Danish isn’t spoken by a lot of people. In fact, there are less than 6 million speakers of the Danish language in the world, the majority of whom live in Denmark. There are, however, a few places where you’d be able to get by in Danish. These are mostly places where the Kingdom of Denmark has strong historical ties, like old territories of Denmark, neighboring countries or even colonies.
Danish is spoken in Denmark by some 5.8 million people. In Greenland, children learn Danish in school, and Danish is widely used as a second language by the 56.000 people who live there. On the Faeroe Island, Danish is equally spoken by close to 50.000 people as a second language and in Iceland, many people have a basic knowledge of Danish, although few are fluent. In Northern Germany, close to 50.000 people speak Danish as their first language and both Sweden and Norway have smaller Danish-speaking communities.
In the following, I’m going to take a closer look at the different regions where Danish is spoken.
Denmark: The Primary Danish-Speaking Country
Denmark is the country where the Danish language originally evolved from Old Norse, or “Old East Norse” to be more precise.
The language spoken in Denmark has been called “Danish” for centuries and it was actually the name of language of all of Scandinavia in the Viking age from the 8th century and three hundred years forward, even though different regions spoke different dialects. (And that’s even the case in Denmark today, like it’s the case with Southern Jutlandic).
Today, Denmark has a population of about 5,8 million people and almost everyone, with the exception of a few thousand recent arrivals, speak Danish. If you’re one of the rare few to speak the Danish language, you’ll be able to communicate with practically everyone. If you only speak English, you’ll still be good, though, since most people in Denmark have a good command of English.
The Danish population is actually growing, although not very quickly. Some of the reason might be due to immigration, but Denmark is also one of the rare European countries where slightly more children are born than people passing away.
Does this mean that Danish will be an important world language in the future?
Probably not. According to the official projections, the 5,8 million people of Denmark might eventually grow to 6,4 million.
But only by 2060!
Greenland, Where Danish Is The First Foreign Language
Surprisingly to some, children in Greenland learn Danish in school. This means that almost every inhabitant on the world’s biggest Island (and one of the least inhabited of that) speak some level of Danish, which was an official language in the country until 2009.
The importance of Danish in Greenland is, of course, due to Denmark’s regrettable role in the history of colonialism. Still, today, Greenland is part of the Danish kingdom, but since 1979 it has had the status of an autonomous state.
The majority of Greenlanders speak Greenlandic, an Eskimo-Aleut language as their mother tongue, but 12% of the population speak Danish as their primary language. These are mostly ethnic Danes, however.
Apart from Greenlandic and Danish, English is an important language in Greenland, and today most of the population can get by well in English.
Like Greenland, the Faroe Islands, located to the North of Scotland, are officially part of the Danish Kingdom all while being an autonomous state. Because of this, Danish is an important language in the Faroe Islands and is taught in schools and used to some extent by the administration in official matters.
Danish is an official language in the Faroe Islands alongside Faroese and it’s spoken by around 50.000 people as a second language.
Around 3.1% of the Faroese population speak Danish as their first language. These people we can safely assume to be Danish guest workers, however, and Faroese remains the main language spoken on the archipelago.
Danish Speaking Minorities
Other than countries where Danish is a national or official language, there are quite a few places where smaller communities of Danish speakers exist. While some have historical Danish population groups, like it’s the case with Schleswig-Holstein in Northern Germany, other countries simply have a certain amount of Danish speakers due to a close-knit relationship between the different countries, like it’s the case in Scandinavia.
Island is a small Scandinavian country which, like Greenland and the Faroe Islands, used to be under the Danish crown. In this period, Danish was commonly spoken on the Island alongside Icelandic which remained the native language of the population.
In 1944, however, Iceland became an independent republic and the Danish language gradually became less important.
Today, Danish is still a foreign language taught in Icelandic schools alongside English, but whereas many members of the older Icelandic generations speak Danish to a certain degree, English is without comparison the most important and commonly spoken foreign language in the country, and among the younger generation, English will be much more useful than Danish.
Out of Iceland’s population of 350,000 a little over 1.000 people speak Danish as their first language. Not a lot!
The Northern German region of Schleswig-Holstein has a significant Danish minority. This is due to the many wars that took part between Denmark and Germany throughout history, culminating in Denmark loosing a big chunk of its southern territories to Germany in 1864.
While the borders shifted, many of the inhabitants of the region have remained attached to their origins and language, and to this day, the Danish community in Northern Germany send their children to Danish schools and speak Danish at home.
The same is actually true for the German minority in Southern Denmark, a German community that stayed in the country when the 1920 referendum moved the Danish borders a little further south, closer to its initial position.
Today, about 50.000 Danish speakers live in Northern Germany.
Norway And Sweden
Due to the proximity of the Scandinavian countries and good relationships between states, there are a lot of people who move across borders. While it’s difficult to find exact numbers, we can safely assume that there are thousands of Danes living in both Sweden and Norway.
Many Danes live in Southern Sweden, especially in the city Malmø which is conveniently connected to the Danish capital, Copenhagen with the Øresund bridge. This means that many commute across country borders in their everyday life.
But counting the number of Danish speakers in Norway and Sweden might not be extremely relevant if your goal is to travel Scandinavia while relying on communicating in Danish. The Swedish and Norwegian languages are closely related to Danish, and with only a little effort, the three languages are mutually intelligible.
Danish Heritage Speakers Elsewhere
Especially in the 19th century, a great number of Danes emigrated to foreign countries seeking new opportunities and success. Many settled and formed new communities never to come back.
Today, 1,4 million Americans have Danish ancestry. The same goes for 170.000 Canadians, 140.000 Brazilians, 100.000 Australians and 50.000 Argentinians. (And the list goes on).
What almost all ancestors of Danish migrants have in common, however, is that they’ve assimilated into local culture, and closeness to Danish culture and language is extremely rare. Today, out of the 1,4 million Americans with Danish ancestry, under 30.000 speak Danish. That’s about 2%.
So while Danes have historically gone far and settled in different parts of the world, those Danes don’t really speak Danish anymore.
If you’d like to, however, go check out my article on the subject “how to learn Danish by yourself“.