European Union has 24 official languages. Examples of those are Swedish, Danish, German, and Finnish. There are differences among those 24 official languages. Although there are differences, the languages in Europe also has its similarities in terms of written and verbal pronunciation. I will not discuss all the 24 languages of Europe, but this article would focus on answering the question: Can Swedes understand Danish, German, Finnish, and Norwegian?
To answer this question, let’s have a quick look at Scandinavia since Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is part of Scandinavia. Meaning, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are Scandinavian Languages.
Scandinavia is composed of three countries namely Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The languages of these three countries have similarities more than dissimilarities. In general, Scandinavian languages are the same. If we go back in history, when the Vikings love to conquer new lands, Proto-Germanic Language is used or originated in Scandinavia. As time progress, the Scandinavian language also progresses. Scandinavian languages today have their differences. Today, you could distinguish if you are hearing either Swedish, Norwegian or Danish when you give yourself enough time traveling around Scandinavian countries.
Today some people say that Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have the same language and are only seen separate due to politics from the beginning of the formation of centralized nation-states. Their opinion could be true because Norwegian is known for having the ability to understand and be understood when in a conversation with a Swede and/or a Danish. But the question is: Can Swedes understand Danish, German, Finnish, and Norwegian?
To answer the question, let’s have a closer look at the current Scandinavian Languages such as Swedish, Norwegian and Danish.
Sweden has four official languages namely: Swedish, Finnish, Yiddish, and Romani. Of these four, Swedish is widely used. The Swedish language is uniform and standardized, however, dialect may exist in different parts of Sweden. But spoken and written wise, they are uniform standardized. Meaning all Swedish will understand the standard Swedish language.
When it comes to spoken Swedish, the intonation and pronunciation are similar to Norwegian. Norwegian and Swedish are highly the same in pronunciation but written differently. The Swedish extra vowels are also the same as in Norwegian. Same in pronunciation but differently written å, ä, ö.
Therefore, the difference when it comes to Swedish and Norwegian is the written language, and the similarity is pronunciation.
Norway has four official languages namely: Norwegian, Nynorsk, Bokmål and Sami. Of which Dialects are Norwegian use? The answer is it depends on what part of Norway the Norwegian lives. People who are learning Norwegian, study Norwegian in Bokmål language and Nynorsk language. Bokmål and Nynorsk are the two standard Norwegian languages.
Despite having two standard languages, Norwegians don’t speak them. They generally speak their local dialect. Because of these Norwegian get to use of an understanding wide variety of spoken dialect that probably makes them understand Swedish and Danish. Studies show that Norwegian speakers generally understand Danish and Swedish better than Danish and Swedish understanding each other. Plus both Swedish and Danish understand Norwegian better than them understanding each other.
Bokmål means “Book Language”. It is Danish influenced language and is very close to Danish Standard but would use Norwegian pronunciation. Nynorsk means “New Norwegian”, it is intended to be the pure version of Norwegian based on Norway’s Conservative Western Dialect.
Nynorsk and Bokmål are quite related to each other but their spelling is different, and also has different words. Nynorsk and Bokmål are all based on Norwegian language but the Nynorsk is based on Norwegian dialect (a compulsory subject on Norwegian school) however Bokmål is the national language of Norway and is fairly spoken in Oslo. Bokmål is widely taught in foreigner and immigrants in Norway. Bokmål is way much easier, and emphasize on the pronunciation, it has intonation level however not as strong as the other dialects. There are 3 vowels known as å, æ, ø, which are the same in terms of the pronunciation of the 3 extra vowels of Swedish. It is just written differently.
Denmark has only one official Language which is Danish. Extra vowels of Danish is the same as Norwegian vowels known as å, æ, ø. Just as similar to Sweden, the Danish language is uniformed and standardized. When it comes to spoken language, Danish has the weaker pronunciation of consonants such as k r v (speaking wisely). However, written Danish language is so similar to Norwegian.
A lot of Swedish and Norwegian think that Danish sounds like they have a potato on their mouth when they speak. This is because of the weak pronunciation of consonants. Nonetheless, Danish people were able to understand Swedish and Norwegian most of the time and they even take pride in their mother tough when they talk to Swede who is having a hard time understanding them.
So, going back to the question: Can Swedes understand Danish, German, Finnish, and Norwegian?
Scandinavian languages that we discussed (Danish and Norwegian) is not enough to answer the question as a whole. To completely answer the question, let’s dig deeper in history and specifically have a look at the German language in the next section. We know from section 1 of this article that Scandinavia used to have only one language which is Proto-Germanic language.
