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Scandinavian languages

North Germanic
Ethnicity: North Germanic peoples
Northern Europe
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
Proto-language: Proto-Norse, later Old Norse
ISO 639-5: gmq

North Germanic languages
Continental Scandinavian languages:

Insular Scandinavian languages:


The North Germanic languages (sometimes misleading named Scandinavian languages), make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages, a sub-family of the Indo-European languages, along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages. The language group is sometimes referred to as the Nordic languages, a direct translation of the most common term used among Danish, Swedish and Norwegian scholars and laypeople. In Scandinavia, the term Scandinavian languages refers specifically to the mutually intelligible languages of the three Scandinavian countries and is thus used in a more narrow sense as a subset of the Nordic languages, leaving aside the insular subset of Faroese and Icelandic. The term Scandinavian arose in the 18th century as a result of the early linguistic and cultural Scandinavist movement, referring to the peoples, cultures, and languages of the three Scandinavian countries and stressing their common heritage.

The term "North Germanic languages" is used in genetic linguistics,[1] whereas the term "Scandinavian languages" appears in studies of the modern standard languages and the dialect continuum of Scandinavia.[2][3]

Approximately 20 million people in the Nordic countries have a Scandinavian language as their native language,[4] including a 5-percent minority in Finland. Languages belonging to the North Germanic language tree are, to a large extent, spoken on Greenland and to some extent by emigrant groups mainly in North America and Australia.

Linguists have discussed whether English can be referred to as a part of the Scandinavian language family.[5]


Origins and characteristics

The Germanic languages are traditionally divided into three groups: West, East and North Germanic.[6] Their exact relation is difficult to determine from the sparse evidence of runic inscriptions, and they remained mutually intelligible to some degree during the Migration Period, so that some individual varieties are difficult to classify. Dialects with the features assigned to the northern group formed from Proto-Germanic in the late Pre-Roman Iron Age.

At last around the year 200 AD, speakers of the North Germanic branch became distinguishable from the other Germanic language speakers. The early development of this language branch is attested through Runic inscriptions.

Features shared with West Germanic

The North Germanic group is characterized by a number of phonological and morphological innovations shared with West Germanic:

  • The retraction of Proto-Germanic ē (/ɛː/, also written ǣ) to ā.[7]
    • Proto-Germanic *jēraN ("year") > North/West Germanic *jāraN > North Germanic *āra > Old Norse ár, and > West Germanic *jāra > Old High German jār, Old English ġēar /jæːɑr/. Compare Gothic jēr.
  • The raising of /ɔː/ to /oː/ (and word-finally to /uː/). The original vowel remained when nasalised *ōN /ɔ̃ː/ and when before /z/, and was then later lowered to /ɑː/.
    • Proto-Germanic *gebō ("gift", /ˈɣeβɔː/) > North/West Germanic *gebu > North Germanic *gjavu > (by u-umlaut) *gjǫvu > Old Norse gjǫf, and > West Germanic *gebu > Old English giefu. In Gothic, the result was a low vowel instead: giba.
    • Proto-Germanic *tungōN ("tongue", /ˈtuŋɡɔ̃ː/) > late North/West Germanic *tungā > *tunga > Old Norse tunga, Old High German zunga, Old English tunge (unstressed a > e). Compare Gothic tuggō.
    • Proto-Germanic *gebōz ("of a gift", /ˈɣeβɔːz/) > late North/West Germanic *gebāz > North Germanic *gjavaz > Old Norse gjafar, and > West Germanic *geba > Old High German geba, Old English giefe (unstressed a > e). Compare Gothic gibōs.
  • The development of i-umlaut.
  • The rhotacism of /z/ to /r/, with presumably a rhotic fricative of some kind as an earlier stage.
    • This change probably affected West Germanic much earlier and then spread from there to North Germanic, but failed to reach East Germanic which had already split off by that time. This is confirmed by an intermediate stage ʀ, clearly attested in late runic East Norse at a time when West Germanic had long merged the sound with /r/.
  • The development of the demonstrative pronoun ancestral to English this.

