Danish for beginners: sorry, eyeblinks, bicycles and cow turns

It’s time we spoke about speaking, as in communication, as in the fact that everyone on The Sea Stallion speaks Danish when they sail. The first time I sailed in 2015 I had studied some Swedish and German before. So I thought, this shouldn’t be too difficult since they all come from the same branch effectively. Sure even a certain percentage of English comes from Norse, the language of the Vikings. I was very much mistaken.


After Icelandic, I’d say Danish is the most difficult of all the Nordic languages. Many forgeigners who move here prefer to survive on English unless they’re intent on staying for the long term, in which case they eventually give in, availing of the State’s generous free Danish courses for foreigners. The Swedes and Norwegians are understood by the Danes but have huge difficulty understanding the Danes when they reply, especially when it comes to numbers. Something about counting in multiples of 20 way back when people sold herrings on a stick in batches of 20. For one of Europe’s most liberal nations the Danes sure are sticklers for tradition! I recently overheard a Dane giving a Norwegian their phone number, after about three attempts they just reverted to English. I’ve seen Swedish tourists speak English to the Danes, which really is insane as they’re languages are more or less different dialects of the same tongue … if you go back a few centuries.


A passing cyclist in Hou, Eastern Jutland 2015

It has now been 12 months since I moved to Copenhagen. So far, I’ve attended six months of Danish classes, that’s 207 hours, and you know what I discovered today? The word “Beklager” (‘bi-clay-er’: sounds like … “brick layer” but without the “r”) which means sorry. I came upon it while sifting through various posts online about learning Danish, trying to understand why I had no anxieties about sailing a 30m long Viking Ship but was sick to my stomach when I tried to order a coffee in Danish. We didn’t learn “Beklager” in class, we learned “Undsklyd”, which literally translates as ‘Unfault’, the equivalent of ‘Pardon’ or ‘Excuse me’. Infact we didn’t learn to ask, ‘How are you?’, until week 8 of beginners Danish. Why is this? Because my teahcer explained, it’s complicated – apparently for a Dane to ask you, “Hvordan går det?”, you’re either terminally ill or it’s the first time they’ve seen you in years.

It’s not that the Danish, as a nation, are impolite, far from it! A common way of asking for a coffee in Danish is to say “Må jeg bede om en kaffe tak”, which translates as, ‘May I pray for a coffee thanks. And there are many different ways of saying thank you, “Mange tak” ‘Many thanks’, “Tak skal du have”, ‘Thanks shall you have,’ and my favourite, as an Irish woman who takes gratuities to a whole new level, “Tusind tak”… ‘A thousand thanks’, or ‘Thanks a million’ as we like to say in Ireland not when someone saves us from drowning but when they hold the door open for us. Back in 2015, my first sailing buddy, Emil, tricked me into saying, “Tusind laks” really quickly instead. That means, ‘A thousand salmon’. Which, if said fast enough, people didn’t notice or else they were too polite to correct the dear Irish girl who was trying to master their linguistic Mount Everest of a language. My current favourite phrase is “Om et øjeblik”,  which literally means ‘In an eye blink’ – English equivalent … ‘In a moment’.

So back to the coffee conversation. You see, I like my coffee and that’s my chance to practice with strangers, the next hurdle though if they do understand is when they answer back in Danish and you don’t understand what they’ve said! Because there’s a million different ways of saying things and they have different accents, and they speak really fast, mumbling and swallowing half of their words, ESPECIALLY in Copenhagen!! There were actually a number of complaints made recently to DR, the Danish broadcasting company because the Danes themselves couldn’t understand actors because they were mumbling so much.


Known as “Bestemor” or ‘Grandmother’ bikes, these are pedalled by all ages and sexes with the basic function of getting from A to B in one of Europe’s flatest capitals

You see the key to being cool in Copenhagen is to appear to not make any effort. Not just with the way you, or rather don’t bother to, pronounce things, but also the way you look and what kind of bike you ride – I’ve never seen so many bikes that look like they were driven over by a tank after being fished out of a canal – buckled wheels and rusty chains are a thing here!

