Norwegian Danish Comparison Essay

Danish and Norwegian Bokmål (the most common standard form of written Norwegian) are both descended from the Old Norse, the common ancestor of all North Germanic languages spoken today. Thus, they are closely related, and largely mutually intelligible. The largest differences are found in pronunciation and language-specific vocabulary, which may severely hinder mutual intelligibility in some dialects. All dialects of Danish and Bokmål form a dialect continuum within a wider North Germanic dialect continuum.

Mutual intelligibility[edit]

Generally, speakers of the three largest Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) can read each other's languages without great difficulty. This holds especially true of Danish and Norwegian.[1] The primary obstacles to mutual comprehension are differences in pronunciation. Danish speakers generally do not understand Norwegian as well as the extremely similar written norms would lead one to expect. Many Norwegians – especially in northern and western Norway – also have problems understanding Danish. According to a scientific study, of the three ethnic groups, Norwegians generally understand the other languages better than any other group, while Swedes understand the least.[2]

In general, Danish and Norwegian speakers will be able to understand the other's language after only a little instruction or exposure.[3]


Main article: Norwegian language conflict

In the Kingdom of Denmark–Norway (1536–1814), the official language was Danish. The urban Norwegian upper class spoke Dano-Norwegian, a form of Danish with Norwegian pronunciation and other minor local differences. After the two countries separated, Danish remained the official language of Norway, and remained largely unchanged until language reforms in the early 20th century led to the standardization of forms more similar to the Norwegian urban and rural vernaculars. Since 1929, this written standard has been known as Bokmål. Later attempts to bring it closer to and eventually merge it with the other Norwegian written standard, Nynorsk, constructed on the basis of Norwegian dialects, have failed due to widespread resistance. Instead, the most recent reforms of Bokmål (2005) have included certain Danish-like constructions that had previously been banned.[4]


Danish text1
I 1877 forlod Brandes København og bosatte sig i Berlin. Hans politiske synspunkter gjorde dog, at Preussen blev ubehagelig for ham at opholde sig i, og han vendte i 1883 tilbage til København, hvor han blev mødt af en helt ny gruppe af forfattere og tænkere, der var ivrige efter at modtage ham som deres leder. Det vigtigste af hans senere arbejder har været hans værk om William Shakespeare, der blev oversat til engelsk af William Archer og med det samme blev anerkendt.
Norwegian (moderate Bokmål)1
I 1877 forlot Brandes København og bosatte seg i Berlin. Hans politiske synspunkter gjorde imidlertid at det ble ubehagelig for ham å oppholde seg i Preussen, og i 1883 vendte han tilbake til København, der han ble møtt av en helt ny gruppe forfattere og tenkere, som var ivrige etter å motta ham som sin leder. Det viktigste av hans senere arbeider er hans verk om William Shakespeare, som ble oversatt til engelsk av William Archer, og som straks ble anerkjent.
Translation of the Bokmål sample into Danish1
I 1877 forlod Brandes København og bosatte sig i Berlin. Hans politiske synspunkter gjorde imidlertid at det blev ubehageligt for ham at opholde sig i Preussen, og i 1883 vendte han tilbage til København, hvor han blev mødt af en helt ny gruppe forfattere og tænkere, som var ivrige efter at møde ham som deres leder. Det vigtigste af hans senere arbejder er hans værk om William Shakespeare, som blev oversat til engelsk af William Archer, og som straks blev anerkendt.
English translation
In 1877 Brandes left Copenhagen and took up residence in Berlin. However, his political views made Prussia an uncomfortable place to live, and in 1883 he returned to Copenhagen, where he was met by a completely new group of writers and thinkers, who were eager to accept him as their leader. The most important of his later works is his work about William Shakespeare, which was translated to English by William Archer and received recognition immediately.
  1. ^ Excerpts from the articles about Danish critic Georg Brandes from the Danish Wikipedia, version from May 19, 2006, 09:36 and Norwegian (bokmål) Wikipedia, version from April 4, 2006, 01:38. The translation of the Bokmål sample into Danish was created for the purpose of this article.

Writing system[edit]

Main article: Danish and Norwegian alphabet

Generally, Norwegian orthography is more simplified and regularized and closer to actual pronunciation than Danish. As a rule, the graphic differences between the two languages do not reflect actual differences in pronunciation; while there are significant phonetic and phonological differences, they are rarely expressed in writing. The few exceptions are noted below.

