What is the language spoken in Copenhagen? Can locals understand English?
The short answers are Danish and Yes.
The official language of Denmark, whose capital is Copenhagen, is Danish.
Danish is a North Germanic language and as such it is quite similar (in terms of vocabulary and many elements of grammar) to German and also loosely similar to English. That said, Danish is different enough that a German or English speaker won’t understand almost any of it, particularly spoken Danish due to its very specific pronunciation. Locals often joke that the pronunciation is “like when you have sore throat”.
Danish vs. Swedish and Norwegian
The closest languages to Danish are other Scandinavian languages like Norwegian and Swedish. Although many individual words are different, these languages are close enough that a native Norwegian or native Swede may understand much of Danish when reading a news article or listening to Danish people talk.
There have been pop songs and TV shows involving performers from these different countries, each singing or speaking in their own native language and the entire thing could be understood by audiences in all the countries. There are also numerous jokes on this, like Danish being “drunk Swedish” (or vice versa).
That said, out of the three major Scandinavian languages, Danish is probably the hardest to learn, again due to its specific pronunciation. I remember that after about five months of Danish lessons I visited Oslo and I found I understood some of the Norwegians better than I understood many of the Danes in Copenhagen.
Learning Basic Danish
While speaking Danish with proper pronunciation is quite hard, written Danish can be relatively fast and easy to learn, particularly for an English or German speaker. Much of Danish grammar follows similar logic as English or German.
Like English and unlike German, there is very little verb conjugation (in Danish present tense, you basically say I speak, you speak, he speak, we speak etc., without altering the ending, which is almost always -er or -r). Like both English and German, there are weak verbs, whose past tense follows simple rules, and strong verbs, which you need to learn more or less verb-by-verb. Adjectives and nouns are a bit more difficult for an English speaker, but still less complex than German ones with all their different endings and rules.
If you are coming to Denmark and want to learn a few basic words and phrases to understand the signs and menus, see basic Danish for travellers.
Strange Danish Letters
One feature of Danish that is immediately obvious is the three extra letters of the alphabet:
- Æ / æ – like ae
- Ø / ø – like oe
- Å / å – also written as aa (as in Aarhus, Aalborg)
All these are vowels and unfortunately Danish vowels can be pronounced differently depending on the particular word and the letters that precede and follow. There are 9 vowels (a, e, i, o, u, y, æ, ø, å) and more than 30 different vowel sounds in Danish.
Other Languages in Copenhagen
Fortunately, you don’t need to fear getting lost and not being understood when coming to Copenhagen. English is widely understood and spoken by the locals at a very high level. You will be surprised that even the least qualified workers like street cleaners often speak perfect English and are able to give you directions without any problems. Danish children are required to learn foreign languages from early age and by far the first choice is English, followed by German.
That said, you may still want to learn a few Danish words, so you can impress the locals and show a bit of respect and interest in their culture. Besides, ordering a Danish beer is more fun when done in Danish.