Is Danish really that close to English?

On s14e02 of QI Sandi Toksvig spouted a sentence in Danish. Aside from a few vowels it sounded just like English gibberish. The stresses, pace, intonation (pitch) all sounded ‘normal’ to my english-attuned ear. Are the two languages closely related, does Sandi have a strong english accent in her Danish, or, what?

Foreign languages always sound at least a little odd (that’s part of the definition of foreign), so why didn’t this?

I had a Swedish roommate once. I have no training in Swedish whatsoever, but I could make out some of her letters from home. I wasn’t snooping-- she was curious if I couldn’t understand them, because she was realizing how many cognates there were in English and Swedish, and even though she’s been studying English for years, it had sort of hit her square on when she began using English on a daily basis. Sounding out, and sort of decoding by cognate, and guessing at the suffixes I saw repeated reminded me of the very first time I read Chaucer.

Now, I’m not saying Swedish is as close to Modern English as Middle English is, but they are clearly in the same language family. Danish is also in the same family. English sort of has a bend sinister, because of it’s strong influence of French, but it remains a Germanic language, like German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, and Yiddish (Yiddish also has a bend sinister with its extraordinary influences from both Hebrew and Russian).

I wouldn’t be surprised if you could make out bits of a page of Danish.

21st century Danish may even have a lot of English loan words, since a great many languages across the word do from media influence, making that many more words you’d be able to figure out.

English is a West Germanic language, closest to Dutch and then German. Danish is a North Germanic Language. Different branches of the same language sub-family. As languages go, their are pretty closely related, but not so much as to be even remotely mutually intelligible. English does have a lot of loan words from Old Norse, but those would have been borrowed 1,000 years ago or more so they aren’t going to necessarily be exactly the same in Modern Danish.

The thing is, though, English has been highly influenced by French, so it tends to be less similar to all the other Germanic languages than they are to each other, at least in vocabulary. The Scandinavian languages are famously sing-songy ( think The Swedish Chef), but Danish is the least so of the major languages (Swedish, Norwegian and Danish).

I’ve been to Holland a couple of times and it interesting how often you can kind of almost understand spoken Dutch or read Dutch.

Here’s some danish.

Moders navn er vort Hjertesprog,
kun løs er al fremmed Tale.
Det alene i mund og bog,
kan vække et folk af dvale.

Here’s the translation.
“Mother’s name is our hearts’ tongue,
only idle is all foreign speech
It alone, in mouth or in book,
can wake folk from sleep.”

So you can see how many of the words are cognates… they aren’t false friends, they are just the same word pronounced a bit differently.
dvake… whats wake. (

Ever since the Conquest, the differences between the French/Latin and Germanic/Scandinavian influences have been a class marker.

Those Scandi noir thrillers that have become such a staple on TV in the UK throw up some striking similarities between Danish and English, but I’m never quite sure if they haven’t slipped in some English.

But when a Danish copper says “You can go” to someone they’ve been interrogating, it does sound exactly the same as in English. Likewise, when they’re unmistakably speaking Danish, some of the vowel sounds (e.g., when someone refers to their CV) could just as well have come from the mouths of an Estuary-English speaker (just the same loosely diphthong sound my mother would have called “common” - more SAY-VAY than SEE-VEE). Likewise with an over-aspirated T in the middle of a word (e.g., Politi in Danish) - I vaguely thought it came in English from people over-compensating to avoid making a glottal stop on the T and appear more “refined” than downmarket, but maybe it’s a hangover from the days of the Danelaw…

Lot’s of Viking inheritance in our language, so much so that:

Frisian actually, then Dutch. “The Frisians are a Germanic ethnic group native to the coastal parts of the Netherlands and Germany. They inhabit an area known as Frisia and are concentrated in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and, in Germany, East Frisia and North Frisia (which was a part of Denmark until 1864).” From Wikipedia.

Really, it’s not so much that Danish (or Swedish or Frisian or whatever) is close to English, as that everything else is further away. There’s probably more similarity between, say, Spanish and Italian than between English and Frisian.

There’s also a pattern in English that more common words tend to be derived from Germanic roots, while fancier words derive from French (and the fanciest words come straight from Latin or Greek). So the simpler the speech is, the more it’ll sound similar to Danish, Frisian, etc.

Oh, and for the sake of completeness, the closest language to English is probably Braids, if you consider it a separate language (which we probably should; “gang aft aglay” isn’t very much like “go often astray”).

Is Frisian a first language for anyone any more?

Apparently it is, according to the wiki article on Frisian Languages:

I was going to say, I’ve never had the OP’s experience with Danish, but Dutch always seemed to sound to me like jumbled up English. If I’m not paying close attention, I could swear I’m listening to English.

There are still a few old timers in Friesland, Wisconsin who speak Frisian. It sounds so frustratingly nearly comprehensible. Much moreso than dutch to me.

But in another 10 years I expect noone in that community will speak it anymore. I’m glad it’s surviving in Europe.

Here is a passage in English and Danish.

*The main body cavity is a hemocoel through which blood and coelomic fluid circulate and which encloses most of the other internal organs. These hemocoelic spaces act as an efficient hydrostatic skeleton. The blood contains the respiratory pigment hemocyanin as an oxygen-carrier.

Hovedlegemet hulrum er en hemocoel hvorigennem blod og cølomivæsken cirkulere og som omslutter de fleste af de andre indre organer. Disse hemocoelic rum fungerer som en effektiv hydrostatisk skelet. Blodet indeholder den respiratoriske pigment hæmocyanin som et oxygen-bærestof.*

Most of the words in Danish that an English speaking person could guess are words that have been introduced simultaneously to both languages in the last couple of centuries, from the ISV (International Scientific Vocabulary) and are also the same in Swahili and Tagalog.

As ordinary lives have become more technology-savvy, the drift-apart of languages has nearly stopped, and in fact languages are drifting closer together. In addition, through Films and Facrebook, English slang is flowing over the world like lava, also homogenizing everyday language. With technese and vernacular eventually meeting in the middle, squeezing out the residue from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

Here’s a roster of Danish newspapers online:

Here’s one chosen more or less at random:

The couple of articles I looked at had a couple of obvious cognates and recent coinages per paragraph. Other than that my school German gave me a few more clues on some of the connector words. After that it was completely opaque.

Maybe Danish sounds like English. It sure doesn’t read like it.

Are you referring to West Frisian, North Frisian or Saterland Frisian?

Indeed. Different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, with a fair few Danes in between, and the northern one mingling with Picts and Gaels.

I had read that previously. Yes, there are still people who speak it. Is it the first language of anyone in the last, say, twenty years?

Here is a video of a Frisian speaker with English subtitles. I don’t know which dialect.

Though German and Dutch are closer genetically to English as all three are West Germanic Languages, Old Norse had heavy subsequent influence on English. There are reports from English sailors the Anglo-Saxon period of a degree of mutual intelligibility between Old English and the language spoken in Denmark contrasted to the lack of mutual intelligibility between English and Low German.

I have noticed that the Danish are very good at speaking English using native-sounding accents, particularly Northern English accents.