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EN or ET: The Peculiar Sex Life of Danish Nouns Posted by on Dec 8, 2011 in grammar

Danish nouns have genders. If English is your only language, that claim may seem just a wee bit absurd: Do Danish vocabulary items come with sex organs, or what?! In case you’ve got some basic acquaintance with French, Spanish, German or perhaps Latin, you certainly know that grammatical gender and biological gender are two worlds apart. And yet there is a connection – let’s time travel…

 

In Danish, neuter words are often accompanied by an ET syllable…

Back in the days when Common Indo-European was spoken (the language that would later spread and split and evolve into new languages as distinct as Spanish, English and indeed Danish), the language had a way to grammatically mark a person’s or animal’s sex. Nouns describing female beings – a girl, a sheep, a hind – were marked by a specific ending as belonging to the feminine class of words. Nouns describing male beings – a boy, a ram, a stag – were highlighted by another ending as pertaining to the masculine class of words. A lot of words without reference to a particular sex – like ’a child’ – were lumped together in the neuter class of words. Unfortunately, those distant Indo-Europeans didn’t know where to stop… They extended the grammatical gender system to the whole language, so that every noun had to belong to one of the three genders! For thousands of years to come, speakers of Indo-European languages had to know whether completely sexless objects like a sun, a moon, a dining table were considered feminine, masculine or neuter…

The three-gender system is conserved in German and Latin. In French and Spanish, it has been reduced to two genders: masculine and feminine (el gringola gringa, right?). In modern English, the three genders have been conflated. In effect, the gender system has disappeared, except in the singular pronouns (heshe). But hey! isn’t this blog about Danish?!

Strangely enough, in Danish the neuter has been conserved, while the masculine and feminine genders have been fused into the so-called common gender (fælleskøn). So, in short, there are two genders in Danish, and they have nothing to do with sex!

When learning Danish, it is always important to know a noun’s gender. Because a lot of small words, like articles, change looks to fit the gender of the noun they’re accompanying…

 

The common gender is characterized by ”en” words:

en mand – manden – ingen mand – ikke nogen mand

a man – the man – no man – not any man

en lykkelig kvinde – den lykkelige kvinde – kvinden er lykkelig

a happy woman – the happy woman – the woman is happy



The neuter gender is characterized by ”et” words:

et bord – bordet – intet bord – ikke noget bord

a table – the table – no table – not any table

et lykkeligt barn – det lykkelige barn – barnet er lykkeligt

a happy child – the happy child – the child is happy

 

In the plural, the gender difference is blurred:

lykkelige kvinder, lykkelige børn

happy women, happy children

kvinderne er lykkelige, børnene er lykkelige

the women are happy, the children are happy


How do I know the gender of a noun?

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut rules. The good news is, however that 70 % of Danish nouns are common gender.
When expanding your Danish vocabulary, there’s only one thing to consider: Is this noun neuter?

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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.


Comments:

  1. Paul Darwent:

    Bjørn
    Nice article but doesn´t go far enough, just as it starts to get interesting it stops. men forsæt med den godt arbejder!
    Hils. Paul

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Paul Darwent Paul
      Tak for feedback! This blog is just one of my extra jobs (besides my main work as a teacher), so yea, I guess I’m sometimes too eager to get the posts finished off when something more ought to have been added. Thanks for reminding me; hopefully I can delve deeper into this subject in a future post.
      Venlig hilsen Bjørn

  2. Chris:

    In effect Dutch has 2 genders as well; feminine en masculin words get the same article “de”, neuter words get “het”. Flemish speakers often know the masculins from the feminines and use right pronouns, where most Dutch just lazily use the masculin pronoun for every “de”-word.

    What puzzles me a bit is that genders aren’t the same across languages. Table “tafel” isn’t neuter in Dutch (I’d have to look in a dictionary to see, my guess would be feminine, like in French and Spanish)

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Chris @Chris That’s interesting – didn’t know that! 🙂 In Swedish, they say ”kriget” = ”krigen” in Danish (the war). Confusing…

  3. Dan:

    Thanks for the post!

    Words that can only be plural, can they have a gender? For example:

    bukser (en eller et?)
    briller (en eller et?)

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Dan @Dan
      Usually those words don’t have a gender. (Sometimes, people may say ”en buks” etc. for fun.)
      You’d say:
      et par bukser
      et par briller