The Scandinavian languages consist of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. It has often been said that if you know one of the Scandinavian languages, you will be able to understand the other two – at least to some extent. So, how can you tell them apart?
Norwegian has a “singing” tone in the way they pronounce their local words and the stress falls on the first syllables.
Swedish sounds like Norwegian because their is also a rising and falling tone but they have more words that have “ch” and “ck” letter combinations.
Danish is easiest to identify because there are a lot of vowel-less syllables in their words and they have the characteristic “stød” pitch accent that makes them talk in a below-normal frequency.
What is the difference between the Scandinavian languages?
English: What’s your name?
Swedish: Vad heter du?
Norwegian: Hva heter du?
Danish: Hvad hedder du?
English: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten
Swedish: ett, två, tre, fyra, fem, sex, sju, åtta, nio, tio
Norwegian: en/ein, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, sju, åtte, ni, ti
Danish: en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti
English: Thank you
As you can see from the examples above, we can reach the following conclusion:
Written: The Norwegian and Danish languages are similar.
Spoken: The Norwegian and Swedish languages are similar.
Danish and Swedish have the least similarities in common.
In linguistics, the three languages are considered to be mutually intelligible. This refers to the relationship between dialects or languages wherein speakers of related but different varieties can easily understand each other without much effort. All three languages have evolved from Old Norse or the “Viking language”.Norwegian and Danish are most similar with each other – their written language are almost identical and they use the same alphabet. However, they sound differently from one another when it comes to the pronunciation of words. Swedish and Norwegian are closer when it comes to pronunciation but the written words differ. Danish and Swedish are also similar in the written text but their pronunciation is very different so it is common to have a Dane and a Swede have a hard time conversing with each other but will understand each other better when they write to each other. Norwegians are able to understand both Swedish and Danish with lesser problems which is why most linguists would recommend learning the Norwegian language first if you have a goal of learning all three Scandinavian languages.
The differences in alphabets
A a, B b, C c, D d, E e, F f, G g, H h, I I, J j, K k, L l, M m, N n, O o, P p, Q q, R , S s, T t, U u, V v, W w, X x, Y y, Z z, Å å, Ä ä, Ö ö
The Swedish language uses the Latin alphabet with 29 letters. The extra three are vowels with diacritics, namely “å”, “ä”, and “ö.”
A a, B b, C c, D d, E e, F f, G g, H h, I I, J j, K k, L l, M m, N n, O o, P p, Q q, R r, S s, T t, U u, V v, W w, X x, Y y, Z z, Æ æ, Ø ø, Å å
The Norwegian language uses the Latin alphabet with 29 letters. The extra three are vowels with diacritics, namely “ æ”, “ø”, and “å”. The letters “q”, “w”, “x”, and “z” are rarely used in Norwegian except for foreign names and loanwords. There are two official forms of written Norwegian: Bokmål (book tongue) and Nynosk (new Norwegian). Bokmål is more used these days among the two.
A a, B b, C c, D d, E e, F f, G g, H h, I I, J j, K k, L l, M m, N n, O o, P p, Q q, R r, S s, T t, U u, V v, W w, X x, Y y, Z z, Æ æ, Ø ø, Å å
The Danish language uses the Latin alphabet with 29 letters. The extra three are the same vowels with diacritics as Norwegian’s, namely “æ”, “ø”, and “å”. The letters “q”, “w”, “x”, and “z” are rarely used in Danish except for foreign names and loanwords. As you can see, the Danes use the same alphabet as that of the Norwegians.
The differences in pronunciation
Letter combinations like “ck” and “ch” and the use of the letters “q” and “x” are more common in Swedish. The Swedish language has 17 more pure vowel sounds when compared to English but despite of this, you can usually find Swedes having trouble pronouncing words that start with “ba-”, “be-”, “th-” or “sh-”. The length of how you pronounce your vowels in the Swedish language also matters in the meaning of the word that you are using. The voiced vowels “y” and “ø” in Swedish have no English equivalents. For consonants, the letters “p”, “t”, and “k” are aspirated meaning they are said with a puff of air upon release. The letter “s” is unaspirated, just like the way you pronounce it in English. You can find that there are actually two patterns when it comes to speaking Swedish accents: Tone 1 involves rising and falling. Tone 2 involves double rising and falling. Tone usage depends on the Swedish dialect but in most areas, the tones are no longer used.
