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Mutual Intelligibility of Nordic Languages?

Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish and Swedish can all claim descent from Old Norse, but how easily does the speaker of one language get to grips with the others? One form of Norwegian reportedly has a lot of Danish vocabulary, but are the relationships like Spanish and Portuguese, whereby the roots are similar, or more like English and German, of the same family, but having diverged greatly?

November 18, 2014




An understanding of spoken language:

Norwegians understand 88% of the spoken Swedish language and 73% of the spoken Danish language

Swedes understand 48% of the spoken Norwegian language and 23% of the spoken Danish language

Danes understand 69% of the spoken Norwegian language and 43% of the spoken Swedish language

An understanding of the written language:

Norwegians understand 89% of the written Swedish language and 93% of the written Danish language

Swedes understand 86% of the written Norwegian language and 69% of the written Danish language

Danes understand 89% of the written Norwegian language and 69% of the written Swedish language.


Love it. But perhaps a source? :)


I'm afraid I forgot the source. I copied and pasted that from a discussion I started about the 3 languages. I think if you copy and paste it into google, some websites will appear but I have forgotten what the direct source was :)

Are you Swedish or Danish. As a Swedish speaker, I can assure you that the percentages for Swedes understanding Danish are very much like that. Sometimes I may understand nothing in a spoken Danish sentence, but sometimes I may understand half of it :)


I'm no expert, but as far as I know, Norwegian and Swedish are mutually intelligible. Danish will need some work to understand, as will Finnish, I believe. Icelandic is a bit similar, but much is different as well. So, to answer your question, I'd say that Norwegian and Swedish are like Spanish and Portuguese, but the rest are further apart.


Finnish is not in the same language family as the Nordic languages. As someone who speaks Swedish fairly well, I can understand most written Norwegian and Danish and can understand Norwegian and some Danish when spoken (Danish is harder to understand because the pronunciation is so different). I recognize some Icelandic words but it is not mutually intelligible with the other Nordic languages.


Finnish is certainly a Nordic language, just not a Scandinavian one :-)


Finnish is a Finno-Urgic language, while Swedish is a Germanic language.


Regarding Finnish, it is normally absolutely incomprehensible to other Nordic people, save for a few international words like "parlamentti" or "karamelli" and so on.

The other way around can't really be tested in real life, as all Finnish speakers in Finland learn at least a few years of Swedish in school (and many much more), so they will all have some grasp of Swedish and therefore of Scandinavian languages in general.


The other way around can't really be tested in real life

There are still plenty of older Finnish people (including both my parents) who went to school before late 1960ies. The vast majority of them only completed the mandatory "kansakoulu", and received no foreign language education whatsoever.

From what I have seen, Swedish is "absolutely incomprehensible" to them, beside some extremely common expressions.


True! But even they will have heard and seen Swedish regularly, even if they might never turn on Swedish language tv or talk to a Swedish speaker: the text on food packaging, announcements on train stations, the President's speech at New Years,... Even if you wouldn't pay attention to these, they still have an influence, and in the other Nordic countries you normally don't hear any Finnish.


Finish is not a nordic language but has its roots in Central Europe.

Swedes and Danes are able to communicate with each other in their own languages, at least according to The Bridge TV series.


Not really in Central Europe. Finnish is part of the Uralic language group, having evolved from Proto-Uralic spoken near the Ural mountains in Central-Western Russia.


Finnish is certainly a Nordic language, just not a Scandinavian one. And scarcerer is right about the geography.

I don't know if real life Scanians (people from the bit of Sweden which is closest to Denmark) communicate easily with Danes in their own languages, but the rest of us Swedish speakers don't. Heck, we don't always communicate that easily with Scanians either, because their accent is so close to Danish. This nice crossborder communication also happens in the Wallander films, where incidentally the main characters (who are supposed to be local) speak pretty standard Swedish, but the other locals speak with a much broader Scanian accent...


As a Dane living in Scania, I can tell that most understand me pretty well and vice versa, although there are a few individuals I have trouble with if they speak very fast or mumble a lot.

But if I have to call some service centre person (i.e. försäkringskassan) located in central or northern Sweden I prefer English since I find it painful having to speak super slow in order for them to understand my Danish.

Or if they don't speak English I might just try in Swedish, strange as it feels.


That is a good question. I'll share some of my recent experiences.

I am a native Finnish speaker (and please remember that English and Swedish are closer to Urdu than to Finnish) who has learned Swedish at school. Since a couple of weeks I live and work in Maastricht, Netherlands and I work in a company where I am one of a couple who handle customer service for UK, Ireland and Nordic markets. That is why I speak to Danish or Norwegian customers almost daily.

First of all, when someone calls from Denmark or Norway I introduce myself and say, for example, "good afternoon, god eftermiddag" both in English and Swedish. This way the client can decide whether he wants to continue in English or skandinaviska. Also, if the client is at all aware of the different accent of 'riksvenska' and 'finlandssvenska'*** they should immediately notice that they are not talking with a Swedish-Swedish person. (I don't know how many can tell.)

If a call comes from Sweden, I will only say 'god eftermiddag'. I feel confident enough that I can handle these calls in Swedish. Although that one client had such a thick accent that screaming in panic came to my mind...

So far most of the Danish and Norwegian people have wanted to speak their own language while I speak Swedish to them. I don't speak awfully fast and finlandssvenska is quite easy on the ear so I suppose they understand me. Although, I should start saying 'spørsmål' (?) instead of 'fråga' with them. Some, however, prefer to speak English which I understand (I mean, I understand English but also that they want to speak it).

For me, the Norwegian customers are quite easy to understand. Or at least not horribly difficult. Most of the time. The Danish... I have had to say sometimes that I don't understand and that could we please speak English. I have succeeded getting through some conversations with Danish clients but even then I pray to god through the entire conversation that I may understand the other person. Oh, and I'm an atheist.

When it comes to written Danish and Norwegian, I read a few emails per day in those languages and that is not a problem. If I need to write back I will use Swedish which hasn't been a problem for any of the clients so far.

PS. Having to focus on Swedish and the fact that I have started Danish is really hurting my Dutch because that, too, is a Germanic language

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