Languages of the Nordics

North Germanic

The Northern Germanic languages are divided into the two branches East Scandinavian languages consisting of Swedish and Danish, separating it from the West Scandinavian languages, consisting of Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian. However, more recent analyses divide the North Germanic languages into two groups: Insular Scandinavian, Faroese and Icelandic, and Continental Scandinavian, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, based on mutual intelligibility due to heavy influence of East Scandinavian (particularly Danish) on Norwegian during the last millennium and divergence from both Faroese and Icelandic.

Map outlining the Nordic languages and their relation.
Map outlining the Nordic languages and their relation. Germanic: Shades of red Finnic: Shades of blue Greenlandic: Green Base map copyright: Nordregio

By many general criteria of mutual intelligibility, the Continental Scandinavian languages could very well be considered dialects of a common Scandinavian language. However, because of several hundred years of sometimes quite intense rivalry between Denmark and Sweden, including a long series of wars from the 16th to 18th centuries, and the nationalist ideas that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the languages have separate orthographies, dictionaries, grammars, and regulatory bodies. Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are thus from a linguistic perspective more accurately described as a dialect continuum of Scandinavian (North Germanic), and some of the dialects, such as those on the border between Norway and Sweden, especially parts of Bohuslän, Dalsland, western Värmland, western Dalarna, Härjedalen, Jämtland and Scania, could be described as intermediate dialects of the national standard languages.

Proficient speakers of any of the three languages can understand the others, though studies have shown that speakers of Norwegian generally understand both Danish and Swedish far better than Swedes or Danes understand each other. Both Swedes and Danes also understand Norwegian better than they understand each other’s languages.[4]


Swedish is spoken natively by about 9 million people predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland. Standard Swedish, used by most Swedes, is the national language that evolved from the Central Swedish dialects in the 19th century and was well established by the beginning of the 20th century. While distinct regional varieties descended from the older rural dialects still exist, the spoken and written language is uniform and standardized..


Danish is spoken by around six million people, principally in Denmark and in the region of Southern Schleswig in northern Germany. In addition around 15–20% of the population of Greenland speaks Danish as their home language.

Standard Danish is based on dialects spoken in and around the capital, Copenhagen. Unlike Swedish and Norwegian, Danish does not have more than one regional speech norm. More than 25% of all Danish speakers live in the metropolitan area of the capital, and most government agencies, institutions, and major businesses keep their main offices in Copenhagen, something that has resulted in a very homogeneous national speech norm.


Norwegian is spoken by around five million people, primarily in Norway where it is the official language. There are two official forms of written Norwegian – Bokmål and Nynorsk. Two other written forms also exist, Riksmål and Høgnorsk but they both see very limited use. Bokmål is a Norwegianised variety of Danish, while Nynorsk is a language form based on Norwegian dialects and puristic opposition to Danish. The now abandoned official policy to merge Bokmål and Nynorsk into one common language called Samnorsk through a series of spelling reforms has created a wide spectrum of varieties of both Bokmål and Nynorsk.

Nynorsk and Bokmål provide standards for how to write Norwegian, but not for how to speak the language. There is no officially sanctioned standard of spoken Norwegian, and most Norwegians speak their own dialect in all circumstances. Thus, the use of any Norwegian dialect, whether it coincides with the written norms or not, is accepted as correct spoken Norwegian. In areas where East Norwegian dialects are used, there is a tendency to accept a de facto spoken standard for this particular regional dialect, standard østnorsk, in which the vocabulary coincides with Bokmål. Outside Eastern Norway this spoken variation is not used.

Norwegians are educated in both Bokmål and Nynorsk. A 2005 poll indicates that 86.3% use primarily Bokmål as their daily written language, 5.5% use both Bokmål and Nynorsk, and 7.5% use primarily Nynorsk. 27% of the Norwegian municipalities have declared Nynorsk as their official language form, and these comprise about 12% of the Norwegian population. Nynorsk is the majority form of the four counties Rogaland, Hordaland, Sogn og Fjordane and Møre og Romsdal, which together comprise the region of Vestlandet.

Most Norwegians learn the Nynorwegian language in school, and all native speakers learn standardized Norwegian. The languages are as closely related as Norwegian is to Danish and Swedish, and are and mutually intelligible.


Icelandic is the language of Iceland. The vast majority of Icelandic speakers—about 320,000—live in Iceland.  Apart from the addition of new vocabulary, written Icelandic has not changed substantially since the 11th century, This means that Icelandic and the Scandinavian Languages has seperated to the point where they are no longer mutually intelligible.

In Iceland, linguistic purism is trying to bring the language back to it’s roots. An effort is being made to replace loanwords, especially from Danish and English.


Faroese is spoken as a native language by about 66,000 people, 45,000 of whom reside on the Faroe Islands and 21,000 in other areas, mainly Denmark.