Letter combinations like “sj” and “kj” are commonly used. Vowel length in pronunciation makes a difference in the word meaning. The Norwegian language also uses three diphthongs: “oi”, “ei”, and “au”. The voiced Norwegian vowel “œ” and “y” have no equivalent in English. The consonant system of the Norwegian language differs from one dialect to the next. Usually, voiced consonants are silent at the end of the word. The voiced consonants “ʋ”, “X”, and “ʁ” have no English equivalents. When it comes to native Norwegian words, the stress falls on the first syllables. Loanwords, however, may have different stress patterns. There are significant differences when it comes to pitch accents in the Norwegian language; some dialects have lost the tonal accents while some still practice it. The pitch accents are considered to give the Norwegian language a “singing” quality, making it easier to identify compared to other European languages.
The letter combinations “nd” and “ld” are more used in Danish. Danish is often the most misunderstood because of its accent. There are a lot of vowel-less syllables in their words with syllabic consonants. The unstressed syllables and the final consonants are usually reduced as well. Danish stands out when you compare all three because of the huge difference between the spoken and written language. In Danish, the words are often shortened, the consonants are pronounced softly, and the endings sound like they are being swallowed off so most of the time, the pronunciation patterns look random. The random rhythm of the language does not give the listener much clues regarding the sentence structure making it more difficult to categorize the elements of the sentence when being said. The vowel length in pronunciations also matter for word meaning. The voiced Danish vowel “ø” have no English equivalents. The consonants “p”, “t”, and “k” are aspirated. The voiced Danish consonants “ð”, “ʋ”, and “ʁ” have no English equivalents. You can find the stress in native Danish words on the first syllable. The Danish characteristic pitch accent, stød , made things more trickier when it comes to understanding the Danish language. The written word sounds differently when pronounced; for example, “øg” sounds like “oy”, “eg” sounds like “ay”, and “af” sounds like “ow”. The Danish often speak in a creaky voice or in a frequency below the normal because their accent often calls for laryngealization – most people describe it like you are talking while there is something inside your mouth. Danish pronunciation is difficult to master for new learners – in fact, even Danish children take longer to learn speech in early childhood compared to other children of different nationalities.
The differences in grammar
- Sentence structure The Swedish sentence structure is the same as English, where it tends to be subject-verb-object based. In question form though the order would be verb-subject-object. For main clauses, Swedish practices the same as German where it uses the verb-second word order.
- Gender The gender is usually not predictable as there are only two grammatical genders which are neuter and common.
- Number Numbers are presented as plural and singular. The definitive singular form is usually created by adding a suffix; the suffix used will depend on the gender and if the noun ends with a vowel or consonant.
- Verbs The verbs are not marked for a number or person and there are weak and strong verbs. The weak verbs add endings to the root of the verb; this will form a preterit. The strong verbs go through a vowel change in the root and an ending is not added. The finite verb often appears in the second position, just like in most Germanic languages. The perfect and present participles are also commonly used as adjectival verbs. What makes Swedish different from English is that it does not use the perfect participle to form the present and past perfect; they use instead “have” and “had” followed by a supine.
- Articles The indefinite and definite articles will depend on the gender and number being used in the sentence. Definite articles can double as demonstrative determiners or pronouns when they are used with adverbs.
- Adjectives Adjectives are marked for definiteness, number, and gender and they do not have case endings. They have discrete superlative and comparative forms. Whether an adjective is indefinite or definite will depend on the noun they modify. Adjectives are always placed before the noun they modify.
- Voices The Swedish language has three voices: passive, middle, and active.
- Moods The Swedish language also comes in three moods: subjunctive, imperative, and indicative. The subjunctive mood is used occasionally for some verbs.
- Sentence structure The Norwegian sentence structure follows the subject-verb-object format. For questions, the sentence structure changes to verb-subject-object format.
- Gender For gender, they are marked by the accompanying referential pronouns and modifiers. All feminine nouns can be inflected with masculine morphology in Bokmål because of its Danish heritage. For Nynorsk, the use of all three genders are required.
- Number Norwegian grammar recognizes two presentation of numbers in grammar: plural and singular.
- Articles The definite and indefinite articles will depend on the number and gender. Adjectives are marked for number, gender, and definiteness with no case endings. The definite articles are developed into suffixes, which is typical in most Nordic languages.
- Verbs Verbs are not marked for number or person and they come in two forms: weak and strong. Weak verbs form a preterit where endings are added to the root of the verb. For strong verbs, the root undergoes a vowel change with no ending added.
- Adverbs The adverbs can be formed from adjectives in the Norwegian language by the adjective in the grammatical neuter singular form. This is practiced for both Bokmål and Nynorsk.
- Adjectives Norwegian adjectives inflect on the gender, number, and definiteness of the noun. Predicative adjectives do not inflect for definiteness unlike attributive adjectives.