  • In writing, Danish may employ either the letter e or the letter æ to signify the shortvowelphoneme/ɛ/. Norwegian almost always uses e. Example: Danish lægge (to lay), sende (to send) vs Norwegian legge, sende.
  • Danish regularly, although not always, uses the letter combinations nd, ld instead of the double consonant letters nn, ll. In most cases this is not etymologically justified. In Norwegian, only the etymologically justified spellings occur. Example: Danish kende (to know, Old Norsekenna), denne (this /common gender/, ON masculineaccusativeþenna) and sende (to send, ON senda) vs Norwegian kjenne, denne (but sende); Danish ilde (bad, ON illa), ville (to want, Old Norse vilja) and holde (to hold, Old Norse halda) vs Norwegian ille, ville (but holde).
  • Unlike Norwegian, Danish often uses ds instead of double s. Example: ridse (to scratch) but visse (certain [plural]) vs Norwegian risse, visse. Likewise in some other contexts, Danish bedst (best), sidst (last) vs Norwegian best, sist (ON bezt, sizt, where z denoted consonant combinations like ds etc.).
  • Unlike Norwegian, Danish does not use double consonants word-finally. Example: Danish vis can signify both the adjective pronounced /viːˀs/ (wise) and the adjective pronounced /ves/ (certain), even though the plural forms of the adjectives, where the consonant occurs medially, are distinguished in writing by means of a double s in the second word (vise vs visse). In contrast, Norwegian does distinguish between vis and viss in the same way as between vise and visse.
  • Danish preserves the above rule both before inflexional and derivational endings, beginning in a consonant, and in compounding. Norwegian, too, prohibits word-final double consonants before inflexional endings, beginning in a consonant, (unless homography needs to be avoided), but not before derivational endings and in compounding. Example: Danish al (all /common gender/) – alt (all /neuter gender/) – alle (all /plural/) – altid (always, literally "all time"); Norwegian allaltalle, but alltid.
  • Norwegian has preserved the spellings gj, kj, and skj in the beginning of words when followed by e, æ, ø, while modern Danish has simply g, k and sk. Today, this in part reflects the fact that these words are also pronounced differently in the two languages, see below. Examples: Danish gemme (keep, hide), kær (dear), skønt (although) vs Norwegian gjemme, kjær, skjønt.
  • A pair of diphthongs are spelled as ej and øj in Danish, but as ei and øy in Norwegian. The exact pronunciation of these diphthongs is also somewhat different in the two languages, see below, and the different spellings are phonetically justified at least for the second diphthong. Examples: Danish vej (way), løj (lied /past tense/) vs Norwegian vei, løy.
  • In the oblique case forms of the 1st and 2nd person pronouns and of reflexive pronouns, the ei/ej diphthong is spelled ig in Danish, but eg in Norwegian: mig, dig, sig vs meg, deg, seg.
  • In Danish, the preposition af "of, from" is spelled with f (pronounced [a] or, in compounds, [ɑʊ̯]), whereas Norwegian has av with v like Swedish.
  • In loanwords, Danish generally has tended to partly preserve the spelling of the source language, whereas Norwegian traditionally usually has adapted the spelling to its own rules in order to reflect the expected pronunciation. Examples: Danish bureau (bureau), chauffør (chauffeur), information (information), garage (garage), centrum (centre), zone (zone) vs Norwegian byrå, sjåfør, informasjon, garasje, sentrum, sone.
  • Traditional Danish punctuation requires that a comma be placed before and after every dependent clause, and although two recent reforms permit, optionally, the dropping of a comma before the dependent clause, the old system is still in general use.[5] In contrast, Norwegian only requires a comma after the dependent clause; a comma is placed before it only if the clause is parenthetic (the same rule as in English).[6] Example sentence:
DanishJeg ved,hvordan manden,(som) du snakker om,ser ud.
NorwegianJeg vethvordan mannen(som) du snakker om,ser ut.
EnglishI knowhow the man(that) you're talking aboutlooks.

Note, however, Norwegian John, som hadde sett mannen, visste hvordan han så ut (John, who had seen the man, knew what he looked like), where the dependent clause is parenthetic.

Pronunciation and sound system[edit]

The difference in pronunciation between Norwegian and Danish is much more striking than the difference between Norwegian and Swedish. Although written Norwegian is very similar to Danish, spoken Norwegian more closely resembles Swedish.

Danish pronunciation is typically described as 'softer', which in this case refers mostly to the frequent approximants corresponding to Norwegian and historical plosives in some positions in the word (especially the pronunciation of the letters b, d, and g), as well as the German-like realisation of r as a uvular or even pharyngeal approximant in Danish as opposed to the Norwegian alveolar trills or uvular trills/fricatives.

Note that in the following comparison of Danish and Norwegian pronunciation, the East Norwegian pronunciation of Oslo is taken as the norm. In practice, most Norwegians will speak a local dialect in most contexts; furthermore, Bokmål itself is not a spoken standard, and is likely to be pronounced with clearly regional features. The most obvious instances are the uvular (rather than alveolar) pronunciation of /r/ and the lack of retroflexes in much of Western Norway, and the pronunciation, in some cases, of a retroflex flap instead of /l/ in much of Eastern Norway, including the less "refined" forms of the Oslo dialect. All of this is ignored in the following exposition.


Arguably the most acoustically striking differences in vowels are that:

  • In Danish, the graphemea corresponds, in most contexts, to the pronunciation of a front, often even open-mid front vowel ([a] or [æ]), closer to the unusual English a (more specifically, like short English aby 1600). In Norwegian, a is invariably an openback vowel[ɑ]. Example: Danish bane vs. Norwegian bane (course, orbit).
  • The grapheme u corresponds to (more or less close) back vowels in Danish, but usually to a closecentral vowel (/ʉ/) in Norwegian. Example: Danish [huːˀs] vs. Norwegian [hʉːs].

As a whole, Norwegian still preserves the old pairs of short and long vowels, as suggested by the writing system, pretty close to each other, even though the long ones are usually closer. Thus, the grapheme e corresponds to long [eː] (sene[seːnə], late [plural]) and short [ɛ] (sende[sɛnːə], to send), while the grapheme i corresponds to long [iː] (sine[siːnə], his/her/its/their own) and short [ɪ] (sinne[sɪnːə], anger). In Danish, the tendency of differentiation has led to a qualitative overlapping: also here, e can stand for long [eː] (sene[seːnə], late [plural]) and for short [ɛ] (sende[sɛnə], to send), but i, besides signifying long [iː] (sine[siːnə], his/her/its/their own), has come to correspond to short [e] ([nogen]sinde[senə], ever) and, to complicate things further, a short [i] pronunciation is maintained in some cases (sidste[sistə], last). Most Danish vowels have also many segmentally conditioned allophones, especially more open ones when preceded or followed by /r/ .

The following is a table that compares the most common Danish and the Norwegian pronunciations of a letter (without taking into account the grouping of sounds into phonemes, as well as many sub-rules, exceptions and subtleties). Note that in many cases, even when the same IPA transcription is used, the sounds may still be somewhat different in the two languages.

short[ɑ][a > æ], [ɑ]1)[ʁɑ][ɑː]
elong[eː][eː][ʁæː(ɪ̯)][eːɐ, ɛːɐ]
short[ɛ]2)[ɛ][ʁa > ʁɑ], [ʁa > ʁaɪ̯]2)3)[aɐ]
short[ɪ][e], [i][ʁæ], [ʁi][iɐ]
short[ɔ]5)[ʌ], [ɔ]6)[ʁʌ][ɒː], [o]
ulong[ʉː][uː][ʁuː > ʁoː][uːɐ]
short[ʉ], [u][ɔ]7), [u][ʁɔ]7), [ʁu > ʁo][uɐ]
short[y][ø]7), [y][ʁœ]7), [ʁy][yɐ], [ɶɐ]8)
short[æ][ɛ][ʁa > ɑ], [ʁa > ʁaɪ̯]3)[aɐ]
short[œ][ø][ʁœ], [ʁɶ]10)[ɶɐ]
1) before labials and velars
2) But [æ] before /r/
3) before velars
4) But [oː] before /ɡ, v/
5) but, in some cases, [u] (notably before rt, nd, and sometimes st)
6) in some words before /ʋ/, /s/, /n/, /m/ (< older ō)
7) almost universally before /m, n, ŋ/
8) only in fyrre "40"
9) But [ɛː], when, by exception, not followed by /r/
10) before /n/

