Stories about life in Denmark

Danish, Dutch, Deutschland – Why Denmark gets confused with its neighbors

I run a small business, so often I outsource minor tasks. This week I outsourced the writing of some Tweets to Jessie, a college student in the United States.

Jessie did a good job, with one major exception: in all 100 Tweets, she confused the word Danish with the word Dutch.

For example:

Copenhagen Fashion Week – Check out the latest in Dutch fashion!

Stay healthy like the Dutch: Bicycling in Denmark

10 top restaurants in Copenhagen: Enjoy Dutch cuisine!

Now, don’t give me that stereotype about geographically dumb Americans. At least not until Europeans can tell me the difference between Iowa, Idaho and Ohio – and yes, there is a difference.

Understandable confusion
The fact is, confusing the Dutch and the Danes is understandable. They both represent small, peaceful countries with seafaring traditions. Countries which are today best known for healthy blond people on bicycles, rushing home to see their monarchs on TV and eat potato-based dishes.

The Dutch are known for their windmills. The Danes are known for their wind turbines. It’s an understandable mistake.

But among the neighbors to Denmark, it’s actually not the Dutch who resemble the Danes most. It’s not the Norwegians, even though Norway actually used to be a part of Denmark. It’s not the Swedes, who now serve as a low-wage workforce in Copenhagen shops and fast food restaurants.

It’s the Germans.

Awkward and aggressive
Now, my Danish friends might not like to hear me say that. There have been wars, and the Germans are sometimes seen as awkward and aggressive.

But the Danes are more German than they’d ever want to admit. For example, the Germans love punctuality. Pünktlichkeit muss sein.

So do the Danes. In Denmark, if you have a business meeting at 10am, you need to show up at precisely 10am. 10:03 is not good. 10:05 is embarrassing – you’d better apologize. 10:10 is a humiliation. And it’s not just business. I’ve had dinner parties where my guests actually circle the block so they can ring the bell at 8-dot-00-dot 00.

Now, this is not entirely a bad thing. The buses run on time in Denmark. The trains often run on time. Otherwise mass transit wouldn’t be so popular.

For the sake of good order
Both countries also like order. If a Dane wants to say that someone is a stand-up, trustworthy guy, they say he’s ordentlig – orderly. When they want you to clarify something, they ask you to do it ‘for the sake of good order.’ For god ordens skyld. For the sake of good order, let’s write this contract down.

Of course, the German love of order is well-known. Ordnung muß sein! Everything must be in order. And, of course, if you come across a German friend crying, wailing, in despair, you say Ist was nicht i ordnung? Is something not in order?

In general, the languages are very similar: Danish, like English, is a Germanic language.

I used to live in Berlin, long before I moved to Denmark, and I still confuse the languages. When I’m speaking Danish I sometimes reach for some long-forgotten adjective and I take a moment to wrestle with the question – is this word I’ve found German or is it Danish? At least half the time I’m wrong.

No Bundesflagge on birthday cakes
Of course, there are differences. Danes are wildly and openly patriotic in a way Germans are not, for obvious historical reasons.

The Danish flag is almost always used on birthday cakes, but you won’t seen the Bundesflagge on top of a geburtstagstorte, unless maybe the German team is in the World Cup.

And Germans love their hierarchy, in a way Danes do not. In Denmark, just about everybody uses his or her first name – teachers, doctors, bank officers. An incredibly old lady might be Fru Jensen, but I don’t think I’ve used the corresponding masculine title, Herr Jensen, in the 13 years I’ve been in Denmark.

Germans, on the other hand, love their titles, and even pile them on top of each other. Herr Doktor Professor von Schmidt.

People who know German – or French or Spanish for that matter – know there’s two ways to say ‘you’, formal and informal.

In French it’s tu and vous, in Spanish it’s usted and tu, and in German it’s du and Sie – and woe be it to you if you use du when the German you’re talking to is expecting the formal Sie.

That’s not true in Denmark. Everybody is du There is a formal Danish ‘you’, called De, which immigrants still learn in language schools, but it’s never used.

Except for letters you get from your bank. Don’t ask me why.

