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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: jordgubbe

If there's one thing Swedes can't get enough of in summer, it's these.

Swedish word of the day: jordgubbe

Jordgubbe is made up of two words: jord and gubbe.

Jord means earth or soil, and it’s also used in Swedish for Planet Earth.

It’s easy to assume that jordgubbe means “earth man”, gubbe on its own being a common word for referring to a male person (usually gubbe refers to someone either very young or very old, and it can be either affectionate or derogatory, depending on the context).

But this is wrong.

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

Gubbe is also a Swedish dialect word used to refer to a small lump, so jordgubbe literally means “a small lump that grows in the earth” – more accurate, but less romantic than picturing strawberries as tiny little men who live in our garden and are to be picked and eaten with whipped cream… now that we think about it, “small lump” is probably better.

Strawberries were introduced to Sweden in the second half of the 18th century and were originally called ananassmultron due to their Latin name (Fragaria x ananassa).

The word jordgubbe has existed in the Swedish language since at least 1638, but was then the main name for musk strawberries, later known as parksmultron in Swedish.

Jordgubbar are one of the staple foods on Midsummer’s Eve and Swedes are convinced that they grow the best strawberries in the world.

Example sentences:

Polisen misstänker att gängkriminella har infiltrerat jordgubbsindustrin

Police suspect that gang criminals have infiltrated the strawberry industry

Goda jordgubbar! Är de svenska eller belgiska?

Yummy strawberries! Are they Swedish or Belgian?

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

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