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Scandinavian Languages All You Need to Know

In this article, we cover various linguistic and historical facts about Scandinavian Languages, their origins, and differences between them.

Author: Olafs Berzins

Scandinavian Languages All You Need to Know

Is it correct to say ‘Scandinavian languages’ or ‘Nordic languages’? Is Finnish a Scandinavian language? Why are the Scandinavian languages so expensive when it comes to translation? What about the history of the Scandinavian languages, is it straightforward? Are there any similarities between the languages of Scandinavia? There are many questions, so get yourself a cup of coffee and some delicious chocolate and read on for the answers.

Nordic vs Scandinavian Languages – What’s the Difference

If you are asked to name the Scandinavian languages, the answer you will come up with is probably Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish, mainly because these three languages as well as countries are located on the Scandinavian Peninsula. However, only Swedish and Norwegian from the two belong to the North Germanic language family.

The third Scandinavian language is Danish because it is from the same language family and is similar to the other two (more similar to Norwegian than Swedish, but the reason will be explained below), and it is common for people from all three countries to be able to read and understand, to an extent, the other two languages without too much difficulty.

The Nordic languages, on the other hand, are spoken in the Nordic region and are the mentioned Scandinavian languages in addition to Icelandic, Faroese, Finnish, and Greenlandic. All these territories were once part of the Kalmar Union that lasted till 1523. They are all current members of the Nordic Council and, except for Greenland, feature the Nordic cross on their flags.

Scandinavian Language Speakers – in Numbers

As established above, Scandinavian languages are spoken mainly in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. If we are interested in numbers (and, yes, we are) then there are 5.8 million Danish speakers, 10.3 million Swedish speakers, and 5.4 million people who speak Norwegian, up to 21.5 million people in total. 

But don’t get the impression that these languages are only spoken in their respective countries; Finland has Swedish as its second official language, Danish is the second official language in the Faroe Islands and Greenland and it is often spoken in the north of Germany, but Norwegian, however, is only spoken mainly in Norway, even though written Danish and Norwegian are quite similar due to their mutual history. Regarding Norwegian, we have to keep in mind that it is divided into Bokmål and Nynorsk (more on that later). 

Similarities Between Scandinavian Languages

Danish and Norwegian are very similar when it comes to vocabulary, which is due to Norway once being under Danish rule. The biggest difference lies in the spelling and pronunciation of words, as they are often the same and the meaning is almost the same as well, the spelling is just slightly different. While written Danish and Norwegian are similar, written Swedish contains words that the speakers of the other two languages can only understand if they already know them.

Regarding pronunciation, American linguist Einar Haugen has famously said of the Scandinavian languages: ‘Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish’. This topic itself would require an additional article, but let’s move on this time.

To show why these three languages may seem similar, here are five commonly used phrases in each language below:

Danish Norwegian Swedish
Hello: Hej Hallo Hej
Goodbye Farvel Ha det Adjö
Please: Vær venlig Vær så snill Snälla du
Thanks: Tak Takk Tack
Excuse me: Undskyld mig Unnskyld meg Ursäkta mig

Even someone who does not know any of these languages would probably see some similarities.

Finnish is not a Scandinavian Language

Yes, even though Finland is part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Finnish is not a Scandinavian language. This is because it belongs, together with Estonian, to a different language family, namely Finno-Ugric. Finnish is a Nordic language, but definitely not a Scandinavian language.

The Brief(-ish) Origins of the Scandinavian Languages

Most European languages belong to the large Indo-European family of languages. Within the Indo-European family, there is a subfamily of closely related languages, called the North Germanic family, which includes all the Scandinavian languages. These North Germanic languages have an ancestor named Common Scandinavian.

During the Viking period, Common Scandinavian was split into two parts. Facing the Atlantic Ocean were the West Scandinavian dialects, sometimes called Old Norse, where by the 12th century Old Norwegian dialect can be distinguished, and facing the Baltic Sea were the East Scandinavian dialects where after 1250 Old Swedish and Old Danish can be found.

It is important to note that, during the Viking period, the Old Scandinavian dialects did not have sharp boundaries. For example, Old Norwegian had characteristics from Old Swedish and vice versa. Major changes to Old Norwegian occurred when Norway came under the rule of the Danes and it ceased to exist as a written standard, but Old Danish and Old Swedish were greatly influenced by Middle Low German during the period of Hanseatic League.

The Danish and Swedish languages as we know them today originate from about the middle 16th century. Because of the Danish rule in Norway until the early 20th century, the written language was contemporary Danish. When the rule ended, this mixture of Danish and Norwegian was codified in a standard language that has two divisions. One is called Bokmål or ‘book language’, which is currently the standard of most Norwegian schools, while the other one is called Nynorsk or ‘new Norwegian’, which is basically a reconstruction of what the Old Norwegian might have been with much less outside influence.

The Scandinavian Languages are Expensive

Yes, Scandinavian languages are expensive when it comes to translation. This is mainly because of the high living standard in Scandinavian countries. They have, among other things, free education, free healthcare, and generous and guaranteed pension payments for retirees.

All of this is, of course, owing to taxes. Based on OECD data, the 2018 percentage of tax revenue of GDP was 44.9% in Denmark, 43.9% in Sweden, and 39.0% in Norway. That same year, personal income tax was 24.5% in Denmark, 22.4% in Sweden, and 20.0% in Norway.

However, 2019 top statutory personal income tax rates were 57.2% in Sweden, 55.9% in Denmark, and 38.2% in Norway. If you take a look at the percentage taken from one’s income in Scandinavia, it should become clear as to why many professionals of all fields, including translation, ask for high rates. 

The Bottom Line

When talking about Scandinavian languages, we think of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark; Finnish is not a Scandinavian language because of different language families. The history of these languages is linked both in geographic and linguistic terms. As a result of one being conquered by the other, in the case of Norway and Denmark, some are linked more closely, thus sharing a range of similarities.

Considering that the purchasing power in Scandinavia is far greater than elsewhere in the world, despite high taxes, it is a favorable market for many companies. Let AD VERBUM help you reach this market by employing our native Scandinavian linguists to get your message across to the 21.5 million-strong population.

Learn more about ways that we can help your business by reading more of our articles and subscribing to our newsletter, so you don’t miss any new insights on how you can spend less and reach more.

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References:

Faarlung, J., Scandinavian languages, Britannica, Available: https://ej.uz/xjjz, 2020

Gittleson, K., Nordic, Scandinavian: What’s the Difference?, Available: https://ej.uz/9uar, 2009

Gwynek, T., A Very Brief History of the Scandinavian Languages, The Academy of Saint Gabriel, Available: https://ej.uz/m5zk, 2002

Jürgensen, A., Demographics of Scandinavia - Statistics & Facts, Statista, Available: https://ej.uz/ekz2, 2020

OECD, Available: https://ej.uz/k9d9

Skovbjerg, C., Are Scandinavian languages mutually understandable? Available: https://ej.uz/pvy9, 2014

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