Danish Compounds Posted by on Aug 2, 2012 in Grammar

Having taken a svømmetur (swim) at one of the lovely Danish beaches, you’ve just returned to your friends. A stupid cloud is drifting across the sun, and you’re drypvåd (soaking wet). You’re bound to reach out for your badehåndklæde (bath towel).

The bold words above are all compounds – single words squeezed together to form new words. This is a very common way to make words in Danish. (In English, adopting a foreign word is more common. Compare the word dictionary, taken from Latin, with Danish ordbog = ‘book of words’.)

Making compounds in Danish is just as easy as doing it in English: You basically lump the words together. Let’s analyze:

svømmetur = (at) svømme + tur (to) swim + trip

drypvåd = (at) dryppe + våd (to) drip + wet

badehåndklæde = (at) bade + håndklæde (to) bathe + towel

The word for ‘towel’ is also a compound, so we can take this one step further:

badehåndklæde = (at) bade + hånd + klæde (to) bathe + hand + cloth

In theory, we could go on and on, making words like “badehåndklædepose“, “bath towel bag”, but hey! Danish isn’t German, okay? As the last example shows, unlike their English relatives, Danish compounds arewrittenwithnospacesbetweenthewords. A lot of Danes mess this up, erroneously writing things like “is kiosk” instead of the correct iskiosk (ice cream parlor). If you want your Danish language teacher to go crazy, make sure to split as many compounds as possible! 😉

Sometimes jamming together isn’t enough. You have to add a “link”, a sound that somehow secures a smooth transition when you pronounce the compound. There are no easy rules here, you’ll get a feel for it once you really start “breathing” the language. It’s nothing more than a technical nicety, and hardly anyone will notice if you accidentally skip one of the three possible “links”:
  1. e. This is used after a few words, often describing living beings, like dreng ‘boy’, hest ‘horse’, fisk ‘fish’: dreng+e+cykel (boy’s bicycle, bicycle for boys), hest+e+passer (caretaker of horses), fisk+e+frikadelle (a kind of frikadelle, meatball, made of fish)
  2. s. This is used after words ending in -hed, and a few other words: kærlighed+s+erklæring ‘love declaration, verden+s+mester ‘world champion’. It is also common when the first part of the compound is a compound itself: is+tid+s+mennesker  ‘ice age humans’.
  3. er. This is hardly ever used, but we met it in the post about the studenter and their ‘made-the-exam’ huer (caps): student+er+huer.
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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.