Swedish Norwegian Danish

So you’re thinking about learning Swedish and were hoping you might get a couple of additional languages to put on your CV in the bargain. Not so fast, son. Daughter. Whatever. You know what I mean…

The question is: how big is the difference beteeen Danish, Swedish and Norwegian? Is it true that if you learn one of them you pretty much know all three?

The answer is yes. And no. 

The level to which a Swede understands a Dane or a Norwegian is in direct proportion to the exposure of the language in question. As is the case, really, with any language. That said, all Swedes understand some Norwegian and some Danish. I’m intentionally letting the word “some” remain vague here. 

Norwegian is easier 

I can really only speak for Swedes. Well, actually I can really only speak for myself. But my impression is that most Swedes understand most Norwegians and most Norwegians understand most Swedes, although not as effortlessly as if they were speaking the same language. The pronunciation is just quite similar, although we tend to think that Norwegians sound naively happy and clueless all the time. Stupid, to put it bluntly. (Not saying they are.)

The big Danish hoax

So, from a Swedish perspective, Norwegian is one thing. Sure, we understand eachother. Roughly. But Danish? Now that’s a completely different story.

My generation of Swedes were raised with the claim that “Swedes and Danes understand eachother”. We assumed that we’d be able to have conversations with Danish people. Reality, however, made us realise that this claim probably was some sick joke collectively pulled by one generation on another. We learned the hard way that Danish is a completely unintelligible language (probably to Danes themselves, even).

Every Swede has at some point in their youth gone through the traumatic first encounter with a Dane.

“Go on”, your father says, prodding you towards the Danish kiosk, “just order a couple of sausages.”

What you can’t see is your father’s poorly concealed giggle as he beholds your walk of shame to the Dane.

Because what happens at the Dane is the loss of youthful innocence. It’s the realisation that the world is a scary, scary place. That there is malice. That life will inevitably end. And the scariest thing is that the Danes seem to be in on the joke, too. They pretend to understand you, and they also pretend to believe that you will understand them. So they say something like: 
“Tre pølser? Det koster tres kroner.” But that’s not what it sounds like, mind you. It sounds more like: “Trie pöulsah? Αυτό κοστίζει εξήντα κορώνες.”

And so you repeat your order, only to find that the Dane will not back down. He’ll keep pretending to understand you. So you look over your shoulder to seek your father’s support, but his face is now blank. Solemn, even. Perhaps he’s gone through the same rite of passage when he was a boy. The thrown-out-of-paradise-by-Dane rite.

So whenever somebody tells you that as long as you know Swedish, you’ll get along in Danish – don’t believe them. I say this for your own good. For your own sanity.

In writing, it’s another story

The thing is, though, that Danish and Norwegian are very similar in writing. At least I can’t really tell whether a text is Danish or Norwegian unless I’m told beforehand. But again, that is probably due to the lack of exposure to those languages. Anyway, it is pretty easy to read the other two languages, whichever of the three you happen to know.

I can’t speak for Danes and Norwegians, but it seems like they both understand Swedes better than we understand them. I think this is not due to some innate property of our languages, but rather the fact that our neighbouring countries have more access to Swedish language media, and show a greater interest in us than we do in them. Which is a shame, really. Sweden is like that indifferent big brother, or, more accurately, like that person who believes himself to be the big brother when he’s just, well … not.

So, back to the initial question: Is it true that if you learn one of the languages, you pretty much know all three? 

I’ve already answered this. The answer is yes. And no.

By Jacob Sundberg

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