Scandinavian Languages
December 11, 2004 1:26 PM   Subscribe

What's up with Scandinavian languages? Norwegians tell me that Danish and Norwegian are written the same, but spoken much differently. Swedes tell me than Danes can understand them but not the other way around. I've also heard that on some European airlines they use a simplified version that all Scandinavians can understand. What's the deal?
posted by borkingchikapa to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm definitely no expert, but my fiance is Swedish - his parents emigrated from Finland before he was born, so he speaks both Swedish and Finnish. Finnish is like no other Scandavian language. Swedish and Danish are very similar -- parts of Denmark and Sweden both have swapped countries for centuries. He can understand Danes mostly (but he is from the southern part of Sweden where supposedly, they talk like they have potatoes in their mouths (more similarity to Danish)). But, honestly, when Scandavians seem to get together, since they're all multi-lingual, they usually just speak English (sad, but true).
posted by j at 2:01 PM on December 11, 2004

>Secondly, criteria of national identity and mutual intelligibility may not coincide. In some cases, political criteria outweigh linguistic considerations. For instance, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are mutually intelligible (linguistic criteria) but since they are spoken in different countries (political criteria), they are considered to be three separate languages. On the other hand, many dialects of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, but are considered to be varieties of the same language because they are spoken in the same country and because they share the same writing system. The Norweigian example is used frequently. They like to say the difference between a dialect and a language is an army.

There's a theory that before there were national borders there was large swaths of gradually changing languages - similar through Scandinavia was the Romance language from Italy through France and into Iberia with gradually changing dialects, which some think still exists: Northern varieties [of Italian] are closer to French and Occitan than to standard or southern varieties... Only 2.5% of Italy's population could speak standard Italian when it became a unified nation in 1861. With rise of nation states, borders built up. Dialects then tend to change inwards into their country for a national distinctiveness and across the border that first country's speakers are recognisably different but mutually intelligible. With time there is increasingly pronounced differences.

You can hear a mild version of this watching Toronto and Buffalo television, especially locally produced news programming. The longer the political division, the more differences that build between the nations. I'm not sure if this answers what you want, but many people write about it in this context.
posted by philfromhavelock at 2:58 PM on December 11, 2004

Swedish = The base langauge.
Danish = Swedish with marbles in your mouth.
Norwegian = No idea on this one. Maybe it's like a New Yorker going down to the Bayou.
Finland = Language of (supposedly) Hungarian origin, thus nobody can understand a word they say.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:02 PM on December 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

"A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." Didn't know about the simplified version.
posted by ontic at 3:28 PM on December 11, 2004

I am fluent in Swedish, but definitely not an expert. The distinctions between the three languages are similar to English, American English, and Australian English. How close written Danish and Norwegian are depends on which form of Norwegian you're talking about. Swedish and Danish/Norwegian have slight variations in spellings and word choice, and use different letters for ä, å and ö.

Speakers of Norwegian and Danish sound like they are speaking dialects of the same language, maybe a Texas drawl compared to a Southern twang. Comparatively, most Swedish is like British English. But in southern Swedish it sounds Danish. Most Scandinavian speakers can understand television and newspapers from another Scandinavian country, but like j says young people are just as likely to speak English in person.

Generally, I think Scandinavian is like Spanish. It has different forms but a common base that all speakers can understand. Nobody understands Finnish which is a Nordic country, but not Scandinavian.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:34 PM on December 11, 2004

philfromhavelock- I know what you mean about the Buffalo-Toronto thing, having grown up in Buffalo, then living in Detroit later. I would drive through southern Ontario to visit family. As soon as I crossed the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, there was a very distinctive Canadian accent. Then as soon as I crossed back into the states at Niagara Falls, it was back to the mid-Western Polish-influenced English of the Rust Belt.
posted by Doohickie at 4:43 PM on December 11, 2004

Finland = Language of (supposedly) Hungarian origin, thus nobody can understand a word they say.

The two are distantly related, but neither originated in Hungary.

posted by Utilitaritron at 5:36 PM on December 11, 2004

A couple of related follow ups to this question:

There is cockney and the Queen's English. There are stereotypes implicit in New England versus New York versus southern accents. There is French, Canadian French and creole. What distinctions exist in Spanish? What is proper Spanish? What dialects are "high class" New World Spanish and what dialects are po' boy Spanish?

