Scandinavian languages

by Jan Terje Faarlund, Einar Haugen

Scandinavian languages, also called North Germanic languages,  group of Germanic languages consisting of modern standard Danish, Swedish, Norwegian (Dano-Norwegian and New Norwegian), Icelandic, and Faroese. These languages are usually divided into East Scandinavian (Danish and Swedish) and West Scandinavian (Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese) groups.

History of Old Scandinavian

About 125 inscriptions dated from ad 200 to 600, carved in the older runic alphabet (futhark), are chronologically and linguistically the oldest evidence of any Germanic language. Most are from Scandinavia, but enough have been found in southeastern Europe to suggest that the use of runes was also familiar to other Germanic tribes. Most inscriptions are brief, marking ownership or manufacture, as on the Gallehus Horns (Denmark; c. ad 400): Ek Hlewagastiz Holtijaz horna tawido ‘I, Hlewagastiz, son of Holti, made [this] horn.’ A number of inscriptions are memorials to the dead, while others are magical in content. The earliest were carved on loose wooden or metal objects, while later ones were also chiseled in stone. Further information about the language is derived from names and loanwords in foreign texts, from place-names, and from comparative reconstruction based on related languages and later dialects.

The inscriptions retain the unstressed vowels that were descended from Germanic and Indo-European but were lost in the later Germanic languages—e.g., the i’s in Hlewagastiz and tawido (Old Norse would have been *Hlégestr and *táða) or the a’s in Hlewagastiz, Holtijaz, and horna (Old Norse *Høltir, horn). The scantiness of the material (fewer than 300 words) makes it impossible to be sure of the relationship of this language to Germanic and its daughter languages. It is known as Proto-Scandinavian, or Ancient Scandinavian, but shows few distinctively North Germanic features. The earliest inscriptions may reflect a stage, sometimes called Northwest Germanic, prior to the splitting of North and West Germanic (but after the separation of Gothic). Only after the departure of the Angles and Jutes for England and the establishment of the Eider River in southern Jutland as a border between Scandinavians and Germans is it reasonable to speak of a clearly Scandinavian or North Germanic dialect.

The emergence of Old Scandinavian, 600–1500

Inscriptions from the latter part of the Ancient period show North Germanic as a distinct dialect. Information about the earliest stages of the Old Scandinavian period is also derived from runic inscriptions, which became more abundant after the creation of the short runic futhark about ad 800. The expansion of Nordic peoples in the Viking Age (c. 750–1050) led to the establishment of Scandinavian speech in Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, as well as parts of Ireland, Scotland, England, France (Normandy), and Russia. Scandinavian languages later disappeared in all these territories except the Faroes and Iceland through absorption or extinction of the Scandinavian-speaking population.

During the period of expansion, all Scandinavians could communicate without difficulty and thought of their language as one (sometimes called “Danish” in opposition to “German”), but the differing orientations of the various kingdoms in the Viking Age led to a number of dialectal differences. It is possible to distinguish a more conservative West Scandinavian area (Norway and its colonies, especially Iceland) from a more innovative East Scandinavian (Denmark and Sweden). An example of a linguistic difference setting off the eastern dialect area is the monophthongization of the Old Scandinavian diphthongs ei, au, and øy to ē and ø (e.g., steinn ‘stone’ became stēn, lauss ‘loose’ became løs, and høyra ‘hear’ became høra). The diphthongs remained on the island of Gotland and in most North Swedish dialects, however, while they were lost in some East Norwegian dialects. The pronoun ek ‘I’ became jak in East Scandinavian (modern Danish jeg, Swedish jag) but remained ek in West Scandinavian (New Norwegian and Faroese eg, Icelandic ég); in East Norwegian it later became jak (dialects je, jæ, Dano-Norwegian jeg) but remained ek (dialects a, æ) in Jutland.

