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The Definition of Scandinavia

SAS Scandinavian Airlines jet

What is the difference between Scandinavia and the Nordics? It’s time for a geography lesson!

My friend Chris talked me into visiting Helsinki last year for a spot of Christmas shopping (jumpers, hats, mittens and thermals first on the list).

As we discussed flights, I referred to Finland as Scandinavia, and immediately corrected myself. Chris asked why, so rather than reply I thought a blog post was in order, as it's something which confuses many people. It's only taken me six months to publish it!

What is Scandinavia?

The word Scandinavia conjures up many images in the mind of a Brit (well, this Brit). Fjords, Vikings, minimalism, design, socialism – all before the identity of any individual country.

It's a strictly defined region comprising Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The three countries share a common history and culture. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are known as the Scandinavian languages and are mutually intelligible, to a point.

What's nice about all three countries is the friendly rivalry that exists. I guess it's similar to England, Scotland, and Wales. This is explored in humorous detail over on the awesome webcomic Scandinavia against the World. Not to be confused with…

The Scandinavian Peninsula

A purely geographical term, this refers to the slab of land sticking out of Russia like a crooked witch's finger. Basically, the peninsula comprises Norway and Sweden, split by a 1,000 mile long land border.

Every weekend, those living just to the west of this imaginary line cross to the east to buy beer at substantially cheaper prices. Funny thing, geography…

The Nordic Countries

Now we're getting historical, as we welcome the Norsemen of Iceland to the party, along with Finland, the Faroe Islands, and the Swedish-Finnish cultural melting pot of the Åland Islands.

Nordic politics

But the Nordic countries are not just a historical memory, there is an active political relationship through the Nordic Council. While not as integrated as the European Union, the Nordic Council plays an important political role, with 87 elected members from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as well as from the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland.

Northern Europe

Let's not forget the rather loose term of Northern Europe, broadly equivalent to the Nordic countries. But as I only realised last year, the rest of the world considers the UK to be part of Northern Europe too! Makes sense really, as we seem to have more in common with Norway and Sweden than we do France and Spain. Skål!

The Nearly Nordics

Shetland and Orkney used to be Norwegian territory and the influence is still there today. If you doubt the heritage of these islands then take a look at their flags, both proudly fly variants of the Nordic cross. Although the islands' traditional Norse language of Norn is now extinct, it still heavily influences today's dialects. Almost every place name has Viking roots.

Tallinn Old Town
Tallinn Old Town in Estonia

Although known as a Baltic state, Estonia shares more in common with Finland than with Lithuania or Latvia. An alternative flag has even been proposed, incorporating the current colours of pale blue, black and white into a Nordic cross. If Alex Salmond gets his wish of independence, he could push for Scotland to have closer ties with the Nordic Union.

A Union to Rival the EU?

Could an expanded Nordic Union including Scotland and Estonia eventually become a force to rival the EU? There is little appetite within Norway to join the current EU setup, but I've spoken to many who would support closer cooperation with their immediate neighbours. What do you think?


(photo credits: Johannes Jansson/norden.org, Aero Icarus/flickr.com)

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

13 Comments

  1. Funny that you should post this today, David. We were just in Stockholm over the weekend and on a tour it was mentioned that when someone refers to Scandinavia, it generally does not include Finland (although, I’m pretty sure they said that Iceland was?) This suprised both of us, even after living here for a full year!

    1. It is considerd,to some,that peninsula of Scandinavia consist Norway,Sweden,—-but as Scandinavian countries, Finland is also mentioned as” adopted “one , and the ONLY thing that separates Finns ,and other Scandinavian folk,is the language. Actually,to my knowledge,Finns are one of the “few” origional ” people in Europe,and Finn language is considered 2nd hardest ,after China.Finns has hade to struggle extremely hard to exist,for at least 1000 years, with 1000 miles border with the Russians ,and the always Russians pursuing subdue Finns, with little success( none)

      1. No, it’s not the language. Your use of the word “original” is coincidentally why they’re not similar. The Finns are ethnically different from Swedes, Norwegians and Danes, as they are a people that migrated from the east (see Russia today). While the Scandinavian peoples came from Germanic tribes that migrated north from the continent. The language is the key, Finnish is not Indo-European, it is only related to Hungarian in Europe. The Finns also have genetically close ties to the Sami people which also came from the east.

  2. I would say that Iceland is part of Scandinavia – it very definitely shares the common (Viking/Norse) history, culture and language of Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

    1. Well, your opinion is not accepted by us actual Scandinavians. Furthermore they absolutely do not share the same language. Scandinavians understand each other’s language (mutually intelligible), Icelandic is not included for that reason.

      1. As a Scandinavian I have never ever heard that Iceland and Faroe Islands were not part of Scandinavia! Where does this bizzare notion come from? Likewise, Finland is never ever considered a part of Scandinavia.

  3. There are two (2 ) different Scandinavias
    1-Peninsula Scandinavia ( look at the map)= two countries ,Sweden and Norway ( Denmark is separate from the peninsula)
    2-Scandinavia as culture,Norway,Sweden,Denmark,Finland,and Iceland

      1. Not geograhingly speakin peninsula.Denmark is NOT on Scandinavian peninsula, but partially Finland is ,since itis sort of another peninsula,attached toScandinavian peninsula.Of course these matters of “opinions” about Scandinavia subtance,is refreshing, but geography is what is.

  4. Hi David.Nice writing with you.By the way I`m sure you know that Finland was PART of Sweden about 700 years(1),in which time the Finns were quite “Scandinavinatized”.See yeah,got a go,Esa

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