Can Swedes Understand Finnish?


Due to their long history, Sweden and Finland have a lot of similarities in areas such as their legal systems, social norms, and even their economic models. Language is also a similarity, but people often want to know, to what extent? For instance, are Swedish and Finnish so similar that Swedes can actually understand what is being said in Finnish?

Swedes find it hard to understand Finnish because Swedish has closer ties to North Germanic languages spoken in Scandinavia. It’s easier for Swedish people to understand Norwegian and Danish than it is to grasp Finnish, mainly because Finnish is a member of the ‘foreign’ Uralic family of languages.

This article will discuss the distinction between Swedish and Finnish languages, examining some of the important features and developments in both languages.

What Languages Are Similar to Swedish?

Scandinavian countries are known for their strong cultural, historical, and linguistic ties. It’s fairly easy for a Swede to understand Danish or Norwegian due to the three countries’ linguistic similarities. 

Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are all part of North Germanic languages, which explains their huge similarities, especially in vocabulary. [1] However, not all Nordic countries can understand Scandinavian languages and vice versa since there is usually a variation depending on location.

What Is the Official Language of Sweden?

Swedish is Sweden’s official language and is known to resemble Danish and Norwegian. The language has several dialects spoken in different parts of Sweden, including:

  • Dalecarlian: spoken in Alvdalen Municipality and northern areas of Dalarna province.
  • Modern Gutnish: spoken in Faro and Gotland.
  • Scanian: spoken in the Swedish province of Scania.
  • Jamtlandic: spoken throughout Sweden, more so in Jamtland.
  • Westrobothnian: spoken in Norrbotten and Westrobothnia.

Finnish is among Sweden’s minority languages and is spoken by ethnic Finns living in Sweden. Although not as popular as Swedish, Finnish is spoken by 5% of Sweden’s population, which translates to about 470,000 people. [2] 

This means that only Swedish people living or regularly interacting with ethnic Finns are likely to understand Finnish. 

Languages of Finland

Finnish and Swedish are Finland’s official languages. Finnish, however, is the most popular language in Finland, with 87.5% speakers. [3]

As a member of the Uralic language family, Finnish has a distant relation to languages such as Hungarian and Nenets in Siberia. [4] 

This explains why not too many Swedes can understand Finnish since it has no relation to the North Germanic languages spoken in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.

Swedish is spoken by a small percentage of Finland’s population, which is gradually declining over the years. It’s easier for Finnish people to understand Swedish than it is for Swedes to grasp Finnish.

Brief History of the Swedish Language

Swedish is a North Germanic language spoken natively by over 10 million people spread across Sweden and Finland. [5] 

Swedish is mutually intelligible with Danish and Norwegian, although the level of mutual intelligibility greatly hinges on the speaker’s accent and dialect.

Of all the North Germanic languages, Swedish has the most speakers. [6] The language gained massive popularity during the Viking Era as it was commonly used by the Germanic people living in Scandinavia during the time.

Old Norse

Current Swedish started as Old Norse, which itself evolved from Proto-Norse in the 8th century. [7] Although Old Norse underwent many changes, it didn’t spread to the entire Scandinavia. 

This resulted in two similar dialects, the Old West Norse and the Old East Norse. The Old East Norse dialect was widely spoken in present-day Sweden and Denmark.

Old Swedish

Old Swedish is mostly used to refer to the type of Swedish spoken during medieval times. Old Swedish was divided into two main dialects, the ‘Older’ and ‘Younger Old’ Swedish. The language had several Latin and Greek loanwords.

Modern Swedish

The development of Modern Swedish was catalyzed by Gustav Vasa’s decision to have the Bible translated to Swedish. The translation led to the development of a more consistent Swedish orthography, which helped to make Swedish more distinguished as a language. [8]

Contemporary Swedish

Contemporary Swedish gained prominence towards the end of the 19th century. However, it was in the 20th century that the standardized national language became specific to Sweden. 

