campbell, James. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. Oxford: Andromeda Oxford, Ltd, 1994. 

Lahelma, Antti and Olofsson, Johan. Soc.Culture.Nordic Newsgroup (1994-1999) Online. Internet: January 1999. Available:

Mitchell, P.M. A History of Danish Literature. Copenhagen: Der Berlingske Bogtrykkeri, 1957.

Reinhardt, Nancy S. Danish Literature. Cambridge: Harvard College Library, 1986.

Skautrup, Peter. “Language,” Denmark: An Official Handbook. Ed. Bent Rying. Copenhagen: Press and Cultural Relations Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1974.

Thomas, Alistair H. and Oakley, Stewart P. Historical Dictionary of Denmark. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.


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1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999