Nordic and Scandinavian Languages Explained and Ranked

I’ve come across many questions about languages in the Nordics and Scandinavia over the years, and just like the distinction between Nordic and Scandinavia isn’t always crystal clear, the languages in the region aren’t always easy to separate.

Let’s take a look at the basics about the languages spoken in the Nordics and Scandinavia, and see how they rank in various categories (most/least useful, most/least beauitful, and easiest to learn).

How many Nordic or Scandinavian languages are there?

There are three Scandinavian languages: Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. While Icelandic and Faroese also stem from Scandinavia, they are not included in this group as they do not have as many European loan words and the grammar differs slightly.

They are, however, part of the five North Germanic languages: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese. These make up one of the three Germanic language groups, with West Germanic (English, German, Dutch, etc.) and East Germanic (no longer spoken) being the other two.

In the Nordic region as a whole, there are a total of six main languages spoken: Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, Faroese. There are also several minority languages spoken, such as Sami, Greenlandic, Kven, Karelian, and Meänkieli.

Finnish, Sami, Kven, and Karelian are all part of the Uralic languages (of which Estonian, Livonian, and Hungarian are other notable members), which means they are not part of the same Indo-European language group as the other languages in the region.

The best and worse Scandinavian language to learn

If you are setting out to learn only one of the Nordic languages and haven’t decided which one, let’s take a look at which language would be of most use for you. Let’s assume that the most useful is the same as the one that is most widely understood.

To find the most widely understood, let’s look at the 2021 study by the Nordic Council where they asked over 2000 young people in the Nordic countries how well they understand the different Nordic languages.

Swedish: The most useful Scandinavian language

The results show an especially strong understanding of Swedish across the Nordic region (with a spike in Finland where they teach Swedish in school), effectively making Swedish the best language to learn if you’d like to be understood by the most amount of people in the entire Nordic region.

Swedish would also be an especially good language if you want to move to Scandinavia for work, as there are 10 million people speaking native Swedish, the most in the Nordics. As such, you’ll likely find more jobs for expats and foreigners in Sweden than in the rest of the region.

So if working for Volvo, IKEA, H&M, Spotify, or Ericsson sounds like a good place to work it’s not a bad idea to get started with your Swedish lessons.

As a comparison, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish all have around 5 million speakers each, while Icelandic has 300 000, Faroese 75 000, Greenlandic 55 000, and the Sami languages around 20-30 000 speakers.

Danish: The least useful Scandinavian language

Looking at the same Nordic council study from 2021, we can conclude that Danish is likely the least useful Scandinavian language to learn (unless you plan to live there), as it is the least understood out of the three in Scandinavia.

This conclusion is also supported by Norden i Skole, naming Danish as the language most Nordic people have a hard time understanding. The biggest hurdle is the pronunciation, which differs quite a bit from Swedish and Norwegian.

That said, if you will primarily stay in the Danish realm (Denmark, Faroe Islands, Greenland) the Danish language will of course be spoken and understood perfectly fine, and will be an excellent choice to learn.

What is the most and least beautiful Scandinavian language?

A group of mixed Scandinavian students studying abroad (at a Scandinavian language school) was asked how they thought each Scandinavian language sounded, and overall they thought Swedish sounded best, followed by Norwegian, Finland-Swedish, and Danish.

78.2% of respondents described Swedish as sounding “very nice”, 13% thought it sounded “average”, and finally 4.3% described Swedish as sounding “very ugly”. The Norwegian language sounded slightly more average to the respondents, with 60.8% saying it sounded “very nice”, 26.1% “average”, and 8.7% “very ugly”.

The same study would also suggest that Danish is the least beautiful Scandinavian language, with 73.9% of respondents describing the language as sounding “very ugly”, and only 4.3% of them describing it as sounding “very nice”.

What is the easiest Nordic or Scandinavian language to learn?

When the language-learning resource Babbel ranked the easiest languages to learn for English-speakers, the two Nordic languages Norwegian and Swedish ranked as the easiest and second easiest.

Needless to say, if you’re looking for a comparably easy language to learn, one of the Nordic languages will be a good choice, with Norwegian ultimately taking the prize as easiest Scandinavian language to learn for a native English-speaker.

Are the Nordic/Scandinavian languages easy to learn?

The Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian) are comparably easy to learn for an English-speaker, as they are also part of the Germanic language group, and considered Category 1 languages according to FSI (meaning they would take around 23-24 weeks to reach fluency).

When it comes to Icelandic it will be a lot harder, as it is a Category IV language (meaning you may need up to 44 weeks to reach fluency).

The fact that Old English comes from a North Sea Germanic tribe that ultimately has its roots in Scandinavia, the links between English and the Scandinavian languages are a lot stronger and more similar than one may think.

What language did the Vikings speak?

The people described as Vikings—inhabitants of the Scandinavian region who set out to settle and pillage “new” lands—spoke the Old Norse languages, meaning either Old West Norse, Old East Norse, or Old Gutnish.

The exact language depends on where they originated:

  • If they were from modern-day Norway or Iceland they would speak Old West Norse (a.k.a. Old Norwegian/Old Icelandic)
  • If they were from modern-day Sweden or Denmark they would speak Old East Norse (a.k.a. Runic Swedish/Runic Danish)
  • If they were from the island Gotland they would speak Old Gutnish

Sources:

https://portal.research.lu.se/portal/files/5905032/625654.pdf

http://www.let.rug.nl/gooskens/project/pdf/publ_Schueppert_et_al._2012c.pdf

More sources

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Karl Andersson

As a native Swede with a Finnish mother, Karl identifies as both Nordic and Scandinavian. He left Sweden at 19 to explore the world, and stayed abroad for almost 8 years—during which he backpacked, worked every job there was, earned a degree from UC Berkeley, and met the future mother of his children. He ultimately returned to his native Malmö with his love, where they now have 3 Swedish-American boys eager to explore the world.

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