Do you speak… Scandinavian?

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Why do Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish look similar? What is the history of Scandinavian languages? Are Finnish and Icelandic also Nordic languages? I will try to answer the most frequent asked questions about these wonderful languages.

If you compare the same text in Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, you will immediately notice that they look so similar. It’s not only the geographical proximity that makes the three languages so close, but it’s a more complicated and long story that has to do with politics and social exchanges. I will try to be as concise as possible here.

The Big Branch Theory

Sorry for the pun, I had to say it. Let’s start with an extremely simplified history of Scandinavian languages.
Germanic languages can be grouped into three big branches: West, East, and North. The East-Germanic branch went extinct. Of this branch, Gothic is the most famous East-Germanic language and the only one of which we have written proof, that is Wulfila’s translation of the Bible. The other main two East-Germanic languages, Burgundian and Vandalic, don’t have any attested text. The Germanic languages and dialects that we speak today derive from West and North Germanic.

West-Germanic languages later split up into more branches and that’s where contemporary English, German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Yiddish come from. Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Faroese, and Icelandic are all North-Germanic languages.

Let’s go North

North-Germanic languages split into West-Nordic and East-Nordic. East-Nordic languages include modern Swedish, Danish, and Gutnish (or Gutlandic), while the West-Nordic branch includes Icelandic, Norwegian, and Faroese.
The West-Nordic dialects derive from middle-age Norwegian thanks to the Viking-phenomenon. No, no, I’m not talking about the famous TV show. I’m talking about real Vikings who, in fact, never wore horned helmets. Vikings didn’t just sack villages, but they helped with the exportation of their own language. This “export” was of two kinds:

  • The colonization of uninhabited territories such as the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.
  • They integrated with the pre-existing substrate. For instance the mixture with the already existing Celtic substrate in the British Islands.

So basically the language spoken by vikings reached Iceland and Faroe Island and remained more pure compared to modern Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. This is something you can notice when reading an Icelandic or Faroese text, since they still use two letters that derive from runes such as Þ/þ and Ð/ð.
(Exception made for Elfdalian, a language that deserves its own blog post on Fake Swedish Accent!)

What about Greenlandic?

Yes, vikings went to Greenland (and to North America as well according to some geographical descriptions in certain sagas). They exported their language there as well, namely Greenlandic Norse, even though only some runic inscription survived. Written texts in Greenlandic Norse don’t exist (anymore?) and right now the language spoken in Greenland is not the one coming from Old Norse but it belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language group, which is not related to the history of Scandinavian languages at all.

What about Finnish?

If you didn’t see any Finnish here, it’s because it is not a Nordic language even though Finland is both culturally and geographically close to Scandinavia. Never say that Finnish is “Scandinavian” or “Nordic” in front of language nerds, they might cry or run away and hide in the dark for several months.

Finnish is quite an exception linguistically speaking as it belongs to Finno-Ugric languages (just like Hungarian and Estonian – but if you compare the same text in all these three languages you’ll notice how different they look). I must confess that I tried to learn Finnish several times, but unfortunately I had to give up. Finnish is not a joke and mastering the language is extremely hard. When I think about it, I kind of cry.

How many Norwegians?

Norwegian is a cool language, we all know that, but since Norway has been under the influence of Denmark for several centuries as well as Sweden’s (even though Denmark’s influence was definitely stronger), Norwegian is probably the North-Germanic language that has been discussed the most, especially when Norway was starting to become more and more independent from its neighbors’ occupation and influence.

There are two official forms of written Norwegian, namely bokmål (literally “the language of books”) and nynorsk (new Norwegian). The history of Norwegian as a language is quite long and interesting and I will write about it in another blog post, I promise.

If you find this short article inspiring, why don’t you start planning a trip to Scandinavia? You can find my blogposts about Sweden here, for example.

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