Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish–what’s the relationship?

Posted on 20. Nov, 2008 by in Language

Like the romance languages, Scandinavian languages have much in common.  Danes and Norwegians can understand each other and so can Norwegians and Swedes.  Swedish and Danish do not have quite as much in common.  Norwegian seems to be the common denominator.  You might wonder why this is?

Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have a complicated relationship.  Historically it has been quite a scene of power-swapping and power sharing.  The three countries were politically united from 1397-1523 in the Kalmar Union.  Shortly thereafter Denmark ruled over Norway for nearly three centuries (1536-1814), after  which point Norway fell under Swedish rule.  During the Norway-Denmark union, Danish was the standard written language and the spoken language of the Norwegian elite.  By the time Norway was in a union with Sweden, Norwegians united in a nationalist movement to develop their own language.

In Norway there are two standard written languages: bokmål and nynorsk.  Children learn both languages in school.  Bokmål is the written language of the majority of the population, but most people speak their own local dialect.  If you learn bokmål and Norwegian is not your first language (morsmål= essentially mother tongue), you will be able to understand Norwegians in Oslo forsure.  Chances are you’ll understand people in Bergen and other big cities, but once you move into the rural areas, it’s tough.  Some Norwegians can’t even understand each other.  The high mountains and deep valleys prevented people from interacting with others outside of their village so hundreds of different dialects evolved. 

Nynorsk is actually a language that a man named Ivar Aasen set out to develop.  During the middle of the 19th century, he travelled all around Norway to collect grammatical and phonetic information about Norwegian dialects.  He basically created a folk-language (nynorsk) that shares less characteristics with Danish and more with Old Norwegian and the many dialects that were formed during Norway’s several unions with Sweden and Denmark.

Here is the relationship between the three languages that all of this history has created:  Written Danish and Norwegian are very similar, spoken Swedish and Norwegian are very similar, and Danish and Swedish have the least in common.  Many people think Danes sounds like Norwegians with potatoes in their throats.�  Bottom line-if you learn Norwegian, you will be able to get by in Sweden and Denmark too!!!

About kari

I attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, where I majored in Norwegian and History. During college, I spent almost a year living in Oslo, Norway, where I attended the University of Oslo and completed an internship at the United States Embassy. I have worked for Concordia Language Villages as a pre-K Norwegian teacher and have taught an adult Norwegian language class. Right now, I keep up by writing this Norwegian blog for Transparent Language. Please read and share your thoughts! I will be continuing this blog from my future residence in the Norwegian arctic!

32 Responses to “Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish–what’s the relationship?”

  1. changbuin magdaline tsewah 17 February 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    I am experiencing the fact that ,not knowing the Norwegian language prevents me from many pleasures and exciting events which I must have enjoyed very well. So staying in Norway which wil be up to 4years I need to have an opportunity to study the language ,I love the language and the tone in which the words are framed.

  2. Shanna 17 February 2009 at 4:51 pm #

    I’m going to Norway in December and very excited about the adventure. Biggest problem I have is understanding difference between the US Dollar and the kroner or KOM. Can you help?

  3. Lucy 17 February 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    What version of Norwegian does Biki teach?

  4. gary 17 February 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    Thanks for the blog. I have bought several computer language learning tools, also a program that runs on my dell axim pocket pc. I have bought several old books on amazon, and have bought a Muze usb internet radio plug, that lets me hear radio streams from Norway(or any number 0f 13,000 free radio streams from around the world) I even downloaded a free Internet Tv stream that lets me watch Tv streams from Norway. I have dreamed of visiting Norway(along with all of Scandinavia)for many years, and where I live near is the largest concentration of Finns in America(Lake Worth,Florida)Regards,..Gary.

  5. Marie Bibas 17 February 2009 at 6:05 pm #

    I am looking for penpals to do some language and cultural exchange. Can you help me? I am a French teacher and would gladly coach in French in exchange for Norwegian.

    Marie

  6. yasbe 17 February 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    very interesting! thank you for the information =)

  7. David 17 February 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    Thanks for starting the blog!!! I’ll be checking in regularly.

  8. Shanna 17 February 2009 at 9:14 pm #

    There is a website that teaches conversational Norwegian. It’s http://www.BYKI.com. It gives me pointers on the language. Maybe it will help you.

  9. Vilnis 18 February 2009 at 4:44 am #

    To Shanna: How to use BYKI?
    My mail: signali@inbox.lv

  10. Charl 18 February 2009 at 5:57 am #

    I am a South African and from the Khoisan tribe. I met up with Norwegians with exchange program and are great friends. We communicate on a daily bases and I would love to learn the Norwegian language to understand the culture beter.
    I will be going to Norway soon and would know the basics of the language.
    Thanks for blog

  11. Kari 18 February 2009 at 9:33 am #

    Thank you all for responding-and so promptly after the blogs went live! I hope you all enjoy my sometimes random thoughts and opinions. My goal is to get you all so interested in learning the language and history and culture of Norway that you’ll go there and impress yourselves with how much you know!