The advent of Christianity

The establishment of the Roman Catholic church during the 10th and 11th centuries had considerable linguistic significance. It helped to consolidate the existing kingdoms, brought the North into the sphere of classical and medieval European culture, and introduced the writing on parchment of Latin letters. Runic writing continued in use for epigraphic purposes and for general information (several thousand inscriptions are extant, from 11th-century Sweden, especially, and also all the way from Russia to Greenland). For more sustained literary efforts, the Latin alphabet was used—at first only for Latin writings but soon for native writings as well. The oldest preserved manuscripts date from approximately 1150 in Norway and Iceland and approximately 1250 in Denmark and Sweden. The first important works to be written down were the previously oral laws; these were followed by translations of Latin and French works, among them sermons, saints’ legends, epics, and romances. Some of these may have stimulated the extraordinary flowering of native literature, especially in Iceland. One can hardly speak of distinct languages in this period, although it is customary to distinguish Old Icelandic, Old Norwegian, Old Swedish, Old Danish, and Old Gutnish (or Guthnic, spoken in Gotland) on the basis of quite minor differences in the writing traditions. Some of these were merely scribal habits resulting from local usage, but others did reflect the growing separation of the kingdoms and the centralization within each. Literary Old Icelandic is often presented in a normalized textbook form and (together with Old Norwegian) is referred to as Old Norse.

Culture words like caupō ‘merchant’ (giving Old Norse kaupa ‘buy’) and vinum ‘wine’ (Old Norse vín) had been filtering into the North from the Roman Empire for a long time. But the first great wave of such words came from the medieval church and its translations, often with the other Germanic languages as intermediaries because the first missionaries were English and German. Some religious terms were borrowed from other Germanic languages; among these are Old Norse helviti ‘hell’ from Old Saxon helliwiti or Old English hellewite, and Old Norse sál ‘soul’ from Old English sāwol. East Scandinavian borrowed the Old Saxon word siala, from which come later Danish sjæl and Swedish själ. In the secular field the most profound influence on Scandinavian was that exerted by Middle Low German because of the commercial dominance of the Hanseatic League and the political influence of the North German states on the royal houses of Denmark and Sweden between 1250 and 1450. The major commercial cities of Scandinavia had large Low German-speaking populations, and the wide use of their language resulted in a stock of loanwords and grammatical formatives comparable in extent to that which French left behind in English after the Norman Conquest.

Reformation and Renaissance

The many local dialects that exist today developed in the late Middle Ages, when the bulk of the population was rural and tied to its local village or parish, with few opportunities to travel. The people of the cities developed new forms of urban speech, coloured by surrounding rural dialects, by foreign contacts, and by the written languages. The chanceries in which documents of government were produced began to be influential in shaping written norms that were no longer local but nationwide. The Reformation came from Germany and with it Martin Luther’s High German translation of the Bible, which was quickly translated into Swedish (1541), Danish (1550), and Icelandic (1584). That it was not translated into Norwegian was one of the major reasons that no separate Norwegian literary language arose. Literary Old Norwegian went out of use, and until the 19th century there was no distinct written Norwegian. Instead a Norwegian variety of Danish developed and became the basis of Dano-Norwegian Bokmål. With the invention of printing and the growth of literacy, all speakers of Scandinavian dialects gradually learned to read (and eventually write) the new standard languages.

Dialects and standard languages

The teaching of the standard languages in the schools and the high levels of literacy have tended to spread the urban norms of speaking. Nevertheless, very diverse dialects, partially unintelligible to outsiders, are spoken in many rural communities; some of them are used occasionally for the writing down of local traditions or for giving local colour. Local dialects are used much more widely in Norway than in the other Scandinavian—and European—countries. It is not unusual for university professors, politicians, business executives, and other public figures to use their local dialects even when speaking in a professional capacity. Boundaries between dialect areas are gradual and do not always coincide with national borders, so that the following traditional divisions are somewhat arbitrary: in Denmark, West (Jutland), Central (Fyn, Sjælland), and East (Bornholm); in Sweden, South (especially Skåne), Götaland, Svealand, North (Norrland), Gotland, and East (Finland); in Norway, East (Lowland, Midland), Trønder (around Trondheim), North, and West. In the Faroese language there are minor dialectal differences between the southern and northern islands; minor dialectal differences occur in Icelandic as well, but there are no clearly defined regional dialects. In the larger cities social dialects range from the everyday speech of the working classes (often similar to nearby rural speech) to the more cultivated forms of middle- and upper-class speech, including the highly formal style of courts and legislatures. Speakers of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish normally use their own languages in communicating with one another.

