If you're learning Danish, good news – Danish is probably the easiest Scandinavian language to learn, grammar-wise.
And once you get it, the rest of the similar languages will be a walk in the park.
It might seem like a giant leap, but there is really no reason to let it scare you, and I’ll tell you why with these 5 basic Danish grammar tips.
For a super-quick overview, and to navigate to the section that interests you the most, you'll find a handy table of contents below.
Table of Contents
1. Danish Nouns Have Genders
Very disturbing indeed, but only two. There used to be three, but the feminine and masculine have merged into the common gender, which is opposed to neuter.
This reflects both in the articles, and the adjectives describing the noun.
The indefinite articles in Danish (corresponding to the English ”a” or ”an”) are en and et, respectively.
This gives us, as an example:
- En kat (a cat) – common gender
- Et hus (a house) – neuter
So, the ”n” and the ”t” are the important markers, as is also obvious in their pronouns:
- Den Kat (that cat)
- Det hus (that house).
As well as
- Min kat (my cat)
- Mit hus (my house)
This gender, as mentioned, is also reflected in the adjectives attached, as in:
- En skøn kat (a wonderful cat).
- Et skønt hus (a wonderful house).
This is not true of all adjectives (as some of them always end with a ”t”) – but will get you a long way.
How Can You Tell Whether A Danish Noun Is Common Gender Or Neuter?
Bad news is, there really isn’t any sure fire way of telling. Only practice will really generally reveal it. But don’t sweat it, let it come to you gradually.
The good news is, you will easily be understood, even if you mix them up.
And if you want a rule of thumb, remember that 75% of Danish nouns are common gender, so just go for that when you’re in doubt.
Interestingly, in some dialects in Jutland, neuter has been taken out of use all together.
2. Danish Definite Articles Go At The End Of Nouns
Unlike English, if you want to use the definite article, this is done by adding the article as the end of the noun, so you get:
Katten (the cat) – note that consonants are sometimes doubled in these cases to match phonetics, as the vowel is short.
Huset (the house).
A bit odd perhaps, but also one of the most basic of these basic Danish grammar rules!
3. How To Conjugate Verbs In Danish
What better way to get us going than with the most common verb in most languages, ”to be”, in Danish at være.
Whereas English troubles its poor users with forms like ”am”, ”are”, and ”is” to form the present tense, Danish is way more simple.
In all three examples, the Danish equivalent would be er. And this principle applies to any verb in Danish. Plus, it also applies to any tense in Danish.
The thing is, Danish verbs are only marked for tense, not subject.
The basic system for this is as follows:
- Present tense is usually formed by adding an -r to the infinitive, as in jeg sover – ”I sleep”. Note that the present form in Danish also covers the English form ”I am sleeping”.
- Past tense is indicated by either adding the suffixes -te or -ede to the stem of the verb (the imperative). This is true for the regular, or weak, verbs, and these are the easiest, most common and logical ones. The past tense of irregular verbs are usually created by zero suffix, and some sort of vowel switch.
- The perfect and pluperfect tenses are created by putting either har/er (has/is) or var/havde (was/had) before the past participle, respectively.
I admit this may all seem a bit theoretical, so let’s have a few examples of how it works in the real world:
|At være (to be)||Vær||Er||Var||Har været||Havde været|
|At have (to have)||Hav||Har||Havde||Har haft||Havde haft|
|At håbe (to hope)||Håb||Håber||Håbede||Har håbet||Havde håbet|
|At køre (to drive)||Kør||Kører||Kørte||Har/ er kørt||Havde/var kørt|
|At vaske (to wash)||Vask||Vasker||Vaskede||Har/er vasket||Havde/var vasket|
|At læse (to read)||Læs||Læser||Læste||Har/er læst||Havde/var læst|
The first thing I should note is that the the first two examples are irregular, and mainly included here because they are such common verbs.
For verbs such as these, it's really hard to point out any rules, without risking further confusion. You’ll get the hang of them, as you familiarise yourself with the language, by reading Danish books for instance.
Secondly, the havde/var alternatives in perfect tenses, which can seem arbitrary. But this is not really different from English; one slightly emphasises the process, the other the result. Compare ”he has gone” to ”he is gone”, and you get the general idea.
