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Danish schools

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Danish language

Danish (dansk) belongs to the North Germanic languages (also called Scandinavian languages), a sub-group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages. It is spoken by around 6 million people mainly in Denmark including some 50,000 people in the northern parts of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, where it holds the status of minority language. Danish also holds official status and is a mandatory subject in school in the former Danish colonies of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, that now enjoy limited autonomy. In Iceland, which was a part of Denmark until 1944, Danish is still the second foreign language taught in schools (although a few learn Swedish or Norwegian instead).

The language started diverging from the common ancestor language Old Norse sometime during the 13th century and became more distinct from the other emerging Scandinavian national languages with the first bible translation in 1550, establishing an orthography differing from that of Swedish, though written Danish is usually far easier for Swedes to understand than the spoken language. Modern spoken Danish is characterized by a very strong tendency of reduction of many sounds making it particularly difficult for foreigners to understand and properly master, not just by reputation but by sheer phonetic reality.

Classification and related languages

Danish belongs to the East Scandinavian languages, together with Swedish. Though Norwegian is classified as a West Scandinavian language together with Faroese and Icelandic, a more recent classification based on mutual intelligibility places Icelandic and Faroese in a separate Insular Scandinavian branch while Norwegian is considered to be a Mainland Scandinavian language and grouped with Danish and Swedish. Written Danish and Norwegian Bokmål are particularly close, though the phonology and prosody of all three languages differ somewhat. Proficient speakers of any of the three languages can understand the others, though studies have shown that speakers of Norwegian generally understand both Danish and Swedish far better than Swedes or Danes understand any of the other languages.

Geographical distribution

Danish is the official language of Denmark, one of two official languages of Greenland (the other is Greenlandic), and one of two official languages of the Faroes (the other is Faroese). In addition, there is a small community of Danish speakers in Schleswig, the portion of Germany bordering Denmark, where it is an officially recognized and protected regional language. Furthermore, it is one of the official languages of the European Union.


Standard Danish (rigsdansk or rigsmål) is the language based on dialects spoken in and around the capital of Copenhagen. Unlike Swedish and Norwegian, Danish does not have more than one regional speech norm. More than 20% of all Danish speakers live in the metropolitan area and most government agencies, institutions and major businesses keep their main offices in Copenhagen, something that has resulted in a very homogeneous national speech norm. Though Oslo and Stockholm are quite dominant in terms of speech standards, cities like Bergen, Gothenburg and the Malmö-Lund region are large and influential enough to create secondary regional norms, making the standard language more varied than is the case with Danish. The general agreement is that Standard Danish is based on a form of Copenhagen dialect, but the specific norm is, as with most language norms, difficult to pinpoint for both laymen and scholars. More distinct "genuine" dialects still exist in smaller communities, but most speakers in these areas generally speak a regionalized form of Standard Danish. Usually an adaption of the local dialect to rigsdansk is spoken, though code-switching between the neutralized norm and a distinct dialect is common.

Danish dialects are divided into three general dialect groups:
  • Østdansk or Københavnsk ("Eastern Danish") or ("Copenhagenish")
  • Ødansk ("Island Danish")
  • Jysk
Historically, Eastern Danish includes what is today considered Southern Swedish dialects like Scanian and the dialect spoken on the island of Bornholm in the Baltic between the coasts Sweden and Germany. The background for this lies in the loss of originally Danish provinces like Blekinge, Halland and Skåne to Sweden in 1658. While many similarities can be found in Southern Swedish and the Bornholm dialect, they are more similar to the modern national standards than to each other. The Bornholm dialect has also maintained a distinction between three grammatical genders, rather than just two in Standard Danish and lacks the diphthongs used in the standard language.