How Nordic People Understand & Talk To Each Other (+ Graphs)

In the Nordics there are seven main languages; six are North Germanic, a.k.a. Nordic (Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese, and Greenlandic), and one is classified as a Uralic language (Finnish). With all these different languages in an otherwise very similar region, I was curious about how well Scandinavian-speaking countries actually understand each other, and how people in the Nordics generally choose to converse with one another.

To get an idea of how well the Nordic people understand each other, I looked at large-scale studies examining language comprehension in the region, how Nordic politicians use the Nordic languages to communicate in formal, diplomatic settings, and how my friends and family tend to communicate in these situations.

We’ll start with a study by the Nordic Council in 2021 where they asked 2000 young people in the Nordic region about their language habits and knowledge, especially interesting as this will show an accurate picture of how the Nordics will understand each other for a foreseeable future.

How Young Nordics Communicate With One Another

Among young people in the Nordic region, 62% find it easy to understand both Norwegian and Swedish, while only 26% say the same about Danish.

This can be contrasted to 95% saying they can also easily understand English, making it an easy common-ground language in those cases one cannot easily understand each other’s languages.

This is confirmed when we look at how the same young people answered which language they mainly used when meeting fellow Scandinavian-speakers, where they indicate that a mixture of Scandinavian and English is used with 59% saying they used English and 62% using one of the Scandinavian languages (multiple options could be picked).

Can Nordic People Understand Each Other’s Languages?

Most young Nordics (62%) can understand Swedish or Norwegian (or both), and also use a Scandinavian language when meeting neighboring Scandinavian-speakers. At the same time, 95% easily understand English and most of them use it (in addition to a Scandinavian language) when talking to fellow Scandinavian-speakers.

To expand on this, young people in the Nordic region generally communicate using one of the Scandinavian languages (62%), English (59%), or both (since multiple options could be selected) when meeting someone who speaks another Scandinavian language (Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish).

This is the same experience I have had throughout my life, as I’ve either spoken a mix of Scandinavian languages and/or English when meeting fellow northerners, depending on how we both fare with each other’s language and — more importantly in some cases — local dialect.

As an example, I have a huge family in Finland but have never quite mastered the language. And although Finland as a country has a comparably high understanding of my native tongue (Swedish), we quite often have to resort to English in combination with my horrible Finnish and their (sometimes very) hesitant Swedish.

Although most Nordic people I’ve met show a willingness to learn other Nordic languages, we all do what we can to make ourselves understood in the moment, and the high level of English proficiency in the Nordic region can really come in handy in cases where you might be at a loss with the local language or dialect, or just need to minimize miscommunication for whatever reason.

Let’s look at what Nordic people do in their professional careers when they need to cooperate with their Nordic neighbors:

How Do Nordic Academics & Professionals Communicate?

In many Nordic academic and professional contexts, English is used as the main language to facilitate faster and more accurate means of communication. An example of this is how pilots flying Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) planes always must speak English with each other to minimize the margin of error, despite speaking Scandinavian languages that are fairly close and—among pilots at least—mutually intelligible.

How Do Nordic Politicians Cooperate Linguistically Speaking?

When politicians representing each Nordic country meet in the so-called Nordic Council of Ministers, they use Danish, Norwegian and Swedish as the working languages of official Nordic co-operation. For the Finns and Icelanders specifically, this usually means that a translator must be present to facilitate smooth communication with the Scandinavian countries.

These two languages—especially Finnish—are simply too different from the Scandinavian languages to maintain a high level of understanding using only Scandinavian languages.

So it seems that there is a general mix of Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and English used when professionals cooperate within the Nordic region. Let’s take an even closer look at how each Nordic nationality understands other languages in the region, but going back to the specifics of the study I referenced earlier.

How Swedes Understand Other Nordic Languages

Can Swedes Understand Danish?

Most Swedes likely do not understand Danish very well, with three out of four young Swedes saying Danish is not an easy language to understand. This varies regionally though, with Swedes living close to Denmark having a much better understanding of Danish.

Can Swedes Understand Norwegian?

The vast majority of Swedes seem to understand Norwegian fairly easily, with four out of five young Swedes saying Norwegian is an easy language to understand. This varies regionally, with Swedes living close to Norway being even more likely to understand Norwegian easily.

Can Swedes Understand Icelandic?

Most Swedes do not understand Icelandic very well, being further separated from Swedish than for example Danish and Norwegian. This is due to Icelandic not having as much influence from the European continent, which means fewer loan words and slightly different grammar.

Can Swedes Understand Finnish?

Most Swedes do not understand Finnish at all, as it’s an Uralic and Finno-Ugric language as opposed to Indo-European and Germanic (like Swedish and the other Scandinavian languages).

How Danes Understand Other Nordic Languages

Can Danes Understand Swedish?

Many Danes understand Swedish fairly well these days, and almost one in two young Danes say Swedish is an easy language to understand. This varies regionally though, with Danes living close to Sweden having a much better understanding of Swedish than those living closer to Germany, for example.

Can Danes Understand Norwegian?

The vast majority of Danes seem to understand Norwegian easily, with two out of three young Danes saying Norwegian is an easy language to understand.

Can Danes Understand Faroese?

The vast majority of Danes do not understand Faroese, even though the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Can Danes Understand Icelandic?

Most Danes do not understand Icelandic very well, being further separated from Danish than Swedish and Norwegian are. This is due to Icelandic not having as much influence from the European continent, which means fewer loan words and slightly different grammar.

