Semi-communication in Scandinavia

Babbel’s Elin Asklöv writes about communicating Scandinavian languages across dialectical styles.

Elin Asklöv works on Babbel’s Swedish and Danish courses. She is originally from Linköping, southern Sweden, but now lives in Berlin. Here, she gives us a Swedish perspective on how communication works (or occasionally doesn’t) between natives of the three Scandinavian countries.


“Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish,” the American linguist Einar Haugen once said.
And surely the three Scandinavian languages have so much in common, that they can almost be seen as dialects. Danish and Norwegian are very similar when it comes to vocabulary, but Norwegian and Swedish sound much closer to one another. So – is knowing, or learning, a Scandinavian language a “buy one, get three” kind of deal, where you can get around and make yourself understood everywhere from Lolland to Svalbard? Well, sort of.
At first glance, there seems to be a bit of trouble in paradise. Swedes and Norwegians tend to think that the Danes speak inarticulately, and there are tons of jokes about Danish pronunciation, for example that drunk Norwegians speak perfect Danish. Norwegians can read Danish texts and have conversations with Swedes without problem, but it’s more difficult the other way around. And Swedes – well we tend to find ourselves in Copenhagen bars, unable to even tell where one word ends and the next begins. After a while, everyone gives up and switches to English.
But with a little will, a little patience, and a little understanding of the differences, a speaker of one Scandinavian language can communicate with a speaker of another. This phenomenon is called semi-communication, and it’s not only seen in Scandinavia, but also between Czech and Slovak, or Ukrainian and Russian speakers. But for semi-communication to work, there are some requirements. The languages have to be closely related and grammatically alike, the differences in vocabulary shouldn’t be too large, and – most importantly – the speakers need to be tolerant, flexible and willing to understand. They also need to be careful with so-called false friends. If a Swede and a Norwegian have agreed do something roligt together, the Swede will expect to have a lot of fun, the Norwegian will be hoping for a calm and relaxing activity.
Studies have shown that Norwegians are the clear winners when it comes to understanding their neighbouring languages, both of which they are used to hearing on TV and radio. That’s partly because of the Norwegian language’s status as the “inbetweener” in Scandinavia – it’s written much like Danish, but sounds more like Swedish. It’s also because Norway itself has a very wide range of dialects. Norwegians have to understand people who don’t speak like they do, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to travel within their own country.
What’s the deal with Danish?
Danish and Norwegian look almost exactly the same when written, so communication should be a piece of cake for them, right? Look at this classic tongue-twister about sheep not having sheep, but lambs, for example:
Danish: Far, får får får? Nej, får får ikke får, får får lam.
Norwegian: Far, får får får? Nei, får får ikke får, får får lam.
And now try listening to them:
and Norwegian:

Norway was part of Denmark between the 14th and 19th centuries, and all official documents had to be written in Danish during this time. Danish never really found its way in to the spoken language, however, and that’s why the geographical proximity to Sweden played a larger role here. Hence, a conversation between a Norwegian and a Dane is often accompanied by a lot of “hva?”, but if they would just pick up their phones and text each other instead, the communication would flow perfectly well.
In other words, it’s thanks to its pronunciation that Danish is the black sheep in the trio. In fact, there’s a large discrepancy between written and spoken Danish: words are shortened, their consonants softened and endings almost swallowed. To make it even trickier, many words end in the characteristic stød, Denmark’s answer to the glottal stop. To people speaking Swedish and Norwegian, a lot of Danish pronunciation patterns can seem completely random, but that’s mainly because we never learned the basic rules – for instance that “eg” sounds like “ay”, “af” like “ow” and “øg” like “oy”.
What can we learn from all of this? Well, first and foremost, train your listening skills! Take inspiration from the Norwegians and expose yourself to other languages and dialects. A language is not only text, after all. If it was, Norwegian and Danish would be pretty much the same. But as most of us know, the hardest situations you’ll get into with the language you’re learning are probably going to involve speech. The best tip, especially for the struggling Danish learners out there, is to imitate until you get it right – and have fun with it!
For this purpose, Babbel’s tongue-twister courses are ideal. Take the newly released Norwegian one, for example (Danish tongue-twisters will be released in June, so be on the lookout!). Here you can imitate our native speakers in short, funny sentences and try to not get your tongue in a twist. Take the first lesson for free! And if you’re interested in learning the Danish pronunciation and the rules behind it (as I said, there are rules!), check out the Danish pronunciation course.
And here are some tongue twisters from other Babbel languages:

Do you have experiences of successful, or not-so-successful, semi-communication? Let us know in the comments!