How to count in Danish
(also known as ‘how to confuse Swedes’)
While the Scandi languages are very close – we can all understand most of each other’s languages, especially after a few beers – there are certain areas where things just stumble and everybody is left lost. This causes all sorts of awkward situations. One such subject is counting in Danish numbers, because Danes count in something called vigesimal – which is basically counting in twenties rather than tens (not dissimilar to the French).
First, the basics: The ones, then the tens…
In Danish: En, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti.
Swedish and Norwegian follows a logic structure of counting:
10 in Swedish is Tio. Twenty is Tjugo. Thirty is Tretio. Forty is Firtio. Fifty is Femtio. You see where we’re going with this – logically, adding ten (tio) on the end. It’s similar in Norwegian.
Now, the same in Danish: The singles are fine – and then…
10 = Ti
To understand, we need to look at the old word sinde, which meant ‘times’ (as in ‘multiply’).
We also need to understand that the root of the numbers work on twenties rather than tens. So, 60 is tres – coming from tre(3)-sinde-tyve(20)=tresindetyve=tres(60), [shortened to tres].
Eighty follows similar patterns, as it is of course 4 time 20 = fire(4)-sinde-tyve(20)=firsindetyve=firs(80)
Still with it? Okay, let’s complicate it a bit now. The halves.
Halv 3 = 2½, halv 4 = 3½, halv 5 = 4½
70 is Halvfjers = 3 x 20 + 10 (the half) = halvfjerde-sinde-tyve – shortened to halvfjerds (70).
90 is Halvfems = 4 x 20 + 10 (the half) = halvfem-sinde-tyve – shortened to halvfems (90).
Now remember that no Danes will ever count in the full words – they will only use the shortened version. Also, few Danes understand the logic behind the numbering system, meaning some teachers find it hard to teach maths to younger children, due to this structure – let alone explain it to a foreinger, let alone a drunk Swede stranded in a bar in Copenhagen trying to pay for his beer.
Also, just in case you need something else to set the system aside from say Swedish: In Swedish, you count with the tens first – then the singles. Example: Femti-fyra = 54. The same number in Danish would be Fireoghalvtreds, i.e. the singular number first. So, four-and-half-twenty-times-four-and-a-half-kill-me-now.
Lastly, you need to know that the Danish numbering system is not hyphenated like it is in say, English. So, 95 in English is ninety-five, and the same number in Danish would be written femoghalvfems (five and half fives – the og (and) linking the numbers together to form the final number.
How about ordering four half threes of eggs? 54. Or maybe we’re counting the pigs on the farm – there are three half fives (93).
In short, the Danish numbering system stems from counting in twenties and half twenties – and looking to make anyone who attempts to explain it wish they had never attempted to do so.
It is a constant source of amusement and confusion to the Swedes and Norwegians that Danes can actually work out how to count in the first place.
Next week: how to say 1st, 5th, 10th, and 40th in Danish. This is when it gets really complicated.
This week’s homework: Find a Swede or Norwegian and ask him to count for you in Danish and watch him squirm with uncomfortable feelings.