The Scandinavian languages, what are they and where are they spoken?
Written by Nelson Walker
On 20 May 2024

If you are planning a trip to Scandinavia soon, it will be enriching to learn about the languages that are spoken in this region.

The region of Scandinavia encompasses the countries of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, as well as the self-governing Faroe Islands which are part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

The languages spoken across this region are known as the Scandinavian languages or North Germanic languages, a branch of the Germanic language family.

These Scandinavian languages are often divided into two sub-groups: the East Scandinavian languages, comprising Danish and Swedish, and the West Scandinavian languages, including Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese.

How many people speak the Scandinavian languages?

The North Germanic languages are national languages in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and even in Finland where over 450,000 people speak Swedish in southwestern Finland.

The most-spoken Scandinavian language is Swedish which is spoken by over 10 million native speakers across Sweden and in a small part of Finland. A small number of Swedish speakers can also be found in Estonia.

Danish has over six million native speakers while Norwegian has over five million native speakers. Icelandic has over 350,000 native speakers and Faroese has over 90,000.

As of 2023 there were over 21 million people who speak Scandinavian languages.

Scandinavians understand each other well across languages

One of the interesting aspects of the Scandinavian languages is the high mutual intelligibility. In situations where Danes, Norwegians and Swedes are with each other, they will predominantly use their native language to communicate. They can understand each other to a high degree.

Norwegian and Danish are very similar in terms of vocabulary and grammar. This stems from the fact Denmark and Norway entered a political union in 1536 which lasted almost three centuries until 1814. What they differ in largely is sound and pronunciation.

Norwegian has two written forms, Bokmål (‘book tongue’) and Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’). Bokmål is the standard written form of the language that is a modified form of Danish.

In inter-Nordic contexts, when the Nordic countries convene, documents are often presented in three versions: Finnish, Icelandic and one of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish owing to their mutual intelligibility.

Danish and German

In a region of southern Denmark and a region of northern Germany, there is also an interesting fusion of Danish and German. In Southern Jutland in southwestern Denmark, German is spoken by the North Schleswig Germans and German is a recognised language in this region. Danish, however, is the primary language of the North Schleswig Germans in Germany. This means that these populations are highly bilingual.

When it comes to local dialects, these are much more pronounced in Norway than in the other Scandinavian and European countries. For example, the Norwegian spoken in the capital Oslo will be different to the Norwegian spoken in other cities such as Bergen, Trondheim or up north in Tromsø.

Another official language in the Nordic countries is Greenlandic. It is a part of the differing Eskimo-Aleut family and is the sole official language of Greenland following a decision from the government to strengthen it in the face of competition from the colonial language Danish.  

Inherently, Scandinavian languages are very similar to English in grammar, syntax and vocabulary, making it a relatively straightforward language for a native English speaker to learn. In Danish, Norwegian and Sweden, the verb forms do not change for each person in a given tense.

Across Scandinavia, English is also widely spoken however learning some of the native language spoken in the Scandinavian country you are visiting will certainly add a new layer to your cultural experience.

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