1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Duolingo
  4. >
  5. Scandinavian languages: A sin…


Scandinavian languages: A single languages with multiple dialects or many languages?

While browsing through YouTube and it occurred to me that Scandinavian languages could be a big language with many dialects such as Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. My reasoning for this conclusion is that there's not much difference between the three main languages.

I would like to hear your thoughts.

Thanks in advance.

October 6, 2017



As far as I've understood, it has been established quite widely that the Scandinavian languages, in another context, could be counted as dialects of the same language. This is usually argued with grammatical etc. similarities. However, when we consider what is a language and what is not, we also have to consider existing social and political aspects, not merely intralingual attributes. One's mileage may vary on whether or not this is a positive, but this is nevertheless the case. One reason for this is that languages are not rigid and stable. Language continuums are common all around (see e.g. German/Dutch), and thus standardization - which is necessary for institutionalized teaching of language - just has to draw lines somewhere. As Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are all distinct nations - and the languages are inherently linked with those nations - it is commonly accepted, that their languages are not the same, even if the spoken forms Norwegian and Sweden near their shared border, for example, don't differ much.

Similar questions could be raised in a lot of places, e.g. China and the Balkan.


When I was younger, I once went to Norway, hitch-hiking my way through Germany, Danmark and Sweden. Although I didn't speak any Danish, Swedish or Norwegian (and still don't) I was surprised that I could understand the signs and directions. They looked familiar but I couldn't tell why... until I realized they "sounded" like the Dutch I had learned at school for six years. I could even talk in Dutch with the locals and be understood.

Back home, I told that to a Flemish friend who laughed at my astonishment. (In case you don't know it, Flemish is a Dutch dialect spoken in the northern part of Belgium on the North Sea side).

He told me that for centuries, sailors and fishermen from all the regions around the North Sea had cris-crossed this sea, going from one port to the other, working, fishing and drinking together and finally sharing the same dialect. He himself liked to sail on the sea and had no communication problems with other sailors, be it Germans, Danish, Swedish or Norvegians.


The relationship between Dutch and the North-Germanic languages is a funny one.

While they are technically not very closely related, it is actually quite easy for a Dutch speaker (in my experience) to get the gist of what's being said in Norwegian. It kinda sounds like a weird dialect of Dutch. Seiously, you'd expect that there would be significant difficulties in comprehending each other, but in case of Norwegian, it is about as difficult as understanding German or Afrikaans without learning the language first. I know, it sounds quite weird. Blame Middle Low German and the Hanseatic League for the shared vocab and perhaps even pronuncation. (de Hanze zit overal, zelfs in het Fins hebben ze sporen achtergelaten!)

Funny story: a family member of mine once encountered a Norwegian in a taxi in the UK and found she could understand her and upon talking to that Norwegian it turned out that the Norwegian also happened to speak decent Dutch!

Danish is...complicated. Still, it is much easier to comprehend than Swedish. Swedish is a lot more difficult to understand without training than Norwegian. The words seem to be more 'foreign'.

Icelandic is a weird case. I have been learning a bit of Icelandic and some grammatical bits are quite similar, such as the way of forming the present continous:

  • English: I am eating:

  • Dutch: Ik ben aan het eten

  • Icelandic: Ég er að borða

Another funny thing with Icelandic is that some words are exactly the same as in Dutch, they're just spelled different. (nee/nei, hallo, halló) These cases are rare though, but still amusing to stumble upon. Especially halló is seems odd, as 'hæ' is more alike to the common greetings (hej/hei) in the other North Germanic languages while greetings that sound like 'halló' (hallo/hello) are more common in West Germanic languages.


Navy? I guess that must be the reason Austrian isn't a language of its own... :(


Well the Austrian navy only went far to the north.

Like the islands Franz Josef Land and Jan Mayen. (Although they didn't discover it, I guess).

So they could only teach the Austrian dialect to polar bears.


You forget that before WW II Austria (More exactly the austrian empire) had an access to the mediterranean sea through what is now known as Slovenia and Croatia. In the famous musical "The sounds of music" von Trapp is a captain in the austrian navy.


Thanks, I will try to find a free time to look at the article.


The only reason these three languages are languages and not dialects, are because of politics for the past 500 years. Personally I support the idea of having one common Scandinavian written language.


Where could I research deep about the politics lasting for 500 years?

  1. Consult your reference librarian and/or

  2. Read Wikpedia articles about each of the countries, look at the sources they cite and go from there.

Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.