In this essay I hope to compare the languages of mainland Scandinavia (i.e. Danish, Norwegian --
both the Bokmål and Nynorsk variants -- and Swedish) with each other. I should like to compare
them as regards differences and similarities in orthography, grammar, and vocabulary. I will also
discuss, where possible, the comparison in a historical context.
I will generalise, to a degree, as the texts given(*) are dissimilar enough to make direct
comparison less useful than extrapolated generalisations.
(*) The ones listed as "extracts" in the bibliography.
The Dano-Norwegian languages(1) share a common orthography (i.e. the special characters å, æ,
and ø), whereas Swedish drops the æ and ø, taking on the characters ä and ö (replacing the ø).
The rest of the languages’ orthographies have each evolved in unique ways. Danish’ for example,
has replaced the consonants /p/, /t/, and /k/, (remaining in both Norwegian and Swedish), with /b/, /d/,
and /g/, reflecting pronounciation patters. Differences also remain in the other languages reflecting
pronounciation, e.g. in Norwegian the convention of writing /ei/, /øy/, and /au/, reflecting their
pronounciation as diphthongs.
Loanwords containing the letters /c/, /q/, /w/, /x/, and /z/ are generally naturalised by substituting,
respectively, /k/ or /s/, /kv/, /v/, /ks/, and /s/ (e.g., kontakt "contact", yet notice the Danish and Swedish
spellings of cigar reflecting the English).
(1) By this I mean Danish, and both the Bokmål and Nynorsk variants of Norwegian.
Spelling conventions are consistent vis-à-vis the pronounciation they represent in the
Scandinavian languages(2), except where it comes to orthographical differences. It should be
noted, however, that there are some exceptions to this. For example, in Danish a word should not
end in a double consonant (e.g. huset "the house" cannot have two /t/s), whereas in the other
languages a word can. The differences between the three languages are only slight, yet there are
times where they differ significantly, for example when it comes to loan-words. In Denmark a
loan word is generally spelled as it is in its source language (e.g. champagne), whereas in
Norwegian and Swedish (after 1801) the spelling of the word normally reflects its pronounciation
(e.g. sjofør, No., "chauffeur"). Norway seems to be going even more to this extreme, with the
Norwegian Language Board recommending a "nordicised" spelling for a number of loan-words,
whereas Sweden seems to be engaging in a less ruthless approach, yet one that modifies the
spelling to reflect the word’s pronounciation more closely.
I should also like to mention here the "initial palatal affricate" -- the sound /j/ or /i/ --
occuring in Norwegian and Swedish. Denmark lost this sound sometime before 1889(3). In
Norwegian this sound is written after /g/ and /k/, and is still pronounced, and in Swedish the sound
remains, but is not written. Also, in Sweden a number of "Danish" features were lost with the
language reforms of 1906, which provided for the following changes (again, reflecting the
pronounciation patters of the day): /hv/ > /v/; /fv/ > /v/; /f/ > /v/; and /dt/ > /t/, so nowadays, for example, we
have rött and känt instead of rödt and känt.
All three languages have undergone various spelling reforms over the years, e.g. the 1948
reform in Denmark which replaced the spelling aa with å, and which also abolished the Germanic
practice of beginning all nouns with a capital letter. Other notable reforms being the 1889
reforms in both Denmark and Swedish, and the 1907, 1917, and 1938 reforms in Norway, which
adapted native pronunciation and grammar as the language’s normative base, resulting in
Riksmål (later, to become Bokmål).
(2) For example, here is a comparison of how one would say "I love you" (Icelandic included for comparison): Dk., jeg
elsker dig, Icel., ég elska þig, No.(BM), jeg elsker deg, No.(NN), eg elskar deg, Sv., jag älskar dig.
(3) At which time the spelling was reformed to take account of this change (e.g. skjøn > skøn)
All three languages share common features vis-à-vis grammar; e.g. "non-conjugation" of verbs in
the present indicative, and all other cases, and the practice of suffixing the definite article to the
noun (when there is no adjective(4)). Danish and Swedish both have two genders, common and
neuter, whereas written Norwegian possesses three (masculine, feminine, and neuter).
The three languages also have the Germanic concept of "strong" and "weak" verbs,
whereby strong verbs are semi-irregular in their perfect and pluperfect formations, and the
so-called weak verbs are arranged into groups on the basis of the pattern into which they fall. The
Scandinavan languages (with the exception being Icelandic) lost the case system at some point
between the Viking period and 1300 AD.
A number of particular and perculiar syntactical differences can be summed up thus:
(4) Though Swedish does use a "double-definite", i.e. where the definite article is indicated by both a word preceding
the noun, and also by a suffix to the noun.
Danish and Norwegian generally share a common vocabulary, yet speakers of the languages may
be unsure of the other’s meaning, due to differing pronounciation patterns. They will know,
however, what the word means, once recognised. On the other hand, a Norwegian and a Swede
could be sure of what the other was saying, yet may be unsure of the exact meaning, Swedish
having evolved words for concepts that do not quite fit the Dano-Norwegian, or even Germanic
model. This is not always the case, however (c.f. No., strikk; Dk., elastik; and Sv., resår).
Without being unfair on the Swedes, I would generally say that learners of the other two,
attempting to learn Swedish (as opposed to Danish or Norwegian), or Swedes attempting to learn
Danish or Norwegian, will face the greatest problem. Danish and Norwegian (even when
looking at the fairly alien-looking Nynorsk) are actually much closer than people would think.
Swedish has, since the 1570s pursued an approach of linguistic purism, culminating in the 1753
foundation of the Swedish Academy, so one could say, jokingly, that the Swedes deserve any
difficulties they have with Danish and Norwegian!
(5) Including Iceland, Finland, and the Faroes.
The observations here raised a fairly basic, yet often overlooked question, how similar and how
removed from each other are the Scandinavian languages. To answer this question fully is
beyond the scope of this essay, yet I believe it is a valid question, and one that the Language
Boards, Academies, and various authorities of all Scandinavian and Norden(5) countries will have
to face. One also is faced by the question of what is Scandinavian, yet that is definitely beyond
both the scope of this essay, and, indeed, of this course.
Encyclopædia Britannic, on-line edition, available at http://www.britannica.com/.
Kruse, Arne, Similarities and Differences in the Scandinavian Languages. School of European
Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh, 2000.
Skandinavisk Ordbok. Nordstedts Förlag, 1994.
- Extracts from (all from School of European Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh,
- Alnæs, Karsten, Trollbyen (1992)
- Kristensen, Tom, Livets arabesk (1992)
- Hermodsson, Elisabeth, Disa Nilsons visor (1974)
- Vesaas, Tarjei, Fuglane (1957)