- Voices There are three voices in Norwegian language: active, middle, and passive.
- Moods The three moods are subjunctive, indicative, and imperative. The subjunctive mood is no longer being used at present except for a few expressions. The imperative mood is formed when the last vowel of the infinitive verb form is removed. The indicative verbs are formed depending on the present, past, or future tenses.
- Sentence structure The Danish language follows the word order subject-verb-object but in question form, the order turns into verb-subject-object.
- Gender The Danish genders are only referred to as two ways, neuter and common, and are often mixed into one ending. Some traditional dialects were able to retain three ways to identify gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter). Mostly, you will find that the gender is unpredictable but you can find helping markers in the pronouns and modifiers.
- Number The Danish grammar also recognizes plural and singular in numbers. In the Danish language, there are three different plurals.
- Articles Definite and indefinite articles will depend on the gender noun or the number. Adjectives are marked for definiteness, number, and gender, with no case ending.
- Verbs The English and Danish verb systems are alike in a way that the Danish verbs are conjugated according to what tense is being used. However, the Danish verbs do not change according to number or person. Danish verbs come as weak and strong. Weak verbs add endings to the root of the verb. The strong verbs go through a vowel change in the root and there are no endings added.
- Pronouns Danish pronouns inflect depending on the case. The Danish pronoun system keeps the identity between oblique and subjective cases. The subjective case is used when the pronoun is used as the subject of the sentence. The oblique case is used when the pronoun is not the subject of the sentence.
- Voices The Danish language has three voices: passive, middle, and active.
- Moods The Danish language also has three moods: subjunctive, imperative, and indicative.
Who uses Scandinavian languages?
- Sweden’s national language
- One of the national languages of Finland. As a national language of Finland, Swedish is a required subject in the Finnish education system.
- Swedish is proclaimed as one of the European Union’s official languages.
- Swedish is proclaimed as one of the working languages of the Nordic Council.
- You can also find Swedish speakers in Canada, Estonia, Norway, United Arab Emirates, and USA. Swedish has the most speakers among the three Scandinavian languages.
- Norwegian is Norway’s official language.
- Norwegian is recognized as one of the working languages of the Nordic Council.
- There are also small populations in Sweden, Denmark, and Finland that speaks Norwegian.
- You can also find Norwegian speakers in Canada and USA.
- Danish is the official language of Denmark
- Danish is the second official language of Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Learning Danish is a required subject in the Faroe islands for primary education.
- Danish is also spoken in the borders of Germany, particularly in Southern Schleswig, where it is considered as a minority language.
- Danish is recognized as one of European Union’s official languages.
- You can also find Danish speakers in Canada, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and USA.
The fact that these languages are so alike can be attributed to Scandinavian history. Scandinavia refers to the northern region of Europe where Denmark, Norway, and Sweden can be found. During the period of Christianization, states were being formed and in the tenth to thirteenth centuries, the kingdoms of Scandinavia emerged as Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Despite being neighbors, the three countries have a complicated history with a lot of power-swapping and power-sharing going on.
Under the Kalmar Union, the three countries were united from 1397 to 1523. The union was made by Queen Margaret I of Denmark. By 1523, King Gustav Vasa of Sweden decided to leave the Kalmar Union.
Denmark takes over Norway
After Sweden left, a civil war happened between Denmark and Norway followed by the Protestant Reformation. When peace and order was regained in 1536, a union was made between Denmark and Norway which lasted until 1814, wherein the Norwegian Privy Council was abolished in favor of Denmark taking over. During this time, the administration was based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Danish was the standard written language and the Norwegian elite spoke it well. Under this political union, Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands were taken under their wings.
Sweden takes over Denmark and Norway
In 1645, under the Treaty of Brömsebro, the political union of Denmark and Norway yielded some Norwegian Provinces to Sweden. In 1658, Danish provinces were surrendered to Sweden under the Treaty of Roskilde. In 1660, however, Sweden was forced to return Bornholm and Trøndelag and the Funen islands under the Treaty of Copenhagen.
The political union of Denmark and Norway eventually came to an end in 1814 under the Treaty of Kiel. Norway fell under Swedish rule and during this time, the Norwegians decided to develop their own language. Norway was surrendered to the King of Sweden while Norway’s possessions overseas were retained by Denmark. There was a rebellion within Norway’s people who detested the thought of being united with Sweden and the Norwegians even elected their own king. After a Swedish invasion, it was agreed that Norway will recognize the King of Sweden as their king but the Norwegians are to keep its independence and its constitution in the form of a personal union. The union between Sweden and Norway was dissolved in 1905.