Apparently half of the bikes in Copenhagen are stolen, which is about the only thing that seems to be acceptable to steal here. You can leave your child asleep outside on the street in its pram or your Mac Book and iPhone unattended in a public library and nobody is going to touch your things. The level of trust is incredible, just not when it comes to bicycles. Apparently many Danes have admitted, on occasions, to grabbing the closest set of wheels when trying to bike home after necking back a slab or two of Tuborg of a Saturday night. Last weekend a friend told me a bike doesn’t last longer than two or three years in Copenhagen.

I had a conversation with a Canadian hairdresser last week who told me that the women in Copenhagen generally preferred to walk out of the hairdresser’s with wet hair rather than a coiffered blow dry. I’ve actually done this for years, but felt bad after he said it, I let him blow dry it and went straight home and re-washed it and let it dry naturally. But you see, we’re too afraid to just be honest and say, ‘That’s fine thanks you can leave it at that’. Maybe it’s not about looking like you haven’t made an effort but being less self-conscious and at ease with what beauty nature has given you.


A tandom racer

So, you see it’s not just the incredibly difficult pronounciation and the Shakespearean-like word order you have to master when learning Danish. You need to know the subtle nouances, cultural references, regional accents and constantly shifting adjectives, which apparently the Danes often mispell themselves. Mastering the written language is not the difficult part, it’s practicing the spoken that is the tricky one, especially since most people have almost perfect English and are more than happy to practice it. They’re also not used to hearing forgeigners speak Danish – only 6 million people speak it in the world, there are almost twice as many people learing Irish on Duolingo than Danish (only aroun 5% of people in Ireland use it on a daily basis). Native English speakers hear different pronounciations of English everyday. It’s difficult to motivate yourself to practice Danish because you will sound like an idiot at the beginning and the conversation will be forced and only go so far, and there’s always the safety net of English to revert back to. An Irish friend who’s been living here for over 20 years said it took her three years to become fluent in Danish, cultivating friendships were more important to her, the ironic things is now her Danish business partner has very little English, so it all comes eventually. Patience and perserverence is the key.

But then there’s the archaeologist in me who is fascinated by the layers in Danish, the stratigraphy and the linguistic evolution of the language. Many of the German words in Danish, (apperently up to 50% of the language), are old German words, which I recently realised when Swiss friends were visiting that in many ways Danish has more similarities to Swiss German. Then there’s the Norse words and the French and the English of course – it leaves you scratching your head wondering who uttered the words in the first place … were they Viking, Saxon or Norman?


The odd thing is that I understand more Danish at Sea than on land. You see, I never sailed before so most of the sailing vocabulary I have collected on the water I couldn’t translate into my mother tongue. Every time I set foot on one of the wooden boats in Roskilde Fjord I’m at home, and the beautiful thing is that I’m beginning to notice the different accents of the people I sail with. I’m surrounded by conservations about all kinds of things, 80% of which I don’t understand. However, when an order like “Vi kovende” or ‘We cow turn!’ is yelled by the skipper, I get ready to turn the sail. (I probably should explain that this is when the ship turns by sailng with the wind, because allegedly cows turn their backsides to the wind when it blows – you learn a new thing everyday!)

The phrase I learned in Danish class wasn’t, “Hvordan går det?”, ‘How are you?’ It was, “Hvorfor kommede du til Danmark?” or ‘Why did you come to Denmark?’. My answer was not for love nor a job but … “For at sejle et Vikingeskib” … to sail a Viking ship.


Christine, Frederikke and myself, Kattegat 2016

One thought on “Danish for beginners: sorry, eyeblinks, bicycles and cow turns

  1. A few corrections 🙂 “at bede om” means to ask for. We dont pray to god, we ask god.
    “om et øjeblik”, you have the same in english. It means “in the blink of an eye”

    Also i think you generalize and awfull lot in your posts. I ask my girlfriend on a daily basis “hvordan går det”. I dont think its your fault that this happends its probably more because of the people teaching you. Many dont know where words come from and therefore has a hard time actually explaining them.


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