Should I learn Swedish or Danish?

Scandinavian languages ​​- how are they similar and different?

Ah, Scandinavia! Wide, untouched landscapes. Dried and pickled fish everywhere you look. Was that just a blonde mermaid who rode past on a moose? You couldn't tell that exactly, between all the Alexander Skarsgård doppelgangers strolling past in their Norwegian sweaters and speaking their characteristic melodic language. But what is this language actually? Or rather: these languages? What are the differences between Swedish, Danish and Norwegian? If you can speak any of the languages, do you speak them all? Let's meet Scandinavian languages, or rather the North Germanic languages, a little closer.

Scandinavian languages: which languages ​​are we talking about here?

In fact, the three Scandinavian languages ​​Danish, Norwegian and Swedish have so much in common that they could almost be viewed as dialects. Whoever speaks one can understand the speakers of the other, at least to a certain extent. The three languages ​​have come from Old Norse - often Viking language called - developed. They form the northeast branch of the Germanic language tree, while Icelandic and Faroese make up the northwest branch.

In case you were just wondering: Finland can be considered part of Scandinavia depending on the definition, but the Finnish language is related to Hungarian, Sami and Estonian and is not even one of the Indo-European languages.

Swedish has the largest number of speakers at ten million. The other two have about five million speakers each.

Danish, Norwegian, Swedish: you know one, you know all?

Danish and Norwegian are very similar to each other - if you look at the vocabulary they are almost identical! In terms of sound, however, the two languages ​​differ considerably from each other. Norwegian and Swedish are closer in terms of pronunciation, but the words are different.

I like to think of the Scandinavian languages ​​as three sisters: Swedish, the oldest sister, is guaranteed to be the biggest, but not always as important to the other two as she likes to imagine. Norwegian, the middle child, understands both of her sisters well and often plays the mediator. Danish, the youngest and the rebel, smokes in the house and nobody understands her.

This metaphor isn't that far from the truth: a 2005 study by Delsing and Åkesson showed that Danes have the greatest difficulty understanding their neighbors - and that their neighbors also have the greatest difficulty understanding you to understand. Conversations between Swedes and Danes are especially known to be a bit bumpy. As a Swedish native speaker, I've come to the point where I can understand most of what I hear in Danish - even when I'm at it very must concentrate. My Danish interlocutors will certainly feel the same way.

Scandinavian languages ​​and their pronunciation

Danish - the misunderstood little sister

When it comes to Danish pronunciation, there are many clichés: “You always sound like you're drunk!”, “It's like you've got a hot potato in your mouth!”, “Drunk Norwegians speak Danish flawlessly!” Or “Why do they speak so indistinctly?” - yes, we like to tease each other in Scandinavia, but these statements are actually quite ignorant. Danish is not simply “badly pronounced” or is a particularly inarticulate language, but rather should sound like that! Let me explain that in a little more detail.

Danish differs from the other two languages ​​mainly in the discrepancy between the written and spoken language: the words are shortened, the consonants weakened and the endings almost swallowed up. To make things a little trickier, many words contain the characteristic stød, the Danish answer to the glottal stop. Many Danish pronunciation patterns seem completely arbitrary to speakers of Swedish or Norwegian. As a Swede, I would say: "Hey, vad heter you?"(" Hello, what's your name? "), Whereas a Dane would ask:" Hey, hvad hedder du? "- it doesn't look very different when written, but what I would hear would be something that I would do best with [ Hai, whäth hi-öh you?] Can rewrite. Of course, such a fundamental question is pretty easy to understand, but it gets a little harder when the conversation is about emotions, politics, or astrophysics. Often we just give up and switch to English instead.

The truth is, it's all a matter of habit and a basic understanding of pronunciation differences. I think I can speak for most Swedes by saying that I never learned the basic rules of Danish pronunciation - for example, that the written "eg" is pronounced like [ei], "af" like [au] and "Øg" like [oi]. If you don't know these rules, then of course it can seem like the Danish pronunciation is improvised over and over again.

This is how Swedes, Norwegians and Danes say "What's your name?":

  • Hvad hedder you? (Danish):
  • Vad heter you? (Swedish):
  • Hva heter you? (Norwegian):

Scandinavian languages ​​and their vocabulary

Beware of false friends when it comes to Scandinavian languages! To better understand your Scandinavian neighbors, you need to know a little more about the differences in vocabulary. Especially when Danes or Norwegians speak to Swedes, they have a lot of words in theirs passive vocabulary - that means, you can understand the words, but not necessarily use them yourself. There are also a few false friends to look out for: When a Swede and a Norwegian agree on something, something roligt going out together, the Swede will imagine something very fun, while the Norwegian will be prepared for something calm and relaxing. If a Dane thinks a Norwegian is nice or cute, he will be rar call - which the Norwegian could be offended by, because for him means rar "strange". And if a Norwegian says he'll take his shirt off, so be kneppe buttoned up, then I'd rather not say what the Dane is thinking ...

Scandinavian languages ​​and spelling

Despite the vocabulary differences there are written Danish and Norwegian almost identical. The reason for this is that Norway was part of Denmark from the 14th to 19th centuries. The administrative and intellectual center of the kingdom was Copenhagen - therefore all official documents had to be written in Danish. However, Danish hardly left any traces in the spoken language of Norway - Sweden had a significantly greater influence due to its geographical proximity. A conversation between a Norwegian and a Dane is therefore usually a lot of "Hva? ”Accompanied. Instead, if they just took out their cell phones and texted each other, the conversation would flow freely.

Shouldn't Swedes, Norwegians and Danes speak to each other?

No of course not! You just have to make an effort. You can only understand a language if you get a lot of input, and spoken input is most important here. This also applies to this type of one-way communication. Although you don't have to reproduce the other person's language because you are understood in your own language, you still have to decipher what the other person is saying. This type of conversation is called Semicommunication, a term coined by the American linguist Einar Haugen. To semicommunicate, you simply have to get used to the other language. If Swedes never heard Danish, they would not understand much, despite the linguistic similarities. Fortunately, the Danes produce great TV series that everyone wants to watch, so listening to Danish is actually fun!

And the award for the best semi-communicator goes to ...

… Norway! As it turns out, the middle child is the most understanding in this family: Norwegian speakers are the clear winners when it comes to understanding Scandinavian languages. There are three main reasons for this:

  • First, Norwegian is literally that mediumkind - it is written like Danish, but pronounced like Swedish.
  • Second, they are used to hearing Danish and Swedish on TV and radio.
  • Third, there is a wide range of dialects within the Norwegian language, all of which have a relatively high status - even politicians speak their dialect.

That is why Norwegians have to understand people who do not speak the way they do, otherwise they would not be able to travel in their own country!

So if you learn Norwegian, you will be able to understand the other two languages ​​easily. But do you find Swedish or Danish more beautiful? Then let's go! Families stick together after all, and with a little practice, openness (and hands and feet, if nothing works), you should be able to make yourself understood anywhere in Scandinavia, no matter which of the three languages ​​you speak.