Danish Language Blog

Verbs With Muscles: Learning Danish Through English Part III Posted by on Nov 3, 2011 in Grammar

Great Dane K02

Strangely, Danes use the French name for the Great Dane: grand danois.

As we’ve seen, Danish and English share en god del (a good deal) of common vocabulary. This should make it easy for English-speakers to find a footing in the language. The flip side is, of course, that the gates are opened for false friends and stuff. Now let’s look at another joint venture: verbs.

Verbs are parts of speech that mark action or state. (Giving the other phrase elements a time frame – nouns like ’dog’ or adjectives like ’red’ are pretty timeless.) In dictionaries they are usually listed in the infinitive (an uninflected ’basic’ form), which in English is sometimes introduced by the little word ’to’: I like to dance, I’m afraid to swim. Danish also has an infinitive marker, which is at: Jeg kan lide at danse, jeg er bange for at svømme. (In the spoken language – save in very formal settings – this at it is usually pronounced like the word og ’and’, that is, more or less an å sound.)

Very well, let’s move on to inflection! Just like English, Danish has two classes of verbs: strong and weak. This wording is basically a way of saying that some verbs (the weak ones) can’t make it ”on their own”, they have to get the help of an ending in order to refer to past actions and states. In English, this ending is -ed, which has nearly identical twins in the Danish endings -ede and -et: I dance, I danced, I have danced. Jeg danser, jeg dansede, jeg har danset.

The strong verbs are more like chameleons in that they change their ”colour” rather than having something added. The strong verbs can be a real nightmare for foreign learners of English, who have to rehearse: begin – began – begun; bite – bit – bit; break – broke – broken, and so on and on. But English-speakers learning Danish should just relax. There are fewer strong verbs in Danish, and an awful lot of them are almost identical to the English ones: bide – bed – har bidt (to bite), skyde – skød – skudt (to shoot), synge – sang – har sunget (to sing), etc.

One very important difference between the English and the Danish use of verbs is, however, that the -ing form (present participle, as in I am talking to you) hardly exists in Danish. Yes, there is -ende, which is used to make adjective-like participles out of regular verbs: thus en dansende hund means ’a dancing dog’. But only bad translators from English would ever say things like hunden er dansende ’the dog is dancing’! In Danish, we just use the simple verb form. Thus hunden danser could mean either ’the dog dances’ or ’the dog is dancing’, depending on the context.

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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.