How similar are Danish and German?

How similar are Danish and German?

by Lea Hauke

Updated November 3, 2023

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn one language and be able to understand two? The many similarities between German and Danish almost suggest that this doesn’t have to stay a dream. But are German speakers actually able to understand Danish — and vice versa? 

The short answer is: no, not really. However close they seem at first, there are major differences between the languages. But that’s not to say they’re so far apart on the language family tree. Let’s take a closer look at this peculiar language pair and see just how much they have in common.

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Danish and German: Common roots

Danish and German do, in fact, share an origin. They both developed from the same proto-language, which is often referred to as the Proto-Germanic language of Northern Europe. 

Due to their shared linguistic history, Danish and German are quite similar in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary. While German grammar is reputed to be far more difficult to master than Danish grammar, there remains a lot of common ground between the two languages. 

Background on history and geography

Denmark and Germany share a border, the current version of which was established in 1920 as the result of two plebiscites. This border divides the northernmost state of Germany (Schleswig-Holstein) from the Region of Southern Denmark. 

In the Middle Ages, large swathes of both territories were under Danish reign. In 1864, Prussia conquered Schleswig-Holstein, creating an international border between Denmark and Germany that was moved southwards in 1920 to its current position.

Today, both countries are part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Danish-German border is often cited as one of the positive examples of border politics

Similarities and differences between German and Danish

Grammar

German and Danish grammer show a lot of similarities, but there are also some important differences. 

While German has three genders, for instance, Danish only has two. Both languages have a neuter gender, but Danish combines the feminine and masculine gender into one. This has not always been the case. Interestingly, ancient Danish used to have three genders, but the two non-neuter genders evolved over time into a single combined gender. 

Another difference between Danish and German grammar is the way articles are used in both languages. In Danish, the indefinite article en is used when referring to the combined gender, and et is used for the neuter gender. These are used like the German indefinite articles einer/eine/ein (“a” and “an” in English). 

The bigger difference occurs when using definite articles. While German has one for each gender — der, die and das — Danish adds a suffix to the noun to show that it’s definite. 

The table below illustrates this: 

ModeGermanDanishEnglish 
indefiniteein Stuhl en stool a chair 
definiteder Stuhl stol-enthe chair

Furthermore, German is notorious for its four (rather complicated) cases: Nominativ, Genitive, Dativ and Akkusativ. The cases dictate the use of articles and suffixes for nouns and show their relation to other words in a sentence structure. There are no cases in Danish, which makes it a lot easier to learn.Last, but not least, while verbs are conjugated in German, Danish verbs stay the same regardless of their subject. Here’s what that looks like for the verb “to speak” in German, Danish and English: 

GermanDanishEnglish
ich sprechejeg taleI speak
du sprichstdu taleYou speak
er/sie/es sprichthun/hun/den talehe/she/it speaks
wir sprechenvi talewe speak
ihr sprechti taleYou speak
sie sprechende talethey speak

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Vocabulary and Pronunciation

Due to their common ancestry, German and Danish can sound a bit similar from time to time. 

The languages also include a fair number of words that are nearly spelled the same and/or carry the same meaning. Especially when compared to English, Danish and German have much more common ground in their vocabulary. For example, the German kaufen and the Danish Købe are much closer in sound and spelling than the English verb “to buy.” 

Furthermore, the German and Danish alphabets share more pronunciations in common than either does with English. Even so,  the pronunciation of certain consonants does differ significantly between the languages.

Can German and Danish speakers understand each other?

Unfortunately, no. 

Even though there are similarities in the vocabulary and pronunciation, German grammar is much more complicated when compared to Danish grammar. This means that it is usually significantly easier for German speakers to learn Danish than the other way around. 

In any case, without a language course in German or Danish, a speaker of one would struggle to make much sense of the other. 

Danish and German: Similar, but surely not the same

The way languages evolve can never be predicted. Even though German and Danish share the same ancestral language, Proto-Germanic, there are major differences between the two. 

German grammar, famous for being complicated and full of exceptions, is a tough cookie compared to the easier Danish grammar. While their vocabulary and pronunciation can seem very alike at times, it is hardly possible to understand Danish solely as a German speaker, and vice versa. 

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Lea Hauke

Lea is a writer and translator for English and German and lives in Austria. Her love for literature is only met by her enthusiasm for music. During her studies in Berlin, she started writing for different music magazines and was the singer and drummer of a punk band. When she completed her Masters in English Literature, she moved to Tyrol, where she started her own business. Since then she has made it her mission to help others to find the right words for their ideas and projects. You can find more information about her on her website and on LinkedIn.

Lea Hauke
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