Language sketch: Danish, Swedish and Norwegian

Here is a summary of some things I learnt about the Mainland Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish and Norwegian) a couple of years ago, when I was carrying out a self-imposed language challenge. http://languagemiscellany.com/2021/09/scandinavian-challenge-how-did-it-go/  

I am commenting here only on those 3 languages, not their relatives, the insular Scandinavian Languages (Icelandic and Faroese). For an overview of the Scandinavian languages, please see https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/06/the-scandinavian-languages/

Overview of this post

Similarities with other Germanic languages

Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are like the other Germanic languages in many respects. For example, these 3 languages:

  • form plurals of most nouns by adding a suffix (typically containing the sound /r/) or by changing a vowel.
  • make adjectives agree (in number and in gender) with the noun they modify—though only if the noun is definitive.
  • form genitives using an ending -s (a suffix or perhaps a clitic).
  • have both definite and indefinite articles.
  • form the comparative of adjectives by adding either a suffix (ending in -re) or a separate word mer (more). They form the superlative with a suffix ending in -st or with a separate word mest (most). Some irregular comparatives and superlatives resemble their English and German cognates.
  • use many modal particles.
  • mark verbs as present or past.
  • form a perfect tense with an auxiliary meaning have (or, in some cases, be), combined with a past participle or similar form. The pluperfect combines that participle with the past tense of the auxiliary.
  • form the past tense and the past participle by either adding a dental suffix (weak verbs) or changing a vowel (strong verbs).
  • form the future tense using the present tense of a modal verb as an auxiliary. For the conditional, the past tense of a modal verb is the auxiliary.
  • have a verbal infinitive that sometimes stands alone butsometimes follows a particle.
  • form a present participle with a suffix ending in -nde.
  • form both separable and inseparable verbs.
  • do not omit subjects.
  • use verb second (V2) word order in main clauses.
  • use prepositions, not postpositions.
  • form ordinal numbers by adding a dental suffix to the cardinal number.

Differences from other Germanic languages

But Danish, Swedish and Norwegian also differ from other Germanic languages. For example, Danish and Norwegian both use different tones to distinguish different words. And Danish has a distinctive sound feature resembling a vowel combined together with a glottal stop.

Also, the 3 languages:

  • attach the definite article as a suffix to nouns
  • do not mark verbs for person or number.
  • distinguish only 2 genders: neuter and non-neuter (or common)
  • mark adjectives for number when used predicatively, and not only when used attributively.
  • form a passive with a suffix -s, alongside the analytic passive formed with an auxiliary (bli), combined with the past participle.
  • no longer mark grammatical case on nouns, though a distinction between subjects and objects remains for pronouns.

Summary of the rest of the post

In this post, I cover:

  • Alphabet and pronunciation
  • Nouns
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Modal particles
  • Verbs
  • Pronouns
  • Word order
  • Prepositions
  • Numbers

Alphabet and pronunciation

All 3 languages use an alphabet containing 29 letters: the 26 letters of the English alphabet plus å, æ (Swedish: ä) and ø (Swedish: ö). In all 3 languages, some letters are sometimes silent.

A distinctive feature of Norwegian and Swedish pronunciation is tone. They have 2 types of tones. Danish doesn’t have tone, but does have the stød (literally push, or thrust), which is possibly related to tone. It is like a glottal stop overlapping a vowel.

I covered some other aspects of pronunciation and spelling at:

Nouns

Nouns carry inflectional morphemes for both number and definiteness. For example:

  • häst-arna [Swedish] 
    horse-s-the
    the horses
    [hyphens added here to show morpheme boundaries]

Nouns generally form the plural by adding a suffix such as -er, -r, -n (in Swedish also -or and -ar), or by adding no ending.

Some nouns form the plural by changing a vowel in the root, with or without also adding one of the plural suffixes. Such vowel changes are an example of the vowel changes known as Ablaut, which were widespread in Indo-European and especially in the Germanic languages. Some of the few remaining English examples of Ablaut in forming plurals are mousemice and goosegeese.

There are two genders: common and neuter. In colloquial Norwegian, sometimes common gender is split into masculine and feminine.

Indefinite and definite articles

The indefinite article is en (common) or et (neuter, Swedish ett), placed before the noun. In colloquial Norwegian sometimes (and in always in the form known as Nynorsk), ei is used instead of en for feminine nouns.

