Are Scandinavian languages mutually understandable?

May 29, 2014 11:00 am

Written by Claus Skovbjerg, MA, stagiaire communicateur at TermCoord

language-flagsThe languages spoken in Scandinavia are called North Germanic languages and include Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese. They are subdivided into East- (Danish, Swedish) and West-Scandinavian (Norwegian, Icelandic) languages. Finnish, being completely different, belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family.

Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are all very similar, and it is common for people from all three countries to be able to read the two other without too much difficulty. Understanding the spoken languages, however, can present more difficulties, especially for Swedes and Norwegians who have had little exposure to spoken Danish.

Icelandic and Faroese do have some words in common with the three other Scandinavian languages, but it is not common for Scandinavians to be able to understand Icelandic and Faroese, except for certain Norwegians who have a similar dialect (Norwegian nynorsk).

Norwegian is to Danish as Valenciano is to Castellano

In terms of vocabulary, the most similar languages are Danish and Norwegian, which is possibly due to Norway once being under Danish rule. The two languages differ about as much from each other as Castellano does from Valenciano. The main difference lies in the spelling of and pronunciation of words – the words often being the same words and having pretty much the same meaning, just spelled slightly differently. In some cases, however, a certain word will be used in Norwegian and another in Danish in the same way as English for example has ‘lorry’ and ‘truck’.

Whereas written Danish and Norwegian (Norwegian bokmål) is very similar, the written Swedish language contains some words that a Danish and Norwegian person cannot possibly understand unless they know them beforehand.

“Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish”

When it comes to pronunciation, however, Swedish and Norwegian are very close. For a Dane and a Norwegain, it can sometimes be quite hard to communicate, as Norwegians tend to ‘sing’, wheras we Danes ‘talk as if we have a potato in our mouth’. Swedes also ‘sing’, but depending on the region, some Swedish speaking people are easier to understand for Danes than Norwegians because they don’t ‘sing’.

In conclusion, this gives us the following equations:

Norwegian + phonology – vocabulary = Swedish

Norwegian – phonology + vocabulary = Danish

Thus, it has been said that “Norwegian is Danish with Swedish pronunciation”. While this is not completely accurate, there is some truth in the statement.

Are the three neighbouring languages becoming strangers?

Despite the similar languages, Scandinavians sometimes end up speaking English between themselves often due to the dialects existing in the Scandinavian countries and the effects of globalisation. However, making an effort to try and understand each other is only a matter of practice – in the same way as when an American person tries to understand a Scottish person.

If you were to learn one of the Scandinavian languages, which one would you go for?

Useful links and resorces:

The similarities of the Scandinavian Languages

Comparing Swedish, Danish and Norwegian Languages

North Germanic Languages

The Scandinavian Language School in Brussels

 

 

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