Can Danes Understand Finnish?

Most Danes do not understand Finnish at all, as it’s a Uralic and Finno-Ugric language as opposed to Indo-European and Germanic (like Danish and the other Scandinavian languages).

How Norwegians Understand Other Nordic Languages

Can Norwegians Understand Swedish?

Almost all Norwegians understand Swedish fairly well these days, with nine out of ten young Norwegians saying Swedish is an easy language to understand. This varies a bit regionally, with some west coast Norwegians speaking Norwegian Nynorsk having a slightly harder time understanding Swedish.

Can Norwegians Understand Danish?

Norwegians are just as likely to understand Danish as not, with barely one in two young Norwegians saying Danish is an easy language to understand these days.

Can Norwegians Understand Icelandic?

Norwegians who speak Nynorsk seem to understand Icelandic much easier than other Norwegians, who aren’t very likely to understand it much at all. This is due to Icelandic not having as much European influence, meaning fewer loan words and slightly different grammar.

Can Norwegians Understand Faroese?

The vast majority of Norwegians do not understand Faroese, even though the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

Can Norwegians Understand Finnish?

Most Norwegians do not understand Finnish at all, as it’s a Uralic and Finno-Ugric language as opposed to Indo-European and Germanic (like Norwegian and the other Scandinavian languages).

How Icelanders Understand Other Nordic Languages

Can Icelanders Understand Swedish?

It is fairly common that Icelanders understand Swedish these days, despite the two languages being quite different as far as vocabulary and grammar goes. More than one in three young Icelanders say that Swedish is an easy language to understand, which is surprising as Icelandic is closer to Old Norse than Swedish.

Can Icelanders Understand Danish?

People from Iceland are fairly likely to understand Danish, with more than one in three young Icelanders saying Danish is an easy language to understand.

Can Icelanders Understand Norwegian?

Icelandic-speakers generally have an easier time understanding Norwegian than the other two Scandinavian languages, as Icelandic and Norwegian both stem from West Old Norse, while Danish and Swedish stem from East Old Norse. This is also reflected in young Icelanders with almost one in two saying it’s easy to understand Norwegian.

Can Icelanders Understand Faroese?

Icelanders are generally able to read Faroese, but it’s not as easy for them to understand the spoken language. Icelandic and Faroese have developed separately for around 800 years, and differ quite a lot, comparably speaking, in their vocabularies.

Can Icelanders Understand Finnish?

Although Icelandic and Finnish may sound quite similar to foreigners, most Icelanders do not understand Finnish at all. Finnish is a Uralic and Finno-Ugric language, and Icelandic is Indo-European and Germanic (just like the other Scandinavian languages).

Any similarities usually stem from a similar tonality (stressing the first syllable of a word instead of the second as Scandinavians usually do), but not so much if you are a bit familiar with either of the languages.

How Faroe Islanders Understand Other Nordic Languages

Can Faroe Islanders Understand Swedish?

It is fairly common that Faroe Islanders understand Swedish these days, despite the two languages being quite different as far as vocabulary and grammar goes. More than half of young Faroe Islanders say that Swedish is an easy language to understand.

Can Faroe Islanders Understand Danish?

Almost all Faroe Islanders understand Danish fluently, as the country is part of the Kingdom of Denmark formally speaking and has Danish as the main language of instruction in upper secondary school.

Can Faroe Islanders Understand Norwegian?

Faroese-speakers generally have an easier time understanding Norwegian than the other two Scandinavian languages, as Faroese and Norwegian both stem from West Old Norse, while Danish and Swedish stem from East Old Norse. This is also reflected in young Icelanders with almost one in two saying it’s easy to understand Norwegian.

Can Faroe Islanders Understand Icelandic?

Faroe Islanders are generally able to read Icelandic, but it’s not as easy for them to understand the spoken language. Icelandic and Faroese have developed separately for around 800 years, and differ quite a lot, comparably speaking, in their vocabularies.

Can Faroe Islanders Understand Finnish?

Most Faroe Islanders do not understand Finnish at all. Finnish is a Uralic and Finno-Ugric language, and Icelandic is Indo-European and Germanic (just like the other Scandinavian languages).

How Finns Understand Other Nordic Languages

Finland is quite unique in the Nordics being the only country with a Uralic main language, a sizable Swedish-speaking minority, and an autonomous Island nation within its borders where everyone prefers Swedish over Finnish.

Can Finnish People Understand Swedish?

It is fairly common that Finns understand Swedish despite the two languages being vastly different and not even in the same language group. This is due to a couple of factors, one of them being a sizable minority of Swedish-speaking Finns in specific areas on the west coast (including the semi-autonomous Åland islands), another being the fact that Finland has been ruled by—and considered part of—Sweden for different periods throughout its history.

Can Finnish People Understand Danish?

People from Finland are unlikely to understand any Danish, with only seven percent of young Finns on the mainland saying Danish is an easy language to understand. Inhabitants of Åland are much likelier to understand Danish as they speak Swedish, which is much closer to Danish than Finnish is.

Can Finnish People Understand Norwegian?

People from Finland are fairly unlikely to understand any Norwegian, with slightly more than one in five young Finns on the mainland saying Norwegian is an easy language to understand. Inhabitants of Åland are even more likely to understand Norwegian, with more than four out of five on the islands saying they can easily understand Norwegian.


Sources:

https://pub.norden.org/nord2021-004

https://www.norden.org/en/information/nordic-languages

More sources

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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