When I was a kid in Denmark my grandfather told me this joke (he told it to me around 100 times since this was his favorite joke):
A Swede asked a taxi driver to find him a place that was ‘rolig’. The taxi driver took him to the nearest cemetery.
Now, this joke may not sound very funny to you but the whole point of the joke is that ‘rolig’ means ‘fun’ in Swedish but it means ‘quiet’ in Danish (and Norwegian).
When I first met my Norwegian husband I liked him immediately but we were having a hard time finding our way from being just friends to moving our relationship into something more. Imagine my surprise when he helped me unbuttoning my coat while saying, “kneppe, kneppe, kneppe”, which means, “fuck, fuck, fuck” in Danish. In Norwegian it means, “unbutton, unbutton, unbutton” (and to this day he`s still not entirely sure why he was chanting the infamous fuck/unbutton word but I guess he was a bit nervous).
Later, when my husband and I had actually managed to kiss and move in together, he was to celebrate Christmas with my family in Denmark. That had my mother-in-law write my parents a letter saying, “It’ll be ‘rart’ to celebrate Christmas without my son.” My mother thought that was a peculiar message to get. Why is that? Well, in Norwegian ‘rart’ means ‘strange’ or ‘odd’ whereas in Danish it means ‘nice’. So my mother figured my husband must be a terrible person for his own mother to find it nice to finally have a Christmas without him 😀
These three stories describe one of the problems we Scandinavians face when we leave the comfort of our own country to visit our dearly beloved neighbors. Our languages are very similar but there are a handful of words that have the complete opposite meaning. And we have many more obstacles to face when we want to have a chat with those lovely Danes, Swedes or Norwegians.
Finland and Iceland are NOT Scandinavia
Before anyone starts a huge argument: Finland and Iceland are not a part of Scandinavia and will therefor not be a part of this blog post. I love both countries very much and am proud to call them my Nordic brothers and sisters but they are not Scandinavian. Language wise Finland is the country that differs the most from the rest of us here in the North. Their language is part of the Uralic (at least that’s what the translator called it in English) language group together with Hungarian and Estonian. Icelandic is also a bit different from what we speak in Denmark, Sweden and Norway but if you want to know how the old Vikings spoke, Icelandic is probably the modern language that comes closest. Faroese is fairly similar to Icelandic.
For the purpose of this blog post I will not deal with other languages than Swedish, Norwegian and Danish even if other languages are spoken in Scandinavia (Sami and Kven, for instance).
We Scandinavians have a lot of opinions on the languages spoken by our Scandinavian neighbors. I’ll explore the claims and prejudices we nurture in this part of the world and it’s all brought to you because Gyllene asked me if I could write a blog post about the Scandinavian languages.
“Scandinavians understand each other without any problems”
Unfortunately this is not true. We face quite a few obstacles in our attempts at understanding each other, the main one being that we just don’t hear each other’s languages that much. Like so many small countries most of our foreign entertainment is in English which means that Scandinavian kids will usually know more about anything from music to politics in the US than in the other Scandinavian countries – and we hear way more English than we do the other two Scandinavian languages. Kids in Norway will go trick-or-treat on Halloween but will know absolutely nothing about the Danish traditions when it comes to Fastelavn or the Swedish celebration of Valborg.
Most Scandinavians will understand most Scandinavians if they really try but not everyone is willing to try and that’s a shame.
“Scandinavians should understand each other without any problems”
Absolutely! The three Scandinavian languages are similar to one another and apart from some minor differences that are easily learned, one could say that we really just speak dialects of the same language.
“The various dialects are impossible to understand”
In all three Scandinavian countries there are dialects that might be hard even for the citizens of that country to understand. In Sweden and Denmark they’ve (sort of) agreed upon a ‘correct’ way of speaking Swedish and Danish whereas in Norway anarchy rules and people will stick to their dialects no matter what (what else would they do since there’s no agreed-upon way of speaking correct Norwegian?).
I think it’s beautiful and it expresses the Norwegian soul to some extend that they tell people to “come as you are and speak your dialect as you please” but it does make it hard sometimes, especially for Swedes and Danes. Even for Norwegians sometimes. I had a hairdresser once who told a colleague that something the colleague was looking for was on the ‘teilen’. My hairdresser spoke a dialect from Telemark. To this day I have no idea what ‘teilen’ is. Was it the table, the floor, the cupboard? The problem was that her colleague had no idea either so she just kept looking in the general direction my hairdresser had pointed to.
“Swedes are lazy/superior/snobbish since they don’t understand Danish and Norwegian”
As a Dane living in Norway I hear this all the time and I’ve come to feel very sorry for all the Swedes who have this accusation said behind their backs.
It’s a fact from countless tests that Swedes are having a harder time understanding Danish (especially Danish) and Norwegian than the other way around. I’ve seen many explanations but the main one that is usually mentioned is the fact that – at least back in the days – Danes and Norwegians watched Swedish television but most Swedes, and the ones living on the east coast in particular, could’t receive Danish or Norwegian television. I’m not sure how important the television explanation is to the generations growing up now but it’s still a fact that Norwegians will go buy cinema tickets whenever a Swedish movie is in the theatre whereas Swedes won’t watch Norwegian movies even if you paid them to do so.
The lazy/superior/snob argument is one often made by Norwegians and Danes. I say it’s not true (I really don’t want to get the evil eye from my Swedish friends 😉 ) but I do wish more Swedes in general would do more to overcome their “I don’t understand Danish/Norwegian” complex.
“Danes talk like they have a hot potato in their mouth”
* spits out potato* Noooooooo, we don’t 😀
Swedes and Norwegians claim that Danish is just a string of guttural sounds that no one understands. Some Norwegian comedians even made a television show about how Denmark was falling apart because not even Danes understood each other anymore.