  12. Kari 18 February 2009 at 9:37 am #

    To Vilnis and Shanna: I don’t quite know how to download and use Byki myself. I will fill you in if I learn more. I want to learn Spanish!

    And Gary: the largest concentration of Finns is in Florida?? I would have thought it would up on the iron range in northern Minnesota. So do you know any Finnish then?

  13. Shanna 18 February 2009 at 10:02 am #

    BYKI has free downloads. You choose what language you want to learn. Hit download and BYKI will email you the download so that you can learn in your own time. I love it. It will give you a shortcut for your screen. You can get a larger version that will cost money. This is to get you familiar with the language and basic phrases, numbers, colors etc. I think you’ll enjoy it too. Just go to the website and click it and it will go to a screen directing what to do. Hope you get it okay. By the way, there is Spanish too.

  14. Shanna 18 February 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    A friend of mine wanted to know about the “rune stone.” Where is it and is it close to Oslo? It’s suppose to have some spiritual value.

  15. E. 18 February 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    to Shanna : your friend can find plenty of information about the Rune Stones in Norway at : http://www.norway.com/
    and :
    http://www.norway.com/directories/d_company.asp?id=17064

  16. Shanna 19 February 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    Can somebody tell me the currency of Norway and how it relates to the dollar. Also is there somebody in Oslo who wants to be a penpal?

  17. lian 20 February 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    To : Shanna, the currencydollar to krone is 5.5 around then

  18. Shanna 20 February 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    thank you to E. and lian for their responses. Means a lot to me. I did find out that there are a few runestones here in America from when the Vikings (Leif Ericsson) discovered American. Maybe one is his. He’s my direct lineage. Proud to be a Viking.

  19. Shanna 2 March 2009 at 11:23 pm #

    While in Oslo, I hope to do some shopping. Looking for a sweater and a dress. What is the average price on both (compare to US Dollars). I do plan on exchanging dollars to Kom and/or Krone. Just would like to know how much I’d spending.
    Also, I’m going to the Viking Ship museum, do they miniatures of the ship that I could buy? Still looking for a penpal.

    Takk

  20. Kari 3 March 2009 at 7:44 pm #

    Shanna-shopping can be quite expensive in Oslo. I would plan on around $50 US dollars for a dress. Could be more or less. As for the sweater, are you looking for a Norwegian sweater? If so, that will cost you anywhere from $150-$300?
    I can’t think of anyone for you to penpal with, but if I think of any sort of resource, I’ll let you know.

  21. Shanna 3 March 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    Dress sounds reasonable and I was looking for a Norwegian sweater (I expected as much). Takk (trying to learn conversational Nowegian), Kari for answering.

  22. Shanna 13 May 2009 at 11:14 pm #

    I’m confused. All of my life I was told that I come from Leif Ericsson’s bloodline. Recently, I was told that there is no “c” in the Norwegian language. I have seen and read books that say it is Ericsson as in Eric’s son. What is true? Is it a ‘c’ or ‘k’. Do I need to go change my name to be the truth?

  23. Shanna 6 June 2009 at 9:10 am #

    I’m going to Norway to search my roots and vacation. Will only be there 4 days.

  24. Shanna 10 August 2009 at 8:39 am #

    Now here is a question…I have troubles eating fish, so does Norway have steaks, hamburger and chicken to eat at the restaurants? Budget will be tight while visiting Norway in December. Any suggestions?

  25. Daniel 25 January 2010 at 7:32 am #

    Someone of you all can help me? I would like to start the learning Dansk and I need to know if the two languages are similar at the level that if one student study Dansk understand-study Norwegian as well….

    Thanks to all
    Dany

  26. Kari 25 January 2010 at 11:50 pm #

    Dany,
    Norwegian and Danish are very similar, actually. They are very alike in the written form, but the spoken languages are quite different. On the contrary, Swedish and Norwegian sound very much alike, but look very different written. I can understand Danish when I read it and I can partially understand it when I hear it, but they are definitely different. I think it would be easier to know Danish and then learn Norwegian rather than the other way around. Hope this helps!

  27. BM 26 January 2010 at 4:27 am #

    Bokmål and written Danish are very similar, but Nynorsk and written Danish are quite different.

    Spoken Norwegian, whether east or west, are both quite different from Norwegian, and west is more different from Swedish than east is.

  28. Mahdi 10 February 2010 at 11:51 am #

    Shanny,
    visit http://www.xe.com for any currency calculation.
    visit http://www.mylanguageexchange.com to find a penpal.

  29. Mahdi 11 February 2010 at 3:29 am #

    Great!
    I found this blog while searching for information about learning Swedish, but came up with a lot of useful information about Norsk language and culture!

  30. Mahdi 11 February 2010 at 3:30 am #

    Do you know any similar blog about Swedish?

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  32. Amy 8 May 2013 at 7:08 pm #

    But why, other than that the people belong to two different nations, does everyone claim there is Norwegian language and Swedish language? If they are mutually intelligible then why are they different languages as opposed to dialects of the same language?

    Brits and Americans are mutually intelligible but we also have tons and tons of different words – totally different pronunciation and really, we sometimes don’t understand each other at all. Why is it different? I don’t see what makes the difference.


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