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Those odd little words

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Some words of advice from CBS WIRE’s proofreader Helen Dyrbye, a British expat who has lived in Denmark for decades. Here she explains a few tiny words that can occasionally spell BIG trouble.

Guide |   24. Aug 2023

Helen Dyrbye

Proofreader and Translator

Moving to a new country is never easy, partly because you discover that your own cultural baggage weighs far more than you ever thought possible. But also because of another major challenge: how to cope with feeling like a three-year-old again when learning a new language – if not from scratch, then at least from ‘Skål!’

Not surprisingly, misunderstandings can easily arise but hang in there…

Tip 1 Hej

Let’s start with one of the first small funny Danish words you will meet that seems to say one thing but can mean quite another: ‘hej’ (hi). Easy, right? But just when you are comfortable with that, let me throw you a curve ball and explain that though ‘hej’ means ‘hi’, ‘hej, hej ’ means ‘bye bye’. The total opposite. You get the idea? Read on…

Tip 2 Hov

Switch two letters and we come to ‘Hov!’ pronounced ‘Ho!’ (with a silent ‘v’). If a Dane picks up your coat by mistake and says, ‘Hov!’ it means ‘Oops’. And he puts it back down. But if you pick up a Dane’s coat by mistake and he says ‘Hov, hov, hov ’, he is not moonlighting as Father Christmas. You will not get to keep his coat as a generous gift. No, here ‘Hov, hov, hov ’ means ‘Hey, give that back’. And you’d better do just that.

Tip 3 Nej

Another small word with a surprising range of meanings is ‘Nej’. It doesn’t always mean ‘No’. Now don’t get me wrong. In the bedroom, ‘no’ means ‘no’. Yet on other happy occasions, like birthdays, the doubt can be deafeningly. Imagine you’ve been shopping for hours, trying to find the appropriate clothing – not too dressy (it’s Denmark, after all). And tracking down an appropriate present. That’s not easy either when you haven’t been in Denmark long, don’t know the person very well, and are unfamiliar with Danish culture. You can visit your local Tiger discount store and have a good look round. But you’ll never be truly prepared for what inevitably happens the moment the Danish birthday girl or boy sets eyes on whatever present you end up buying. And as their whipcrack NEEEEJJJJJJ (NOOOOO!!!) reverberates around the room, you may feel like beating a hasty retreat – but don’t worry! They don’t mean ‘No, it’s awful’, or ‘No, how could you, I hate it!’ This ‘No’ means something more like ‘Oh you shouldn’t have!’ (But I’m very glad you did!).

Tip 4 Nå

Pronounced ‘Not’ without the ‘t’, this word means something like ‘Oh’. And covers just about any feeling: Nå (mild surprise), Nå! (disgust), Nå (comforting), Nå (disappointment), Nå (wonder), Nå (doubt), Nå! (You don’t say!), Nå! (Well I never!), Nå (I could be persuaded) Nå! (Now I get it!) and the tight-lipped Nå!! (You put your foot right in it there, mate). With a silent ‘h’ on the end ‘Nåh’ or more of a sigh, ‘Nåhhhhh’, sometimes with an ‘r’ ‘Nårhhhh’ for added effect, it can even mean: ‘That’s too cute for words!’

Tip 5 The gap

This next tip involves not a word but a gap in Danish where a very important small word would be in other languages. Danish has no single word for ‘please’. So Danes don’t understand the intensity of emotion non-Danes feel when ‘please’ is left out, which can amount to a kind of ‘word rage’. Danes just don’t get that and don’t mean to be rude. They have ‘tusind tak’ (a thousand thank yous) but no easy way of saying please. They have longer phrases. One is ‘Vil du være sød at’ which roughly translates as ‘Would you mind just…’ or ‘Could you kindly….’. Another, ‘Gider du lige…’ means ‘Do you want to just…’ (though the answer is probably ‘not if it involves getting off the sofa’). And then we come to ‘Prøv lige at…’ meaning ‘Just try and…’.

I found that last one thoroughly confusing when someone asked me to “Try and open the window”. My knee-jerk reaction was “What?! Does he think I can’t open a window?! How rude!”

So bearing this rather glaring lack of ‘please’ in mind, if a Dane uses a strange construction while translating in mid flow, try not to feel offended. And don’t blame them for forgetting to say ‘please’ when focusing on grammar, endings and everything else. If they get what they want, the ‘tusind tak’ at the end will be well worth the wait.

Tip 6 The silence

Another odd little word is also less of a word and more of a silence where a word would normally be in many other cultures. It’s the silence when you turn around in the supermarket and find a Dane right up close behind you poised to push past. I’m still not sure whether Danes can mindread between each other, but after decades, it still surprises me that people trying to get somewhere I happen to be blocking don’t apologetically murmur something like: “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry, but could I just get past?”

However, I’m catching on. It struck me that in Danish, the word ‘sorry’ is ‘undskyld’, which, if you look at it, includes the word ‘skyld’ meaning ‘guilt’. But unless the Dane with the trolley in a supermarket is forcibly trying to barge you out of the way, the situation is no one’s fault, exactly. You happen to be in the way and the Dane happens to be trying to get past. No one is to blame. So, in Denmark, no one feels required to say ‘sorry’. The Dane just stands there patiently trying to make their presence felt. I’m not even sure how, really. Heavy breathing? Anxious but muted activation of a squeaky trolley wheel? You’d have to ask a Dane. But at some point, the ‘blockage’ – usually me, standing on the wrong (British, left) side of the aisle – grasps what is going on and scoots far enough over for life to continue, kids to get picked up from kindergarten on time, and life to roll smoothly on its merry way.

In other words, saying ‘undskyld’, for a Dane, and the blame it implies, extends far beyond the supermarket to all areas of life. It’s an admission of guilt. Say sorry and you are openly announcing that you did whatever it was – on purpose! Whether forgetting to hold a door open for the person behind, kicking someone’s ankle under the table, spilling beer down someone’s back or treading on their dog.

In other cultures, the word ‘sorry’ is bandied about so often it means almost nothing at all. Danes could do the same but Danish society is based so firmly on trust that they assume you know they would never do anything unpleasant on purpose. Don’t be surprised, then, if you rarely hear anything more apologetic than ‘Hov’.


Where does that leave us? Well basically, even when you may think you understand perfectly well, sometimes you don’t anyway. Don’t get me wrong… Danish is awesome and well worth the effort learning but even enthusiastic newcomers may end up relying on Danes to clear up misunderstandings in English. Try not to judge too harshly either way. All languages and cultures have peculiarities and you will hear people saying, and see them doing, things that may seem odd – also here at CBS. Remember, we are all innocent until proven guilty. And when in doubt, if we do our best to keep smiling, we’ll all get on better and feel at home together that much quicker :o)


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