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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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LIVING IN SWEDEN

Everything you need to know about Sweden’s emergency warning system

Sweden's VMA system is one of the ways in which authorities can communicate danger to Sweden's residents. So what is it and how does it work?

Everything you need to know about Sweden's emergency warning system

What is a VMA and when are they issued?

VMA stands for viktigt meddelande till allmänheten, “important message to the public”. A VMA will usually be addressed to everyone located in a specific area where something serious has happened which constitutes a threat to life, health, property or the environment.

How does it work?

When authorities decide to issue a VMA alert, it will be broadcast on public service and TV, as well as on certain websites such as SVT news and krisinformation.se. Some private radio stations also broadcast the alerts, although they have no legal requirement to do so.

Since 2017, warnings have also been sent via SMS to people in affected areas. The sender for these messages will be listed as “SOS Alarm”, so it’s important you read any messages coming from this sender. You don’t have to sign up for these SMS alerts: they are issued to any phone number currently in the relevant area.

Some apps are also signed up to the VMA alert system. These are SOS Alarm, Krisinformation.se and Sveriges Radio.

What do the messages say?

Usually, a VMA will be no more than a few sentences, starting with the phrase viktigt meddelande till allmänheten. This is usually followed by the area affected, then a short sentence detailing what has happened, followed by any instructions from the fire service.

A VMA alert sent in August 2020, informing the public of a fire in a school in southwest Malmö. It tells those affected to stay indoors and close doors, windows and ventilation. Photo: Becky Waterton/The Local

What should I do if I get one?

Read the message carefully and figure out if it applies to you. If it does, do what it says. Often, in the case of a fire, this will be no more than closing your doors and windows and staying indoors. In the case of a different type of emergency situation, such as a gas leak, the message may tell you to call 1177 if you start to notice any effects.

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