And I know some people have a hard time understanding the Irish brogue. I have no real problem understanding any decently spoken English, whether native speaker or not. But I had to listen carefully to the Nigerians I went to school with, especially compared to the native English speaking Liberians. Are some dialects of spoken English harder to understand? Why?
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:51 PM on December 11, 2004

Finland = Language of (supposedly) Hungarian origin, thus nobody can understand a word they say.

No. Not even half-remembered, Civil_Disobedient. No cookies. Go to bed.

Finnish and Hungarian are both members of the Finno-Ugric family of languages. But they are on opposite branches of their family tree and only distantly related. Finnish, Estonian and Sammi make up (the major) part of one branch and Hungarian, Khanty and Mansi making up the other.

The ancestral language is siberian in origin, and the division between Finno and Ugric happened before the Finns came west (and they came west long before the Magyar (Hungarians) settled in Hungary in the 9th century. Khanty and Masi are minor languages that are close to Hungarian and spoken in pockets in outer Russia/Siberia.

McGuillicuddy is right on about the relationship between Norwegian, Danish and Swedish. But it begs for further explanation. Norwegian is tied to Danish because Norway was under Danish rule for much of it's history. Danish was the dialect of law, but everyday speech was closer to the dialect of Sweden, which is connected geographically to Norway. When Norway became independant, a movement started to standardize Norwegian in a way that reflected both institutional (Danish) language and the vernacular. The result is a language that sounds closer to Swedish but is written closer to Danish.

The line between dialect and language is arbitrary, but I was taught in college that all three can be considered dialects of one language because they are, effectively, mutually intelligible when spoken. Educated speakers make allowances for their audience and everyone gets their point across very effectively.

Nobody understands Finnish which is a Nordic country, but not Scandinavian.

I think you have it backwards-- Finnish is not a nordic language (some linguists use "Nordic" to denote the language that the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian dialects are part of), but it's definitely Scandinavian-- both from its history and its current attitudes and arts.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:17 PM on December 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

Mayor Curley -- I agree with what you said about the languages, but I have to take issue with the last bit. What I've always heard agrees with the Wikipedia article:
The Scandinavian countries are Norway, Sweden and Denmark, which mutually recognize each other as parts of Scandinavia. The collective label "Scandinavia" reflects the cultural similarity and the strong historical ties between these countries despite their political independence.


The term the Nordic countries is used unambiguously for the Scandinavian kingdoms of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the republics of Finland and Iceland.
posted by Utilitaritron at 6:28 PM on December 11, 2004

As a fellow Bostonian, I love the handle, your Honor. And that was a good answer. But on preview, I'll spare the link and just agree with Utilitaritron. As you hinted at, there are big differences ethnically and culturally between Finns and Scandinavians. There is some amount of ancient snobbery that drives that distinction to this day.

In Scandinavian languages, the word Norden (the north) is used to refer to the big 3 plus Finland, Greenland and Iceland. In English, they are the Nordic countries.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:42 PM on December 11, 2004

Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic all descended from Old Norse.

Icelandic has many "older" features and has retained a lot of the more complex, irregular grammar from Old Norse.

Danish, Norwegian, Swedish are very close to each other, but still distinct languages. There are small vocabulary differences (Danish ikke versus Swedish inte, meaning not.) Swedish uses ä and ö where Danish uses æ and ø.

Danish and Swedish have been the official languages of fairly well-established nation states for several centuries. Norwegian has a more complex history. Norway was a possession of Denmark from the Union of Kalmar in 1328 (?) until it passed under Swedish control in 1815 (?), and only became independent again in 1905. During that long period of foreign rule, the upper classes essentially spoke a variety of Danish (and did lots of shopping in Copenhagen, etc.), while common people spoke country dialects that were more native to Norway.

In the mid-to-late 1800s, when there was more of a Norwegian national consciousness developing, there were two competing versions of a national language: riksmål or bokmål, the variety very close to Danish, and nynorsk, a somewhat invented variety with elements blended in from the many dialects of the valleys and fjords of Norway itself. The Wikipedia entry has a good summary.