After the Reformation in 1536 the ruling Danes outlawed use of Faroese in schools, churches and official documents. The islanders continued to use the language in everyday life and it maintained a rich spoken tradition, but for 300 years the language was not used in written form.

A written standard for Modern Faroese was set in 1854, which is still in existence. It is based on its Old Norse roots and similar to that of Icelandic. Faroese and Icelandic are not mutually intelligible in speech, but the written languages resemble each other quite closely.

In 1948, Faroese replaced Danish as the national language. Today Danish is considered a foreign language, though around 5% of residents on the Faroes learn it as a first language, and it is a required subject for students in third grade and up.


The Finnic or Baltic Finnic languages are a branch of the Uralic language family spoken around the Baltic Sea by about 7 million people. The major modern representatives of the family are Finnish and Estonian. The other Finnic languages in the Baltic Sea region are Ingrian, Karelian and Veps. Võro and Seto are spoken in southeastern Estonia.

Meänkieli (in northern Sweden) and Kven (in northern Norway) are Finnish dialects that the Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Norway have given the legal status as independent languages. They are mutually intelligible with Finnish. Even though Estonian and Finnish have similar linguistic roots they share less in common and are of a smaller degree mutually intelligble.


Finnish is spoken by around five million people and is the language spoken by the majority of the population in Finland and by Finns outside Finland. There are notable Finnish-speaking minorities in Sweden, Norway, Russia, Estonia, Brazil, Canada, and the United States.

There are two main varieties of Finnish used throughout the country. The “standard language” is used in formal situations like political speeches and newscasts. Its written form, the “book language”, is used in nearly all written texts. The “spoken language”, is the main variety of Finnish used in TV and radio, and may be preferred to a dialect in personal communication.

The dialects of Finnish are divided into two distinct groups, the Western dialects and the Eastern dialects. The dialects are almost entirely mutually intelligible and distinguished from each other by only minor changes in vowels, diphthongs and rhythm. For the most part, the dialects operate on the same phonology, grammar and vocabulary.


Meänkieli is a group of Finnish dialects spoken in the northernmost part of Sweden. Meänkieli is a northern dialect entirely intelligible to speakers of any other Finnish dialect, which achieved its status as an official minority language in Sweden for historical and political reasons regardless of the fact that Finnish is an official minority language in Sweden, too. The language is usually referred to as Meänkieli by the authorities while a common, and older, name is tornedalsfinska which literally means “Torne Valley Finnish”. Few people today speak Meänkieli as their only language. Estimates of how many people speak Meänkieli vary from 30,000 to 70,000, with most of them living in Norrbotten.


The Kven language is used in northern Norway by the Kven people. For political and historical reasons, it received the status of a minority language in 2005. Linguistically it is seen as a mutually intelligible dialect of the Finnish language, and grouped together with the Peräpohjola dialects such as Meänkieli. Despite its recent gain of status as a minority language, there is still a major discussion among the Kven about whether the Finnish orthography should be applied to the language or if a new orthography should be devised. In 2007 the Kven language board was formed and the council will work out a written Kven language, but use Finnish orthography to maintain inter-Finnish language understanding. The number of people speaking Kven in Norway is between 2,000 and 8,000, but there are very few young people who speak it, making it an endangered language.


Sami is spoken by the Sami people in parts of northern Finland, Norway, Sweden and extreme northwestern Russia. There are, depending on the nature and terms of division, ten or more Sami languages or dialects. The Sami languages are divided into two groups: western and eastern. The groups may be further divided into various subgroups and ultimately individual languages.

At present there are nine living Sami languages. The largest six of the languages have independent literary languages. The largest are Northern Sami, with an estimated 15,000 speakers and Lule Sami which has an estimated 1,500 speakers. Southern Sami, Inari Sami, Skolt Sami and Kildin Sami all have less than 1000 speakers. The three other languages have no written standard are critically endangered and have very few speakers remaining.

Parts of the Sami language area form a dialect continuum in which the neighbouring languages may be mutually intelligible to a fair degree, but two more widely separated groups will not understand each other’s speech. Between Northern Sami, Inari Sami and Skolt Sami, the speakers are not able to understand each other without practice.


Estonian is the official language of Estonia, spoken natively by about 1.1 million people. The two different historical Estonian languages (sometimes considered dialects), the North and South Estonian languages, are based on the ancestors of modern Estonians’ migration into the territory of Estonia in at least two different waves.

The northern group consists of the keskmurre or central dialect, the läänemurre or western dialect, roughly corresponding to Läänemaa and Pärnumaa, the saarte murre (islands’) dialect of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa and the idamurre or eastern dialect on the northwestern shore of Lake Peipsi. The southern group consists of the Tartu, Mulgi, Võru (Võro) and Setu (Seto) dialects. These are sometimes considered either variants of a South Estonian language, or separate languages altogether. Also, Seto and Võro distinguish themselves from each other less by language and more by their culture.

