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Opinion and Analysis For Members

Why don't Scandinavians try harder to understand each other?

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
Why don't Scandinavians try harder to understand each other?
Swedes often have a hard time understanding Danes in particular, despite the fact the Scandinavian languages are very similar. Photo: Søren Bidstrup/Scanpix Denmark/AFP

At a conference in Sweden attended by Deputy Editor Becky Waterton this week, the Danish presenters were asked to switch to English for their Swedish audience. Why don't Scandinavians make more effort to understand each other, and what are they missing out on?

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In September 2012, on the first day of my degree course in Scandinavian Studies, I was asked to choose which of the Scandinavian languages – Danish, Swedish or Norwegian – I wanted to specialise in.

I hadn't completely made up my mind at this point, but was reassured that, whichever language I chose, I would be able to speak with and understand speakers of the other two languages due to pan-Scandinavian mutual intelligibility.

In the end, I chose Danish.

Yes, it's only spoken by around six million people, but if you factor Norwegians and Swedes into the equation, as well as Swedish Finns and citizens of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Finland and the Åland Islands who learn Danish or Swedish in school, you have a group of over 20 million people who you can potentially communicate with.

It was only later that I discovered that I'd managed to choose the most unintelligible Scandinavian language, when I attempted to speak Danish with a Swede on a trip to Stockholm and was met with a blank stare.

At a recent course I attended in Stockholm with Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, the attendees - all of whom were Swedish, apart from me - happily sat through a presentation held in Norwegian, but the Danes holding presentations only got as far as uttering a single sentence before they were asked by the Swedish audience to speak English instead.

It ended with the Swedes and Norwegians speaking their native languages while the Danes spoke English, which I couldn't help but feel was a bit unfair.

I mean, these are languages which share around 75 percent of the same vocab, many of the same expressions and essentially the same grammar. Is it really so hard to understand a Dane if they speak slowly and clearly?

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Most research, as well as my own personal experience, seems to agree that the Scandinavian languages are almost mutually intelligible. Most Scandinavian speakers understand Norwegian and Swedish, and Norwegian speakers understand Danish for the most part, but Danes are often forced to speak English with Swedes in order to be understood.

I can't help but feel that Scandinavians who don't bother learning to at least understand their neighbouring languages are really missing out. Swedes, Danes and Norwegians have a wealth of shared cultural references, shared history and a shared language, and is it not always easier to communicate with others in their own language?

Those who speak a Scandinavian language have a fast-track to learning not just one, but two new languages, and the same goes for people learning these languages.

It only takes a little extra effort to train your ear to at least understand the other two, and since you know the general grammar and most of the vocab already, your homework can be as simple as watching Danish or Norwegian TV or regularly listening to a pan-Scandinavian podcast, like the fantastic Norsken, svensken och dansken podcast from Sveriges Radio and Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

In return, you gain the opportunity to converse with millions more people and delve into the culture of three countries - even more if you count the other countries where a large proportion of the population speak or understand a Scandinavian language - not to mention broadening your career or study options.

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By the end of my Scandinavian Studies degree, my classmates and I could easily speak to and understand each other across the Scandinavian languages, no doubt due to shared courses on Scandinavian translation and encouragement to use each other as an opportunity to practice. Sure, we needed a bit of help every now and then with vocab or when trying to read something in Nynorsk, but the reward was definitely worth the effort.

Why settle for just watching TV in your Scandinavian language when you can watch fantastic programmes from the other countries, too? Why just read August Strindberg when you can also enjoy Henrik Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen, not to mention modern Scandinavian literature, cinema and crime dramas?

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To me, it feels like a cheap get-out to switch to English at the first syllable you don't understand if you've put in the effort to learn one Scandinavian language, rather than powering through and asking the person speaking to talk a little slower, or a little more clearly, to make themselves understood.

It feels like Scandinavians have lost sight of the benefits to understanding their neighbours, losing out on one of the great things that unites Scandinavia and ultimately, losing part of their Scandinavian identity in the process.

I'm all for globalisation and love that Scandinavians are so good at English, but that shouldn't make it the default in a situation where two Scandinavians can speak their native languages to each other and be understood, with just a little effort.

It also excludes large portions of Scandinavian society from talking to their neighbours, if they don't also happen to be fluent in English as well.

Of course, as someone who dedicated multiple years of their life to learning the Scandinavian languages, I might be biased.

Join me on the dark side and maybe we can convince the native Scandinavian speakers that it's not that hard, after all.

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Comments (2)

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William Prendergast 2023/05/04 19:53
As an American who is a frequent visitor to Sweden, I have a marginal competency in Swedish and a basic but limited understanding of Swedish history. But from what I know of that history, it occurs to me that maybe there are very old historical reasons why the Swedes don't WANT to understand the Danes. Possibly the same could be said about a Norwegian's lack of desire to understand the Swedes. ;-) Only a light hearted suggestion!
Steve Hewitt 2023/05/04 16:15
If Scandinavian governments really wanted to promote inter-Scandinavian comprehension, they should establish a single Scandinavian audio-visual area. You can no longer watch television from a neighbouring Scandinavian country. You get a message: "Not available in your country". In Sweden you have to pay customs duty, plus handling charges, on books from Norway. None of this suggests that Scandinavian governments really want to promote linguistic inter-comprehension between themselves. Very sad.

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