The definite article is the same en or et, but suffixed to the end of the noun. In colloquial Norwegian for feminine nouns, -a replaces -en.

In the plural, the definitive article suffix is generally -ne or -ene (or in Swedish -na or -n, and in colloquial Norwegian sometimes -a for neuter nouns).

If a definite noun is modified by an adjective, there is a separate form of the definite article. It is the same as the word for it / they: den (common gender) / det (neuter) / de (plural). That separate form precedes the adjective either as well as the suffixed definite article (Norwegian—especially colloquial—and Swedish), or instead of it (Danish):

  • den store byen [Norwegian]
    the large town
  • det gröna bordet [Swedish]
    the green table
  • det store måltid [Danish]
    the large meal

Genitive

Nouns add -s to form the possessive (genitive). A definite article may be added to the possessor (first noun) but not to the item possessed (second noun). Examples (Norwegian):

  • naboens hage (the neighbour’s garden)
  • båtens eier (the owner of the boat)
  • myndighetenes ansvar (the responsibility of the authorities)

In colloquial Norwegian, the prepositions til, av are often used instead of the genitive. Examples: hagen til naboen; eieren av båten.

Arguably, the possessive -s is not an inflectional suffix added to the noun, but a clitic immediately following the last word in a larger noun phrase. In the following example, the -s attached to Danmark clearly relates to the noun Kongen, not to Danmark.

  • Kongen af Danmarks boljefabrik
    The King of Denmark’s sweet factory

Adjectives

Attributive adjectives precede the noun and, as in all German languages (except English), agree with the noun in number (singular or plural) and (in the plural only) in gender. Unlike in other Germanic languages, adjectives used as predicates also agree with the noun.

Adjectives agree with nouns by adding a weak suffix to an indefinite noun and a strong suffix to a definite noun. The weak suffixes are: nothing (common gender); -t (neuter), -e (plural, but -a in Swedish).

The strong suffix is -e (Swedish -a)

The strong suffix is also added to adjectives following other word classes, for example, the demonstratives den, det, de (that, those) and denne, ditte, disse (this, these); and possessive adjectives.

Comparatives and superlatives

Comparatives are formed by adding -ere or -re (Swedish -are) and superlatives by adding -est or -st (Swedish -ast). Polysyllabic adjectives form the comparative by adding mer (more) and their superlative by adding mest (most), in a manner similar to English.

A few adjectives have irregular comparatives:

  • Some resemble their English cognates. For example: god/bedre/ best (Danish: good/better/best); dårlig/verre/verst (Danish: bad/ worse/worst); meget (or mege)/mere/mest (Danish: much/more/most)
  • Others have no English counterpart. For example: mange/flere/flest (Danish: many/more/most)

Comparisons are formed with: som (as); ligesom (like, just as); end (than); (lige) som ((just) as … as) [All Danish]

Adverbs

Many adverbs have the same form as the neuter singular of the related adjective. Some other adverbs add the suffix -vis.

Adverbs generally form their comparative and superlative in the same way as adjectives.

Some adverbs have a short form for motion towards a place and a long form for being within a place. Norwegian examples:

  • Komm inn!
    ‘come in!’
  • Vi er all inne
    ‘We are all inside’

Modal particles

These languages use many modal particles, such as mon (Danish); nok (Danish); vel (Danish); ju (Swedish):

  • Hvem mon det er? [Danish]
    Whom I.wonder that is
    I wonder who that is
  • det lykkes nok for jer [Danish]
    that succeed.itself enough for you
    You will probably succeed
  • Det er godt nok farligt [Danish]
    that is well enough dangerous
    It is, admittedly, dangerous
  • der er ikke onde, vel? [Danish]
    They are not evil, are they?
    [tag question]
  • Det er vel løgn? [Danish]
    That is well [a] lie
    It’s a lie, I take it?
  • Han har ju studerat svenska
    he has after-all studied Swedish
    After all, he has studied Swedish

Verbs

For all verbs, the same form is used for all persons (1st, 2nd and 3rd) in both singular and plural. In other words, verbs do not inflect for person or number.

Infinitive

The infinitive sometimes follows at (Danish) / att (Swedish) / å (Norwegian), like the to that can precede the infinitive in English or the zu that can precede the German infinitive.

Inflection in finite verbs

Finite verbs inflect for tense (present v past). The present tense ends in -r (sometimes -ar, er).