Some have argued that after East Germanic broke off from the group, the remaining Germanic languages, the Northwest Germanic languages, divided into four main dialects:[8] North Germanic, and the three groups conventionally called "West Germanic", namely

  1. North Sea Germanic (Ingvaeonic, ancestral to Anglo-Frisian and Low German)
  2. Weser-Rhine Germanic (Istvaeonic, ancestral to Low Franconian)
  3. Elbe Germanic (Irminonic, ancestral to High German)

Under this view, the properties that the West Germanic languages have in common separate from the North Germanic languages are not inherited from a "Proto-West-Germanic" language, but rather spread by language contact among the Germanic languages spoken in central Europe, not reaching those spoken in Scandinavia.

Unique North Germanic features

Some innovations are not found in West and East Germanic such as:

  • Sharpening of geminate /jj/ and /ww/ according to Holtzmann's law
    • Occurred also in East Germanic, but with a different outcome.
    • Proto-Germanic *twajjôN ("of two") > Old Norse tveggja, Gothic twaddjē, but > Old High German zweiio
  • Word-final devoicing of plosives.
    • Proto-Germanic *band ("I/he bound") > *bant > Old West Norse batt, Old East Norse bant, but Old English band
  • Loss of medial /h/ with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel and the following consonant, if present.
    • Proto-Germanic *nahtuN ("night", accusative) > *nāttu > (by u-umlaut) *nǭttu > Old Norse nótt
  • /ɑi̯/ > /ɑː/ before /r/ (but not /z/)
    • Proto-Germanic *sairaz ("sore") > *sāraz > *sārz > Old Norse sárr, but > *seira > Old High German sēr.
    • With original /z/ Proto-Germanic *gaizaz > *geizz > Old Norse geirr.
  • General loss of word-final /n/, following the loss of word-final short vowels (which are still present in the earliest runic inscriptions).
    • Proto-Germanic *bindanaN > *bindan > Old Norse binda, but > Old English bindan.
    • This also affected stressed syllables: Proto-Germanic *in > Old Norse í
  • Vowel breaking of /e/ to /jɑ/ except after w, j or l (see "gift" above).
    • The diphthong /eu/ was also affected (also l), shifting to /jɒu/ at an early stage. This diphthong is preserved in Old Gutnish and survives in Modern Gutnish. In other Norse dialects, the /j/-onset and length remained, but the diphthong simplified resulting in variously /juː/ or /joː/.
    • This affected only stressed syllables. The word *ek ("I"), which could occur both stressed and unstressed, appears varyingly as ek (unstressed, with no breaking) and jak (stressed, with breaking) throughout Old Norse.
  • Loss of initial /j/ (see "year" above), and also of /w/ before a round vowel.
    • Proto-Germanic *wulfaz > early North Germanic wulfaz > late ulfz > Old Norse ulfr
  • The development of u-umlaut, which rounded stressed vowels when /u/ or /w/ followed in the next syllable. This followed vowel breaking, with ja /jɑ/ being u-umlauted to /jɒ/.

Middle Ages

After the Proto-Norse and Old Norse periods, the North Germanic languages developed into an East Scandinavian branch, consisting of Danish and Swedish; and, secondly, a West Scandinavian branch, consisting of Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic and, thirdly, an Old Gutnish branch.[9] Norwegian settlers brought Old West Norse to Iceland and the Faroe islands around 800 AD. Of the modern Scandinavian languages, written Icelandic is closest to this ancient language.[10] An additional language, known as Norn, developed on Orkney and Shetland after Vikings had settled there around 800 AD, but this language became extinct around 1700.[4]

In medieval times, speakers of all the Scandinavian languages could understand one another to a significant degree and it was often referred to as a single language, called the "Danish tongue" until the 13th century by some in Sweden[10] and Iceland.[11] In the 16th century, many Danes and Swedes still referred to North Germanic as a single language, which is stated in the introduction to the first Danish translation of the Bible and in Olaus Magnus' A Description of the Northern Peoples. Dialectal variation between west and east in Old Norse however was certainly present during the Middle Ages and three dialects had emerged: Old West Norse, Old East Norse and Old Gutnish. Old Icelandic was essentially identical to Old Norwegian, and together they formed the Old West Norse dialect of Old Norse and were also spoken in settlements in the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Norwegian settlements in Normandy.[12] The Old East Norse dialect was spoken in Denmark, Sweden, settlements in Russia,[13] England, and Danish settlements in Normandy. The Old Gutnish dialect was spoken in Gotland and in various settlements in the East.