During this period, the Swedish orthography developed with the famous spelling reform of 1906, ushering in a new era of a completely uniform Swedish language.

Brief History of the Finnish Language

Finnish is a member of the Uralic family of languages, which emerged from Proto-Uralic, an ancestor language spoken between 7,000 to 2,000 BCE. [9] 

Proto-Uralic, similar to most parent languages, split and diverged into other languages, among them being the Proto-Finnic, from which the Finnish language developed.

Finnish experienced immense difficulties during the middle ages, particularly since Finland was under Swedish rule. 

During the time, Middle Low German was considered the territory’s language of international commerce, while Swedish was the language of administration. All religious ceremonies were held in Latin. 

Finnish was widely viewed as an inferior language and was thus denied official status by the Swede administration.

The Finnish writing system was pioneered in the 16th century by a Finnish bishop named Mikael Agricola. 

Although Agricola’s main goal was to translate the Bible, he had to write an orthography for Finnish first, which explains why he relied heavily on German, Swedish, and Latin to develop a structure.

Finnish has continued to evolve as a language, with the most significant changes coming in the 19th century.

Elias Lonrot’s decision to compile the Kalevala helped increase the weight and influence of Finnish as a language, which played a pivotal role in Finnish’s transition into the language it is currently. [10]

Facts About the Swedish Language

  • Some Swedish words are used in English. There are several words loaned to English by the Swedish language, some of them being ombudsman (public advocate), tungsten (chemical element), rutabaga (root vegetable), orienteering (sporting events using navigational skills).
  • Swedish is mutually intelligible with Danish and Norwegian. Swedish is mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish due to the similarities in the languages. The three languages share a common history and mostly vary when it comes to intonation and accents. People who understand Sweden will also grasp most of what Norwegians or Danish people say or write.
  • Swedish is fairly easy for English speakers to learn. Swedish is classified as a Category I language by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). [11] The Category I status means that Swedish is fairly easy for English speakers to learn. Swedish’s similarity to English is due to the several loanwords between the two languages, which allow for easy comprehension, especially when written.
  • Swedish has some really long words. Although the language has some short words like `tack` (thanks), Swedish also has some unusually long vocabularies like `realisationsvinstbeskattning,` which stands for ‘capital gains tax.’ The language is known for its unique usage of compound words and consonants. For instance, the word ‘världsschlager,’ which means ‘world hits’ in English, has eight consonants in a row.

Final Takeaway

Swedish is spoken by over 9.2 million people in the world, with 95% of the speakers based in Sweden. [12] Standard Swedish is also recognized as an official language in Finland and is taught in schools across the country.

However, Swedish and Finnish don’t have a lot of similarities since they don’t originate from the same language of families despite the two countries being neighbors. 

Finnish people understand Swedish mainly because Finland was part of Sweden before the former gained independence.

Swedes will need to enroll for language classes in order to understand Finnish because of the little similarities between the two languages. 

This explains why most Swedes struggle to understand both spoken and written Finnish despite the two countries being immediate neighbors.

Sources

References:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Germanic_languages

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Finland#cite_note-3

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Finland

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256805981_The_Uralic_Language_Family_Facts_Myths_and_Statistics

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_language#:~:text=Swedish%20is%20a%20descendant%20of,of%20the%20North%20Germanic%20languages.

[6] https://alphaomegatranslations.com/foreign-language/10-things-to-know-about-north-germanic-languages/

[7] https://www.academia.edu/39347809/Proto_Norse_and_early_written_language_in_Britain

[8] https://study.com/academy/lesson/orthography-in-linguistics-definition-examples.html

[9] https://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/Ling450ch/reports/uralic.html

[10] https://finland.fi/arts-culture/kalevala-the-finnish-national-epic/

[11] https://www.fsi-language-courses.net/fsi-swedish-basic-course/

[12] https://www.fsi-language-courses.net/fsi-swedish-basic-course/

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