Which languages are Scandinavian?
Before we go any further, I would like to define for you what a Scandinavian language is. In this article, I will be concentrating on Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, the only languages that can be considered to be truly Scandinavian.
You may have heard of the Vikings who spread their language by going westwards. Quite a few of them went to the British Isles, where they also influenced the English language. Other groups went to places like Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Once upon a time, the western islands and mainland Scandinavia shared the same language. However, this is not the case any more as the Nordic languages have developed in different directions. In our time, people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark are usually not able to understand Icelandic or Faroese, although there are similarities between the languages. On the other hand, when it comes to the eastern neighbour, there are hardly any similarities to be found at all. The Finnish language is completely different from Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.
Do you get three languages for the price of one?
I am a native speaking teacher of Norwegian. Quite a few people ask me whether learning one of the Scandinavian languages is enough to communicate in all three countries. To put it simply, the answer to this question is both yes and no. It is true that as a native Norwegian, I am able to understand both Swedish and Danish. The similarities are evident, especially if you look at the vocabulary, the phrase structure and the grammar. However, there are many differences as well.
Most of these differences are small, but certainly not all of them. In a few cases, other words are used to express the same concept. One of the most famous tales by H.C. Andersen is called “Den grimme ælling” in the original Danish version. In Norwegian, the same tale is called “Den stygge andungen”, and in Swedish “Den fula ankungen”.
The most confusing part is probably the false friends. These are words that look (and sound) almost the same, but they have another meaning in one or two of the other languages. If a Swede says “artig”, he or she means “polite”, while a Norwegian would mean “funny”. In Danish, “artig” means obedient.
Fortunately, the differences are in most cases smaller than this. After all, the differences are usually a matter of words that are just slightly different from each other. Here we talk about differences both in spelling and in pronunciation.
How to distinguish between Danish, Norwegian and Swedish
In the following, I will show you several examples of the similarities and differences between the Scandinavian languages. Norway actually has two written languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. However, they are both Norwegian and in this text, you will only see examples from Bokmål. That is what the majority of the Norwegians write, and it is also similar to how most people speak in the Oslo region. Listen to Tix in order to get an impression of what it sounds like. The same artist also represented Norway in the Eurovision Song Contest of 2021.
Tix in Halden on the Swedish border
Now it is time to make some comparisons, and first we will look at a sentence that means ”She has not been at home today”. This is also literally translated, except that in Scandinavian languages, the phrase “at home” is expressed in one word: “hjemme/hemma”.
Hun har ikke været hjemme i dag
Hun har ikke vært hjemme i dag
Hon har inte varit hemma i dag
These three phrases look almost the same, and between Norwegian and Danish, there is hardly any difference at all in the way it is written. However, you have probably noticed that Danish is pronounced in a way that is rather different and easy to recognize.
The meaning of the next sentence is “Tonight I will sing some songs”.
I aften skal jeg synge nogle sange
I kveld skal jeg synge noen sanger
I kväll ska jag sjunga några sånger
Again, the Danish pronunciation is different. Of the three languages, the Swedish spelling is the one standing apart, especially because it uses ä and ö whereas Norwegian and Danish use æ and ø for similar sounds. On the other hand, the letter å is used in all three languages, and it always represents the same vowel sound.
Spelling and pronouncing the Scandinavian way
In order to emphasize this further, I will give you some examples of words with clear differences in spelling and in pronunciation. In each case, you see the same word in all three languages, although it is not always obvious “at first sight” that the word is the same.
The English translation of the following group of words is “sure – water – travel”
sikker – vand – rejse
sikker – vann – reise
säker – vatten – resa
Here you see words that etymologically (historically) have the same origin, while the languages (and the vocabulary) have changed later. As a result, these words in our time both look and sound (slightly) different. You may also have noticed the Danish guttural r (in the throat), whereas the other speakers have a rolled r. However, there are regional differences in that respect, since a guttural r is common in some regions of Norway and Sweden as well.
Sometimes, words that look quite similar in writing, still have a very different pronunciation. That is also the case for the next sequence of words, which can be translated as “sick – drive – shoot”:
syg – køre – skyde
syk – kjøre – skyte
sjuk – köra – skjuta
While ö and ø always represent the (approximately) same vowel, sk and k sometimes represent different sounds. The Danish voice says both s and k in “skyde”, while the Swedish (northern accent in this case) and Norwegian equivalents have a sound similar to English sh. Also in the words køre/kjøre/köra, you see a similar pronunciation. Another typically Danish phenomenon that after a long vowel, k and t has changed into g and d.
