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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


Why my building’s garden day marks the real start of Swedish summer

People across Sweden will gather around Valborg bonfires this weekend to mark the end of the dark winter. But for Richard Orange, summer officially begins when his apartment building holds its garden day.

Why my building's garden day marks the real start of Swedish summer

“Are you going to go to the garden day?” asked one of my neighbours at the start of last week. “I’m not sure I really have the energy.”

I stopped dead in my tracks.

Miss the garden day!? She might as well have asked if could be bothered to celebrate Christmas.

Communication with our neighbours in Malmö is generally limited in winter to short, sometimes awkward, conversations in the stairwell and notices that go up admonishing residents, frequently us, to remove bicycles and clutter from the hallway.

But in spring and summer, that changes and the moment it changes is Garden Day, or trädgårdsdag, which is, for me, one of the best things about living in a Swedish housing cooperative or bostadsrättsförening.

“You absolutely have to go!” I admonished her. “It’s the only time the building comes together. Muck in!”

READ ALSO: How to get on with your neighbours in Sweden

Preparations this year began in the second week of April. A notice went up setting a date and time, then shovels, trowels and bags of cow manure appeared in the hallway (purchased, it turned out later, by my wife).

After lunch on Saturday, representatives from the 13 apartments appeared punctually in our courtyard garden, with its cherry tree, birch tree and small island patio.

Soon the courtyard was a vision of productive labour: the bike shed was swept, bushes and roses rather too savagely pruned. Long strings of ivy were pulled from the wall and fence. Manure was worked into the flower beds and new flowers planted.

What impresses me every year is how good my Swedish neighbours are at each seeking out a task that isn’t already being done by someone else and then getting stuck in. No one needs to give any orders and when a decision needs to be made, all it takes is a short discussion. People might disagree, but when they sense they’re in a minority, they give way.

Back home in the UK, this wouldn’t work. Egos would clash. Rather than bringing the neighbours together, people would fall out over competing visions for the common space and what work to prioritise. 

But it’s as much about community as about work.

Swedes, I’ve learned, are only comfortable socialising when engaged in a common task, like weaving, training a football team, or fixing up boats. It’s the reason Christmas and Easter celebrations are all about the little julpyssel and påskpyssel craft projects families do together, and why Swedes seem to enjoy preparing festive foods more than they do actually consuming them.

You don’t have to be in a bostadsrättsförening to witness this in action. Similar days of common labour are held at the koloniträdgårdar or shared garden cooperatives you find around Sweden’s cities, at any club with common areas, or in villages with common spaces. Foreigners who want to take a step into Swedish life, should leap at every chance they get to take part, as it’s the best chance to get to know people. 

On Saturday, for the first time in more than seven months, the courtyard in our building was teeming with, I think, 13 children between the ages of two and eleven, with some of the youngest realising only then that they have potential playmates only a few floors away. Big boxes of ice creams came out. Our dog raced around in pursuit of rats.

At the end of the day, we heaved our two barbecues back up from the basement and fired them up. The adults then knocked back beer and wine, sharing food and sitting back and chatting for the first time since the barbecues were packed up in September.

Throughout May and June, and to a lesser extent, July and August, this will continue, with different constellations of neighbours and their friends gathering around the outdoor table pretty much every week and sharing food and drinks.

So for a few summer months my building contradicts Swedes’ otherwise justified reputation for reserve, just as city squares, parks and beaches across the country are filled with a kind of jubilance you never otherwise never see. 

“It was so amazing. I had such a great time,” the neighbour said, here eyes sparkling, when I met her the next day. Her 3-year-old daughter, she said, couldn’t stop talking about the new best friend she had played with from the first floor flat. “We have such wonderful neighbours”.