The dominant neighbor?
Now there is one irony in the Danish-German relationship. For many years, Germany has been the dominant partner. Even today, Danish schoolchildren learn German – German kids don’t learn Danish.

Danes drive into Germany to buy beer and soda pop, not the other way around. And Germany has invaded Denmark several times, most recently in the 1990s, when Germans were buying up all the summer houses in Western Denmark, driving out the Danes.

This is true – Denmark got a special dispensation from the EU to prohibit Germans from buying summer houses in Denmark.

But in recent years, the flow of influence has gone in the other direction, particularly when it comes to Berlin, the German capital.

Locals there have been complaining because foreign investors are buying huge blocks of apartments, driving up the prices. And the biggest group of foreign property investors….are from Denmark.

 

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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2018

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15 Comments

  • Reply Katherine October 21, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Ah yes, Australians are just as bad! Everyone here confuses Dutch with Danish…. even though we now have a local girl as the Crown Princess of Denmark.

    When folk hear that I speak Danish, they mention their friend from the Netherlands who would enjoy meeting me, They assume that I know all about Dutch culture.

    I am fascinated to read of the Danes buying up real estate in Berlin… of that, I had no knowledge…. men de Tysker i Danmark… dem kan jeg godt huske/de har jeg godt nok hoert om!

    1000 tak for dine post – de er rigtig sjov at laese!

  • Reply Wojciech Żełaniec October 31, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    A few minor errors: apfelstrUdel, Ist was nicht iN Ordnung, Professor Doktor von Schmidt (I doubt such names exist, though). Then: unlikely that an ever so patriotic German should throw a ‘Deutschland ueber alles’ party, an ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit’ at best, mind you.

    You know the idiom ‘saa vred som en ty(d)sker’? Look it up in the Ordbog over det danske sprog.

    And while we’re at it, being Polish I’d wonder if you ever heard the phrase ‘polsk aegteskab’ (Polish marriage) and if yes, do you know the origin of same?

  • Reply Michael November 13, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Well, I am Dutch and wonder of you know The Netherlands well, I am of foreign origin. You better be in time with Dutch aswell. everything, every appointment even with familly seems to be run from some agenda where “being in time” is quitessential.
    Another thing is that I went to Denmark, via Germany and stayed there for a while. Without a doubt, Germany did not feel at home to me but Denmark did. It was like I was back in The Netherlands again. Also, I could read the language easily. When they started to speak, troubles began but on the TV the news and the weather were moreless understandable. So in short, to me, Denmark and The Netherlands are like two brothernations but its inhabitants seem unaware that there is some lost family on this planet. Right at their doorstep.

  • Reply Jon November 28, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks for sharing this short article. Everything you wrote about the Danes is also true for the Dutch. I’m not sure if Dutch guys also put their flag on birthday cakes, but apart from that I recognize most typical Danish things here in my own Dutch culture. I think the German culture is a bit different than the Danish/Dutch one. Obviously, there are a lot of similarities. But I think Danes and Dutch are more alike. When I am in Denmark it feels like home. The country is flat, the language is easy to understand (it is Dutch with a twist) and the Danes look like Dutchies. Germany feels and looks different and the language is confusing and has a lot of strange words. Confusing as it is: Dutch learn German at school as well.

  • Reply Cathrine January 30, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Here comes the disagreeing Dane!

    I do not agree with your comparison of Danes and Germans. Or let me explain, we might be similar in some aspects, but the same things could be said about Swedes and Norwegians. I’ve even heard that Swedes are more “orderly” than Danes. Among the Scandinavian countries, Denmark is known as the “lose one”, the one who doesn’t really care.

    Sure our languages sound alike because they’re both from the Germanic family, but so are Swedish and Norwegian. Some even say Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are merely dialects of the same language. Most people may not speak all three Scandinavian languages, but will understand them. My opinion is, if you as a Dane don’t understand Swedish or Norwegian, you’re simply not listening.

