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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why do Swedes and Danes insist on pretending they speak the same language?

There's something heroic about the way Danes and Swedes insist on trying to communicate with one another using their own languages, but more often than not end up nodding, smiling, and only pretending to understand. Why not give up and just speak English?

Why do Swedes and Danes insist on pretending they speak the same language?
It's not like in The Bridge, where Saga Norén and Martin Rohde understand eachother flawlessly. Photo: Ola Torkelsson/TT

From my first trips to Copenhagen with my Swedish wife I realised something was amiss. She boldly embarked on long conversations with the Danes we met, even though to me it was apparent from the start that she had very little grasp of what was being said.

I’ve since frequently observed Danes in Malmö having to repeat themselves over and over again as their Swedish hosts blink uncomprehendingly at the elided syllables and glottal stops issuing from their mouths.

The situation in The Bridge, the Scandinavian thriller, comes nowhere close to reality. 

There, you can watch Swedish detective Saga Norén and her Danish counterpart Martin Rohde gabble away in their own languages and yet somehow understand each other well enough to solve the crime. 

But the truth is that, however much goodwill each side brings to the table, Swedish and Danish are only about 50 percent mutually intelligible.

According to a 2017 study by Charlotte Gooskens at Groningen University, Swedes listening to Danes in an intelligibility test got 56 percent of answers correct, while Danes listening to Swedes got only 44 percent right.

Other studies have found that Danes find Swedish easier than Swedes find Danish, which feels more likely given that Swedes speak their language largely as written while Danes swallow almost every word.

Whatever is the case, the two languages have about the same mutual intelligibility as Italian and Portuguese or Italian and Spanish, and they are considerably behind closer language pairs like Slovak and Polish, or Slovenian and Croatian.

So the sense I’ve always had that each side is only understanding half of what the other is saying is absolutely correct. There is no such language as “Scandinavian”. Swedish and Danish are very much different languages.

So why not just use English from the start? After all, everyone involved normally speaks it perfectly. 

According to Gooskens, the reason is primarily cultural. “In a world of increasing globalisation, language is a very important way of stressing our common identity,” she told me. Attempting to speak “Scandinavian” is an expression that Swedes and Danes have something in common.

Moreover, she points out that the 50 percent mutual intelligibility is for Swedes and Danes with no previous exposure to each other’s languages.

With languages this close, it only takes a short course, or a relatively short period of time living in one another’s country, to boost mutual intelligibility dramatically, often to close to 100 percent.

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One of the reasons Swedes often find Danish harder to understand than Danes find Swedish is that Danish frequently uses both the word used in Swedish and another alternative. Rum, for example, means “room” in both languages, but Danish also uses the word værelse, creating what Gooskens calls “asymmetrical intelligibility”. A Dane can always understand a Swede talking about their room, but a Swede can only understand a Dane when they use the right word.

Danes who’ve worked, studied, or lived in Sweden know instinctively which words to avoid, and are skilled at spelling out syllables they would swallow on the other side of the bridge.

Swedes who’ve worked, studied, or lived in Denmark (or older people from Sweden’s southernmost region Skåne who grew up watching Danish television), are on the other hand able to mentally fill in the syllables Danes miss out.

Gooskens believes that rather than give up and switch to English, Swedes and Danes should instead work more actively at learning to understand one another better. 

“Even though Danes and Swedes may not understand each other well at first, I think that it takes very little effort to reach mutual understanding,” she said. “I think that it is worth the effort to bring young people into contact with each other and make them conscious about and positive towards the idea of communicating with their own Scandinavian languages.”

Member comments

  1. I find this a strange article. My own experience has been that Swedes — at least those living in Skåne — and Danes don’t try to talk their own languages to each other, but default to English. The exceptions are those who are fluent in both languages… and there are many (and not just commuters and shopkeepers) where I live in Helsingør.

    But if Richard’s experience is so different, could it be because we travel in different circles… different social groups?

  2. Some of my Norwegian friends say that they understand both Danish and Swedish, and that both Danes and Swedes have an easier time understanding Norwegian than each other’s languages. (Unless the Norwegian is from Bergen. With that dialect, all bets are off.) So did they do any of those intelligibility tests with Norwegians? How did they work out?

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SWEDISH WORD OF THE DAY

​​Swedish word of the day: snut

Today’s Swedish word is for the official who sniffs out crime.

​​Swedish word of the day: snut

Perhaps the official with the greatest number of nicknames, the snut is seldom thought of in neutral terms, whether he is loved or hated. Snut is a Swedish slang term for ‘a police officer’. 

Snuten is the definite, as in den snuten, meaning ‘that cop’, but it is also used to denote ‘the cops’ in general, that is the plural, as in snuten kommer, meaning  ‘the cops are coming’.

So where does the word come from? 

Well, it has the same origin as the English word ‘snout’, ‘the nose and mouth that stick out from the face of some animals’, such as that of a pig, which some people use as a derogatory term for the police. It might be related to the idea that the cops lägger näsan i blöt ‘put their nose in the wet’, or in other words ‘stick their nose where it doesn’t belong’. Whatever the origin, not many Swedes today will know that snut comes from a word for ‘nose’ or ‘mouth’, and the reason for that is that no one uses it anymore in its original sense.

There are however a number of related terms that are used in relation to the nose and mouth. Att snyta sig is to ‘blow one’s nose’. The word snyting is an older word for a punch to the face. Snyte has the same meaning as ‘snout’, and is used for the snouts of animals, although the word generally used for the pig’s snyte is tryne

As for the different epithets used for the police, there is never a shortage of those. Many today originate in the neighbourhoods primarily inhabited by people of immigrant background, förorten, a word which we have previously covered.

Here are a few selections.

Aina, is from the Turkish aynasiz meaning ‘mirrorless’ which some say is meant to signal that the police have no shame, but more likely has the original meaning of ‘ugly’ since there is an antonym in aynali which means ‘mirrorfull’ or in other words ‘beautiful’.

Bengen/bängen, is most likely from the Romani word for ‘the devil’. Khanzir from the Arabic word for ‘pig’. Civare for plain clothes police, civilklädd polis.

Diskotaxi, literally ‘disco-taxi’ is a term for a police car, a reference to the flashing blue light. Farbror blå, means ‘uncle blue’. Gris, is Swedish for ‘pig’. And shorre/shorri, is from the Arabic word shurṭa, originally a police force established in the early days of the succession of Muslim empires commonly known as The Caliphate.

Snuten is not a neutral word, it can be considered offensive, so best not to use around the police – polisen is the correct term. In decades past you could still hear konstapeln a cognate of the English ‘constable’, but it is now to be considered all but archaic. There is no official title to address a police officer with, but a bit of politeness goes a long way.

Example sentences:

Visste du att Olle är snut?

Did you know Olle’s a cop?

Har du sett vad mycket snutar det är ute idag?

Have you seen the number of cops that are out today?

Villa, Volvo, Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, written by The Local’s journalists, is now available to order. Head to lysforlag.com/vvv to read more about it. It is also possible to buy your copy from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Bokus or Adlibris.

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