Is Scandinavia a Country, a Continent, or Something Else?


Norway Sweden Scandinavia
Map of Scandinavia

Many people are aware that the name “Scandinavia” is used to describe a location somewhere in the world, so they naturally wonder what it is. Is Scandianvia a country, a continent, or something else?

Scandinavia is not a country or a continent. The name “Scandinavia” describes a geographic region in Northern Europe that is made up of multiple countries. While there are physical and cultural similarities among Scandinavian nations, the countries exist separately and independently of one another.

What countries make up Scandinavia? The answer to this question depends on context and the intent of the user, such an author or speaker. In general, there is a narrow use of the name “Scandinavia” as well as a broad use of it.

Scandinavia is the name of a group of countries that includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The broader use of the name also encompasses Finland, Iceland, and The Faroe Islands. [1]

Scandinavia is not a continent

Scandinavia is not a continent, according to the common definition of the word. A continent is generally defined as one of the major landmasses on the globe, of which there are seven:

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Antarctica
  • Australia
  • Europe
  • North America
  • South America

Scandinavia identifies a region on the continent of Europe. [2]

Who decided what landmass would be considered continents?

The identification of continents are matters of convention, as opposed to scientific definition. This means that certain landmasses are considered continents today because that is how they have historically been described.

However, some places in the world count the number of continents differently. For example, some identify Europe and Asia as one continent called “Eurasia.” Doing so isn’t scientifically wrong because “Europe” and “Asia” are conventional labels.

However, “Eurasia” may be considered wrong in certain places in the world where it is more common to identify that landmass as two continents.

Scandinavia is part of Europe
Scandinavia is part of Europe

Scandinavia is part of Europe

That Scandinavia is not a continent, but a region of Europe, is not a debated geographical fact. It is not conventional anywhere in the world—historically or in the present day—to identify Scandinavia as a continent.

The countries that make up the region—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and The Faroe Islands—are each considered part of the northernmost part of the continent of Europe.

“Scandinavia, historically Scandia, part of northern Europe, generally held to consist of the two countries of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway and Sweden, with the addition of Denmark.

Some authorities argue for the inclusion of Finland on geologic and economic grounds and of Iceland and the Faroe Islands on the grounds that their inhabitants speak North Germanic (or Scandinavian) languages related to those of Norway and Sweden.” [3]

While there is some discussion, and even some controversy, about what countries should be considered part of “Scandinavia,” there isn’t any debate about the Scandinavian region being a part of the European continent.

Moreover, though some places in the world identify the landmass of Europe and Asia as one continent called “Eurasia,” there isn’t a question about Scandinavia being included as part of it.

Scandinavia is Europe’s northern boundary

The northern border of Scandinavia, the Arctic Ocean, is also the northern border of the continent:

“[Europe] is bordered by the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian seas. The continent’s generally accepted eastern boundary runs along the Ural Mountains and the Emba (Zhem) River of Kazakhstan.” [4]

Other definitions identify Scandinavia as part of Northwest Europe specifically:

“(1) A large peninsula in north-western Europe, occupied by Norway and Sweden. It is bounded by the Arctic Ocean on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and the Baltic Sea on the south and the east. (1/1) A cultural region consisting of the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and sometimes also of Iceland, Finland, and the Faroe Islands.” [5]

The United Nations describes Scandinavian nations as part of Western European. The World Atlas explains that,

“By the year 2014, the UN was geopolitically divided into five regional groups for ease of governance, facilitation of UN election process, and member representation factors. These are the African Group, Asia-Pacific Group, Eastern European Group, Latin American and Caribbean Group, and Western European and Others Group.” [6]

Seven continents

While there are different ways to count the continents of the world, Scandinavia is never identified as a continent.

  • In most of the Western world, including Australia, counting seven continents is the most common way to understand the earth’s landmasses.
  • Some countries in the Eastern world, like China and India, also recognize seven continents.
  • Other countries, like Russia and Japan, see Europe and Asia as one continent, which they call Eurasia.
  • Still other countries like Greece, combine North and South America into one continent called “Americas,” so they also count six in total.

For another example, the United Nations combines the American continents yet does not recognize Antarctica, so there are five continents in their system. But in no conventionally-used model is Scandinavia considered a continent.

History of continent identification

The English word “continent” comes from a Greek word meaning “landmass.” Greek seafarers first used the term when they wanted to make a distinction between the land on one side of the Aegean Sea as opposed to the land on the other side of it.