Yet, by 1600, another classification of the North Germanic language branches had arisen from a syntactic point of view,[4] dividing them into an insular group (Icelandic and Faroese) and a continental group (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish). The division between Insular Scandinavian (önordiska/ønordisk/øynordisk)[14] and Continental Scandinavian (Skandinavisk)[15] is based on mutual intelligibility between the two groups and developed due to different influences, particularly the political union of Denmark and Norway (1536–1814) which lead to significant Danish influence on central and eastern Norwegian dialects (Bokmål or Dano-Norwegian).[3]

Number of speakers

Language Speakers Notes
Swedish 11,750,000 450,000 Finland Swedes
Danish 6,000,000
Norwegian 5,000,000
Icelandic 320,000
Faroese 90,000
Elfdalian 3,500


In historical linguistics, the North Germanic family tree is divided into two main branches, West Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic) and East Scandinavian languages (Danish and Swedish), along with various dialects and varieties. The two branches are derived from the western and eastern dialect group of Old Norse, respectively. There was also an Old Gutnish branch spoken on the island of Gotland. The continental Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian and Danish) were heavily influenced by Middle Low German during the period of Hanseatic expansion.

Currently, English loanwords are influencing the languages. A 2005 survey of words used by speakers of the Scandinavian languages showed that the number of English loanwords used in the languages has doubled during the last 30 years and is now 1.2%. Icelandic has imported fewer English words than the other Scandinavian languages, despite the fact that it is the country that uses English most.[16]

Another way of classifying the languages — focusing on mutual intelligibility rather than the tree-of-life-model — posits Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish as Continental Scandinavian, and Faroese and Icelandic as Insular Scandinavian.[3] Because of the long political union between Norway and Denmark, moderate and conservative forms of Norwegian Bokmål share most of the Danish vocabulary and grammar, and was virtually identical to written Danish until the spelling reform of 1907. (For this reason, Bokmål and its unofficial, more conservative variant Riksmål is sometimes considered East Scandinavian, and Nynorsk West Scandinavian via the West-East division shown above.[17]) However, Danish has developed a greater distance between the spoken and written versions of the language, so the differences between spoken Norwegian and Danish are somewhat more significant than the difference between the written. In writing, Danish is relatively close to the other Continental Scandinavian languages, but the sound developments of spoken Danish include reduction and assimilation of consonants and vowels, as well as the prosodic feature called stød in Danish (lit. "push; thrust"), developments which have not occurred in the other languages (though the stød corresponds to the different tones in Norwegian and Swedish, which are tonal languages). However, Scandinavians are widely expected to understand the other spoken Scandinavian languages. Some people may have some difficulties, particularly older people who speak a dialect, but most people can understand the standard languages, as they appear in radio and television, of the other Scandinavian countries.

Sweden left the Kalmar union in 1523 due to conflicts with Denmark, leaving two Scandinavian units: the union of Denmark-Norway (ruled from Copenhagen, Denmark) and Sweden (including present-day Finland). The two countries were taking different sides during several wars until 1814 and made different international contacts. This led to different borrowings from foreign languages (Sweden had a francophone period), for example the older Swedish word vindöga (“window”) was replaced by fönster (from Middle Low German), whereas native vindue was kept in Danish. Norwegians, who spoke (and still speak) the Norwegian dialects derived from Old Norse, would say vindauga or similar. The written language of Denmark-Norway however, was based on the dialect of Copenhagen and thus had vindue. On the other hand, the word begynde (“begin”, now written begynne in Norwegian Bokmål) was borrowed into Danish and Norwegian, whereas native börja was kept in Swedish. Even though standard Swedish and Danish were moving apart, the dialects were not influenced that much. Thus Norwegian and Swedish would still be similar in pronunciation, and words like børja would be able to survive in some of the Norwegian dialects whereas vindöga survived in some of the Swedish dialects. Nynorsk incorporates a great portion of these words, like byrja (Swedish börja, Danish begynde), veke (Swedish vecka, Danish uge) and vatn (Swedish vatten, Danish vand) whereas Bokmål has kept the Danish forms (begynne, uke, vann). This way Nynorsk is causing trouble for the above model, as it shares a lot of features with Swedish. According to Norwegian linguist Arne Torp, the Nynorsk project (whose goal was to re-establish a written Norwegian language) would be much harder to carry out if Norway had been in union with Sweden instead of Denmark, simply because the differences would be smaller.[18]

Mutual intelligibility

See also Germanic languages#Vocabulary comparison.

