Ah, Scandinavia! Vast, untouched nature. Dried, pickled fish everywhere you turn. Was that a blonde mermaid riding by on a moose? It’s hard to see for all the Alexander Skarsgård-lookalikes, walking around in their Norwegian jumpers, speaking this characteristically melodic language. But what is this language? Or rather, languages? What is the difference between Swedish, Danish and Norwegian? If you know one of the languages, will speakers of the other two be able to understand you? Let’s have a closer look at Scandinavia and the so-called North Germanic languages.
So, which languages are we talking about?
It’s true that the three Scandinavian languages have so much in common that they could almost be seen as dialects. Those of us who speak one of them are able to understand speakers of the other two, at least to some extent. All of them evolved from Old Norse, better known to non-Scandinavians as “the Viking language.” They make up the North-Eastern branch of the Germanic language tree, in which the North-Western branch consists of Icelandic and Faroese. (Finnish, in case you were wondering, is related to Hungarian, Sami and Estonian, and is in actual fact not even an Indo-European language.)
Swedish boasts the biggest language community of the three, with 10 million speakers. The other two have about 5 million speakers each.
Know one, know ’em all?
Danish and Norwegian are very similar, or indeed almost identical when it comes to vocabulary, but they sound very different from one another. Norwegian and Swedish are closer in terms of pronunciation, but the words differ.
I like to think of the Scandinavian languages like three sisters. Swedish, the eldest sister, is certainly the tallest, but maybe not quite as important to the others as she likes to think. Norwegian, the middle child, understands both her siblings and plays the role of mediator. Danish, the young rebel, is smoking indoors and no one “gets” her.
This metaphor is not that far away from the reality. A study by Delsing and Åkesson from 2005 has shown that Danes have the most difficulties understanding their neighbors — and their neighbors also have the most difficulties understanding them. Conversations between Swedes and Danes in particular are known to be a bit awkward. As a Swedish native, I myself have come to a point where I can understand most of what I hear in Danish, but it takes a lot of concentration. And I am sure that the feeling is mutual for my Danish conversation partner.
Danish — the misunderstood little sister
The clichés are many: “They sound like they’re drunk all the time!”, “It is as if they had a potato in their throat!”, “Raging drunk Norwegians speak perfect Danish!”, or “Why don’t they articulate?” Yes, we like to tease each other in Scandinavia, but these sayings are actually quite ignorant. Danish, for example, isn’t a sloppy or particularly inarticulate language — it’s supposed to sound like that! Let me clarify.
Danish stands out from the other two mainly because there’s a large discrepancy between written and spoken language. The words are shortened, the consonants softened and the endings almost swallowed. To make it even trickier, many words contain characteristic stød, Danish’s answer to the glottal stop. To people speaking Swedish and Norwegian, a lot of Danish pronunciation patterns seem completely random. I would say, “Hej, vad heter du?” (Hello, what’s your name?), and a Dane would ask “Hej, hvad hedder du?” Not so different. But what I hear is something that I can best transcribe as “Hai, vel he-ugh du?” Of course, a basic question like that is easy to understand, but it gets trickier when the conversation is about feelings, politics or astrophysics. A lot of the time, we give up and resort to speaking English instead.
But it’s all a matter of getting used to it and understanding the differences in pronunciation. I think I speak for most Swedes when I say that we never learned the basic rules of Danish pronunciation — for instance, how the written “eg” sounds like “ay,” “af” like “ow” and “øg” like “oy.” If you don’t know the rules, of course it’s going to seem like they are all somehow just winging it.
Here’s how a Dane, a Swede and a Norwegian would say “What’s your name?”
Hvad hedder du? (Danish)
Vad heter du? (Swedish)
Hva heter du? (Norwegian)
Beware of false friends!
To be able to talk to your Scandinavian neighbors, you need to know a bit about the differences in vocabulary. Especially when a Dane or Norwegian is speaking to a Swede, they need to have a lot of words in their passive vocabulary, meaning they have to understand them but not necessarily be able to use them. There are also some false friends to watch out for; if a Swede and a Norwegian agree to do something roligt together, the Swede will be expecting to have a lot of fun, but the Norwegian will be preparing for something rather more calm and relaxing. If a Dane thinks a Norwegian is nice or cute, they call them rar, however, the Norwegian might be quite offended, as rar means strange. And if a Norwegian says he’s going to button his shirt, kneppe, well… I won’t even tell you what the Dane might think!
Could you write that down for me?
Despite some differences in vocabulary, written Danish and written Norwegian are almost identical. This is because Norway belonged to Denmark between the 14th and 19th centuries, and with the kingdom’s royal, intellectual, and administrative power centered in Copenhagen, everything official had to be written in Danish. Danish never really found its way into the spoken language, however — the geographical proximity to Sweden played a larger role. So 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.
Does this mean that Swedes, Norwegians and Danes shouldn’t speak to each other?
No, of course not! They will only have to put a little effort into communicating. You can only understand a language if you get a lot of input, most importantly spoken input. That is true also for this type of one-way communication, where you’re not required to reproduce the other language (because you can speak your own), but still have to decode what your conversation partner is saying. These conversations are called Semi communication, a term coined by the American linguist Einar Haugen. To be able to “semi communicate,” you simply need to get used to the language. If Swedes were to never hear any Danish, they wouldn’t understand much at all, regardless of the many linguistic similarities. Luckily, Danes are great at producing TV shows that everybody wants to watch, so it’s actually quite fun to hear some Danish!
And the award for best semi communicator goes to…
As it turns out, the middle child is actually the most understanding one in this family (as in many families) — Norwegians are the clear winners when it comes to understanding their language neighbors. There are three main reasons for this. First, Norwegian is quite simply the “middle child” — written like Danish but sounding like Swedish. Second is that they’re used to hearing Swedish and Danish on TV and radio. Thirdly (and finally!), even in Norway itself, there is a very wide range of dialects, each of them with a relatively high status — after all, even politicians speak their dialect. So Norwegians have to understand people who don’t speak like they do, otherwise they won’t be able to travel within their own country!
This means that you can chose to learn Norwegian if you want to have an easy time understanding the other two languages. But if you prefer Swedish or Danish — go for it! Families stick together, after all, and with a little patience, open-mindedness (and your hands and feet, if all else fails), you should be able to make yourself understood anywhere in Scandinavia, no matter which of the three languages you speak.