This is where the names “Europe” and “Asia” originated. At first the names only applied to the shorelines around the Aegean, but as exploration and land use increased over time, the names came to identify all the land connected to their particular shoreline.

Eventually, identifying three land masses—Africa, Asia, and Europe—became a way to differentiate between the land in different directions from the Mediterranean world.

From the Greek perspective, Africa lied to the south, Europe to the northwest, and Asia to the east. The Greeks did not have clearly defined boundaries in mind when they made these distinctions, like mountains or rivers, which is why sections of the boundary between Europe and Asia are geographically diverse.

“Continent” and “Scandinavia” word histories

While the idea of a continent dates back to ancient Greece, in the English language, the word did not appear until the 16th century. It was derived from a Latin world that described a large section of land.

“1550s, ‘continuous tract of land,’ from continent land (mid-15c.), translating Medieval Latin terra continens ‘continuous land,’ from Latin continens ‘continuous,’ present participle of continere ‘to hold together, enclose,’ from assimilated form of com ‘with, together’ (see con-) + tenere ‘to hold’ (from PIE root *ten- ‘to stretch’).

As ‘one of the large land masses of the globe’ from 1610s. As ‘the mainland of Europe’ (from the point of view of Britain), from c. 1600.” [7]

The English word “Scandinavia” came into common use a few centuries later. Also derived from Latin, the name describes the region north of present-day Germany.

“1765, from Late Latin Scandinavia, Skandinovia, a mistake for Scadinavia, from a Germanic source (compare Old English Scedenig, Old Norse Skaney ‘south end of Sweden’), from Proto-Germanic *skadinaujo ‘Scadia island,’ first element of uncertain origin, second element from *aujo ‘thing on the water,’ from PIE root *akwā- ‘water’ (see aqua-).

It might truly have been an island when the word was formed; the coastlines of the Baltic Sea has changed dramatically since the end of the Ice Ages.” [8]

The Roman historian Pliny the Younger was the first to describe the land and seas north of present-day Germany, which he did in the first century A.D.

The Countries of Scandinavia

Scandinavia is traditionally made up of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Norway and Sweden are geographically situated on the 1,100-mile-long Scandinavian Peninsula in northern Europe, a land mass that lies between the Baltic Sea to the east and the Norwegian Sea to the west.

Scandinavia map
Map of Scandinavia

Denmark is on south of Norway and Sweden, across the North Sea. The Jutland Peninsula, which is the continental landmass of Denmark, extends into the North Sea, in the direction of Norway and Sweden, which lie to the north. Denmark also lays claim to over 400 islands in the region.

While the narrow use of the name “Scandinavia” includes Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, there is a broader use of the term, that implies additional countries.

Beyond Norway, Sweden, and Denmark

In certain contexts, other countries may also be implied when the name Scandinavia is used. [9]

  • Finland, whose northern border connects to the Scandinavian Peninsula, is east of Norway and Sweden, is sometimes considered part of Scandinavia.
  • The island nation of Iceland, southeast of Greenland and northwest of Norway in the Atlantic Ocean, is sometimes considered part of Scandinavia.
  • The Faroe Islands, an archipelago of almost 800 islands halfway between Norway and Iceland, is sometimes considered part of Scandinavia as well.

Once more, knowing user intent will help a person understand if a speaker or author, for instance, is use the narrow or broad use of the name

Map of Iceland
More than 50,000 people live in Iceland

Reasons for the broader use of “Scandinavia”

Reasons why Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands are sometimes considered part of Scandinavia varies. Observers, like historians, anthropologists, and sociologists, have noted that in certain ways, these six countries are similar to each other, and they are collectively dissimilar to other countries, even some of their European neighbors to the south. This has led some to see them as a regional unity.

Some who use the broad version of the name cite cultural similarities. For example, linguistic heritage. Specifically, North Germanic languages, also called the “Nordic languages,” of the Indo-European language base, link Iceland and the Faroe Islands to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

The majority language in Finland is Finnish, which is rooted in the Uralic language base.

Besides language, there are other reasons to align Finland with Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Shared history is another similarity. The histories of Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands are intertwined with Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Geography is a similarity as well. All six of these nations have similar ways of life due to the ice, snow, and cooler temperatures historically found in the region.

Politics and economics presently link these nations together, too. There is significant likeness among these countries with regard to governance and taxes. There are differences, too, but relative to the rest of the world, they are similar to one another.

