What are the Scandinavian Languages?


What are the Scandinavian Languages?

The ‘Scandinavian languages’ are Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. The group does not include Icelandic and Faroese, However, the former three and the latter two combine to form a group known as the ‘Nordic languages’ or the North Germanic languages’. (Finnish and Sami, also spoken in the region, are not Scandinavian, Nordic or Germanic, or even Indo-European – they belong to an entirely separate language family known as ‘Uralic’ or ‘Finno-Ugric’.)

What are the characteristics of the Scandinavian languages?
The three languages are very similar and mutually intelligible. As is the case with a great many related languages that neighbour each other (see the Lexiblog article on Czech and Slovak), the Scandinavian languages comprise a dialect continuum. Within this continuum, there are four official standards: one each for Swedish and Danish and two for Norwegian. They share numerous features: a pared-down case system, greatly simplified verb conjugations, the use of an enclitic definite article, and the presence of the cute letter ‘å’.

What is an enclitic definite article?
In the Scandinavian languages, the word for ‘the’ is attached to the end of its noun. For example, the Norwegian word for ‘horse’ is ‘hest’; if you want to say ‘the horse’, you must say ‘hesten’. The ‘-en’ is the so-called enclitic definite article.

How come Norwegian has two standards?

In the Early and High Middle Ages, Norway became a North European superpower, with possessions in Greenland, Iceland, the Faeroes, Shetland and Orkney. In 1397, Norway, Sweden and Denmark formed the so-called Kalmar Union. In 1523, Sweden left the Kalmar Union and Norway became the junior partner in the resulting union with Denmark. At the start of the 19th century, Denmark allied itself with France and, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was forced (by way of punishment) to cede Norway to Sweden in 1814. (The Norwegians were not impressed and immediately went to war with Sweden but were forced by the British and the Russians to come to terms and elect the king of Sweden as the King of Norway.) In 1905, Norway separated peacefully from Sweden and the Norwegian parliament elected Prince Carl of Denmark as King of Norway (whereupon he took the name Haakon VII).

Here’s where it gets complicated. In the Middle Ages, Norwegian – or rather the Old Norse, which went on to become modern Scandinavian, Icelandic and Faeroese – was the vehicle for a rich and varied literature. During the Reformation (16th century, as you will recall), Danish became the official language of Norway and the local language was sidelined. (This happened in the Faeroe Islands as well, but not in Iceland, where, in spite of horribly oppressive Danish rule, the Icelandic language was allowed to retain its place in national life.) After 1814, Danish became a ‘foreign’ language and, in the wake of what one imagines must have been considerable linguistic argy-bargy, two varieties of Norwegian were in 1885 declared by the Norwegian parliament to be official and of equal status: Riksmål (closer to Danish); and Landsmål (a rather purer Norwegian with less Danish influence). In 1929, Riksmål and Landsmål were re-christened Bokmål and Nynorsk. There was apparently a plan to develop a unified national standard to be called Samnorsk, but this was abandoned, thus Norway has two official standards.