Small words – big difference: make your Danish sound more native-like

Elena Sokolova, September 7th 2020

Du har jo nok hørt dem i dansk tale- og skriftsprog, ikke?

You have probably heard about modal verbs in Danish, but have you heard about modal adverbs or small emotional words, which bear а significant attitude charge?

In this blog post, you will learn about the differences in usage of short one-syllable adverbs like da, dog, jo, nok, nu, skam, vel and vist. Sometimes they may seem to work like interjections, but strictly speaking, they belong to adverbs. They behave syntactically like central adverbs for example ikke, også.

They can be both used in written and spoken language, where there is an interactional component, so they either express the attitude of the speaker or send a pragmatic/modal load in the phrase to the receiver of the utterance. So depending on whom the modality is directed to or who has said the utterance, these modal adverbs can be divided into two groups: receiver-oriented and speaker-oriented (self-reflected).

Receiver-oriented modal adverbs

The receiver-oriented modal adverbs are da, jo, nu, skam and they reflect the speaker’s reaction to what the speaker assumes about the receiver’s understanding of the contextual load in the utterance (phrase).

The speaker assumes, that the receiver knows and accepts what is being said, so the receiver is supposed to be knowledgeable about the situation and accepts it. Jo may be translated as ‘you know/you see’.

Selv om de er rare at have, er penge jo ikke alt her i livet. – Even though it’s nice to have money, they are not the only thing in life, you know.

Det er jo ikke første gang, du har glemt dit kørekort. – You see, it’s not the first time, you have forgotten your driving licence.

Jo expresses that something is clear and is a sort of universal truth, and is usually used in affirmative sentences. Sometimes jo means rather that the speaker expresses a surprise and wants to emphasize it. Still, again, the receiver will at once understand, that ‘the unexpected component’ will be accepted, but not rejected/negated.

Da expresses disagreement of the speaker with the receiver of the information, and the speaker by saying that, tries to reassure the receiver who might be in doubt or suspicious. Da would express the modality of reassuring hope, so da may be translated as ‘surely’, ‘of course’, ‘for sure’, ‘really’. So da can function as a persuading adverb.

Da may be used to show that the speaker disagrees with the receiver, and thus wants to take a distance from the situation, but still judges it. In this case it may be translated as ‘at least’, which would be close to i hvert fald.

Dog can be translated in many ways:

It may also have a modal charge and be a modal adverb. Unlike jo, dog can be used not only in the affirmative, but alslo in interrogative and imperative sentences, as well as exclamation utterances.

In questions, it may express surprise or reprimand.

In affirmative sentences, it is often used with the verb in the past tense and expresses surprise.

Nu expresses that the speaker corrects the receiver in what has just be said.

Nu in questioning sentences means surprise, doubt, annoyance, or may have an emphatic function.

Skam expresses often a clarification of a truth or a fact, which the receiver is in doubt about. In English, there would be often an auxiliary verb for reassuring. But unlike da, skam is rather an explaning one than showing the disagreement.

Speaker-oriented modal adverbs

Speaker-oriented modal adverbs reflect the speaker’s modality, understanding, attitude to or the own knowledge about the situation or the interactional context. The speaker-oriented modal adverbs are nok, vel and vist, and their translation into English, as a rule, has ‘I’ element, as ‘I suppose’, ‘I guess’, ‘I am sure’, ‘I assume’. Speaker-oriented modal adverbs are nok, vel, vist.

Vel adds a questioning element to the utterance. It expresses that the speaker wants to include the receiver in the judgment of the statement or the interaction context. Often vel is used in negative sentences as a tag question marker.

Vist (certainly) expresses that the speaker does not have enough knowledge about the context, and shows to the receiver that other people also grasp the context as truth. Vistnok can be translated as ‘I guess/I assume’.

By choosing nok (I assume/I am sure) the speaker expresses his or her subjective judgment as to the probability of whether the situation is true.

Often nok is used in the following expressions: paradoksalt nok; forståeligt nok; mærkelig(t) nok; naturligt nok; logisk nok; sjovt nok.

The difference between nok, vel and vist lies mainly in the degree of the speaker’s involvement.

Pronunciation & syntax remarks

It is impornat to distinguish modal adverbs from the corresponding adverbs, which are not specific modal word. The modal adverbs are usually unstressed syntactically (have no phrasal stress) and take the position of a traditional central adverb. However, when they function as adverbs without particular modality, they do bear syntactic stress, may initiate the clause, and as a rule, have a different meaning from that in the modal function.

As for the word order, the receiver-oriented precedes the speaker-oriented adverbs.

What examples with modal adverbs have you heard? Keep listening to spoken Danish, and you will catch plenty of modal adverbs in everyday speech. Add them to your vocabulary and use actively to sound more native-like!

Det er da ikke svært at lære dem!

Freely rendered from and inspired by Det er sgu da nu vist en misforståelse. Om nogle svære småord på dansk by Niels Davidsen-Nielsen, Nyt fra Sprognævnet 1993/3.

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