    Personally, I am a Scandinavian rather than a European. And that should say a lot about my feeling of cultural identity. The Scandinavian countries share political beliefs and history. I simply do not have any relationship with Germany. Not because I dislike Germany, I don’t. I just didn’t grow up feeling “attached” to Germany, like I did Sweden and Norway.

    /rant over

    • Reply Kay Xander Mellish January 30, 2014 at 4:39 pm

      Disagreement is good! Thanks for your comment. And I do agree that the Swedes are more orderly.

    • Reply Maaike January 9, 2016 at 11:19 am

      I get what you’re saying, but I believe what was meant by the article, and several other articles that discuss the similarities between Denmark, Netherlands and Germany is just that: their similarities, not their relationships to each other. I am a Dutch girl and like you, I don’t feel “attached” to Denmark and do not see any relationships between my country and that of the Danes. When I went to Denmark a few years ago, I did not feel “at home”. But I will in all honesty admit that yes, if you look at it in an objective way, Netherlands and Denmark are very similar (can’t speak for Germany) in several ways. To an outsider, they might look the same, they might feel the same. I can see why. The fact that I, a Dutch person myself, feel that Denmark is something entirely different from the Netherlands, doesn’t have anything to do with that. The similarities stay.
      By the way, I’ve never been very impressed with the similarities of “both flat, bike-loving countries”, but one time I must admit I was a little bit flabbergasted, and that’s when I found out you Danes have pepernoten (“pepper nuts”) as well. I honestly thought this only existed in Netherlands lol, since it’s our Sinterklaas treat :”)

      • Reply Michael April 18, 2016 at 8:13 pm

        Well it is personal. Limburg is less Dutch then western Denmark is to me. Just the way it is to my eyes. They also like drop….IT is even worse than liking pepernoten. København….I ate poffertjes. Called Aebleskiver (appelschijven I think). Almost identical.

        So where does one feel at home? My GF and I felt so at home and so disappointed we actually went back earlier. Only difference we felt was that Jyland seems more empty than most parts of NL…
        Can you point me to a country that is more similar? When it comes to people, humour, orderly, culture. Not Flanders, not Germany. So what is?

        Michael Laudrup noted that living in NL is not abroad for him I remember. I was wondering why he said that until I actually went there.

        Those foreigners who are “so confused” by mixing us up to my mind are simply very right….May be for the wrong reasons but we some over here are wrong for other reasons. And yes: without Germany in between we would probably be pretty good neighbours.

  • Reply Mark February 2, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Hi,

    I’ve just come across your blog/podcast while researching moving to Denmark. I’m a New Zealander who lives in Germany.

    It’s been a good read/listen so far. However, I don’t agree that you can compare knowing the difference between European countries with the individual states of the USA. Most European countries in Europe have their own language, political system, culture, history, etc.

    While I know there are differences between the states in the USA, it’s still the same country… with the same history, political system (I know there is state vs federal), language, etc. You can find differences in all countries, even in small countries such as New Zealand.

    It’s not a reasonable comparison in my mind. The only comparison that could be possibly made — and even this is stretching it — is the sheer size of the USA vs Europe.

    Even then, Australia is about the same size as the USA minus Alaska. I doubt many Americans could name all Australian states and point them out on a map.

    I’ve heard Americans bring up this same argument a few times, and to me it’s not a reasonable one.

    Anyway, thanks for the blog/podcast; it’s very informative so far.

  • Reply Christine February 2, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    From an anthropological point of view Dannebrog (the danish flag) is not equal to nationalism. It has two symbolisms or functions if you’d like. The first one is the nationalistic use of it, yes. But having the danish flag on birthday cakes and on your flagpole for either a birthday or to mark someones death, has nothing to do with nationalism. It is a way of celebrating. I was once invited to a show where an artist had suspended Dannebrog ind the middle of the room. On one side of the flag you could push a button and in your earphones there would be sounds of war (guns, helicopters, yelling). On the other side of the flag there was a recording of sounds from a childrens birthday party. Maybe it’s hard to imagine but depending on which sound you were hearing the flag would symbolise totally different emotions. Maybe this would only work on danes, but I hope you get my point 🙂 It’s two different ways of using the flag. So maybe it originally comes from being patriotic. But the everyday reality and use is quite different.