So, Norwegian language usage may have small, subtle political or class implications. My Norwegian isn't that well-exercised, but when I look at sites like Nettavisen, it looks more like bokmål to me.

Finnish is a first-cousin to Estonian, very, very distantly related to Hungarian, and has zero genetic relationship to other national languages of Europe--but Finnish does have borrowed words from Swedish, since Sweden ruled Finland for several centuries, and there are still some Swedish-speakers on Finnish soil.
posted by gimonca at 7:09 PM on December 11, 2004

not an answer or helpful contribution to the thread, but i saw your name, borkingchikapa, and then a question about scandinavian languages and thought : swedish chef! bork bork!
posted by littlegirlblue at 7:18 PM on December 11, 2004

My mother was a native Danish speaker but could easily understand and make herself understood to Norwegians. She couldn't do the same with Swedish. And Danish does not sound like "Swedish with marbles in your mouth". What you're hearing in their mouths is herring.

On preview, from gimonca's comment, perhaps it was bokmål-speaking Norwegians that my mother found easy to understand.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:19 PM on December 11, 2004

Swedish uses ä and ö where Danish uses æ and ø.

You mean the Swedish titles in Montey Python and the Holy Grail were really in Danish?
posted by Doohickie at 7:42 PM on December 11, 2004

Swedish uses ä and ö where Danish uses æ and ø.

You mean the Swedish titles in Montey Python and the Holy Grail were really in Danish?

I thought all that was Norwegian – which uses æ and ø too – don't they mention Oslo?
posted by Utilitaritron at 8:30 PM on December 11, 2004

So if I wanted to learn one of the languages, would any one of them in particular be any more useful or easier to learn than others?
posted by gyc at 9:08 PM on December 11, 2004

Learn Swedish, and you'll be able to say all those Ikea product names correctly.

All three are pretty easy for English speakers to learn; maybe the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. Grammar is only complicated in ways that English is; irregular verbs tend to be irregular similar to their English cousins; the complexities of Old Norse have all been smoothed over. Keeping track of subtle differences between bokmål versus nynorsk could be a little challenging. No difficult sounds except for the stereotypical puckered and umlauted vowels, and that weird Swedish "sj" sound.

I think the only way one would be more "useful" to you than the others is if you were planning to visit one of the countries in person.
posted by gimonca at 10:09 PM on December 11, 2004

My father could have taught me how to speak Swedish, but he didn't see any practical reason for it. No one really speaks it outside of Sweden, and Swedes all speak better English than your average American.

But I've always wanted to learn. I'm hoping to study there for a year or so in the not too distant future, so it might work out. Good to know that it's not too difficult to learn.
posted by aladfar at 10:46 PM on December 11, 2004

I am learning to speak danish(it is not capitalized). Reading and writing is progressing nicely, speaking is progressing more slowly, HEARING is a big big problem. So many of the parts of words are "swallowed" somehow. The most useful phrase i've learned so far is "Vil du stave det for mig?" (will you spell that for me?)

Reading Svensk news is do-able, taking into account how limited i am so far; reading Norsk papers is not anywhere near as easy; there seem to be more differences than similarities.

A year of immersion is what i think it would take for me to become decently competent. Learning it well enough to practice my profession is another issue entirely.

My friends from Suomi admit to being from the northern countries, but resist strongly any suggestion that they are a Nordic country. I think they're splitting hairs, but that's another subject

There are a lot more online resources for learning Svensk than the other "nordic" languages.

As aladfar says, English is spoken widely; visitors have little difficulty.
posted by reflecked at 3:03 AM on December 12, 2004

reflecked, why did you compose your answer in english and then use the local names for the languages you mentioned? That seems pretentious.

McGuillicuddy, naturally I'm thrilled when anyone "gets" my username. And yours is just as appropriate for a Bostonian.
posted by Mayor Curley at 5:01 AM on December 12, 2004

I wish it hadn't seemed pretentious; i'm learning, and make mistakes. I get teased by my dansk friends for getting it wrong when i say " Swedish" instead of "Svensk", so i've made an effort too far in the other direction, it seems.

