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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.


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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For members


Swedish word of the day: krasslig

Autumn is here across much of Sweden, meaning the season for coughs, colds and flu is upon us. Today's word of the day is a word you can use when you're feeling a bit under the weather.

Swedish word of the day: krasslig

The adjective krasslig is best translated into English as being under the weather or a little bit unwell. You’re not so sick that you’re stuck in bed all day, but you might have a bit of a cough or a headache and aren’t really feeling 100 percent.

Those with small children in Sweden will be well acquainted with this word, as it’s a good way of describing the grey area between when a child is definitely sick and needs to stay home, and when a child is not really sick enough to warrant staying home, but not really feeling their best either – especially when combined with the word små to make småkrasslig (a little bit under the weather).

A teacher might say when you pick up your child at the end of the school day that they have been a bit krasslig, so you might need to avvakta (watch and wait) and see if they should stay home the next day. Usually, this means that if things get worse you should keep them at home, but if things are the same or better the next morning they can go back to school.

Adults who feel krasslig may opt to work from home instead of heading into the office, if they can.

As far as the etymology of krasslig is concerned, it probably comes from the verb att krassla, “to work slowly or with difficulty” or “to move yourself with difficulty”. You can also krassla on purpose, for example, at least historically, att krassla ihop something describes the act of putting something together slightly lazily and generally not doing a great job.

An example of something which has been put together badly or lazily in this way could be described as krassleri, while the person responsible for the botched job would be a krasslare. You’re not likely to hear it used in this sense today, though.

Example sentences

Jag känner mig lite krasslig i dag så jag tror jag hoppar filmen i kväll.

I feel a bit poorly today so I think I’ll skip the film tonight.

Hon är lite småkrasslig så det är nog bäst om ni kommer och hämtar henne.

She’s a bit ill so it’s probably for the best if you come and pick her up.

Don’t miss any of our Swedish words and expressions of the day by downloading our new app (available on Apple and Android) and then selecting the Swedish Word of the Day in your Notification options via the User button.