Interestingly, while the more open realisations of /ɛ/ and /ɛː/ before /r/ are allophonic in Danish, they have acquired phonemic status as /æ/ and /æː/ in Norwegian, and the Norwegian letter æ has come to be used almost only to signify them. The phonologisation of /æ/ was mostly a collateral effect of the merger of some other sounds: Danish æ/ɛː/ vs. e/eː/ and sj/sj/ vs. rs/ɐ̯s/ have come to be pronounced in the same way in Norwegian (respectively /eː/ and /ʂ/), thus rendering the occurrences of /æ/ unpredictable.


The Danish diphthongs [aɪ̯] and [ʌɪ̯] (spelled as ej and øj) correspond to the Norwegian diphthongs (in Oslo pronunciation) [æɪ̯] and [œɥ̯] (spelled as ei and øy). Besides that, a great many letter combinations are pronounced as diphthongs in Danish, but as usual vowel-consonant combinations in Norwegian. That is mostly due to the Danish letters g and v (colloquially also b) being pronounced as semivowels[ɪ̯] and [ʊ̯] after a vowel: thus, dag (day) is pronounced [d̥æːˀ(ɪ̯)] in Danish, but [dɑːɡ] in Norwegian; lov (law) is pronounced [lʌʊ̯] in Danish, but [loːv] in Norwegian. Similarly, [aɪ̯] and [ʌɪ̯] are often spelled as eg and øg in Danish (eg may be pronounced [æɪ̯] in Norwegian, too, e.g. in regne, "to rain"). The Danish pronunciation is therefore, as with a above, closer to English, while the Norwegian is more conservative, closer to its spelling.

  • A significant sound correspondence (rather than simply a difference in pronunciation) is the fact that Danish has long monophthongs (e/eː/, ø/øː/) in some words, where Norwegian has restored the reflexes of old Norse diphthongs (ei[æɪ̯], øy[œʏ̯] and au[æʉ̯]) as alternatives or, sometimes, replacement of the Danish ones. Examples: Danish ben (leg, bone) – Norwegian ben or bein; Danish (hay) – Norwegian høy; Danish høj (hill) – Norwegian haug.


The most notable differences are, as already mentioned, the pronunciation of approximants in Danish, corresponding to voiced and voiceless stops in Norwegian and of r as a uvu-pharyngealapproximant in Danish, corresponding to an alveolar trill in (East) Norwegian (skrige, "shriek" vs skrike). Furthermore, Danish has replaced the voiced/voiceless opposition in /p, t, k/) vs /b, d, ɡ/) with an aspirated/nonaspirated one ([pʰ, tˢ, kʰ] vs [b̥, d̥, ɡ̊]), and the contrast between the two is neutralized syllable-finally and before schwa (in practice, in the core of native words, this means it is lost everywhere except word-initially). Thus, begge (both) and bække (brooks) are pronounced alike as [b̥ɛɡ̊ə]. In Norwegian, the opposition is still voiced vs voiceless and it is preserved everywhere, with /p, t, k/ being aspirated in the onset of a stressed syllable (as in English and German).

In stressed onsetElsewhere (single)Elsewhere (double)In stressed onsetElsewhere
b[b̥][b̥, ʊ̯][b̥][b][b]
g[ɡ̊][-, ɪ̯, ʊ̯][ɡ̊][ɡ][ɡ]
r[ʁ][ɐ̯, -][r][r]

The Danish /r/ is either vocalized or dropped altogether, after having influenced the adjacent vowels, in all positions but word-initially and pre-stress, making the Danish r very similar to the standard German r. Also, note the Danish pronunciation of initial t as [tˢ], displaying a hint of the High German consonant shift wherein German changed t to z/tz (cf. Danish tid, German Zeit).

Meanwhile, syllable-final b, v, d, and g may be compared to English syllables that end in y, w, and th (English "say" vs. Danish sige, "law" vs. lov, "wrath" vs. vrede).

Some letter combinations that are pronounced quite differently are:

  • rd, rl, rn, rs, rt are pronounced as spelled in Danish (with the /r/ dropped), but in the part of Norway using trilled r, they are always or almost always merged into retroflex consonants ([ɖ], [ɭ], [ɳ], [ʂ], [ʈ]), as in Swedish.
  • sj is pronounced [ɕ] in Danish, but as [ʂ] in most of Norway.

Some notable sound correspondences are:

  • Danish has /b/ (spelled b), /ð/ (spelled d), and [ɪ̯, ʊ̯] (spelled g) after long stressed vowels, where Norwegian has restored/preserved the /p/, /t/ and /k/ from Old Norse. Examples: Danish fod (foot), reb (rope), syg (sick) – Norwegian fot, rep, syk – Old Norse fótr, reip, sjúkr. In a handful of cases, however, Norwegian has kept the Danish form (lege, doctor, tegn, sign, bedre, better, vs Old Norse læknari, teikn, betri). In most of these cases, the Nynorsk equivalents have retained the old consonants (lækjar (variant form), teikn, betre).
  • Sometimes Danish has /v/ ([ʊ̯], spelled v) after originally long stressed vowels, where Norwegian has restored/preserved /ɡ/ from Old Norse. Example: Danish skov (forest), mave (belly) – Norwegian skog, mage – Old Norse skógr, magi. However, in many cases Norwegian has kept the Danish form (lyve "tell a lie" – Old Norse ljúga), and variation is permitted (mave, lyge, and even ljuge).
  • Danish has /ɡ/, /k/, and /sk/ (spelled g, k and sk) in stressed syllable onsets, where Norwegian usually has /j/, /ç/ and /ʂ/ (spelled as in Danish before i, y, ei and øy, and gj, kj and skj elsewhere). Examples: Danish gemme (keep, hide), kær (dear), skønt (although), gyse (shiver), kilde (source, spring) vs Norwegian gjemme, kjær, skjønt, gyse, kilde.