The mutual intelligibility between the Continental Scandinavian languages is asymmetrical. Various studies have shown Norwegian-speakers to be the best in Scandinavia at understanding other languages within the language group.[19][20] According to a study undertaken during 2002–2005 and funded by the Nordic Cultural Fund, Swedish-speakers in Stockholm and Danish-speakers in Copenhagen have the greatest difficulty in understanding other Nordic languages.[16] The study, which focused mainly on native speakers under the age of 25, showed that the lowest ability to comprehend another language is demonstrated by youth in Stockholm in regard to Danish, producing the lowest ability score in the survey. The greatest variation in results between participants within the same country was also demonstrated by the Swedish-speakers in the study. Participants from Malmö, located in the southernmost Swedish province of Scania, demonstrated a better understanding of Danish than Swedish-speakers to the north. Access to Danish television and radio, direct trains to Copenhagen over the Oresund Bridge and a larger number of cross-border commuters in the Oresund Region contribute to a better knowledge of spoken Danish and a better knowledge of the unique Danish words among the region's inhabitants. According to the study, youth in this region were able to understand the Danish language (slightly) better than the Norwegian language. But they still could not understand Danish as well as the Norwegians could, demonstrating once again the relative distance of Swedish from Danish; and youth in Copenhagen had a very poor command of Swedish, showing that the Oresund connection was mostly one-way.

The results from the study of how well native youth in different Scandinavian cities did when tested on their knowledge of the other Continental Scandinavian languages are summarized in table format,[19] reproduced below. The maximum score was 10.0:

City Comprehension
of Danish
of Swedish
of Norwegian
Århus, Denmark N/A
Copenhagen, Denmark N/A
Malmö, Sweden
Stockholm, Sweden
Bergen, Norway
Oslo, Norway

Faroese speakers (of the Insular Scandinavian languages group) are even better than the Norwegians at comprehending two or more languages within the Continental Scandinavian languages group, scoring high in both Danish (which they study at school) and Norwegian and having the highest score on a Scandinavian language other than their native language, as well as the highest average score. Icelandic speakers, in contrast, have a poor command of Norwegian and Swedish. They do somewhat better with Danish as they are taught Danish in school. When speakers of Faroese and Icelandic were tested on how well they understood the three Continental Scandinavian languages, the test results were as follows (maximum score 10.0):[19]

of Danish
of Swedish
of Norwegian
Faroe Islands


The North Germanic languages share many lexical, grammatical, phonological, and morphological similarities, to a more significant extent than the West Germanic languages do. These lexical, grammatical, and morphological similarities can be outlined in the table below.

Language Sentence
English It was a moist, grey summer day at the end of June.
German Es war ein feuchter, grauer Sommertag Ende Juni.
Dutch Het was een vochtige, grauwe zomerdag aan het einde van juni.
Afrikaans Dit was 'n vogtige, grou somer dag aan die einde van Junie.
Swedish Det var en fuktig, grå sommardag i slutet av juni.
Danish Det var en fugtig, grå sommerdag i slutningen af juni.
Norwegian (Bokmål) Det var en fuktig, grå sommerdag i slutten av juni.
Norwegian (Nynorsk) Det var ein fuktig, grå sumardag/sommardag i slutten/enden av juni.
Icelandic Það var rakur, grár sumardagur í lok júní.
Faroese Tað var ein rakur/fuktigur, gráur summardagur síðst í juni.

