Scandinavian Languages Explained (Similarities and Differences)

Updated: 02. Nov, 2022

If you are unfamiliar with Scandinavia, and how the region’s natives speak, you will think they speak the same language. When speaking to various people, Scandinavians can substitute some words or phrases or pronounce other words or phrases differently.

This article examines Scandinavian languages, highlighting their similarities and differences. Hence, you will be able to tell one Scandinavian language from the other.

What are the Scandinavian Languages?

When we think of Scandinavian nations, Iceland, Finland, or Greenland may spring to mind. These countries are known as “Nordic countries.” However, there are only three Scandinavian nations. They are Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. 

Swedish

Swedish is the native tongue of Sweden. Although Finns and Danes also speak a lot of Swedish, folks from Sweden tend to speak it more often. In terms of appearance, Danish and Swedish are pretty similar.

The du-reformen (or “You reform”), which took place in the late 1960s, saw a shift away from using formal vocabulary based on the speaker’s age, occupation, or gender. As a result, Swedish is now mostly an informal language. 

Danish

Denmark’s official language is Danish. Nearly six million people speak it. Additionally, the Faroe Islands and Greenland have this as their second official language. Swedish and Danish may seem similar when written, but sound significantly different when spoken.

The characteristic glottal stop (stød) of the Danish language is a phenomenon in which sound is stopped by pressing the vocal cords together.

Danish has two genders, common and neuter, rather than masculine and feminine. Neuter refers to items with no gender, such as tables and chairs. In contrast, some common words do not identify a gender (for example, father, friend, etc.). A Swedish speaker might find the Danish language and its superfluous pronunciation changes incomprehensible. 

Norwegian

More than 5 million people speak Norwegian as their main language. Norwegian Bokmal, which translates to “book tongue,” and Norwegian Nynorsk, which translates to “new Norwegian,” are the official written versions of the language in Norway.

Norwegian is the Nordic language most likely to translate well across other countries. It’s easy for Norwegians to comprehend their neighbors. After gaining independence from Denmark in the 1800s, Norway established two national languages, one spoken in the metropolis and the other in the rural regions.

As an Indo-European language, Norwegian lacks tonality, which is more typical of Asian languages like Chinese.

Similarities between the Scandinavian Languages

The Scandinavian languages have the following similarities:

1. Mutually Intelligible

They have remained comparable since the Middle Ages. Moreover, they are mutually intelligible due to virtually parallel developments in the northern branches of North Germanic.

The three primary Scandinavian languages are so close to one another that they are usually compared as dialects. Speakers of the other two may be understood, at least in part, by those who speak one of the three languages. The languages all descended from Old Norse, sometimes referred to as “the Viking language” outside Scandinavia.

2. Phonology

With a few odd exceptions for compounds, the first syllable is often stressed in native words. A later syllable with emphasis is a product of linguistic borrowing.

The stressed syllable is often spoken with a high pitch, which falls at the conclusion of a sentence and rises for a yes-or-no inquiry. The only exceptions to this rule are East Norwegian and several Swedish dialects, where the stressed syllable is low and the pitch often rises at the end of sentences. 

Moreover, there is a unique word tone that causes ancient monosyllables to have one sort of pitch and old polysyllables to have another in most of Norway, most of Sweden, and a few Danish dialects. The first pitch, which often has a high or low pitch on the stressed syllable, varies from area to region, whereas the second is more complicated. Whereas Norwegian and Swedish use the first sort of tone, Danish uses glottalization instead.

3. Morphology

Old Scandinavian had a declensional system with four cases. These cases are nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and two numerals. The stem class of the noun or adjective determined how the inflections were expressed. For tense and mood, person and number, verbs were inflected.

Danish, Dano-Norwegian, New Norwegian, and Swedish current systems are the same. The definite article may be added to the noun’s solitary or plural forms. The plural suffixes differ depending on the noun’s previous stem, gender, and umlaut classes.

Differences the Scandinavian Languages

Scandinavian languages differ in the following ways:

1. Scandinavian Language Speakers in Numbers

Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are the primary speaking countries of Scandinavian languages. There are 21.5 million individuals who speak Scandinavian. Of these, 5.8 million speak Danish, 10.3 million Swedish, and 5.4 million Norwegian.

Do not assume that these languages are limited to their particular nations. Swedish is the second official language of Finland. Norwegian is solely spoken in Norway, although written Danish and Norwegian are extremely similar owing to their shared history. Danish is the second official language in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and is often used in northern Germany. We must remember that Norwegian is broken up into Bokmal and Nynorsk.

2. False Friends 

Since Swedish and Norwegian are closely related, many terms are almost similar or at least understandable in both languages. False friends are terms with the same appearance or pronunciation in both languages but have distinct meanings.

A false friend can cause confusion and uncertainty among individuals. For instance, the term “rolig” is often used in Swedish and Norwegian. Still, it has a different meaning in each language. In Norwegian, it denotes calmness but means fun and humor in Swedish. So, if a Norwegian and a Swede are asked to a rolig evening, the Norwegian will anticipate a peaceful and tranquil evening, while the Swede would anticipate an evening full of fun and humor.

3. Vocabulary

Written Danish and written Norwegian are nearly identical, despite some vocabulary differences. Norway was a part of Denmark from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Everything official had to be written in Danish because the power of the kingdom’s royal, intellectual, and administrative institutions was centered in Copenhagen. Although the proximity to Sweden played a larger role in this, Danish never really made it into the spoken language.

Therefore, “hva?” is frequently used in contemporary Norwegian-Danish conversations. You can effectively chat in Danish with someone who speaks Norwegian through text. The communication would run smoothly if they picked up their phones and texted one another in place.

Danish and Norwegian have the greatest terminology in common, possibly because Norway formerly fell under the Danish administration. Most of the differences are in how words are spelled and pronounced; often, they are the same words with essentially the same meaning. But sometimes, just as English has words like “truck” and “lorry,” Norwegian and Danish also employ different words for the same thing.

While written Norwegian and Danish are extremely similar, written Swedish has several terms that a Danish or Norwegian person cannot possibly comprehend unless they knew them beforehand.

Conclusion

Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are the three major Scandinavian languages. However, only Swedish and Norwegian are members of the North Germanic language family.

Danish is the third Scandinavian language; it belongs to the same family as the other two and is comparable to them. Thus individuals from all three nations typically have no trouble reading and understanding the other two languages, at least to a certain level.

Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish. Swedish and Norwegian are extremely similar in pronunciation. It may often be difficult for a Dane and a Norwegian to connect since Norwegians like to sing, while the Danes speak as if they had potatoes in their mouths. Some Swedes “sing,” too, although depending on the location, certain Swedish speakers are easier for Danes to understand than Norwegians since they don’t “sing.” 

For better understanding, you can use these equations:

Norwegian + phonology – vocabulary = Swedish

Norwegian – phonology + vocabulary = Danish.

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