Danish Language Blog

Danish Plurals Revisited Posted by on Jul 29, 2011 in Grammar

Why does one ”fod” become two ”fødder”? And how come one ”tå” suddenly becomes ten ”tæer”?

While Grammar and definitions may not be as interesting as drinking beer at a small café table in the sun while watching for the next attractive member of the opposite (or same) sex, those aspects of Danish are certainly important if one wishes to avoid confusion. (Author Lars Henriksen wrote an entire short story centering on a young boy’s fatal misconception of the salutation hej, which can mean both ’hi’ and ’bye’! When his love interest greets him with a hej, he naturally hears it as a ”hello”…)

So let’s return to the Danish plurals, and the remaining bits of irregularities. As you, hopefully, can remember, Danish words get one of four endings added to their singular form in order to create the plural:

–er, like in bil > biler ’car(s)’

–e, like in hus huse ’house(s)’

(no ending), like in hjem > hjem ’home(s)’

–s, like in foto > fotos ’photo(s)’

(The last ending is mostly used in loanwords from English, and is often frowned upon by conservative language users.)

However, in the bicycle article, you encountered the word mænd (’men’, mand in the singular) where the word itself is changed.

”What the…” you might be tempted to exclaim, but if you’re an English speaker, you should already be well familiar with plurals like these.

Compare the equivalent English form men with its singular man. Now where is the logic?

At some point in history, the savage Germanic peoples who spoke the common predecessor of both English and Danish for some reason chose to pluralize a handful of words by adding an ending containing an ’i’. Later on this ending was dropped in speech, but the light ’i’ (ee) sound had caused the main vowel of the pluralized word to be pronounced a bit ”lighter”. It is for this reason we have odd couples like woman – women, goose – geese.

The phenomenon is called omlyd in Danish, umlaut in German and English. It is found in a bunch of common Danish nouns:

barnbørn ’child(ren)’

fodfødder ’foot/feet’

rodrødder ’root(s)’

tæer ’toe(s)’

tandtænder ’tooth/teeth’

hånd – hænder ’hand(s)’

klo – kløer ’claw(s)’

ko køer ’cow(s)’

sosøer ’sow(s)’

gås – gæs ’goose/geese’

and – ænder ’duck(s)’

far (previously fader) – fædre ’father(s)’

mor (previously moder) – mødre ’mother(s)’

bror (previously broder) – brødre ’brother(s)’

Also note the completely whacky plural øje – øjne ’eye(s)’.

With these few exceptions in mind, you should soon be able to inflect like a native…

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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.