In Norwegian, each stressed syllable must contain, phonetically, either a long vowel or a long (geminate) consonant (e.g. male[mɑːlə], "to paint" vs malle[mɑlːə], "catfish") . In Danish, there are no phonologically long consonants, so the opposition is between long and short vowels ([mæːlə] vs [malə]). Both languages have a prosodic opposition between two "accents", derived from syllable count in Old Norse and determined partly phonologically, partly morphologically and partly lexically. However, the exact nature of this prosodic contrast is very different. In Norwegian, the contrast is between two tonal accents, accent 1 and 2, which characterise a whole word with primary stress; in Danish, it is between the presence and the absence of the stød (a kind of laryngealisation), which characterises a syllable (though usually a syllable that bears at least secondary stress). Example: Danish løber "runner" [ˈløːb̥ɐ] vs løber "runs" [ˈløːˀb̥ɐ], Norwegian løper2[lø̂ːpər] vs løper1[lø̀ːpər]. Note Danish landsmand[ˈlanˀsmanˀ] "compatriot" (one word, two støds) as opposed to Norwegian landsmann[lɑ̀nsmɑnː] (one word, one accent).

Note: The pronunciation of the tone accents varies widely between Norwegian dialects; the IPA tone accent transcriptions above reflect South-East Norwegian pronunciation (found e.g. in Oslo). There is usually also high pitch in the last syllable, but it is not transcribed here, because it belongs to the prosody of the phrase rather than the word.

Grammatical differences[edit]

Nominal morphology[edit]


Danish has two grammatical genders – common (indefinite article en and definite article -en) and neuter (indefinite article et and definite article -et). In Norwegian, the system is generally the same, but some common words optionally use special feminine gender declension patterns, which have been preserved from Old Norse in Norwegian dialects and were re-introduced into the written language by the language reforms of the early 20th century. Hence, three genders are recognized – masculine (morphologically identical to Danish common, with indefinite article en and definite article -en), feminine (indefinite article ei and definite article -a) and neuter (morphologically identical to its Danish counterpart, with indefinite article et and definite article -et, pronounced /ə/). The likelihood of a feminine as opposed to common form being used depends on the particular word, as well as on style: common gender forms are often more formal or sometimes even bookish, while feminine forms tend to make a more colloquial and sometimes even rustic impression. Examples: Danish en mandmanden ("a man – the man"), en solsolen ("a sun – the sun"), et hushuset ("a house – the house") vs Norwegian en mannmannen ("a man – the man"), ei solsola or en solsolen ("a sun – the sun"), et hushuset ("a house – the house").

The Norwegian feminine can also be expressed in the indefinite singular declension of the word liten, which has a special feminine form lita beside the neuter lite. Danish has only lille, which is the definite singular form in both languages.


In Danish, the plural endings are -er, -e or zero-ending. The choice of ending is difficult to predict (although -er is especially common in polysyllables, loanwords and words ending in unstressed e; -e is most usual in monosyllables; and zero-ending is most usual in neuter monosyllables). In Norwegian, the plural suffix -e is used too, but the system is rather regularized, since it is only nouns ending with -er in unbent form that get -e in indefinite plural form, and this is current for both masculine, feminine and neuter nouns; en skyskraper – skyskrapere "a skyscraper – skyscrapers"; en hamburger – hamburgere "a hamburger – hamburgers"; et monster – monstre "a monster – monsters"; et senter – sentre "a center – centers". The ending -er is dominant in masculine/feminine nouns and some neuters with several syllables, while zero-ending is prevalent in neuter gender monosyllables. Examples: Danish en appelsin – appelsiner, en hund – hunde, et hus – huse, et fald – fald, vs Norwegian en appelsin – appelsiner, en hund – hunder, et hus – hus, et fall – fall (singular and plural forms of "orange", "dog", "house" and "fall").

In addition, the formation of the definite plural forms are somewhat different in the two languages. In Danish, plural forms in -er transform into definite plural -erne, while plurals in -e and zero-ending become -ene. Norwegian has generalized -ene for nearly all masculine and feminine words, and an -ene or -a for neuter words. A few masculine words also have an alternative ending -a, derived from -a(ne)/-æne in the spoken language (en feil – feila/feilene, "a mistake/error – the mistakes/errors"). Examples: Danish en sag – sager – sagerne, en dag – dage – dagene, et fald – fald – faldene, et ben – ben – benene vs Norwegian en sak – saker – sakene, en dag – dager – dagene, et fall – fall – fallene, et be(i)n – be(i)n – be(i)na/be(i)nene (singular, plural, and plural definite forms of "thing", "day", "fall" and "bone"/"leg").


In both languages, single nouns use a postpositive definite article. However, in Danish, when a noun is modified by an adjective, a prepositive definite article is used instead of the postpositive one. Norwegian both adds a prepositive article and keeps the postpositive. Example: Danish hus – huset, et stort hus – det store hus, vs Norwegian hus – huset, et stort hus – det store huset (indefinite and definite forms of "a/the house" and "a/the big house"). The same difference applies when a demonstrative pronoun is used: Danish Jeg elsker den mand vs Norwegian Jeg elsker den mannen (I love that man).