Linguistic characteristics

Common and distinctly Scandinavian characteristics

North Germanic differs from West Germanic (but not East Germanic) in having ggj and ggv for medial jj and ww, respectively (Old Norse tveggja ‘two,’ hoggva ‘hew’), -t for -e in the second person singular of the strong preterite (Old Norse namt ‘you took’; compare Old English næme), and a reflexive possessive sin.

North Germanic differs from East Germanic (but not West Germanic) in that original ē becomes ā (Old Norse máni ‘moon’) and original z becomes r (Old Norse meiri ‘more’); furthermore, there is a new demonstrative pronoun þessi ‘this’ (Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian denne), back vowels are mutated to front vowels by the influence of a following i or j (“i-umlaut”—a and ā become æ and æ, o and ō become ø and ø [ø represents umlauted o], u and ū become y and ȳ [y represents umlauted u], au becomes ey or øy), and the number of unstressed vowels is reduced to three (a, i, u).

North Germanic differs from both West Germanic and East Germanic in the following ways: rounding of unrounded vowels by following u or w (“u-umlaut”—a and ā become ǫ and ǫ [ǫ represents a low back rounded vowel], e becomes ø, i becomes y, ei becomes ey or øy); loss of initial j and of w before rounded vowels (Old Norse ár ‘year,’ ungr ‘young,’ orð ‘word’); loss of final nasals (Old Norse frá ‘from,’ and generally in infinitives: Old Norse fara ‘fare, go’; compare Old English faran, German fahren); diphthongization (the creation of a gliding monosyllabic speech sound) of short e to ja or jǫ (Old Norse jafn ‘even,’ jǫrd ‘earth’). It has new pronouns for the third person singular (Old Norse hann ‘he,’ hon ‘she’); attaches the reflexive pronoun (sik) to the verb to make a new mediopassive in -sk, -st, or -s (finna sik ‘find oneself’ became Old Norse finnast ‘be found, exist,’ Danish findes); attaches the demonstrative inn ‘that’ to nouns as a definite article (Old Norse fótrinn ‘the foot,’ Norwegian and Swedish foten, Danish foden), except in West Jutland (possibly a later development); and uses -t as marker of the neuter in pronouns and adjectives (Old Norse stórt ‘big’ from stór-).

Furthermore, North Germanic employed es (which changed to er) and later sum as an indeclinable relative pronoun. It also lost some Germanic prefixes such as ga- (German ge-) and contains a considerable number of words such as hestr ‘horse,’ fær or fár ‘sheep,’ gríss ‘pig,’ gólf ‘floor,’ and ostr ‘cheese’ that do not occur in East or West Germanic.


The five basic vowel symbols of the Latin alphabet are supplemented by a number of special symbols that are used mostly to represent umlauted vowels: thus, there is y (pronounced as German ü), æ (used in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese) and the corresponding ä (used in Swedish), ø (in Danish, Norwegian, and Faroese) and the corresponding ö (in Swedish and Icelandic), and å (also written aa, used in Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian).

Their present-day values are not identical; Icelandic æ is pronounced as the diphthong sound ai (as the i in English ice). Icelandic and Faroese also use accents on vowels that were long in Old Norse but are now mostly diphthongs (á, é, í, ó, ú, and ý). The consonant symbols are the usual Latin ones, except that þ (thorn) and ð (eth) are used in Icelandic for voiceless and voiced th (ð in Faroese has a different value). Loanwords containing the letters c, q, w, x, and z have generally been naturalized by substituting, respectively, k or s, kv, v, ks, and s (e.g., kontakt ‘contact’ but Norwegian sigar ‘cigar’ versus Danish and Swedish cigar).


Stress is placed on the first syllable in native words, with sporadic exceptions for compounds. Stress on a later syllable reflects borrowing from other languages, except in Icelandic, which has stress on the first syllable of all words. (The latter is also is true of East Norwegian dialects.)

