How many people speak Danish? Not many, especially when you consider that you could easily fit all of them inside New York City (with room to spare). Let’s put it all into perspective.
A Brief History Of The Danish Language
Danish is an Indo-European language that belongs to the East Scandinavian subset of Germanic tongues. It’s a descendant of Old Norse, which also spawned Norwegian and Swedish. As it so happens, these three languages remain mutually intelligible to this day (meaning Danes, Norwegians and Swedes can understand each other with relative ease).
The oldest written record of Danish are runic inscriptions that date back to between 250 and 800 CE, but Danish began to definitively diverge from the other Scandinavian languages at around 1000 CE. The oldest manuscript dates back to the 13th century.
Danish arguably underwent the most transformation of all the Scandinavian tongues, having lost the old case system and the masculine/feminine gender in the Middle Ages. Additionally, the language absorbed a lot of elements of adjacent languages, like some of those spoken in Germany at the time.
Norwegian took a little longer than Danish and Swedish to become a standardized language. Both of the latter two established their independence around the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Printing was introduced in 1482 in Denmark, and by 1550, the first Danish translation of the Bible was published. Denmark essentially developed a written version of the local language spoken in Copenhagen at the time in response to the changing religious landscape. With written language came spelling reform and, eventually, a standard spoken language by 1700.
Where In The World Is Danish Spoken?
Danish is primarily spoken in Denmark, but perhaps a better question would be: to what degree do Danish people speak Danish? Danes were recently ranked the third best non-native English-speakers in the world, and 58 percent of the population speaks more than one foreign language (usually German, French or Spanish, in addition to English), which far outpaces the European Union average of 25 percent.
Beyond its native stomping ground of Denmark, Danish is also spoken widely in Greenland and on the Faroe Islands, an autonomous archipelago north of Scotland that’s technically part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Danish is a protected minority language in Southern Schleswig, a region of Germany on the border of Denmark.
Danish speakers can also be found in Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
How Many People In The World Speak Danish?
Danish is spoken by 5.4 million people in Denmark, and 5.6 million people worldwide. This doesn’t leave much room for Danish speakers outside of Denmark, but let’s break it down.
In Greenland, which has a tiny population of 56,000, all children learn Danish in school, so it’s fairly safe to assume that the majority of Greenlanders are at least somewhat familiar with Danish as a second language. The same goes for the Faroe Islands, which has a population of 49,000, as well as Iceland. However, there are only about 1,000 “true” Danish speakers in Iceland, and Ethnologue counts 6,200 speakers in Greenland.
There are also 21,200 Danish speakers in Germany, and 56,900 in Sweden.
Why Learn Danish?
It’s admittedly true that as an English speaker, you don’t necessarily need to learn Danish if you’re visiting (or even living) in Denmark. Most Danish children begin English lessons early, and many Danes consume media and books in English. On some level, this is due to the fact that it’s not profitable to translate books into a language that is only spoken by a few million people.
Danish is not a language one might learn out of total necessity, even if it does increase your odds of getting work in Denmark or dealing successfully with the local bureaucracy. But it is a language one might learn because of its charm, history and character. Additionally, it has an easy grammar with no case system or verb conjugation, and you can basically get three languages for the price of one (because of how closely related it is to Norwegian and Swedish). If you’re a language buff, this seems like a pretty solid case.