  • To denote second person plural ("you people" or "y'all"), Danish uses I (oblique form jer, possessive pronounjeres), while Norwegian uses dere (oblique dere, possessive deres).
  • The 1st person plural possessive pronoun ("our") is vores (uninflected) in modern Danish, but vår (inflected: neuter vårt, plural våre) in Norwegian. Example: Danish vores ven/hus/venner vs Norwegian vår venn/vårt hus/våre venner or, like in the spoken language, vennen vår/huset vårt/vennene våre ("our friend/house/friends"). In Danish, the original inflected variant vor (vort, vore) occurs only in more solemn or archaic style.
  • The possessive pronouns always precede what they are modifying in Danish; in Norwegian, they may also be placed after a definite noun or noun phrase. The choice of construction in Norwegian depends on the particular word and on style (the Danish-like construction is more formal or emphatic, the other one is more colloquial). Example: Danish min ven, min nye ven vs Norwegian vennen min or min venn, den nye vennen min or min nye venn ("my friend", "my new friend"). Nynorsk does not allow the Danish construction, which in Bokmål was inherited from Danish.
  • The reflexivepossessive pronounsin ("his/her/its own") can't refer to a plural subject in Danish, but it can do so in Norwegian. Example: Danish Han vasker sine klæder like Norwegian Han vasker klærne sine ("He is washing his [own] clothes"); but Danish De vasker deres klæder vs Norwegian De vasker klærne sine ("They are washing their [own] clothes").
  • In Danish, the pronoun that expresses an unspecified, generalized person or group (corresponding to English "one", French "on" and German "man") is man in its main form, but its oblique form is en and its genitive form is ens. In Norwegian, en can also be used as a main form. Example: Danish man kan ikke gøre det vs Norwegian man/en kan ikke gjøre det ("one/people can't do that").
  • In Danish, the pronouns "such" and "so (=in this way)" are usually translated with sådan (slig is obsolete and solemn). In Norwegian, the most usual form is slik, but sådan is also correct (sånn can be somewhat colloquial).


There are significant differences between the numeral systems of the two languages.

  • In Danish, the number 7 is called syv. In Norwegian, it is called sju (although the 2005 language reform re-introduced syv as an alternative to sju).
  • In Danish, 20 and 30 are called tyve and tredive. These forms (with tredive shortened to tredve) were replaced in Norwegian in 1951 by the native tjue/çʉːə/ and tretti. Like syv, which was replaced by sju at the same time, they still occur in Norwegian. The unofficial Riksmål standard retains the old forms.
  • In Danish, the number 40 is called fyrre. In Norwegian, it is førti, although førr is permitted in riksmål.
  • In Danish, the tens between 50 and 90 have different roots from the ones in most Germanic languages. Etymologically, like in French they are based on a vigesimal system; in other words, the name of the number is based on how many times 20 it is. Thus, 60 is tres (short for tresindstyve, "3 times 20") and 50 is halvtreds (short for halvtredsindstyve, "2.5 times 20" or more literally "half-third times 20"). Similarly, 70 is halvfjerds, 80 is firs, and 90 is halvfems. In Norwegian, these numbers are constructed much like in English and German, as compound words of the respective unit and an old word for "ten": 50 = femti, 60 = seksti, 70 = sytti/søtːi/, 80 = åtti, 90 = nitti.
  • In Danish, units are placed before tens (as in German); in Norwegian, the reverse applies (as in English), although the Danish order is also used by some speakers. Example: Danish enogtyve ("one-and-twenty") vs Norwegian tjueen ("twenty-one") or enogtyve.
  • With regard to ordinal numbers, "second" has pretty much the same form in the two languages: anden (neuter andet, plural andre) in Danish and annen (neuter annet, plural andre) in Norwegian. However, Danish does not have a definite form but says den anden, whereas Norwegian uses den andre.

Verbal morphology[edit]

  • Danish regular verbs can be divided in those that form their past tense and past participle with the suffixes -ede and -et/əð/, respectively, (e.g. "to throw", kaste – kastede – kastet) and those that form them with the suffixes -te and -t (e.g. "to read", læse – læste – læst). Although the group in -ede, -et is the largest one, the choice between these two conjugation patterns is mostly unpredictable. The corresponding Norwegian groups use -et, -et (kaste – kastet – kastet), and -te, -t (lese – leste – lest). However, unlike Danish, the choice of conjugation has come to be governed by a rule (with a few exceptions): verb stems containing a short vowel, followed by a long consonant or a consonant cluster (as in ramme), use -et, and verb stems containing a long vowel, followed by a short consonant (as in male), use -te (Danish ramme – ramte – ramt vs Norwegian ramme – rammet – rammet "to hit"; Danish male – malede – malet vs Norwegian male – malte – malt "to paint"). In addition, verb stems ending in a stressed vowel form a third group with no parallel in Danish, using the endings -dde, -dd ("to live [somewhere]" – bo – bodde – bodd). The corresponding Danish verbs nearly always use -ede, -et (bo – boede – boet).
Bokmål has also introduced the optional use of the ending -a (taken from Norwegian dialects and used as the only allowed form in Nynorsk) instead of -et: thus, kaste – kasta – kasta, ramme – ramma – ramma, etc. The use of forms in -a is more common in speech than in writing.
  • Some Danish irregular verbs have longer forms, ending in unstressed -de, -ge and -ve, which have been dropped in Norwegian. In many cases, the Danish verbs may also be pronounced in the contracted way. Examples: Danish lade – lod – ladet, sige – sagde – sagt, blive – blev – blevet vs Norwegian la – lot – latt, si – sa – sagt, bli – ble(i) – blitt ("let", "say", "become"). Other examples are tage – tog – taget vs ta – tok – tatt ("to take"), have – havde – haft vs ha – hadde – hatt ("to have"), etc..
  • The perfect forms in Danish may be formed either with the auxiliary verbhave "to have" (as in English) or with være "to be". Some verbs always use være (ske "happen", holde op "stop"), while others can use both auxiliaries, but with slightly different meanings: han har rejst "he has travelled (spent some time travelling)" emphasizes the action itself, while han er rejst "he has left (so he isn't here now)" emphasizes the result of the action. In Norwegian, ha "to have" may be – and increasingly is – used in all cases (han har reist), and no specific verbs require være (det har skjedd, it has happened).


Certain words present in both languages are used differently in each. This can result in identical sentences meaning different things in the two languages, or in constructions that make sense in one language becoming nonsensical in the other.