Pitch is usually high on the stressed syllable, falling at the end of a statement, rising for a yes-no question. An exception is East Norwegian and some Swedish dialects, in which the stressed syllable is low and the pitch is often rising at the end of statements. In most of Norway and Sweden and in scattered Danish dialects, there is a special word tone, by which old monosyllables have one kind of pitch while old polysyllables have another. The first pitch type is usually high or low pitch on the stressed syllable, like that in other Germanic languages, while the second is more complex and varies from region to region. In Danish the tones have been replaced by glottalization in instances in which Norwegian and Swedish have the first type.

In stressed syllables either the vowel or the following consonant is long (except in Danish). A short vowel also may be followed by a consonant cluster, but a long vowel may never be followed by a long consonant. Unstressed syllables may have a short vowel followed by a short (or no) consonant. In Danish this latter pattern is permitted also in stressed syllables.

The Old Scandinavian vowel system contained nine vowels, each of which could be long, short, or nasalized: front unround (i, e, æ), front round (y, ø), back round (u, o, ǫ), and back unround (a). There were three falling diphthongs (ei, au, øy). While most of these are still present in some dialects, there have been many changes. The nasalized vowels disappeared, though they were still present in Icelandic about 1150. Diphthongs became long vowels in Danish and Swedish in the 10th century. Short low umlauted vowels coalesced with neighbouring vowels (æ became e and ǫ became o, or ö in Icelandic). Long ā (Old Norse á) was rounded to å (pronunciation similar to the o in English order; in Icelandic and West Norwegian, pronunciation is like the ow in English now). In Norwegian and Swedish the rounded vowels were shifted upward and forward, giving “overrounded” o and u that resemble u and y, respectively. The unstressed vowels a, i, and u have remained in Icelandic and Faroese but have been partially merged in New Norwegian and Swedish (written a, e, o), completely merged as ə (the schwa sound, as a in English sofa) in Danish and Dano-Norwegian, and lost in Jutland and Trønder dialects. High round vowels (y, ȳ, øy) have been merged with the unround vowels in Icelandic and Faroese (and in scattered dialects elsewhere) but are still distinguished in writing. Long vowels have been diphthongized not only in many dialects (e.g., Jutland, Skåne, and West Norwegian) but also in standard Icelandic and Faroese (Icelandic é, pronounced /je/, ó /ou/, á /au/, æ /ai/; Faroese í /ui/, æ /æa/, and so on). (Symbols in virgules are phonetic symbols designating actual pronunciation.) A quantity shift took place in the late Middle Ages, in which short vowels were lengthened before single consonants and long vowels were shortened before clusters, sometimes with qualitative changes that affected different dialects differently; thus, in Swedish veta ‘know’ i became e (though all the other North Germanic languages have i).

The Old Scandinavian consonant system contained voiceless stops p, t, k; voiced stops b, d, g; voiceless-voiced spirants f/v, þ/ð, x/ǥ; nasals m, n; a sibilant s; liquids l, r; and glides w, j. The chief changes were as follows: Short voiceless stops became voiced after vowels in Danish and neighbouring dialects, and then they partially opened to become spirants or glides (tapa became tabe ‘lose,’ ūt became ud ‘out,’ kakur became kager ‘cakes’). Velar stops k, g, and sk were palatalized before front vowels to merge with kj, gj, and skj, as still occurs in Icelandic (and Jutland dialect); in Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish, and many Danish dialects, these were fronted to tj, dj, and stj or even opened to spirants ç, j, and š, while in Danish they reverted to k, g, and sk. Voiced f merged with w to become v, though it is still written f in Icelandic; in Danish both f and w have become pronounced as w after vowels. Voiceless þ became t (occasionally h in Faroese) and voiced þ /ð/ became d, except in Icelandic. Voiceless x became h initially before vowels but was lost elsewhere; voiced x /ǥ/ became g, except in Icelandic (in Danish it has become either /j/ or /w/ after vowels). The r sound was assimilated to following dental sounds (l, n, s, t, d) to make a series of retroflex consonants (ḷ, ṇ, ṣ, ṭ, ḍ, pronounced with the tip of the tongue curled up toward the hard palate) in many Swedish and Norwegian dialects, including those of Oslo and Stockholm. In western Sweden and eastern and central Norway, an original l in certain environments and the combination rð both developed into a new sound defined as a retroflex flap. During the past few centuries the r sound has become a uvular r /r/ in Danish, southern Swedish, and southwestern Norwegian (including that spoken in the city of Bergen). The uvular r is still expanding its territory in Norway and Sweden.