    Besides that I’ve never ever heard the danish national anthem anywhere else but at sporting events and maybe at Sankt Hans evening.

    I hope you see my point 🙂

  • Reply Nicklas October 23, 2015 at 12:28 am

    I think you are all just trying to be danish. Denmark is more like Sweden, Norway and Iceland than Germany. We feel a connection to our scandinavian(nordic if we talk about Iceland) brothers, but Germany and The Netherlands not at all. For the most part it’s you who feel a connection to Denmark and not the other way around.

    Danes only learn German in school because it can benefit them with work opportunities in the future since a lot of germans are not that great at english(But if you don’t want to learn it you can erase the class).

    Jon: ”Danes look like Dutchies” wtf? No not at all(we are both white people but that’s about all) and ”Danish is Dutch with a twist” Did you even go to school? Dutch is more german then anything else(and sound frence at times). You only(as well as england) get your more scandinavian words from the vikings age when we sailed to you.

    • Reply Michael April 18, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      I am sorry but youare so wrong. Sweden apart from Skane does not look like Denmark one bit. The difference is striking. The Swedish language sounds very different and is much easier for Dutch ears. And we do not feel aonnection nor do we want to Danes. Where did you get that? But since I visited your country drove through it, met the people and read Danish it is very easy to admit people are similar.Have the same humor. Look the same. It is why quite a few kids I knew wondered why some Danish players weren’t playing in the Dutch team because their name were the same too and they looked the same…You seem to be unaware of the similarities and may be you are a bit blinded by nationalism. And the most Swedes I spoke too at least found they have little with Danes and didn’t understand a thing you were saying on top of that….
      Genetically speaking the biggest overlap in the northern part of Europe btw is between Dutch and Norwegian so I’ll give you that one…
      Like most say: we weren’t aware of the similarities until you get there…..And it is not exactly a compliment either btw…

  • Reply Anna December 11, 2015 at 12:10 am

    Yeah I gotta admit there’s a bunch of strange similarities between Netherlands and Denmark, but I have to say I find Dutch to be more similar to Norwegian then to Danish… In fact, I as a Dutchman find it pretty easy to follow Norwegian, but when I hear Danish I’m like “what”, as if I hear a language I should be understanding because it sounds familiar but I simply can’t :”D I know, sounds weird because Norwegian and Danish are super similar but idk, Norwegian sounds clearer to me when pronounced… But could be highly subjective 😀
    But I think when you’re Dutch, German or Danish yourself you’re like “what??? Similar??? No no no we are so different from the Dutch/German/Danish, we have our own unique culture and language blah blah” but for outsiders, especially people who are not European, they are all the same because they’re just similar enough :’)

  • Reply Nathan January 30, 2016 at 3:15 am

    I am that geographically challenged American, but found this article and comments very entertaining. Amsterdam and Copenhagen do seem to have a number of bizarro similarities. Canals lined with colorful row houses: check, check (though more canals in Amsterdam). Bicycles: check, check. Amsterdam has an amusement park at its Dam Square, a kind of Dutch Tivoli; Copenhagen has the Tivoli, a Danish Dam. Amsterdam has a super-clean red light district (south and east of the central station); Copenhagen has the same super-clean district (south and east of the central station). Both cities were occupied by the Nazis in spring 1940 without provocation, and remained so until 1945. The terra cotta and arched facades of Copenhagen’s Glyptotek and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum bear striking similarities. One must pay strict attention to avoid confusing Amsterdam’s ‘Eye’ with Copenhagen’s Opera House (both structures on the opposite side of the main waterway from their respective city). Germanic languages spoken in both places (though English and German seem more common during certain seasons). If you could pick twin national capitals, these would be they (Prague and Budapest don’t even come close). There is more that is confusing to the visitor than the words ‘Danish’ and ‘Dutch’.

  • Reply Tricia October 5, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    This article is fabulous. And yes, we Americans do make some embarrassing gaffes when it comes to Europe. Your tweeter (how do we even write that?), however, may take the cake.

    Thank you, Tak, Danke, etc.

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