The Nordic languages in today’s multilingual and global world

There is a lot about the Nordic languages which makes them stand out and appear somewhat peculiar in today’s multilingual and global world.

As a linguist and entrepreneur working in the translation industry, I have found that this ragtag grouping of similar yet dissimilar languages is one that fascinates outsiders, and not without good reason.

Clients and linguists alike are curious about their many quirks, their points of overlap and the sometimes striking differences between them. Not to mention their slippery categorisation – I am often asked what is the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic? What are the Faroese and Icelandic languages like? And just why is Finnish so different from the others?

In this article, I thought I would take a deep dive into this interesting set of questions and discuss in more detail the many weird and wonderful peculiarities of the Nordic languages – Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese and Finnish.

A Shared History

For the most part, the Nordic languages stem from a common root – Old Norse , the language of the Vikings. Old Norse was spoken from the eighth century until around about the fourteenth century when it began to splinter into the various North Germanic languages we know today.

The five languages which are closest to Old Norse are Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic but all have been shaped in different ways and drawn on influences from different sources.

Of these five languages, Icelandic remains the most similar to Old Norse, largely because of its isolation from other cultures. Swedes today often say that Icelandic is like listening to the Swedish spoken in Scandinavia a thousand years ago, and it is certainly the closest thing to it.

This gives the language its fair share of quirks – for example, the Icelandic word for elephant (fíll) is thought to come from Arabic. In a world where elephants were but a distant and exotic beast, this word became a part of the Icelandic vocabulary before its Germanic cousin began to spread, and it has remained there ever since.

Faroese, meanwhile, is the official language of the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, which were once colonised by Norwegians and then later taken over by the Danes.

In common with Icelandic, it also retains features of Old Norse that have disappeared from the Scandinavian languages – such as old runic characters and grammatical cases – and both languages have been influenced by Gaelic due to their proximity to the British Isles.

Mutual Intelligibility

Because of their geographic isolation, Faroese and Icelandic are highly unique. That is not so much the case for Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, though. The three Scandinavian languages have grown up side by side and have a high degree of mutual intelligibility – and this is perhaps the one factor which most intrigues about this grouping of languages.

But that is not to say that all three languages are the same, just with different sounds and different spellings. Each one has special and peculiar features that are unique to that language. Entire books can and have been written on these features, but let’s take a look at some of the most striking:

Norsk

In addition to its more sing-songy pitch, Norwegian has a different structure when it comes to possessive adjectives (words like my, your, his, etc). Like English, Danish and Swedish put these words before the noun they describe, but in Norwegian they come after. So min venn (my friend) becomes vennen min, for example.

This gives the language a whole other cadence which the Danes joyfully parodied a few years back when Norwegian TV sensation Skam became a global smash hit.

Danish social media users put up videos parodying the sounds and rhythms of Norwegian – a new dialect they lovingly named Skamdinavisk or Dorsk (a mash-up of dansk and norsk) – happily reminding us all that the Scandinavian languages are both different enough to cause mutual amusement but similar enough to allow for this kind of playful and affectionate parody.

Dansk

Danish, on the other hand, definitely stands out for its pronunciation. The Swedes often joke that spoken Danish sounds like Swedish spoken with a hot potato in your mouth, and anyone who has ever asked a Dane about their language will no doubt have heard the tongue-twister rødgrød med fløde.

This phrase means red pudding with cream and is something of a shibboleth – a phrase which Danes can pronounce perfectly but foreigners usually cannot. Part of the problem is that the Danish R is utterly unique. It is a guttural sound articulated at the back of the mouth.

Together with the glottal stop – which is like a creak in the voice and another unique feature of Danish phonology – the Danish language is much more difficult both to pronounce and to understand, and certainly unique among the Scandinavian languages.

Svenska

Finally, we have Swedish which is generally quite intelligible to both Danes and Norwegians, but has one particular feature in its northern dialect that has long-since baffled outsiders, namely the inhaled yes.

And it’s exactly what it sounds like – in parts of northern Sweden rather than simply saying ja, Swedes take a sharp and swift inhalation of air in order to signify the word yes.

What about Finnish?

So that’s Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Faroese and Icelandic … but what about Finnish!? When it comes to the Nordic family of languages, Finnish is a real outlier. While all the others are Germanic languages descended from Old Norse, Finnish is actually a Uralic language which has more in common with Hungarian than it does with Swedish or even Russian.

So while the three Scandinavian languages have a high degree of mutual intelligibility, Finnish is completely alien to its neighbours. Not only is the language unrelated, it is also notoriously difficult and highly unique. It has no gender, no articles (words like a), several tricky grammatical cases which make it a nightmare for foreigners to learn and super long words due to its particular structure.

Finnish is so tricky, in fact, that the mayor of Helsinki recently proposed making English an official language of the capital after it emerged that many immigrants were leaving due to language woes.

The Nordic languages and translation

What do these peculiarities mean for the translation industry? Well, for one thing it means that translators often work with all three of the Scandinavian languages. Again, this is not to say that all three are one in the same, but their high degree of similarity means that a linguist familiar with Danish, for example, can easily acquire proficiency in Swedish and Norwegian as well.

This is fairly unique within the industry and offers interesting opportunities for linguists working in these pairs.

It also means a constant need to orient clients on the differences and similarities. The fact that linguists can work across these three languages sometimes leads to the assumption that Finnish, Icelandic and Faroese can be thrown in as well – and in other cases, clients are sometimes sceptical that one linguist can master so many languages.

The long and short of it is that the Nordic languages not only have their own peculiar history and quirks, but they are also their own special thing within the translation industry too. And that only makes them all the more joyful to work with.