I get grief for using Finland instead of Suomi, too. At the moment i'm smiling and glad you can't hear what i do to Spanish (aka "spanglish"or.. "mangled-ish").
posted by reflecked at 5:13 AM on December 12, 2004

I'm Swedish living in Denmark. I have been here three years and can't speak Danish, but understand it just fine and speak a swedish-with-danish word thing to make myself understood. My three young neices (age 7 and down) who are Danish play and talk to me and when I reply they always turn to another adult asking what I just said. My SO is Danish but spent a lot of time in the UK as a kid and english schools so we speak a mix of english danish and swedish to each other which is fine. I understand Danish, but being from the north of Sweden this took some doing, and I thank the Dutch for 'opening my ears' (I lived in Holland before coming here).

So the 'deal' is as many have explained quite well is sortof; Norweigan is Danish but spoken with a Swedish accent and Danish is old-fashioned Swedish spoken like they have a mouth full of herring. ;)
Many "false friendlies" make ample oppertunity for fun misunderstandings, "rolig" in danish means calm, but in swedish it means funny.
posted by dabitch at 7:12 AM on December 12, 2004

Icelandic though, is impossible for me to understand. It's a lovely language much closer to the old norse of centuries past with fun new word-inventions for moderns things rather than modern English or latin imports which swedish has a lot of. A computer in swedish is a dator for instance, while the icelandic call it a tölva - from an ancient word that means number (tala). Icelandic has danish import words like akkúrat (exactly), edrú (sober) och fatta (understand), old English imports like prestur (pries >préost) and kirkja (church >cirice ) and few modern English imports like jeppi from "jeep" and rúta which is bus and stems from the English route. In return for those words icelandic (and old norse) has enriched English with geyser (from the hot spring Geysir), mire from "myr" = old norse is mýrr), fjord from fjord old norse fjörðr and reindeer from ren old norse hreindýr.
If I was to set out to learn one of the languages here I would pick Icelandic actually, the grammar and things haven't changed much from old norse so you could read all the old sagas straigt up! It wouldn't help you when travelling around here though, my icelandic and faroe islands pals speak Danish to me, I can't possibly understand them otherwise.
posted by dabitch at 7:42 AM on December 12, 2004

I have nothing to add to what others (notably the good Mayor) have said, but I just wanted to say this is My Kind of AskMeFi thread. Also, to quote my mother's family, "a Svede ain't nuttin but a Norvegian vit 'is brains knocked out." (Cue intra-Scandahoovian brawl in 5... 4... 3...)
posted by languagehat at 8:01 AM on December 12, 2004

All the links I usually use when lecturing about Norwegian & the Scandinavian language has already been linked by Major Curley and gimonca.

As for understanding; we Norwegians always say we understand Swedes and Danes better than they understand us. But with a bit of goodwill and keeping words-that-means-something-else in mind it goes all right.
(also I swear I understand Icelandic when drunk.) Norwegians (who are strict dialect users, nobody actually speak either bokmål or nynorsk) usually modify their language somewhat though, when speaking to Swedes or Danes.

As for common Scandinavian jumble-language, I have heard it a couple of times in airplanes, and you often see it on the sides of shampoo bottles or in user manuals as (Se/Da/N) and whenever there's a not-common word they indicate it with a slash. It looks pretty gruesome.

And you know, languagehat, you can get Swedish brains pretty cheap since they never have been used :)
posted by mummimamma at 1:19 PM on December 12, 2004

Utilitaritron- Yeah, I think you're right about the Holy Grail thing.
posted by Doohickie at 6:29 PM on December 12, 2004

What distinctions exist in Spanish? What is proper Spanish? What dialects are "high class" New World Spanish and what dialects are po' boy Spanish?

Responding to the derail: Each spanish-speaking country has its own dialects, usually split along class and geographic lines. So in Chile, for example, you have upper-, middle-, lower- class spanish, as well as some characteristically Northern and Southern dialects. There's no such thing as 'proper' spanish, IMO, though some spaniards would claim that their particular dialect is 'real' spanish. Personally, I like the way educated Peruvians speak.
posted by signal at 8:07 AM on December 13, 2004

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