Examples include:

  • må/kan – The word "må" usually means "must" in Norwegian, but can mean "may", "can", or "must" in Danish.
  • der/som – Danish has both words for "which", although der is only used as the grammatical subject. In Norwegian, der is only used archaically or poetically.
  • nogle/nogen – in written Danish the counterparts of the English words "some" (in a plural sense) and "any" are spelled nogle and nogen, respectively – although in speech, nogle is pronounced just like nogen. In contrast, in Norwegian both are spelled identically, as noen (from Danish nogen).
  • kun/bare – in Danish, kun means roughly "only, solely" (referring to quantity or number) and bare "just, merely". "Kun" is used more often in Denmark, whereas "bare" is used more often in Norway. While there are rules in Danish that govern when to choose which word, in Norwegian bare may be – and usually is – used with both meanings.
  • meget/mye – in Norwegian, the adverbmeget (alternatively veldig etc.) modifies adjectives just like English "very", while mye is used like English "much, a lot". In Danish, meget is used in both cases.
  • enda/ennå (ennu) – in Norwegian, ennå means "still, yet" in a temporal sense, but enda, which normally means "yet, nevertheless" among other things, is used in conjunction with comparative forms in expressions such as enda bedre, "better still". In Danish, endnu (the equivalent of ennå) is used in both cases.
  • The primary difference in preposition usage in the Danish and Norwegian languages is the use of i / , (in English in / on). Although the two are generally used similarly in both languages, in certain cases the two languages choose a different preposition for the same construction. For example, "a quarter to five" would be kvart i fem in Danish, but kvart på fem in Norwegian. To express a period of time during which something has happened, Danish always uses i, but Norwegian uses i in affirmative and in negative sentences: Danish jeg har (ikke) set ham i to år vs Norwegian jeg har sett ham i to år, jeg har ikke sett ham på to år ("I have [not] seen him for two years").
  • genitive constructions – unlike Danish, Norwegian very often uses the preposition til ("to") as a more informal alternative of genitive constructions: boka til Peter, or Peters bok vs Danish Peters bog. Norwegian also uses a construction with the reflexive pronoun, Peter sin bok, (Lit. Peter his book). This is in Norwegian bokmål called "garpegenitiv" and is (in bokmål) considered substandard.[7]


Geographical names[edit]

Names of countries[edit]

Danish has adopted many German (particularly from Low German variants spoken by the Hanseatic League) words and grammatical structures, while Bokmål has rejected some of these imports. An example is the naming of countries; Danish and Swedish generally use the German names of countries, or at least the German ending.

These names were used in Norwegian as well, but have in modern times (during the second half of the 20th century) to a large extent been replaced by the Latin endings; this means that the usual ending is -a in Norwegian and -en or -et in Danish (the -en and -et endings are also the definite articles). In the case of Switzerland, which is known in written Danish and Swedish by its German name Schweiz, this is transliterated in Norwegian as Sveits.[8]

As a result, Australien, Italien and Spanien are used in Danish, but as Australia, Italia and Spania in Bokmål, although the earlier forms can be heard in speakers of more conservative forms (for instance Queen Sonja of Norway). Similarly, while Mongolia and Slovakia are now used in Norwegian, Mongoliet and Slovakiet are still used in Danish.

In Danish, Latvia is referred to as Letland, similar to German Lettland, whereas in Norwegian, it is referred to as Latvia (although Letland and Lettland were previously used), but Estonia and Lithuania are referred to in both languages as Estland and Litauen, as in German.

Other differences include the use in Norwegian of the native names of countries. In Danish, Greece is referred to as Grækenland but in Norwegian, it is mostly referred to as Hellas (the Greek form of the name), even though the Danish-like Grekenland is sometimes used.[9] Similarly, the name for Cyprus in Norwegian is the Greek-derived Kypros,[10] rather than the Cypern (influenced by the German Zypern) used in Danish.[11]

Nevertheless, Norwegians usually use greker (noun) and gresk (adjective) for "Greek", not hellener (noun) and hellensk (adjective); the latter are used only when talking about Ancient Greece, in the sense of Hellenic, as in English and other languages.

In addition, Norwegian speakers, unlike Danish speakers, refer to the Netherlands as Nederland, as in Dutch, not as Holland, although Nederlandene is used in Danish in the same formal sense as "The Netherlands" would be in English. Similarly the Dutch language is known as nederlandsk in Norway, but is most often called hollandsk in Denmark (the Norwegian dictionary Bokmålsordboka identify both Holland and hollandsk as previously commonly used in Norwegian).[12]

By contrast, both Norwegian and Danish speakers refer to New Zealand by its English name, whereas Swedish speakers call the country Nya Zeeland.[13] However, "New Zealand" as an adjective is newzealandsk or nyzealandsk in Norwegian,[14] whereas newzealandsk, though unofficial, is encountered in Danish,[15] In Danish, "New Zealander" is newzealænder[16] while in Norwegian it can be translated as either newzealender or nyzealender.[17]

Bosnia and HerzegovinaBosnien-HercegovinaBosnia-Hercegovina
Cape VerdeKap VerdeKapp Verde
Central African RepublicDen Centralafrikanske RepublikDen sentralafrikanske republikk
Congo, Republic ofRepublikken CongoRepublikken Kongo
Czech RepublicDen Tjekkiske Republik, TjekkietDen tsjekkiske republikk, Tsjekkia
Democratic Republic of CongoDen Demokratiske Republik CongoDen demokratiske republikken Kongo
East TimorØsttimorØst-Timor
EgyptEgypten, ÆgyptenEgypt
Equatorial GuineaÆkvatorialguineaEkvatorial-Guinea
Micronesia, Federated States ofFøderale statsforbund MikronesienMikronesiaføderasjonen
North KoreaNordkoreaNord-Korea
Saudi ArabiaSaudi ArabienSaudi-Arabia
Solomon IslandsSalomonøerneSalomonøyene
South AfricaSydafrikaSør-Afrika
South KoreaSydkoreaSør-Korea
South SudanSydsudanSør-Sudan
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandDet Forenede Kongerige Storbritannien og NordirlandDet forente kongerike Storbritannia og Nord-Irland

Names of cities[edit]

There are also differences in the names of cities, with one language using a native name, while the other uses one borrowed from another language. For example, in Norwegian, Helsinki is referred to as Helsingfors,[18] as in Swedish, whereas in Danish it is usually called Helsinki, as in Finnish.[19]

In Danish, Brussels is referred to as Bruxelles, as in French, or sometimes Bryssel as in Swedish, while in Norwegian it is known as Brussel, as in Dutch (but Bruxelles was permitted until 1961).[20]

For the past few years the world has been in thrall to all things Nordic (for which purpose we must of course add Iceland and Finland to the Viking nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden). "The Sweet Danish Life: Copenhagen: Cool, Creative, Carefree," simpered National Geographic; "The Nordic Countries: The Next Supermodel", boomed the Economist; "Copenhagen really is wonderful for so many reasons," gushed the Guardian.