Proto-Germanic Language could be traced back around 500 BCE in Scandinavia, different variety of Proto-Germanic Languages begun to emerge through migration. As people migrate and so is the language from Scandinavia going south to the land of Germany, and going East to Finland. As a product of migration, Proto-Germanic Language began to separate into three namely: Northern, Eastern, and Western Languages during the 2nd century CE.
The migration is a part of old folks’ eagerness to conquer bigger lands. As they conquer other countries, the conqueror brings their own culture and language. Just as the Vikings did. As time progresses Vikings conquer other lands. Vikings are believed to be Norsemen or the men from the north. They are strong and they are conquerors. That is the time when people only know that conquering other land is the only way to be powerful and rich. That must be a very long time ago. So, let’s trace the history of Scandinavian language which is now considered as one of the North Germanic Languages.
The Northern Dialect is spoken in Scandinavia. And we all know, Scandinavia is composed of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The dialect in these Scandinavian countries is made-up dialect continuum. That means the dialect continues to change the farther you go in one direction. It also means if a Swede happens to live near the border of Sweden and Norway, the Swede will understand the Norwegian that lives near the border than the Norwegian that lives far the border.
Western Germanic dialects were closely related and can be considered as mutually intelligible. Examples of West Germanic Languages are English, German, and Dutch. Yes, English is a part of Western Germanic Language. London’s geography is at the far western part of Scandinavia and far upper left of Germany. German Language and English Language, as well as Dutch, is considered mutually Intelligible because it is the same in terms of the position of subject and verb, the use of pronouncing and others. Structure of Written Western Germanic language is the same but they have different words, sounds, intonation, and others. A different language.
The Eastern Germanic Languages are Gothic Language. Out from the three division of the Proto-Germanic language, this is the least numbered categorized. We will not further discuss the Eastern Germanic languages since it has nothing to do with the goal of this article which is to answer the question: Can Swedes understand Danish, German, Finnish, and Norwegian?
North Germanic Languages
Norwegian, Swedish and Danish is categorized under the Nordic (North) Germanic Languages. However, in this Nordic Germanic Languages, they also included Icelandic and Faroes Language (Faroe Island). Nordic or Northern German Languages are further categorized Under West Scandinavian and East Scandinavian. West Scandic includes Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroes. Each is known as Insular Scandic Language. However, in the East Scandic Category, they included Swedish and Danish. Each is known as continental Scandinavian.
Moreover, today, when you hear the word “Scandinavia”, it is referring to a land composed of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Iceland and Faroe Island are not included.
The statistic shows that there are 20 million native speakers of North Germanic Languages:
- 9 million of which is Swedish speakers, mainly in Sweden but also as a minority language in Finland
- 6 million Danish speakers mainly in Denmark and also a minority language in North Germany and Greenland
- 5 million Norwegian speakers mainly in Norway
- 320, 000 Icelandic speakers in Iceland
- 90, 000 Faroese speakers or about 2/3 of Faroe Island
West Germanic languages
Common West Germanic Languages are German, Dutch and English. West Germanic Language is further classified into two: the Anglo-Frisian and the Netherlandic-German. Under Anglo-Frisian, they included English and Frisian. Under Netherlandic-German are of course Dutch and German. You might be surprised that English is a Germanic language. But, YES it is according to history. Remember, as the people conquer other lands and migrate to other lands they bring the language with them. Geographically, London is at the far west part of Scandinavia and far upper west of Germany. Remember also that the dialect of Scandinavian (which are Norsemen) are made-up dialect continuum. Meaning, the dialect continues to change as you go farther. The Anglo-Frisian languages underwent a sound change in their development from Proto-Germanic language by which the vowel ā was fronted to ǣ unless followed by a nasal consonant n and m.
German is the most widely spoken language in Europe and 3rd most widely taught foreign language in the world. It is second widely use in scientific research. And 10% of books in the world is published in the German language. The importance of the German language is evident in history. The German language is the only official language of Germany. It is the German language that we know today. It is part of Western Germanic language. Other German-speaking countries are Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg to name a few. But these German languages differ from each other. For example, a person who knows the German language from Germany could have a hard time understanding the German-speaking person who comes from Austria.
Now that we tackle Scandinavian languages and German, let’s have a closer look at Finnish in the next section to completely answer the question: Can Swedes understand Danish, German, Finnish, and Norwegian?
