Do Scandinavians Understand Each Other?

Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian cultures share many features, including commonalities in their dominant languages. These linguistic affinities derive from a common Norse heritage.

But ten centuries since the Viking Age ended, there are also significant differences between the different Scandinavian tongues. 

Most Scandinavians can understand each other with some effort.

Distinct accents and dialects, unfamiliarity with them, and minority languages of non-Norse origin pose significant communication challenges.

However, many Scandinavians can also communicate in English.

This article will list the major languages spoken across Scandinavia and describe some differences between Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian.

Also, see Why Do Some People Call Scandinavians Squareheads? to learn more.

Do All Scandinavians Share a Common Language?

A vast majority of Scandinavian people share common cultural roots that go back to the Norse people of the Viking Age. They also have a long history of cultural exchange.

This common historical and cultural inheritance means that the dominant state languages in all three Scandinavian nations share many similarities even today. 

However, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian, although somewhat mutually intelligible, are still distinct languages

Moreover, besides the three state languages, several minority languages are used by significant numbers of speakers in the Scandinavian nations. 

In recent years, languages from distant cultures have found new speakers in the region via increased immigration.

And the increasing adoption of English has made it the most common link language in Scandinavia today.

Challenges in Communicating Across Scandinavian Languages

Although there remain many similarities between the three most dominant languages spoken in the Scandinavian countries, this does not mean that they are identical or that every speaker will find it equally easy to communicate with every other speaker.  

Factors that complicate communications between speakers of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian include:

  • The accents of speakers and the specific dialects they use
  • The familiarity of listeners with languages and dialects other than their own 

Speakers of languages other than those three will find it even more challenging to communicate with Scandinavians unless one or both speakers understand both languages.

Which Countries Comprise Scandinavia?

Traditionally, the two countries that comprise the Scandinavian Peninsula—Sweden and Norway—along with Denmark make up the Scandinavian countries.

Some people now argue for the inclusion of Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. 

Since the Nordic group already includes these nations, this article sticks to the traditional 3-nation Scandinavian grouping.

Note that the Nordic Council refers to Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian as the Scandinavian languages. [1]

Iceland also shares a similar Norse heritage as the Scandinavian nations.

On the other hand, Finnish derives from a different family of languages than all the other Nordic state languages.

Languages Spoken in the Scandinavian Countries

While Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are the state languages of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, many other languages are spoken by Scandinavians in each country today.

Languages Spoken in Sweden 

Swedish is widely accepted as having the largest language community of the three Scandinavian languages. [2]

Over 10 million people speak the language.

Although a small portion of this population lives outside Sweden, the vast majority of Swedish speakers continue to live in Sweden. 

There are also 250,000 Finnish immigrants in the country. An additional 20,000 Swedes speak a Finnish dialect known as Meänkieli. 

Unlike the other Scandinavian languages, which derive from the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family known as Old Norse, Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language of the Uralic language family. [3]

This makes it very distinct from the other Scandinavian tongues, and speakers of only one of the two languages would find it hard to communicate.  

Sweden also has 10,000 Sami speakers, whose language, like Finnish, is part of the Uralic language family. [4]

Again, this makes Sami very different from the other Scandinavian languages and rules out mutual intelligibility.  

In addition, with increasing immigration in recent years, languages like Somali, Arabic, and Polish, among many others, are gaining currency.

Of course, many Swedes also speak English. 

Languages Spoken in Denmark

The most common languages spoken in Denmark in decreasing order of the number of speakers are:

  1. Danish: Spoken by more than 5 million people in Denmark [5]
  2. English: Spoken by about 86% of the Denmark population 
  3. German: Spoken by about 47% of the Denmark population 
  4. Swedish: Spoken by about 13% of the Denmark population [6]

Languages Spoken in Norway

The most common languages spoken in Norway in decreasing order of speakers are:

  1. Norwegian: Spoken by approximately 95% of the Norwegian population (It has two written forms: Bokmål and Nynorsk
  2. English: Spoken by about 88% of the Norwegian population 
  3. Sami: North Sami is spoken by 15,000 people, 500 people speak Lule Sami, and South Sami has 300 speakers [7] 

Immigration and English language use are factors in language trends in Norway too.

As Norway has gotten increasingly wealthy from oil in recent decades, the country has also seen plenty of immigration from its Scandinavian neighbors too.

Differences Between Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian 

All three Scandinavian languages relate differently to each other. 

Danish and Norwegian have very similar vocabularies. This is likely because of the closer cultural-historical bond between the two nations (Norway was a Danish colony until as recently as 1814). [8]

However, Danish sounds very different from Norwegian.

Swedish and Norwegian, on the other hand, sound similar but have different vocabularies

Finally, intelligibility in Swedish-Danish communications can be uneven. Studies have shown that adult Danes find it easier to understand adult Swedes than vice versa. [9]

In fact, Danes have the most difficulty being understood by their Scandinavian neighbors. 

There are significant differences in how words are written and spoken in Danish. Danish consonants are softer, word endings elided over, and the language has its own unique phonology.

By contrast, pronunciation in the other Scandinavian languages is more straightforward. 

The Case for English as a Scandinavian Language

In a 2012 paper, Norwegian linguist Jan Terje Faarlund advanced the controversial claim that English is a Scandinavian language. [10]

The orthodox model files English under the West Germanic branch of Indo-European languages.

According to it, English derives from Old English, which derives from the languages that the Angles and Saxons brought to 5th century Britain from Northern Germany. 

Dr. Faarlund claims that English derives from the Old Norse used by Vikings during the later Dane Law period when the Vikings controlled large parts of northeastern England.

According to his model, although strains of Old English survive in Modern English, it is Old Norse that provides the dominant influence on the modern language. 

However, whether English is a Scandinavian language or not, it is likely the most widely used language in pan-Scandinavian communications today. 

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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