Whether it is Denmark's happiness, its restaurants, or TV dramas; Sweden's gender equality, crime novels and retail giants; Finland's schools; Norway's oil wealth and weird songs about foxes; or Iceland's bounce-back from the financial abyss, we have an insatiable appetite for positive Nordic news stories. After decades dreaming of life among olive trees and vineyards, these days for some reason, we Brits are now projecting our need for the existence of an earthly paradise northwards.

I have contributed to the relentless Tetris shower of print columns on the wonders of Scandinavia myself over the years but now I say: enough! Nu er det nok! Enough with foraging for dinner. Enough with the impractical minimalist interiors. Enough with the envious reports on the abolition of gender-specific pronouns. Enough of the unblinking idolatry of all things knitted, bearded, rye bread-based and licorice-laced. It is time to redress the imbalance, shed a little light Beyond the Wall.

Take the Danes, for instance. True, they claim to be the happiest people in the world, but why no mention of the fact they are second only to Iceland when it comes to consuming anti- depressants? And Sweden? If, as a headline in this paper once claimed, it is "the most successful society the world has ever seen", why aren't more of you dreaming of "a little place" in Umeå?

Actually, I have lived in Denmark – on and off – for about a decade, because my wife's work is here (and she's Danish). Life here is pretty comfortable, more so for indigenous families than for immigrants or ambitious go-getters (Google "Jantelov" for more on this), but as with all the Nordic nations, it remains largely free of armed conflict, extreme poverty, natural disasters and Jeremy Kyle.

So let's remove those rose-tinted ski goggles and take a closer look at the objects of our infatuation …


Why do the Danes score so highly on international happiness surveys? Well, they do have high levels of trust and social cohesion, and do very nicely from industrial pork products, but according to the OECD they also work fewer hours per year than most of the rest of the world. As a result, productivity is worryingly sluggish. How can they afford all those expensively foraged meals and hand-knitted woollens? Simple, the Danes also have the highest level of private debt in the world (four times as much as the Italians, to put it into context; enough to warrant a warning from the IMF), while more than half of them admit to using the black market to obtain goods and services.

Perhaps the Danes' dirtiest secret is that, according to a 2012 report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, they have the fourth largest per capita ecological footprint in the world. Even ahead of the US. Those offshore windmills may look impressive as you land at Kastrup, but Denmark burns an awful lot of coal. Worth bearing that in mind the next time a Dane wags her finger at your patio heater.

I'm afraid I have to set you straight on Danish television too. Their big new drama series, Arvingerne (The Legacy, when it comes to BBC4 later this year) is stunning, but the reality of prime-time Danish TV is day-to-day, wall-to-wall reruns of 15-year-old episodes of Midsomer Murders and documentaries on pig welfare. The Danes of course also have highest taxes in the world (though only the sixth-highest wages – hence the debt, I guess). As a spokesperson I interviewed at the Danish centre-right thinktank Cepos put it, they effectively work until Thursday lunchtime for the state's coffers, and the other day and half for themselves.

Presumably the correlative of this is that Denmark has the best public services? According to the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment rankings (Pisa), Denmark's schools lag behind even the UK's. Its health service is buckling too. (The other day, I turned up at my local A&E to be told that I had to make an appointment, which I can't help feeling rather misunderstands the nature of the service.) According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the Danes have the highest cancer rates on the planet. "But at least the trains run on time!" I hear you say. No, that was Italy under Mussolini. The Danish national rail company has skirted bankruptcy in recent years, and the trains most assuredly do not run on time. Somehow, though, the government still managed to find £2m to fund a two-year tax-scandal investigation largely concerned, as far as I can make out, with the sexual orientation of the prime minister's husband, Stephen Kinnock.

Most seriously of all, economic equality – which many believe is the foundation of societal success – is decreasing. According to a report in Politiken this month, the proportion of people below the poverty line has doubled over the last decade. Denmark is becoming a nation divided, essentially, between the places which have a branch of Sticks'n'Sushi (Copenhagen) and the rest. Denmark's provinces have become a social dumping ground for non-western immigrants, the elderly, the unemployed and the unemployable who live alongside Denmark's 22m intensively farmed pigs, raised 10 to a pen and pumped full of antibiotics (the pigs, that is).

Other awkward truths? There is more than a whiff of the police state about the fact that Danish policeman refuse to display ID numbers and can refuse to give their names. The Danes are aggressively jingoistic, waving their red-and-white dannebrog at the slightest provocation. Like the Swedes, they embraced privatisation with great enthusiasm (even the ambulance service is privatised); and can seem spectacularly unsophisticated in their race relations (cartoon depictions of black people with big lips and bones through their noses are not uncommon in the national press). And if you think a move across the North Sea would help you escape the paedophiles, racists, crooks and tax-dodging corporations one reads about in the British media on a daily basis, I'm afraid I must disabuse you of that too. Got plenty of them.

Plus side? No one talks about cricket.


The dignity and resolve of the Norwegian people in the wake of the attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in July 2011 was deeply impressive, but in September the rightwing, anti-Islamist Progress party – of which Breivik had been an active member for many years – won 16.3% of the vote in the general election, enough to elevate it into coalition government for the first time in its history. There remains a disturbing Islamophobic sub-subculture in Norway. Ask the Danes, and they will tell you that the Norwegians are the most insular and xenophobic of all the Scandinavians, and it is true that since they came into a bit of money in the 1970s the Norwegians have become increasingly Scrooge-like, hoarding their gold, fearful of outsiders.