Old Scandinavian had a declensional system with four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive) and two numbers. The actual form of the inflections depended on the stem class of the noun or the adjective. Verbs were inflected for tense and mood, person and number. This system is preserved in Icelandic. In Faroese, the declensions have been simplified, and only three cases are now used in speech (the genitive having been replaced by prepositional phrases or compounds). In the remaining languages only personal pronouns now have a distinction between a nominative and a non-nominative (dependent) form (e.g., Swedish jag ‘I,’ mig ‘me’). Some conservative dialects in Norway and Sweden still retain a separate dative case for certain categories, however.

The present-day systems of Danish, Dano-Norwegian, New Norwegian, and Swedish are basically identical. Nouns have singular and plural forms, to which the definite article may be suffixed; the plural suffixes vary, reflecting earlier stem, gender, and umlaut classes. Adjectives have neuter singulars marked by -t, plurals marked by a vowel (-e or -a), and weak forms used after determiners, usually identical in form with the plurals; the comparatives are marked by r and superlatives by the cluster st. There are polite pronouns of address that are either identical with the second person plural (Swedish ni, Icelandic þér, Faroese tygum, and New Norwegian de) or the third person plural (Danish and Dano-Norwegian De). In Norway and Sweden the use of the polite form is now obsolete. In Icelandic and Faroese old duals have taken over the function of plurals (Icelandic við ‘we,’ þið ‘you’; Faroese vit ‘we,’ tit ‘you’). Each personal pronoun has a corresponding possessive pronoun, the third person being identical with the genitive of the pronoun and invariable. The possessive pronouns for the other persons and the reflexive sin are inflected for gender and number like most other pronouns and articles. Verbs inflect for tense only, with -r as the usual present marker (New Norwegian does not have an ending to indicate present tense in the strong verbs), while the preterites (past tenses) have stem-vowel ablaut changes in the strong verbs and a dental suffix in the weak verbs. Nonfinite forms of the verb have invariable suffixes (-a or -e for the infinitive, -ande or -ende for present participles, and -at or -et for perfect participles), except that Swedish and New Norwegian mark gender when the perfect participle is used adjectivally.

New Norwegian, like Icelandic and Faroese, and, in part, Dano-Norwegian preserve masculine, feminine, and neuter genders; Danish and Swedish combine masculine and feminine into a common (nonneuter) gender. Swedish and New Norwegian (in part) preserve nonneuter plurals in -ar, -er, and -or, which merged as -er in Dano-Norwegian; in Danish these have become -e, while a new plural in -er has arisen, primarily for loanwords. The past tense of the largest class of weak verbs (Old Norse -aði) ends in -a in New Norwegian, -et or -a in Dano-Norwegian, -ede in Danish, and -ade in Swedish (usually pronounced /a/). In Norwegian and Swedish a new class of weak verbs with preterite ending -dde has arisen, including stems ending in -d or long vowels (Swedish födde ‘bore,’ bodde ‘lived’). The present tense form of strong verbs is umlauted in New Norwegian (as in Icelandic and Faroese); it is monosyllabic in New Norwegian, has high or low pitch on the stressed syllable in Dano-Norwegian and Swedish, and has glottalization in Danish (New Norwegian kjem; Dano-Norwegian, Swedish kommer /kåmər/; Danish kommer /kåmʔər/. New Norwegian has -st in the mediopassive (like Icelandic and Faroese); Dano-Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish have -s. Besides a complex passive formed with an auxiliary, Swedish, Danish, Dano-Norwegian, and (to a limited degree) New Norwegian have developed an inflectional passive form in -s by the reduction of the old reflexive pronoun sik.