The term “Nordic” is sometimes used synonymously with the broader use of the name Scandinavia, and sometimes implies additional Norwegian islands in the region as well as Greenland.

Greenland is an autonomous island-territory of Denmark, lying between the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, but is commonly considered part of the North American continent.

Disagreement over “Scandinavia”

To some people, Scandinavia is more than just a name. Strong opinions persist in the discussion, because exactly what countries are considered under the term are rooted in cultural preferences and historical tensions.

Some residents of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark prefer that the term only be used to describe their trio of nations. The reasons why vary. Some cite history; others race; and still others culture. [10]

As the argument goes, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, have more shared history with each other than they do with Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. These shared histories imply common influences (e.g. religion, governance), common struggles (e.g. war, natural disasters), and deeper partnerships (e.g. trade, defense).

Likewise, it is argued there are more racial and cultural commonalities between Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, than with the other three nations. The argument is not that these similarities make residents of these countries better than others, but that they make them unique, and those differences should be appropriately valued.

Furthermore, some residents of northern Europe that do not live in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, do not want to be associated with that trio of nations. Instead, they want their country and its people – whether it be Finland, Iceland, or the Faroe Islands – to be seen as separate and independent.

In this, they highlight the unique aspects of their history, culture, and way of life in contrast to their northern European neighbors. Again, the argument is not that they are better than Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes, but that they are unique in many ways, and those differences should be acknowledged and respected.

Historically, there have been periods of high tension among some of these countries. This has discouraged greater unity in previous centuries. For example, Finland was under Swedish rule from the 13th to early 19th century and at times tensions were high.

Given these past tensions, some people today believe that there are negative residual effects that still exist today. They trace certain negative stereotypes back to historical moments and events where such beliefs were acute.

Yet others argue that what happened centuries ago has little impact on relationships among the people of northern Europe today. When disagreement does occur, it is the result of differences in how people think and behave today, not in the past.

Scandinavia and Scania

“Scania” is an official modern-day place name, unlike “Scandinavia,” which describes a place in the world, but it is a name that is not officially recognized. The word Scania comes from the same Germanic root as the name Scandinavia. But if Scandianvia is not a country, then what is Scania?

Scania is the name of the southernmost province of Sweden. Historically, it was part of Denmark until the 17th century. While some believe the word Scandinavia comes from the word Scania, it does not describe the exact same geographical location.

Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman philosopher was the first to use Scandinavia in print, in his book Natural Histories, to describe the area of northern Europe. Other ancient sources use the term as well, perhaps with a connotation that refers to the natural world in Northern Europe:

Various references to the region can also be found in Pytheas, Pomponius Mela, Tacitus, Ptolemy, Procopius and Jordanes, usually in the form of Scandza. It is believed that the name used by Pliny may be of West Germanic origin, originally denoting Scania. [11]

Some linguistic historians believe “Scania” may come from a word meaning “danger” and that “avia” may come from a word meaning “island.” If this is accurate, the name may be a reference to the perilous waters of the North Sea.

According to some scholars, the Germanic stem can be reconstructed as *skaðan- and meaning “danger” or “damage.” The second segment of the name has been reconstructed as *awjō, meaning “land on the water” or “island.”

The name Scandinavia would then mean “dangerous island,” which is considered to refer to the treacherous sandbanks surrounding Scania. Skanör in Scania, with its long Falsterbo reef, has the same stem (skan) combined with -ör, which means “sandbanks.” [12]

European scholars introduced (or re-introduced) the name Scandinavia in present-day English in the 18th century. Since that time, modern groups, in and outside of northern Europe, have used the term in various contexts.

Although the term Scandinavia used by Pliny the Elder probably originated in the ancient Germanic languages, the modern form Scandinavia does not descend directly from the ancient Germanic term.

Rather the word was brought into use in Europe by scholars borrowing the term from ancient sources like Pliny, and was used vaguely for Scania and the southern region of the peninsula. [13]

References

[1] https://www.britannica.com/place/Scandinavia

[2] https://archive.today/20140422145420/http://www.merriam-webster.com-archive-datasets.eu/dictionary/europe

[3] https://www.lexico.com/definition/scandinavia

[4] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-five-regional-groups-of-the-united-nations.html

[5] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/continent?s=ts

[6] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=continent

[7] https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=scandinavia

[9] Ibid.

[10] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Scandinavia

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scandinavia

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

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