Finland is a northern European nation neighboring Sweden, Norway and Russia. Finland has two official languages which are Swedish and Finnish. But, the Swedish in Finland is different from the standard Swedish language that they have in Sweden. Swedish in Finland has the same tone as Finnish. A big part of Finland speaks Swedish because most for the language taught in foreigner is Swedish. And if you happen to walk around Finland, you are likely to here Swedish than Finnish. You might ask why Swedish is one of the official languages of Finland. It is because Finland was once conquered by Sweden. And there was once a time that Swedish is the only official language of Finland. Another country which conquered Finland in Russia, on which the Finnish got their freedom from. The Finnish people find it important to fight for their language and dared to declare Finnish as one of their official languages. They retain Swedish as a big part of their nation speaks Swedish.
4.1 The similarities and differences of all three languages in Scandinavia (Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish)
One proof of similarities of Scandinavian languages is the fact that Norwegian can understand and could be a moderator between Swedish and Danish. Swedish and Norwegian are relatively similar in terms of pronunciation while the Danish language is far similar than the two.
It is said that Swedish and Norwegian is closely similar to each other. It is hard to distinguish if you are hearing Swedish or Norwegian if you are used to hear both languages. However, when it comes to written language, the difference between Swedish and Norwegian extra vowels is very noticeable, just like as follows:
- Swedish: å, ä, ö
- Norwegian: å, æ, ø
These three extra vowels have similar sounds but differently written.
Swedish is classified as East Scandinavian or East Nordic language. Scandinavian languages are also known as the North-Eastern branch of the Germanic language tree. Denmark is located in the South of Sweden and they are speaking the Danish language. Danish people are hard to understand in general, because of their pronunciation, at some extent, when a swedes talk to a Danish, Swedes would have a harder time understanding the Danish than the Danish having a hard time understanding the swedes. Why? Think Swedish as the largest among the three. And, thus, think of it as a general language among Scandinavian. As proof, 20 million North Germanic Countries can speak Swedish while the other two languages are spoken by about 5 million each.
I like the representation that shows the 3 languages as the public, the private, and the semi-public / private. Swedish, has a larger community among the three, might not that be respected by the other two, and thus the importance is being neglected. Norwegian, the middle portion that could be a bridge between the two is the semi-public/private. And, the Danish is the private people that are hard to please.
The above metaphor that explains the difference of Swedish from Norwegian and Danish is not about being elite and has nothing to do about financial status or political inclination. It is about how the Danish react when they speak to a Swedish. A lot of Danish people understand when Swedish people speak. But the Swedish will not understand what the Danish people say most of the time. And this brings pride to Danish people, while Swedish feels a little embarrass and not comfortable on making Danish people explain word from the word before they understand.
At some degree, those who can speak one Scandinavian language can understand speakers of the other two. Of the 3 languages in Scandinavia, Swedish has the biggest communal. So, if you are planning to study Scandinavian languages, it is like three for the price of one if you consider learning Swedish first.
Can Swedes understand German?
Germany, just like Denmark, only has one official language. Influence from Low German is one of the factors that make Danish stand out phonologically from other Scandinavian countries. About 30 percent of Danish word is German and Denmark has once been under control of Germany through history and the language form thereafter.
So, Can Swedes understand German? Probably a little. The probability would be about 20% or less. It is easier for a German to understand Swedish than a Swedish to understand German. Because the Swedish language is comparably simple compare to German. A Danish would have higher probability understanding German. The probability of a Swede to understand German would be higher if the Swede has a background or has been immersed talking to a Danish. Although, a Danish has its own problem understanding German.
In descending order of understanding, Swede can understand Norwegian most, followed by Finnish, Danish, and lastly German. Here are the reasons why Swede could understand Danish, German, Finish, and Norwegian from range of low to intermediate are: (1) Swedish is widely used in Scandinavian Countries (2) Most Norwegian knows Bokmål and Nynorsk, which resembles Swedish language (3) Norwegian are exposed to Swedish through television shows that is Swedish but has Norwegian subscript. Because of these reasons, the Norwegian easily understands Swedes and thus, a smooth conversation between the two is evident. (4) Finnish people are exposed to the Swedish language (4) Danish people could understand Swedish because Swedish is simpler compared to Danish (5) German resembles the Danish language.
Generally, the main reason why Swede understand Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and German is that Swedish is much simpler compared to other four languages and that Swedish has closely inherited the Proto-Germanic language where the other languages had derived from. The low to the intermediate flow of conversation between Swede and the other language speakers compared is because of that the other language speakers could understand the Swede than the Swede understand the other language speakers.