The Scandinavian Languages: Three For The Price Of One?

What’s the difference between Swedish, Danish and Norwegian? What are the similarities? If you know one of the Scandinavian languages, do you know them all? Let’s have a closer look!
Map of Scandinavian languages

Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.

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 with all the Alexander Skarsgård-lookalikes walking around and speaking such a characteristically melodic language. But what is this language or, rather, languages? What, exactly, is the difference between Swedish, Danish and Norwegian? If you know one of the Scandinavian 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 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, where the North-Western branch consists of Icelandic and Faroese. (Finnish, in case you were wondering, is related to Hungarian, Sami and Estonian, and is 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.

Let’s imagine the Scandinavian languages as 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, smokes indoors and no one “gets” her.

This metaphor is not that far away from reality. A study by Delsing and Åkesson from 2005 has shown that Danes have the most difficulty understanding their neighbors — and their neighbors also have the most difficulty understanding them. Conversations between Swedes and Danes in particular take a lot of concentration and are known to be a bit awkward.

Pronunciation Differences

Danish: The Misunderstood Little Sister

The clichés are many: “They sound like they’re drunk all the time!”, “It’s as if they had a potato in their throat!”, “Raging drunk Norwegians speak perfect Danish!” or “Why don’t they articulate?” Yes, Scandinavians like to tease each other, 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 us clarify.

Danish stands out from the other two Scandinavian languages mainly because it has a large discrepancy between written and spoken language. The words are shortened, the consonants softened and the endings almost swallowed. To complicate things further, 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. Swedes 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 Swedes hear is something best transcribed as “Hai, vel he-ugh du?” Of course, basic questions like this one are easy to understand, but it gets even trickier when the conversation turns to feelings, politics or astrophysics. A lot of the time, conversations default to English as a common lingua franca.

In the end, it’s all a matter of getting used to and understanding differences in pronunciation. Swedes aren’t usually familiar with the basic rules of Danish pronunciation, and if you don’t know the rules, of course it’ll seem like Danes are all somehow just winging it.

Here’s How Each Would Say “The Color”

Danish: en farve

Swedish: en färg

Norwegian: en farge

Vocabulary Differences: Beware Of False Friends!

Besides pronunciation, 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 more calm and relaxing. If a Dane thinks a Norwegian is nice or cute, they call them rar. The Norwegian, however, might be quite offended, as rar means “strange.” And if a Norwegian says he’s going to button his kneppe (shirt), well… we won’t even tell you what the Dane might think!

Orthography: 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. 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 here.

So a modern-day conversation between a Norwegian and a Dane is often accompanied by a lot of “hva?” 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 one-way communication, where you’re not required to reproduce the other language, but still have to decode what your conversation partner is saying.

These conversations fall under the category of semi-communication, a term coined by the American linguist, Einar Haugen. To be able to “semi-communicate,” you simply need to get used to a 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 spoken Danish!

The Award For Best Semi-Communicator Goes To:

As it turns out, the middle child (as in many families) is actually the most understanding one of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegians are the clear winners when it comes to understanding their neighbors. There are three main reasons for this. First, Norwegian is quite simply the “middle child” — it’s written like Danish, but sounds like Swedish. Second, Norwegians are used to hearing Swedish and Danish in public media. Third, Norway has a very wide range of dialects, so Norwegians have to understand people who speak differently — otherwise they wouldn’t be able to travel within their own country!

This means that you should choose to learn Norwegian if you want to have an easy time understanding the other two Scandinavian languages. But if you prefer Swedish or Danish — go for it! Families stick together, after all. With a little patience and open-mindedness (and your hands and feet, if all else fails), you should be able to communicate anywhere in Scandinavia, no matter which of the three languages you speak.

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