All the Danish You Need to Know

I am repeatedly asked why I am bothering to learn Danish, even though I am living here for the summer. Many Danes seem to find it endearing, funny, and slightly puzzling. Unless you plan to actually settle down here permanently, there is really no reason to. There are plenty of expats from all sorts of places who live here for years and never learn Danish. English is simply enough, at least if you live in or near Copenhagen. Just walking down the street, you’ll even see some signs in English. (For those following along for Drupalcon, I should also point out that no matter where Drupalcon is held in the world, as an international conference, it is always held completely in English.)

I still feel like a jerk to stay in a place for more than week and not at least attempt to figure out some of the basics. I am slowly building my vocabulary with reading, but Danish pronunciation is very, very different from English, so the speaking/listening part is just really, really hard for me. Luckily I don’t really need to speak Danish. I have three basic phrases that I use all day long and otherwise everyone is perfectly happy to speak in English so we all understand each other. Also keep in mind that I’m sure I don’t pronounce all of this correctly but people still get what I’m saying. Most Danes are pleased that you are making any attempt at all and they definitely won’t frown at mispronunciation. So here are my basic attempts to be polite, along with recordings of Danes pronouncing them correctly.

  1. The first one is super easy and super polite to learn: “thank you” is simply tak which sounds kind of like the English “tack.”
    Pronunciation of “tak”.
  2. The second one is still just one word and not that hard to say, especially if you don’t look at the spelling of it too much. 😉 You use undskyld to say “pardon” or “excuse me.” It sounds sort of like saying “unschooled” quickly in English.
    Pronunciation of “undskyld”.
  3. Now the third one is a bit of a mouthful, but this is my favorite Danish phrase ever, and I use it every day, many, many times per day. You can tell someone in Danish that “I don’t speak Danish” with Jeg taler ikke dansk. Now the spelling versus pronunciation gets wonky here, so here is an attempt to do it phonetically without using those funny characters that academics use: Yai taela iga dansk. I use this whenever I need to speak to someone as a way to break into the fact that we’re going to speak English, or I’ll use it when people speak to me or ask me a question. A deer-in-the-headlights stare back at them is plenty indication as well, but being able to say this makes me feel a little less silly. For extra politeness, I add undskyld to the beginning as well.
    Pronunciation of “jeg taler ikke dansk”.

So that’s it. I pretty much live on those three phrases, literally. I do errands, get around the city, do shopping, eat out at restaurants, etc., with just those. If you are feeling a little more ambitious then here are a few bonus words you can play with.

  • Copenhagen is spelled København in Danish and so is pronounced a bit differently than in English.
    Pronunciation of “København”.
  • If you are going out, you may want to know how to say beer too. Don’t even bother with “I want a beer” or how many. Just saying øl and give a number of fingers. You’ll be good. Or, of course, just resort to English.
    Pronunciation of “øl”.
  • Once you have your beer, give ’em a toast with skål!.
    Pronunciation of “skål”.
  • The Danish word for toilet is, well toilette, so you should be fine there. (Also, once you get to the bathrooms, if they don’t have a stick figure to let you know which is which, H (herre) is for the men’s room and D (dame) is for the ladies’.)

OK, that’s enough fooling around. You can play with Danish as much as you like, but just keep in mind that you just seriously don’t need it. If you want some quick Danish lessons, there is a podcast series called One Minute Danish which has some handy stuff and are super short.

For bonus points, here is how you make funny Danish letters on a US keyboard (and the “I don’t have funny letters” alternative ways to write them):

  • å = alt/option + a (alternatively, aa)
  • æ = alt/option + ‘ (alternatively, ae)
  • ø = alt/option + o (alternatively, oe)