As in other Germanic languages:

  • ‘weak’ verbs form their past tense and past participles by adding a suffix containing a dental consonant (/d/ or /t/)
  • ‘strong’ verbs form them by changing a vowel in the verb’s stem.

Perfect tense

As in English and many other Indo-European languages, there is a perfect tense, combining the present tense of an auxiliary with the past participle. There is also a pluperfect tense, combining the past participle with the past tense of the auxiliary.

The auxiliary is the verb have, though Danish and Norwegian use the verb be as an auxiliary for some verbs of motion or of change of state.

The past participle is formed by adding -t, -d, -et, -ed or similar forms for most weak verbs and, in some cases, changing the vowel. For strong verbs, the vowel changes.

Swedish uses the supine instead of the past participle. The supine is similar (and often identical) to the neuter of the past participle. (The past participle is an adjective and also appears in one type of passive, see below.)

Future and conditional

The future tense is formed with the modal verb skal or vil, followed by the infinitive.

  • det ska bli sköntt att se henne (Swedish)
    It’ll be nice to see her
  • Jeg tror ikke de vil fullføre den (Norwegian)
    I don’t think they will go through with it

The conditional is formed with the past tense of skal (skulle) or vil (ville) plus the infinitive of the main verb.

  • Hvis hun ikke kunne komme, skulle (or ville) hun ringe meg (Norwegian)
    If she couldn’t come, she would ring me

Present participle

The present participle is formed by adding the suffix -ende or -nde. In Norwegian, the -d is not pronounced.

The present participle is used as an adjective, adverb or (sometimes) noun.

Passive

There are two forms of passive:

  • The first form uses the verb bli (become) as an auxiliary together with the past participle. The participle must agree in gender and number with the subject.
  • The second form adds the suffix -s. (In Danish this form is used only in the infinitive and present tense).

Examples (Norwegian):

  • Huset blir malt (The house is being painted)
  • Huset males (The house is being painted)
  • Huset bør males (The house should be painted)

If the agent is stated, it is introduced by the preposition av / af.

  • Hunden blev sparkad av sin ägare [Swedish]
    The dog was kicked by its owner

The passive can be used impersonally:

  • Der drikkes for meget alkohol i dag [Danish]
    There is too much alcohol drunk today

Some verbs have passive form but active meaning. Norwegian examples: synes (think), finnes (be, exist), lykkes (succeed), trives (thrive, feel happy) minnes (remember):

  • det finnes
    there is, there are
  • det har lykkes ham å nå sitt mål
    it has succeeded-itself to reach his goal
    he has succeeded in reaching his goal

Modal verbs

As in English, the present tense forms of the modal auxiliary verbs lack the normal present tense ending. They are, in Danish: kan (can); skal (shall); vil (will); (must); bør (ought to); tør (dare). But, unlike in English, they have:

  • an infinitive: kunne; skulle; ville; måtte; burde; turde.
  • a past tense (same as the infinitive: Danish ends in -t) and past participle (and supine in Swedish).

Example:

  • Jeg har ikke kunnet drikke kaffee i mange år. (Danish)
    I haven’t been able to drink coffee for many years.

Separable and inseparable verbs

As in German, many verbs contain a separable or inseparable prefix added to a base verb. As the name implies, the prefix of an inseparable verb never separates from the front of the verb.

A separable prefix is stressed and normally goes immediately after the verb in main clauses in the present and past tenses.

  • Den tyska kvinnan kände igen henne (Swedish)
    The German woman recognised her

The following appear after the verb and before the separable prefix in main clauses:

  • the negative particle inte and some adverbs
    Han kände inte igen mig (Swedish)
    He didn’t recognise me
  • the subject, when it has been inverted with a verb:
    Kände hon igen dig? (Swedish)
    Did she recognise you?

A separable prefix remains attached at the front of the verb in past and present participles. Swedish examples: avbruten (broken off); igenkännende (recognising).

Sometimes, a prefix is separable if it has a literal meaning or is used informally, but inseparable if it is used abstractly or formally:

  • pöjken bröt av grenen (Swedish)
    (the boy broke off the branch)
  • Statsministern avbröt diskussionen (Swedish)
    (the prime minister broke off the discussion)

Pronouns

Although these languages no longer mark nouns to show whether they are the subject of a verb or the object of a verb or of a preposition, this distinction still exists for pronouns.  Table 1 shows the personal pronouns in Danish. The Swedish and Norwegian forms differ slightly.

