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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why do Swedes and Danes insist on pretending they speak the same language?

There's something heroic about the way Danes and Swedes insist on trying to communicate with one another using their own languages, but more often than not end up nodding, smiling, and only pretending to understand. Why not give up and just speak English?

Why do Swedes and Danes insist on pretending they speak the same language?
It's not like in The Bridge, where Saga Norén and Martin Rohde understand eachother flawlessly. Photo: Ola Torkelsson/TT

From my first trips to Copenhagen with my Swedish wife I realised something was amiss. She boldly embarked on long conversations with the Danes we met, even though to me it was apparent from the start that she had very little grasp of what was being said.

I’ve since frequently observed Danes in Malmö having to repeat themselves over and over again as their Swedish hosts blink uncomprehendingly at the elided syllables and glottal stops issuing from their mouths.

The situation in The Bridge, the Scandinavian thriller, comes nowhere close to reality. 

There, you can watch Swedish detective Saga Norén and her Danish counterpart Martin Rohde gabble away in their own languages and yet somehow understand each other well enough to solve the crime. 

But the truth is that, however much goodwill each side brings to the table, Swedish and Danish are only about 50 percent mutually intelligible.

According to a 2017 study by Charlotte Gooskens at Groningen University, Swedes listening to Danes in an intelligibility test got 56 percent of answers correct, while Danes listening to Swedes got only 44 percent right.

Other studies have found that Danes find Swedish easier than Swedes find Danish, which feels more likely given that Swedes speak their language largely as written while Danes swallow almost every word.

Whatever is the case, the two languages have about the same mutual intelligibility as Italian and Portuguese or Italian and Spanish, and they are considerably behind closer language pairs like Slovak and Polish, or Slovenian and Croatian.

So the sense I’ve always had that each side is only understanding half of what the other is saying is absolutely correct. There is no such language as “Scandinavian”. Swedish and Danish are very much different languages.

So why not just use English from the start? After all, everyone involved normally speaks it perfectly. 

According to Gooskens, the reason is primarily cultural. “In a world of increasing globalisation, language is a very important way of stressing our common identity,” she told me. Attempting to speak “Scandinavian” is an expression that Swedes and Danes have something in common.

Moreover, she points out that the 50 percent mutual intelligibility is for Swedes and Danes with no previous exposure to each other’s languages.

With languages this close, it only takes a short course, or a relatively short period of time living in one another’s country, to boost mutual intelligibility dramatically, often to close to 100 percent.

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One of the reasons Swedes often find Danish harder to understand than Danes find Swedish is that Danish frequently uses both the word used in Swedish and another alternative. Rum, for example, means “room” in both languages, but Danish also uses the word værelse, creating what Gooskens calls “asymmetrical intelligibility”. A Dane can always understand a Swede talking about their room, but a Swede can only understand a Dane when they use the right word.

Danes who’ve worked, studied, or lived in Sweden know instinctively which words to avoid, and are skilled at spelling out syllables they would swallow on the other side of the bridge.

Swedes who’ve worked, studied, or lived in Denmark (or older people from Sweden’s southernmost region Skåne who grew up watching Danish television), are on the other hand able to mentally fill in the syllables Danes miss out.

Gooskens believes that rather than give up and switch to English, Swedes and Danes should instead work more actively at learning to understand one another better. 

“Even though Danes and Swedes may not understand each other well at first, I think that it takes very little effort to reach mutual understanding,” she said. “I think that it is worth the effort to bring young people into contact with each other and make them conscious about and positive towards the idea of communicating with their own Scandinavian languages.”

Member comments

  1. I find this a strange article. My own experience has been that Swedes — at least those living in Skåne — and Danes don’t try to talk their own languages to each other, but default to English. The exceptions are those who are fluent in both languages… and there are many (and not just commuters and shopkeepers) where I live in Helsingør.

    But if Richard’s experience is so different, could it be because we travel in different circles… different social groups?

  2. Some of my Norwegian friends say that they understand both Danish and Swedish, and that both Danes and Swedes have an easier time understanding Norwegian than each other’s languages. (Unless the Norwegian is from Bergen. With that dialect, all bets are off.) So did they do any of those intelligibility tests with Norwegians? How did they work out?

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CHRISTMAS

OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories

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