After the restoration of Republic of Estonia, Estonian went back to being the only state language in Estonia which in practice meant that use of Estonian was promoted while the use of Russian was discouraged. Modern standard Estonian has evolved on the basis of the dialects of Northern Estonia.


Eskimo–Aleut is a language family native to Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, Greenland, and the Chukchi Peninsula on the eastern tip of Siberia.

The Eskimo–Aleut language family is divided into two branches, the Eskimo languages and the Aleut language. The Aleut language family consists of a single language, Aleut, spoken in the Aleutian Islands and the Pribilof Islands. Aleut is divided into several dialects.

The Eskimo languages are divided into two branches, the Yupik languages, spoken in western and southwestern Alaska and in easternmost Siberia, and the Inuit languages, spoken in northern Alaska, in Canada, and in Greenland. Inuit, which covers a huge range of territory, is divided into several varieties. Neighbouring varieties are quite similar, although those at the farthest distances from the centre in the Diomede Islands and East Greenland are quite divergent.


Greenlandic is spoken by about 57,000 Greenlandic Inuit people in Greenland. It is closely related to the Inuit languages in Canada, such as Inuktitut. The main dialect, Kalaallisut or West Greenlandic, has been the official language of the Greenlandic autonomous territory since June 2009, as a way of strengthening the language in its competition with Danish.

From the Danish colonization in the 1700s Greenlandic experienced increasing pressure from the Danish language. In the 1950s, Denmark’s linguistic policies were directed at replacing Greenlandic with Danish. Of primary significance was that post-primary education and official functions were conducted in Danish.

In 1973, a new orthography was introduced to bring the written Greenlandic language closer to the spoken standard. The policy of “greenlandization” of Greenlandic society which began with the homerule agreement of 1979. This policy has worked to reverse the former trend towards marginalization of the Greenlandic language by making it the official language of education. Since 2009 Greenlandic has become the sole official language in Greenland.


Dominant Languages of the Nordic countries

Language Speakers Official Status
Swedish 9,000,000  Sweden,  Finland,  European Union, Nordic Council
Danish 6,000,000  Denmark,  Faroe Islands,  European Union, Nordic Council
Norwegian 5,000,000  Norway, Nordic Council
Finnish 5,000,000  Finland,  Sweden  European Union
Estonian 1,200,000  Estonia,  European Union
Icelandic 320,000 Iceland, Nordic Council
Faroese 90,000  Faroe Islands
Greenlandic 50,000  Greenland
Meänkieli 30,000-70,000 Sweden
Sami 25,000 Norway, Sweden, Finland
Kven 2000-8000 Norway

Languages of a future federation

If the will rises to create a Nordic federation, a mutual official language needs to be agreed upon. The scandinavian languages of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are spoken by the majority of the inhabitants in the region and are widely regarded as mutually intelligible. In addition There are many speakers of Swedish in Finland and speakers of Danish in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland. Finnish and Estonian make  up the second largest language group in the federation, and are not widely spoken in the region outside their native countries except for in Finnish speakers in certain parts of Sweden.

 A common language?

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. 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.

The Nordic Council has on several occasions referred to the languages spoken in Scandinavia as the “Scandinavian language” ; 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.

In a future federation the need to standardize and consolidate the Scandinavian languages is sure to arise. Given the close proximity of the languages and the removal of the political shaped language border, a common Scandinavian language will be a possibility. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are already considered dialects of each other, and with a common standardized scandinavian written language the spoken languages can remain dialects, while a common Scandinavian will be the official language of these areas.

Finnish and Estonian does currently not share enough language similarities to be grouped and counted as dialects of the same language. Unifying the languages will not be an option, and as such the languages should remain as they are. The same argument can be made with regards to Icelandic and Faroese in regards to Scandinavian and the sami languages. However, the Kven and Meänkieli languages are sufficient close to Finnish to be counted as Finnish dialects, and in light of a shift into closer integration with Finnish, I believe that in a future union these languages will be counted as the Finnish language.

With this the federation will have three major languages, Scandinavian, Finnish and Estonian with the smaller languages in their respective areas. According to the Nordic Language Convention, citizens of the Nordic countries have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable to any interpretation or translation costs. The languages included are Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish and Icelandic. This should continue in the event of a formation of a federation, and in an federation including Estonia this should be exstended to also include Estonian.

Possible languages of a Nordic Union

Language Speakers Primary Language Secondary Language
Scandinavian 20,000,000 Sweden
 Faroe Islands
Finnish 5,000,000  Finland  Sweden
Estonian 1,200,000  Estonia
Icelandic 320,000 Iceland, Nordic Council
Faroese 90,000  Faroe Islands
Greenlandic 50,000  Greenland
Sami Languages 25,000 Norway



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s