Scandinavian Languages Today

Scandinavian languages are in the North Germanic family of languages. They are further classified as either West Scandinavian or East Scandinavian languages. This post is about the latter.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of three of the four languages in this group: Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. (The fourth is Jutish, and if you knew that one, stop reading this post and try out for Jeopardy! You have a gift.)

Languages in the same family are said to be related. This is the case for Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, which share certain structural and lexical elements. (Structural refers to grammar, and lexical refers to vocabulary.)

For example, consider the word “tree.” In Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, the word is træ, tre, and träd, respectively. The word “cat”? kat, katt, and katt. The word “mouse”? mus, mus, and mus.

As a result, Scandinavian languages can be mutually intelligible. (This means that a Swede and a Norwegian, for example, can understand each other while speaking their own language.) I say “can be” because it all depends on the speakers.

Is there a culture in common? If he were alive today, Danish author Hans Christian Anderson would probably say yes. In fact, after spending time in Sweden, he wrote a poem called Jeg er en skandinav (“I am a Scandinavian”).

comparison of scandinavian languages

Scandinavian languages are closely related. Compare the words for “and” and “card number,” for example.

Danish

Danish, the national language of Denmark, is spoken by more than 5 million people. (Data is from 2012.) But many Danish speakers also use English or German. A much smaller number of Danes can speak French.

The Danish alphabet contains all 26 letters of the English alphabet. It also includes æ, ø, and å.

scandinavian languages

Can you say “snow” in one of the Scandinavian languages? Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are seen here in a wintertime NASA photograph. Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC.

Norwegian

About 5 million people in the world speak Norwegian. While most Norwegian speakers live in Norway, small populations of native speakers can be found in Denmark, Finland, and Sweden.

There are two written forms of Norwegian: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Some words in Bokmål and Nynorsk are quite different.

If you look at the big picture, though, the lexicons are very similar. According to Ethnologue.com, Bokmål is used by most Norwegians, while Nynorsk is more common in western Norway.

The Norwegian alphabet is identical to the Danish alphabet. (See above.)

Swedish

Over 9 million people in the world speak Swedish. The language has a few dialects, such as Northern Swedish and Southern Swedish.

Like Danish and Norwegian, Swedish uses the Latin alphabet. In addition to the 26 letters of English, Swedish uses å, ä, and ö.

Scandinavian Languages in Translation

We know that Scandinavian languages are very similar, but what does that mean for translators? Can a Danish translator work into Swedish, for example? The short answer is “probably not.”

The general rule in our field is that a translator only works into his or her native language (or A language). But a Danish translator could have Norwegian and Swedish as B languages, for example.

I often see this in my role as a project manager. A few of our team members fit this profile, in fact.

Take the case of one of our Swedish proofreaders, for example. She works from English, Danish, and Norwegian into Swedish and provided QA services on a recent project that we did for one of our tech clients.

Sources and further reading:
“Danish,” Ethnologue.
“Norwegian,” Ethnologue.
“Swedish,” Ethnologue.
“Danish and Norwegian alphabet,” Wikipedia.
“Swedish orthography,” Wikipedia.
“Scandinavia,” Wikipedia.