4. Adorable Adjectives In Danish
”My uncle is the goodest chess player!”, my Danish friend's niece once said (in Danish, which is min onkel er den godeste skakspiller).
Not only is he a pretty mediocre chess player, but she obviously got the adjective wrong. He didn’t correct her, though. More likely got her an ice cream.
And that wasn’t just because he's very susceptible to flattery, but also because she demonstrated something.
Namely, that she had understood the system of adjective comparison – she just wasn’t yet aware of the exceptions.
Because Danish adjectives follow the familiar pattern:
- God – bedre – bedst
Like the English
- Good – better – best
And this is, of course, irregular. Normally, you would have;
- Hurtig – hurtigere – hurtigst
- Fast – faster – fastest
So, simply put, you just add –(e)re – (e)st to the basic, positive form, to create comparative and superlative.
Whether to include the e really comes down to phonetics; which one has proven, over time, easier to say.
For some adjectives, like those loaned from Latin and Greek, comparative and superlative is created by mere and mest (more and most).
This is always an understandable option, but mere lille, like the English ”more little”, will sound very much off.
But lo and behold, as we’ve seen, gender and singular/plural also plays a role here. Remember the -t suffix used with neuter nouns. This leaves us with three forms of adjectives in simple positive;
The adjective for singular nouns of the common gender:
- En elskelig hund (a loveable dog)
The adjective for singular nouns in neuter:
- Et elskeligt skib (a loveable ship)
It’s worth mentioning, that this t-form is also used to turn adjectives into adverbials, much like the English ”-ly”. And finally
- The adjective for plural/definite nouns, also used with genitive or pronouns, as in:
- Min elskelige hund (my loveable dog)
- Mit elskelige skib (my loveable ship)
- Den smukke stemme (that beautiful voice)
So it is really just a question of adding an -e in these cases, and sometimes doubling the final consonant, for phonetic reasons. Piece of cake, right?
At least way easier than, say, German, which is a wonderful language, but has an endless list of suffixes to adjectives.
And if you fail, well, you might just get an ice cream, so don’t worry.
5. Danish Sentence Structure
Now that you're absolutely sure of all the major word classes in Danish (which I’m sure you are), let’s have brief look at how they’re put together.
In most of the basic cases, Danes structure their sentences like English speakers, as in:
- Hun sparker bolden til John (She kicks the ball to John)
So far so good, and this does not change if something is added after the main clause:
- Hun sparker bolden til John, fordi han er den hurtigste (She kicks the ball to John, because he is the fastest)
Danish Is A Verb Second Language
But Danish is a so-called v2 (verb second) language, so it differs from English when something – whether it is a single word, adverbial phrase, or subordinate clause – comes before the main clause.
This makes the subject and verb change places, if some adverbial precedes them, like:
- På nattehimlen så jeg en UFO
Which is, in corresponding word order:
- ”In the night sky, spotted I a UFO”
And you're right in guessing that “in the night sky” is the adverbial here.
However, if you get this wrong (and you are bound to at some stage), everyone will still get your point. But it's one of the most common ways for Danes to detect a non-native speaker, so they're very used to it.
Forming Questions In Danish
Danes break this rule when asking questions, though. Instead of using forms of ”do” or other auxillary verbs to ask questions like:
- ”Did you speak to him?” or
- ”Will you never stop writing about Danish grammar?”
Danes will simply shift their v2 rule and put the verb first, thereby indicating a question, in these two cases:
- Talte du med ham? (Spoke you with him?)
- Stopper du aldrig med at skrive om dansk grammatik? (Stop you never writing about Danish grammar?)
Worse than master Yoda, I’m aware, but that’s how it functions.
To be fair, Danish has words for “how”, “who”, “why”, “where” and so on, and they are then used before the finite verb, in compliance with the v2 rule, as in:
- Hvem sagde at dette sprog var svært? (Who said that this language was difficult?)
Basic Danish Grammar: Go Right Ahead!
Now you have a grip on basic Danish grammar, congratulate yourself!
I know there is a jungle of pronouns, Danish numbers and other scary creatures out there, but you can keep calm, because you are winning every second.
Best thing to do is to go out and try it, and enjoy every single piece of progress you make.
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I learned to speak it when I was five!