Swedish music has been popular across Scandinavia for many years. There is especially one singer that needs to be mentioned – Carola. Here you see her in a performance from 2016, 25 years after she won with the same tune in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Carola is "captured by a storm wind"
As a child growing up in Norway, I was already acquainted with music and TV from Sweden. At a young age, I realized that it was often easier to recognize Swedish words in writing if I read them out loud, also because they are often spelled in a way that comes close to the pronunciation. Listen to the words below, and you will understand what I mean, at least if you are familiar with the Scandinavian vowels. The English translation of these words is “hold – know – white”
holde – kende – hvid
holde – kjenne – hvit
hålla – känna – vit
Non-Scandinavian speakers will probably find the Swedish spelling to be the easiest of the three. If you know the spelling rules, you should be able to say most words out loud in a (more or less) correct way, since most letters are pronounced. Norwegian pronunciation rules are different in that respect because you often encounter consonants that are mute. However, of these three languages, Danish likely has the most difficult pronunciation
How well do Scandinavians understand each other?
Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are usually not taught at school or at language courses in the neighbouring Scandinavian countries. They are not really considered to be foreign languages, and hence it is not considered necessary to teach them. If I write an e-mail to Sweden or Denmark, I can write in Norwegian, and the person I write to answers me in his or her own language. A phone call works the same way, although we always have to be aware of differences in vocabulary and in pronunciation. So yes, across Scandinavia, we can communicate with each other, in our own languages. We can say that we speak Scandinavian, although we don’t say that we speak the same language.
TV-series in the Scandinavian languages have been, and still are, popular across the three countries. The similarities between the languages also make it possible for actors to perform in films and series in the neighbouring countries. Best known is probably The bridge, a Danish-Swedish crime series with a story related to the bridge connecting the two countries. Both languages are spoken in this series.
Despite all this, we still talk about three different national cultures, and the level of mutual understanding depends on good will from both sides. Here I will refer to my personal impressions of the language situation in Scandinavia. Research has also been done in this field, and the conclusions are similar to the description that follows here.
The Swedes are usually the worst at understanding the other two languages. When I go to Sweden, I mix a number of Swedish words into my Norwegian to avoid misunderstandings. Music in Swedish language has also been successful in Norway and Denmark, but it has never been so in the other direction.
I also have to make some adaptations when talking to Danes. Danish pronunciation is different, and I adapt my Norwegian by changing the melody of the way I speak.
However, not all Norwegians make a serious effort to make themselves easily understood. The extensive use of dialects in Norway makes communication challenging not only for Swedes and Danes, but also for foreign learners of Norwegian.
In all three languages there have been spelling reforms, and they did not always bring the languages closer to each other, sometimes even on the contrary. The main exception has been Danish, where some adaptations in writing brought the written language closer to Norwegian and Swedish.
However, as far as the pronunciation is concerned, Danish has moved further away from its Scandinavian counterparts. It has its own specific sounds, as you have been able to hear from the examples above. Now you will also have the opportunity to hear how it sounds in music. This is an old tune by the composer Carl Nielsen, but this time, we hear it as a part of a corona proof sing-along – from Iceland.
Tina Dickow singing “The sun is so red, mother”
Should I learn Danish, Norwegian or Swedish?
In this article, I have explained how it is for the Scandinavians themselves. However, the situation is different for people who come from other countries. As a foreign learner you will probably need to feel confident in “your own” Scandinavian language first, and you may find it hard to understand the other two languages at the beginning.
You may prefer to go for the easiest Scandinavian language to learn. If that is your approach, you should learn either Norwegian or Swedish. Because of its pronunciation, Danish is likely more difficult than its two Scandinavian counterparts.
However, it is more important to consider which language is most useful to learn. Of course, it makes sense to learn the language of the country where you settle or that you visit the most. Do you travel much across all three countries? In that case, you may also look for a Scandinavian bridge language.
Norwegian is in a position between Danish and Swedish, which makes it easier to understand across Scandinavia. For some of you, that may be an important factor when you decide which language to learn.
I would like to finish by presenting a song in all three languages. The Norwegian singer Åge Aleksandersen wrote Lys og varme in his own dialect from Central Norway. After his own introduction, you will hear the Danish singer Lars Liholt, followed by Swedish Björn Afzelius. Enjoy!
Hopefully, this article has helped you better understand the language situation in Scandinavia. I also hope that I have been able to answer some of your questions. If reading it has been a pleasure for you, it also makes me feel happy. Therefore, I would like to finish by saying “thanks” in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish:
tak – takk – tack
This article concerned all three Scandinavian languages. Are you interested in learning more specifically about Norwegian? On this blog, you will find more information about Norway and its language.