Though 2013 saw a record number of asylum applications to Norway, it granted asylum to fewer than half of them (around 5,000 people), a third of the number that less wealthy Sweden admits (Sweden accepted over 9,000 from Syria alone). In his book Petromania, journalist Simon Sætre warns that the powerful oil lobby is "isolating us and making the country asocial". According to him, his countrymen have been corrupted by their oil money, are working less, retiring earlier, and calling in sick more frequently. And while previous governments have controlled the spending of oil revenues, the new bunch are threatening a splurge which many warn could lead to full-blown Dutch disease.

Like the dealer who never touches his own supply, those dirty frackers the Norwegians boast of using only renewable energy sources, all the while amassing the world's largest sovereign wealth fund selling fossil fuels to the rest of us. As Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen put it to me when I visited his office in Oslo University: "We've always been used to thinking of ourselves as part of the solution, and with the oil we suddenly became part of the problem. Most people are really in denial."


We need not detain ourselves here too long. Only 320,000 – it would appear rather greedy and irresponsible – people cling to this breathtaking, yet borderline uninhabitable rock in the North Atlantic. Further attention will only encourage them.


I am very fond of the Finns, a most pragmatic, redoubtable people with a Sahara-dry sense of humour. But would I want to live in Finland? In summer, you'll be plagued by mosquitos, in winter, you'll freeze – that's assuming no one shoots you, or you don't shoot yourself. Finland ranks third in global gun ownership behind only America and Yemen; has the highest murder rate in western Europe, double that of the UK; and by far the highest suicide rate in the Nordic countries.

The Finns are epic Friday-night bingers and alcohol is now the leading cause of death for Finnish men. "At some point in the evening around 11.30pm, people start behaving aggressively, throwing punches, wrestling," Heikki Aittokoski, foreign editor of Helsingin Sanomat, told me. "The next day, people laugh about it. In the US, they'd have an intervention."

With its tarnished crown jewel, Nokia, devoured by Microsoft, Finland's hitherto robust economy is more dependent than ever on selling paper – mostly I was told, to Russian porn barons. Luckily, judging by a recent journey I took with my eldest son the length of the country by train, the place appears to be 99% trees. The view was a bit samey.

The nation once dubbed "the west's reigning educational superpower" (the Atlantic) has slipped in the latest Pisa rankings. This follows some unfortunate incidents involving Finnish students – the burning of Porvoo cathedral by an 18-year-old in 2006; the Jokela shootings (another disgruntled 18-year-old) in 2007, and the shooting of 10 more students by a peer in 2008 – which led some to speculate whether Finnish schools were quite as wonderful as their reputation would have us believe.

If you do decide to move there, don't expect scintillating conversation. Finland's is a reactive, listening culture, burdened by taboos too many to mention (civil war, second world war and cold war-related, mostly). They're not big on chat. Look up the word "reticent" in the dictionary and you won't find a picture of an awkward Finn standing in a corner looking at his shoelaces, but you should.

"We would always prefer to be alone," a Finnish woman once admitted to me. She worked for the tourist board.


Anything I say about the Swedes will pale in comparison to their own excoriating self-image. A few years ago, the Swedish Institute of Public Opinion Research asked young Swedes to describe their compatriots. The top eight adjectives they chose were: envious, stiff, industrious, nature loving, quiet, honest, dishonest, xenophobic.

I met with Åke Daun, Sweden's most venerable ethnologist. "Swedes seem not to 'feel as strongly' as certain other people", Daun writes in his excellent book, Swedish Mentality. "Swedish women try to moan as little as possible during childbirth and they often ask, when it is all over, whether they screamed very much. They are very pleased to be told they did not." Apparently, crying at funerals is frowned upon and "remembered long afterwards". The Swedes are, he says, "highly adept at insulating themselves from each other". They will do anything to avoid sharing a lift with a stranger, as I found out during a day-long experiment behaving as un-Swedishly as possible in Stockholm.

Effectively a one-party state – albeit supported by a couple of shadowy industrialist families – for much of the 20th century, "neutral" Sweden (one of the world largest arms exporters) continues to thrive economically thanks to its distinctive brand of totalitarian modernism, which curbs freedoms, suppresses dissent in the name of consensus, and seems hell-bent on severing the bonds between wife and husband, children and parents, and elderly on their children. Think of it as the China of the north.

Youth unemployment is higher than the UK's and higher than the EU average; integration is an ongoing challenge; and as with Norway and Denmark, the Swedish right is on the rise. A spokesman for the Sweden Democrats (currently at an all-time high of close to 10% in the polls) insisted to me that immigrants were "more prone to violence". I pointed out that Sweden was one of the most bloodthirsty nations on earth for much of the last millennium. I was told we'd run out of time.

Ask the Finns and they will tell you that Swedish ultra-feminism has emasculated their men, but they will struggle to drown their sorrows. Their state-run alcohol monopoly stores, the dreaded Systembolaget, were described by Susan Sontag as "part funeral parlour, part back-room abortionist".

The myriad successes of the Nordic countries are no miracle, they were born of a combination of Lutheran modesty, peasant parsimony, geographical determinism and ruthless pragmatism ("The Russians are attacking? Join the Nazis! The Nazis are losing? Join the Allies!"). These societies function well for those who conform to the collective median, but they aren't much fun for tall poppies. Schools rein in higher achievers for the sake of the less gifted; "elite" is a dirty word; displays of success, ambition or wealth are frowned upon. If you can cope with this, and the cost, and the cold (both metaphorical and inter-personal), then by all means join me in my adopted hyggelige home. I've rustled up a sorrel salad and there's some expensive, weak beer in the fridge. Pull up an Egg. I hear Taggart's on again!

The Almost Nearly Perfect People – The Truth About the Nordic Miracle (Jonathan Cape), by Michael Booth, is published on 6 February. It will be BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week from 10 February.

• This article was amended on 29 January 2014. The claim that Denmark is the EU's largest oil exporter was based on out-of-date information and has been removed. A minor linguistic error has also been corrected.

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