SubjectObject
jegImigme
duyoudigyou
hanhehamhim
hunshehendeher
denitdenit
detit (neuter)detit (neuter)
viweosus
Iyoujeryou
detheydemthem
Table 1. Personal pronouns, Danish

The reflexive object form of the 3rd person singular and plural forms ham, hende, den, det and dem is sig.

In the 2nd person, Danish has distinct formal and informal pronouns (in both singular and plural). Norwegian still makes this distinction in the singular, but apparently not in the plural. Swedish does not make this distinction.

Impersonal pronouns

The impersonal pronoun referring to an unspecified person(English one, German man, French on) is man as the subject and én [with stressed é] as the object:

  • Man kan ikke gøre for, at man stammer [Danish]
    You can’t help it if you stutter.
  • Motion er godt for én [Danish]
    Eexercise is good for one / you

The possessive form of man is sin /sit /sine and of én is éns.

The equivalent of impersonal English it is det and of English there is der:

  • det regner [Danish]
    it’s raining
  • Der er ingen tvivl om hans ærlighed [Danish]
    There is no doubt about his honesty

Relative pronouns

The most common relative pronoun is som (who, which, that) for both singular and plural, subject and object. As in English, it may often be left out if it is not the subject of the relative clause:

  • Jeg har kjøpt bøkene (som) du bad om (Norwegian)
    I bought the books (that) you asked for

Word order

The following is a very high-level summary of some complex points of word order, some of which differ between the 3 languages. The following examples are all Swedish.

Main clauses

In main clauses:

  • as in all Germanic languages (except English), no more than one constituent may precede the finite (tensed) verb in a main clause. Thus, these languages are verb-second (V2) languages.
    The finite verb is the auxiliary or modal (if there is one). If there is no auxiliary or modal, the finite verb is the main verb.
  • the constituent placed in first position is often the ‘theme’ of the clause: information that is shared by speaker and hearer.
  • if the subject comes after the finite verb, it comes right after the finite verb (and before the main verb if the finite verb is an auxiliary).
  • the subject comes after the finite verb in yes-no questions.
  • simple adverbs normally go immediately after the finite verb. More complex adverbs follow simple adverbs, generally in the sequence: manner; place; time.

Subjects must be expressed overtly
If the subject of a clause is referential (for example, referring to a particular person), that subject must be expressed. In contrast, in some other languages (for example, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin) the subject does not need to be expressed overtly in some cases. [in box]

Negative main clauses

In negative main clauses, the negative particle inte / ikke usually goes:

  • after a pronoun that is the direct object pronoun (not following a preposition). Examples:
    Vi ser henne inte.
    We don’t see her
  • before a prepositional object
    Vi tittar inte på henne.
    We don’t look at her.
  • if there isn’t an object pronoun, immediately after the finite verb if that verb is in second position.
    Han kan inte komma.
    He can’t come.
  • after the subject if the subject and verb are inverted.
    Idag kommer han inte.
    Today he’s not coming.

Some other common adverbs (for example, aldrig = never; altid = always) go in the same position as inte / ikke.

  • Peter kende aldrig svaret
    Peter never knows the answer.

Subordinate clauses

In subordinate clauses:

  • the verb and subject do not invert (there is no V2. But, unlike in German, the finite verb does not go to the end of the subordinate clause.)
  • inte / ikke (and the adverbs that behave in the same way) may or must precede the finite verb.

Prepositions

These languages have prepositions (not postpositions).

Prepositions may govern not only noun phrases but also clauses (both finite clauses and infinitival clauses).

Prepositions may be stranded at the end of the clause, for example, when the preposition governs a relative pronoun (eg som) appearing at the beginning of the relative clause. This also occurs in informal English (but not in most other European languages).

  • flickan som jag skrev till [Swedish]
    the girl I wrote to

Numbers

As in English, ordinal numbers (first, second, third etc) are formed by adding a dental suffix (-te or -de): fjerde (‘fourth’, Swedish fjärde); femte (fifth). First is først(e), second is anden (Danish); andra (Swedish) annen/andre (Norwegian).

Danish numbers from 30 to 90 retain traces of an old system based on 20 (vigesimal). For example, tre(d)s for 60 is a shortened form of older tredsindstyve (3 times 20). 50 is halfway up from 40 towards 60: halvtredsindstyve (now shortened to halvtreds, but longer form still used in forming the ordinal). [box in colour]

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