Danish language, member of the North Germanic, or Scandinavian, group of the Germanic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The official language of Denmark, it is spoken by over 5 million people, most of whom live in Denmark; however, there are some Danish speakers in Greenland, the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, and the United States. Like the other Scandinavian languages, Danish is derived from Old Norse, and by the first half of the 12th cent. it could be distinguished from the parent tongue (see Germanic languages; Norse). Between 1100 and 1800 a number of phonological changes took place in Danish, and the grammar became increasingly simple. The spelling and pronunciation of the language began to be standardized c.1700, and a modern standard Danish can be said to have existed since about 1800, although there are still a number of dialects. Danish grammar is comparatively simple. The noun is inflected only to show the possessive and plural forms and has but two genders, neuter and nonneuter (or common). The meaning of nouns that are otherwise the same can depend on gender. For example, when used in the nonneuter øre means "coin," whereas used in the neuter øre means "ear." Homonyms may also be differentiated in Danish by the use of a stød, or glottal stop, which is a sound that results from the closing and opening of the glottis to expel air. Verbs have no personal inflection. Although the vocabulary of Danish is substantially native, many words have been borrowed from other languages, notably from Low German in the 14th to 16th cent.; from High German, Latin, and French in the 16th to 19th cent.; and from English since the late 19th cent. Because of the large number of similar and identical words in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, a knowledge of any one of these languages makes it possible to understand the spoken and written forms of the other two. Since c.1100, Danish has used the Roman alphabet, to which three symbols representing three vowels, å (written as aa before 1948), æ, and ø, have been added.
See L. F. A. Wimmer, A Short History of the Danish Language (1897); Danish grammars by E. Bredsdorff (1959) and E. Norlev and H. A. Koefoed (3d ed. 1968).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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