Dansk belongs to the group of North Germanic languages, building, together with Swedish, the Eastern branch of the Nordic languages. Its ancient history is common to the other North Germanic languages (Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic), constituting the phase known as Ancient Nordic; it begins to assume a physiognomy on its own starting from the 7th century. Traditionally, from this period we distinguish five different development phases: Danish Runic (VII - XI cent.); Old Danish (XI - mid XIV cent.), in which the first major diversifications from Swedish occur (k, p, t after vowel become g, b, d; a, i, u when unstressed become e); Middle Danish (mid XIV cent. - early XVI), during which it undergoes significant influence from Low German; Recent Danish (early XVI cent. – XVIII cent.), during which it starts to be literarily codified; Modern Danish, in which many elements of foreign origin have been eliminated.
Today, Danish pronunciation is very different from Swedish and Norwegian, though they are graphically very similar. Over the centuries, the geographic position of Denmark and different historical events have set Danish in the position and function of a bridge between different languages and cultures: exposed to the influences of German, French and Latin, it has also significantly affected the evolution of the Swedish, Norwegian (from 1500 to early 1800 Danish represented the language of culture in Norway, politically subjugated to Denmark), Icelandic and also, at the time of Viking emigration, Anglo-Saxon.
Although it is now spoken by around 6 million people, principally in Denmark, Danish was once also the language of southern Sweden, where it still survives in dialects. It is also spoken by 50,000 Danes in the northern parts of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, where it holds the status of a minority language. There are Danish communities in Argentina, the U.S. and Canada as well.
The first written documents are the Runic inscriptions (appeared from the XI century on, though some archaic “Old Norse” Runes date from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD) and the poem by Bjarke (X cent.). The first historical work on the Danes was written in Latin: the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1550 – 1220).
A rare feature of the Danish language is the so-called stød, which is phonetically a kind of glottalization of either a vowel or a sonorant, sometimes produced as creaky voice, sometimes as a glottal stop (generally, creaky voice when it occurs on a vowel, glottal stop when on a sonorant consonant). It can be the only distinguishing feature between certain words, thus creating minimal pairs such as lov [low] ‘law’ and Lov’ [low?] (a placename). Linguists discuss whether the stød is a special laryngeal feature independent of intonation, or simply the realization of a High-Low boundary tone pattern.
- Enciclopedia Grolier