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Nordic Language 101: The Languages of the North

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The historic Nordic language Old Norse has developed for centuries into several distinct languages, alongside some others. Here’s how language works in the Nordic region.

Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese are known as the Nordic languages, spoken daily by around 19 million people daily.

Nordic region flags on a building

Yet they are far from the only ones used in the region. The most notable of the other languages is Finnish, while Sami languages and several minority languages are also used. And of course, English!

In this article, we take a closer look at the Nordic languages themselves, and the languages used in the Nordic region in general.

How history influenced Nordic language

Historically, many people living in the Nordic countries were able to understand each other. This shared linguistic ability has helped to bind the region together through shared literature and mutual understanding.

While Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are today all independent states, that's not always been the case. For many centuries, Norway was part of political unions with Denmark and Sweden, which heavily influenced the development of what we today call the Norwegian language.

Nordic language families

Most people know that Old Norse was used by the Vikings and spread across Northern Europe through raids, trades and exploration.

Viking raiders at Lindisfarne
Vikings spoke Old Norse, but we don't know how they sounded.

Old Norse has since developed into the modern North Germanic languages Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. Among those, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish retain considerable mutual intelligibility and are known as the Scandinavian languages.

But the story doesn't end there. Finnish and the Sami languages are unrelated to the Scandinavian languages. Danish, Finnish and Swedish are also official languages of the European Union.

Old Norse

Old Norse was spoken by inhabitants of Iceland, Scandinavia and many of their overseas settlements throughout much of the Middle Ages. It is generally accepted to have transitioned into the North Germanic languages in the 14th and 15th centuries.

If there's one word that can be used to describe Old Norse, it's diverse. It could be written in Younger Futhark runes and then later using the Latin alphabet. There were also two distinct dialects, west and east.

The Sheep Letter in Old Norse
Written in 1298 in Old Norse, the Sheep Letter (Seyðabrævið) is the oldest surviving document of the Faroe Islands.

The eastern dialect led to the Swedish and Danish we know today. The western variety eventually became Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian, although the latter two are today heavily influenced by modern Danish.

Icelandic

Spoken only in Iceland, modern Icelandic is the closest language to Old Norse still in use today.

Although elements of the language have developed and no-one is quite sure how Old Norse would have sounded, the grammar and vocabulary remains similar. So much so that Iceland Magazine said modern Icelanders can read the medieval manuscripts “with little difficulty.”

Linguistic experts have previously warned that the Icelandic language is at risk of dying out in modern society. The widespread use of English in the country, both for tourism and for voice-controlled electronic devices, has slowly reduced the numbers of Icelandic-speakers to less than 400,000.

Icelandic speakers by a volcano.
Icelandic is spoken by less than 400,000 people.

Faroese

An estimated 72,000 Faroe Islanders speak Faroese, which is related to Icelandic yet not mutually intelligible in speech. However, the written languages have much in common.

The Scandinavian languages

While they descended from two different dialects of Old Norse, the languages of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are mutually intelligible to a large extent. Some linguists argue they can be regarded as three strong dialects of a single Scandinavian language.

Each language was heavily influenced by the long periods of political union, such as the Kalmar Union and the Denmark-Norway era. This is especially true for Norwegian, which strongly resembles written Danish.

Read more: The Languages of Norway

It's also the reason for the creation of the Nynorsk (New Norwegian) language once Norway emerged from centuries of Danish rule. A nationalist movement resulted in the development of a “new” written language based on spoken dialects that more closely resembled pre-Danish Norwegian.

According to the Norwegian Language Council, approximately 10% of Norwegians write in Nynorsk, predominantly in rural parts of western Norway.

The flags of the Scandinavian countries
The flags of Norway, Sweden and Denmark

Can Scandinavians understand each other?

This is a tricky question! Recent research shows that Norwegian is the easiest of the Nordic languages for other Nordic citizens to understand. 62% of young people from other Nordic countries find it “easy” to understand Norwegian, compared with just 26% for Danish.

Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are the working languages of official Nordic co-operation. For meetings of the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers, an interpretation service is offered between Finnish, Icelandic and Scandinavian, but not between the three Scandinavian languages. English is the working language of official Nordic-Baltic co-operation.

Finnish

Now to throw a little curveball at you. Finnish (suomi in Finnish) is spoken by approximately 5.8 million people in Finland and parts of Sweden, but it has nothing in common with the Scandinavian languages.

Finnish comes from the Finnic group of the Uralic languages. Its closest relation is Estonian, while Finnish also shares morphology with Hungarian, another Uralic language.

Finnish is considered significantly more difficult for native English speakers to learn than the Scandinavian languages.

Sami languages

Also a member of the Uralic family, the Sami languages are spoken natively by less than 50,000 Sami people in Norway. Despite this, Sami does have official minority language status.

The Norwegian sami singer Mari Boine
The Norwegian sami singer Mari Boine

The Sami languages are divided into two groups—western and eastern—but there are many further subdivisions. Mutual intelligibility varies considerably as many of the languages likely emerged in isolated communities. Many are now extinct with many others threatened.

Since the creation of the Sami Parliament in 1989, Sami languages have enjoyed a renewed focus. For example, financial support is available to writers and other creatives actively using the language. Of course, whether this results in increased native use over the long-term remains to be seen.

Other Nordic languages

The Kven language is spoken by the Kven people, a minority group in northern Norway with strong Finnish heritage. The language is at great risk of extinction with just 10,000 native speakers, the majority of retired age.

Kven can best be described as a strong dialect of Finnish with a lot of Norwegian loan words plus some archaic Finnish terms.

Greenlandic (or Kalaallisut) belongs to the Inuit branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. It is related to a number of languages spoken in northern Canada and Alaska, but not understood by speakers of other Nordic languages.

Other minority languages include Karelian in Finland and Meänkieli in Sweden.

Scandinavian woman holding a speech bubble featuring the Union Flag of the UK
English is widely spoken in offices across Scandinavia

Of course, while not an official language in any of the Nordic countries, English enjoys a special status throughout the region. In Norway, English is taught in school from a young age. Thanks to YouTube and social media, most kids become fluent in English extremely quickly.

Read more: The English language in Scandinavia

English is also increasingly becoming the language of business in parts of Norway. This is very sector-dependent, but an English-first policy isn't unusual in some science, engineering and technology settings.

Which Nordic language should I learn?

I get asked this question occasionally and it always makes me smile. If you are moving to the region, the choice should in almost all cases be obvious. People moving to Norway should start to learn Norwegian, and so on.

But as this article also demonstrates, Norwegian is the perfect gateway language into Danish and Swedish. I was once told that by learning Norwegian you get ‘three languages for the price of one' and there is some truth in that.

However, perhaps you have no intention of moving to the region? If you're just interested in learning a language for the fun of it, then the answer could be different.

Icelandic is closest to Old Norse, so that could be one for fans of the Viking Age. If you want a challenge, test yourself with Finnish!

If you do want to start learning Norwegian, head on over here to start. Lykke til!

About 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 professional writer on all things Scandinavia.

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