Well, Danes usually have the perfect revenge. We make foreigners say the absolutely hardest sentence in Danish: “Rødgrød med fløde”. And then we laugh. And laugh. And laugh. (And cry a little bit because no one understands what we’re saying and maybe our language is really ugly after all).
“Norwegian isn’t a real language – it’s just Danish pronounced in Swedish”
This is what Danes say to Norwegians to tease them and it does have a grain of truth since Danish and Norwegian look very alike when written, though Danish has kept more of the international ways of spelling words whereas Norwegian has changed the spelling. A word like ‘station’ is spelled ‘station’ in Danish and ‘stasjon’ in Norwegian. The same word but different spelling.
Norwegian and Swedish sound fairly alike to the untrained ear. Norwegians and Swedes can’t hear it themselves but Danes (and probably people from other countries) have a hard time telling them apart. Yes, they have quite a few words that are different in the two languages but the pronunciation sounds similar.
My husband, who is Norwegian, always has to listen to a semi-Swedish from my Danish friends. They think they are doing their best version of Norwegian to make it easier for him to understand what they’re saying but, really, they’re making it harder. They just don’t know that all their “Norwegian” words are really Swedish.
But, of course, Norwegian is a real language. And not just one. There are actually two Norwegian languages – Bokmål and Nynorsk. They are as similar to one another as both are to Swedish and Danish and all Norwegian kids have to learn both languages in school (much to the annoyance of kids in Oslo who rarely speak Nynorsk at home – but this is quite a different debate).
“Norwegians understand everything”
Tests show that Norwegians are the Scandinavians who understand their neighbors best. There are several reasons for this and no, none of those reasons are that Norwegians are smarter or more linguistically talented. I would say that the large number of dialects most Norwegians hear every day makes them more open-minded to different ways of pronouncing the same word.
There may also be a little brother complex going here – Norwegians being the smallest country in Scandinavia if we measure by number of citizens. In my experience Norwegians are more interested in whatever is happening in Sweden and Denmark than the other way around. They watch movies, listen to music and read newspapers and magazines from their neighbors. That also adds to the understanding of the other two languages.
On a more personal note I want to add that I’ve met plenty of Norwegians who don’t understand Danish. I can still remember the first time I met my husband’s friends at a party. I had a nice long chat with one of his best friends – let’s call him Terje (mainly because his name is Terje) – and after about 15 minutes I leaned forward to grab my beer off the table. He leaned behind my back and whispered to my husband who was sitting next to me: “Do you understand anything of what she’s saying?”. To this day my husband regrets that he didn’t reply: “No, but she’s great in the sack.” Just to stir things up a bit. 😀
“Danish is semi-English”
There’s no question that English has a major influence on the way we speak in Scandinavia. Not only have we included a lot of English words into our everyday language but even our sentence structure seems to be changing. English expressions are translated but the English sentence structure is kept in many cases.
In Norway strong forces, like the The Norwegian Language Council, try to fight this by making up Norwegian translations for the most popular English words. Some of these translations, like the word ‘minnepinne’ (which means literally ‘memory stick’ but check out the beauty of the word) really catch on. In Denmark they call it a ‘memory stick’ with a strong Danish accent. This goes for so many other words and to a degree that has especially Norwegians laughing and making fun of their semi-English Danish.
“Swedish is semi-French”
Now, this is an exaggeration – a gross exaggeration. But Danes and Norwegians do laugh when they hear words like ‘kalsonger’ (which means underpants and that word apparently doesn’t even have a French origin but an Italian) or ‘trottoar’ (comes from the French word ‘trottoir’ and means sidewalk). They completely forget all the French words in Danish and Norwegian, words like bureau, mayonnaise and deja vu. Keep in mind that Norwegians spell it differently 😉
The reason why Danes and Norwegians make this connection between Swedish and French is probably because the Swedish royal house has it’s roots in France with Jean Baptiste Bernadotte who became a Swedish king under the name Karl Johan back in 1818. But just because Sweden had a French king doesn’t mean that Swedes speak semi-French.
So which Scandinavian language should foreigners learn?
I have had this question so many times I can’t count. Which Scandinavian language will make you understand most Scandinavians? Which Scandinavian language is the easiest to learn?
I’m always surprised when I have that question because I rarely see the need for English speaking foreigners to learn our languages. At least not if you’re only here for a short visit, since most of us speak a passable English – if you’re here to work it’s a necessity. Even in Norway where we lack people in so many professions employers usually demand that you speak/understand one of the Scandinavian languages. So if you’re going to move here you probably should learn one of the Scandinavian languages – and probably the language of the country you’re moving to.
It’s not easy as this blog post written by an American in Norway will show you: Norwegian for Dummies.
Here are the upsides to learning each of the Scandinavian languages:
- Swedish is spoken by more people than the other two Scandinavian languages and is understood by even more
- Norwegian has a lot of dialects which can be difficult to learn but it does make Norwegians have a greater acceptance towards dialects
- Danish is easy. Just make sure you always carry a hot potato in your mouth and you’re good to go 😉
Æ, Ø, Å or Å, Ä, Ö
So how can you tell the three Scandinavian languages apart? If you see the languages written the easiest way to tell Swedish apart from Danish and Norwegian is by looking at those weird letters we have. Swedes, being the stubborn people they are, insist on doing it differently from the rest of us so they write Å, Ä and Ö where Danes and Norwegians write Æ, Ø and Å.
And if you want to separate Danish from Norwegian and Swedish – just check for that hot potato 😀
You’re welcome to add your opinion, your fun stories about the Scandinavian languages or your help to non-Scandinavian-speakers in the comments below.