The reduction of morphological complexity has been accompanied by the emergence of a more rigid order of sentence elements. Main clauses have the finite verb in second position. This can be preceded by almost any other sentence constituent; most often it is preceded by the subject. In yes-no questions the preverbal position is empty. In other questions it is occupied by the question word. When the subject does not precede the verb, it follows it. A nonfinite verb follows the subject but precedes the object and adverbials (except sentence adverbials and certain time adverbials, which may precede the nonfinite verb). In Icelandic, subordinate clauses have the same basic structure as main clauses; in the other languages the verb always follows the subject and any sentence adverbial. Complex verb phrases are formed with modal auxiliaries (e.g., kan ‘can’) and infinitives or with the perfect auxiliaries ha(ve) ‘have’ and få ‘get’ (Icelandic geta) and the perfect participle. Instead of such durative aspect markers as the English progressive (e.g., “is talking”), verbs indicating position are combined with the main verb (e.g., Dano-Norwegian han sitter [står, går, ligger] og prater ‘he is sitting [standing, walking, lying] and talking.’). Icelandic has special constructions for present and perfect aspects (er að ganga ‘is going’ or er buinn að ganga, literally, ‘is through going’).

Major differences in the Norwegian languages, Swedish, and Danish are few: (1) New Norwegian and Swedish use the nominative after a copula (Det er eg/jag ‘It is I’), Dano-Norwegian and Danish, the accusative (Det er meg/mig ‘It is me’). (2) A complex passive is formed either with Old Scandinavian verða (Swedish varda, New Norwegian verta) or Low German bliven (Danish blive, Dano-Norwegian bli) and the perfect participle. (3) A verbal particle precedes the object in Swedish (Jag brände upp den/tidningen ‘I burned it up/[I burned up] the newspaper’), follows it in Danish (Jeg brendte den/avisen opp), while both orders are used in Norwegian, depending on the relative weight of the particle and the object (Eg brende henne opp/Eg brende opp avisa). (4) The reflexive pronoun sin is used with singular or plural subjects, except in Danish, in which it is used only with singular subjects. (5) A definite article is indicated by a form before the adjective and a suffix after the noun (“double definite”), except in Icelandic and Danish (e.g., in Norwegian and Swedish det store [stora] huset ‘the big house,’ both det and -et in huset mean ‘the,’ in Danish the suffix -et is not used: det store hus). (6) A possessive may follow its noun in Icelandic, Faroese, and Norwegian but not in Danish or Swedish (Icelandic hesturinn minn ‘my horse,’ literally, ‘horse mine,’ Swedish min häst ‘my horse’). (7) The numeral ‘one’ is used (in unstressed form) as an indefinite article (i.e., as a and an are used in English), except in Icelandic, which has no indefinite article. (8) Swedish omits the auxiliary hava ‘have’ in subordinate clauses (Huset jag sett… ‘The house I [have] seen…’).


The everyday stock of Scandinavian words, including most of the high-frequency words, is Indo-European and Germanic in its core. Of the 200,000 or more entries in the large dictionaries of each language, the vast majority are either compounds and derivatives of the simpler words or else borrowings from other languages—mostly of a scientific and cultural nature. At the end of the 20th century, the chief source of loanwords in the North Germanic languages was English.

Icelandic preserved the creative powers of the older language by making it a policy not to accept new words in unassimilated form. Whenever possible, new compounds and derivatives have been created to avoid the borrowing of foreign terms. To some extent Faroese and New Norwegian have followed the same policy but without the degree of success that Icelandic has had. Danish, Swedish, and Dano-Norwegian have adopted numerous German words, along with their prefixes and suffixes—e.g., Danish and Norwegian betale and Swedish betala ‘pay’ from Low German betalen.

The borrowings of Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian reflect the varied contacts discussed above. Their vocabulary consists of a native core, a German middle layer (with words like Danish skrædder ‘tailor’; compare Icelandic and Faroese klæðskeri, literally ‘cloth-cutter’), and an international outer layer (with words such as psykologi ‘psychology’; compare Icelandic and Faroese sálfrædi, literally ‘soul science’). While there are some differences among the languages in the exact composition of these layers, there is also considerable agreement. Differences occur especially in words of local origin (slang, humour, endearments, abuse) and in borrowings of different origin—e.g., Norwegian etasje/Swedish våning/Danish sal ‘story’ (in a hotel), from French étage, Middle Low German woninge, and Old Scandinavian salr (but with its meaning from North German Saal).

Einar Haugen

Jan Terje Faarlund

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