Language boundaries

Given the aforementioned homogeneity, there exists some discussion on whether the continental group should be considered one or several languages.[21] The Scandinavian languages (in the narrow sense, i.e., the languages of Scandinavia) are often cited as proof of the aphorism "A language is a dialect with an army and navy". The differences in dialects within the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark can often be greater than the differences across the borders, but the political independence of these countries leads continental Scandinavian to be classified into Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish in the popular mind as well as among most linguists. The generally agreed upon language border is, in other words, politically shaped. This is also because of the strong influence of the standard languages, particularly in Denmark and Sweden.[21] Even if the language policy of Norway has been more tolerant of rural dialectal variation in formal language, the prestige dialect often referred to as "Eastern Urban Norwegian", spoken mainly in and around the Oslo region, is sometimes considered normative. However less so than in Denmark and Sweden, since the prestige dialect in Norway has moved geographically several times over the past 200 years. The formation of Nynorsk out of western Norwegian dialects after Norway became independent of Denmark in 1814 added to making linguistic divisions match the political ones.

The Nordic Council has on several occasions referred to the (Germanic) languages spoken in Scandinavia as the "Scandinavian language" (singular); for instance, the official newsletter of the Nordic Council is written in the "Scandinavian language". The creation of one unified written language has been considered as highly unlikely, given the failure to agree upon a common standardized language in Norway. However, there is a slight chance of "some uniformization of spelling" between Norway, Sweden and Denmark.[22][23]

Family tree

All North Germanic languages are descended from Old Norse. Divisions between subfamilies of North Germanic are rarely precisely defined: Most form continuous clines, with adjacent dialects being mutually intelligible and the most separated ones not.

Classification difficulties

Jamtlandic shares many characteristics with both Trøndersk and with Norrländska mål. Due to this ambiguous position, it is contested whether Jamtlandic belongs to the West Norse or the East Norse language group.[24] Älvdalsmål "Älvdalen Speech", generally considered a Sveamål dialect, today has an official orthography and is, because of a lack of mutual intelligibility with Swedish, considered as a separate language by many linguists.[25]

Traveller Danish, Rodi, and Swedish Romani are varieties of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish with Romani vocabulary, or Para-Romani, known collectively as the Scando-Romani languages.[26] They are spoken by Norwegian and Swedish Travellers. The Scando-Romani varieties in Sweden and Norway combine elements from the dialects of Western Sweden, Eastern Norway (Østlandet) and Trøndersk.

Written norms of Norwegian

Norwegian has two official written norms, Bokmål and Nynorsk, and two well established unofficial norms: Riksmål, similar to, but more conservative (that is, closer to Danish) than Bokmål, which is used to various extents by numerous people, especially in the cities and by the largest newspaper in Norway, Aftenposten, and Høgnorsk "High-Norwegian", similar to Nynorsk, used by a very small minority.

Other languages in Scandinavia

Sami languages form an unrelated group that has coexisted with the North Germanic language group in Scandinavia since prehistory.[27] Sami, like Finnish, is part of the group of the Uralic languages.[28] In inter-Nordic contexts, texts are today often presented in three versions: Finnish, Icelandic, and one of the three languages Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.[29] During centuries of interaction, Finnish and Sami have imported many more loanwords from North Germanic languages than vice versa.

The North-Germanic languages are majority languages in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, whereas Finnish is spoken by the majority in Finland. Another language in the Nordic countries is Greenlandic, the official language of Greenland.

In Southern Jutland in southwestern Denmark, German is also spoken by the North Schleswig Germans, and German is a recognized minority language in this region. In Southern Schleswig, German is the primary language among the Danish minority, and likewise, Danish is the primary language of the North Schleswig Germans. Both minority groups are highly bilingual.

Traditionally, Danish and German were the two official languages of Denmark-Norway; the and other official instruments for use in Denmark and Norway were written in Danish, and local administrators spoke Danish or Norwegian. German was the administrative language of Holstein and Schleswig.

See also


Further reading

  • .
  • .
  • Outlined Scanian orthography including morphology and word index. First revision.
  • Maurer, Friedrich (1942), Nordgermanen und Alemannen: Studien zur germanischen und frühdeutschen Sprachgeschichte, Stammes- und Volkskunde, Strasbourg: Hünenburg.
  • Outlined Scanian orthography including morphology and word index.
  • Iben Stampe Sletten red., Nordens sprog – med rødder og fødder, 2005, available online, also available in the other Scandinavian languages.

External links

  • Middle Low German influence on the Scandinavian languages
  • Scandinavian-only words

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