Category Archives: Language

Do Scandinavians understand one another?

When I was a kid in Denmark my grandfather told me this joke (he told it to me around 100 times since this was his favorite joke):

A Swede asked a taxi driver to find him a place that was ‘rolig’. The taxi driver took him to the nearest cemetery.

Now, this joke may not sound very funny to you but the whole point of the joke is that ‘rolig’ means ‘fun’ in Swedish but it means ‘quiet’ in Danish (and Norwegian).

Scandinavia united - but do we understand one another?

Scandinavia united – but do we understand one another?

When I first met my Norwegian husband I liked him immediately but we were having a hard time finding our way from being just friends to moving our relationship into something more. Imagine my surprise when he helped me unbuttoning my coat while saying, “kneppe, kneppe, kneppe”, which means, “fuck, fuck, fuck” in Danish. In Norwegian it means, “unbutton, unbutton, unbutton” (and to this day he`s still not entirely sure why he was chanting the infamous fuck/unbutton word but I guess he was a bit nervous).

Later, when my husband and I had actually managed to kiss and move in together, he was to celebrate Christmas with my family in Denmark. That had my mother-in-law write my parents a letter saying, “It’ll be ‘rart’ to celebrate Christmas without my son.” My mother thought that was a peculiar message to get. Why is that? Well, in Norwegian ‘rart’ means ‘strange’ or ‘odd’ whereas in Danish it means ‘nice’. So my mother figured my husband must be a terrible person for his own mother to find it nice to finally have a Christmas without him 😀

These three stories describe one of the problems we Scandinavians face when we leave the comfort of our own country to visit our dearly beloved neighbors. Our languages are very similar but there are a handful of words that have the complete opposite meaning. And we have many more obstacles to face when we want to have a chat with those lovely Danes, Swedes or Norwegians.

Finland and Iceland are NOT Scandinavia

Before anyone starts a huge argument: Finland and Iceland are not a part of Scandinavia and will therefor not be a part of this blog post. I love both countries very much and am proud to call them my Nordic brothers and sisters but they are not Scandinavian. Language wise Finland is the country that differs the most from the rest of us here in the North. Their language is part of the Uralic (at least that’s what the translator called it in English) language group together with Hungarian and Estonian. Icelandic is also a bit different from what we speak in Denmark, Sweden and Norway but if you want to know how the old Vikings spoke, Icelandic is probably the modern language that comes closest. Faroese is fairly similar to Icelandic.

For the purpose of this blog post I will not deal with other languages than Swedish, Norwegian and Danish even if other languages are spoken in Scandinavia (Sami and Kven, for instance).

We Scandinavians have a lot of opinions on the languages spoken by our Scandinavian neighbors. I’ll explore the claims and prejudices we nurture in this part of the world and it’s all brought to you because Gyllene asked me if I could write a blog post about the Scandinavian languages.

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What do you think of Vikings – the History Channel series?

Several people have asked me about what I think of the new series The Vikings (History channel). I`ve only seen two episodes but I will tell you my opinion  if you`ll me yours 😉


History channel series Vikings. Ragnar Logbrog

History channel series Vikings. Ragnar Logbrog

First what I like about the series:

  • The shieldmaiden. I truly loved her and I loved how we were told that she`d saved her husband`s life and fought side-by-side with him. I also loved how she was able to protect her family and I do like the actress portraying her.
  • The actor portraying Ragnar Lodbrog is pretty cool too. Okay, he`s hot and I may have to try and talk my husband into getting a hair cut (and some hair extensions) to copy that amazing braid.
  • The fact that they made a series about Vikings at all. My eyes can never be tired of looking at Viking clothes, houses, ships, weapons etc etc.

What I don`t like about the series:

  • They are pretending this is a portrayal of historical facts and it isn`t. They are telling us the story about Ragnar Lodbrog (a figure from the myths but one they are fairly sure has lived even if they aren`t sure about the details – he was claimed to have taken Paris, for instance) – who was Danish and yet they let him live in a country with high mountains and deep fjords. Most of us would think Norway (though it`s filmed in Ireland) and not flat-as-a-pancake Denmark when we see the topography sorrounding Ragnar`s home. The story of Ragnar would have been SO much better if they`d made him just any old Viking Ragnar and not Ragnar Lodbrog, the (probably) historical figure.
  • What is with Gabriel Byrne as a Viking earl? It rubs me the wrong way. Probably because he doesn`t look Norse at all and the accent is horrible. Was he the only famous actor they could find? I also missed more Nordic actors.
  • Which brings me to the next point: What is it with the silly accents? They are speaking freaking English – not Norse. They won`t seem any more Norse just because the English is broken. They just seem stupid. Especially since the accents are different from scene to scene. Even the names are pronounced differently from scene to scene.
  • The portrayal of the Vikings – Rollo especially. They are dirty, blood thirsty, raping killers with no sense at all when really the Vikings had a weekly washday (Saturday) and there was a death sentence for rape.
  • The use of all “knowledge” about Vikings in one great mixture. The scene in episode two where all the Vikings washed and blew their noses in the same water was so silly. This is a description used by Ibn Fadlan about the “Vikings” living in Russia/Belorus – not about the Vikings in the Nordic countries. Since this is one of the few descriptions about a people that may or may not have been similar to the Vikings, it was long considered a “fact” that Vikings washed themselves like that. But we don`t know that they did this and it seems silly to have it as a part of this series unless it was the people behind the series trying to tell us that “yes, we have read about the Vikings – truly we have.” I would have been more happy if they`d used their imagination instead.
  • And even if they try to add all the “knowledge” we have about the Vikings, they still mess up. Like making Rollo use an ax when axes were probably mainly used by poor warriors who couldn`t afford a sword. Or making Floke make a boat just my snapping his fingers. Or mixing up 300 years of Viking age – imagine if we mixed up something from 1713 in how we portrayed the present.
  • The Vikings and the Christian monks. Arrrgh, that meeting was annoying. Yes, I realize that the writers of this series probably grew up in a Christian country but do they have to be so obvious about how nice and sweet and gentle and brainy the monks were and how blood thirsty and cruel the Vikings were just because they “get” the Christians better than the Vikings? The cruelest of the Vikings – Rollo – (we just saw him rape a girl, we know he`s baaaad) was the one who destroyed the cross with Jesus on it. Oh, the shock. Really, the Vikings were curious about this new religion and they accepted Christians into their countries. They stole from the monks, of course, but the hatred against their religion portrayed in this series has no basis in what we know about the Vikings. At least not until the Christians tried to forcefully baptize the Vikings.
  • “There is no land to the West”. This is repeated on and on in the series and is really silly since the Vikings traded with the people on the other side of the North Sea way before they started raiding them. They knew they were there, they (probably) just didn`t raid them until the late 8th century (Lindisfarne being the first known raid in the west).
  • The general red thread in the series (well, the first two episodes, at least) about the Vikings being so strange and brutal and weird. I`d hoped for a series about the life of the Vikings that went behind the myths and prejudice – not one that added to them.
  • I have to watch the series on a crappy online channel provided by HBONordic. They aren`t showing it on any television channels here in Scandinavia but an online channel will never be as good as the real thing – especially not the sorry excuse for an online channel HBONordic are forcing us to pay for.

My verdict

The series has a kick-ass shieldmaiden. I`m sold and I`ll keep watching no matter how crappy it turns out if she stays alive and fighting.

(Yes, I`m cheap :-D)

What do you think of the series?

Talking Street Signs in Copenhagen

A lot of people struggle with the Danish pronunciations. Most of what Danes say sounds like mumbling to foreigners and nothing resembles the written language. Listen to these Danes and tell me if you think what they are saying is the same as what you can read they are saying:

This might not be a big problem if you`re a tourist in Denmark since most Danes speak English fairly fluently. Except for one thing: When you want to ask for directions. Or when you want to tell a taxi driver where to take you. You have the address written down, or you remember it by heart, but no one understands what you mean – simply because you can`t pronounce it right.

Well, a couple of foreign design students in Copenhagen have solved this problem for you. They`ve made talking street signs:

Cool, huh?

Read more about the talking street signs project in Copenhagen

That ONE Scandinavian word you can`t really translate

I`s not just one word – it`s both a noun and a verb. In Norway it`s koselig (noun) and kose (verb), in Denmark hyggelig (noun) and hygge (verb) and I believe the Swedish words for it is mysigt (noun) and mys (verb).

So what is koselig/hyggelig/mysigt? What is that word that can`t be translated and which isn`t even the same word in the three Scandinavian countries? What is that word that defines us so much but which we can`t bring with us when we go abroad? We only pine for it when we`re somewhere else.

Some people would translate it into cosy, but that`s just wrong. A bed can be cosy but it doesn`t explain what koselig/hyggelig/mysigt is. So I`ll try with a picture:

This family here is using that one Scandinavian word you can`t really translate. When the autumn and winter gets darker (it`s pretty dark here already) and it`s cold outside, you make a fire in the fireplace, light up a lot of candles, make something hot to drink and possibly some cake or some waffles and then you just enjoy yourself. With your family and/or your friends.

You know immediately when you are having this cozy time. You can come into your friends` livingroom and you will immediate say…

“neimen, så koselig” (Norwegian)

“Nej, hvor hyggeligt” (Danish)

“Näh, hva mysigt” (my rotten version of Swedish)

… which basically means that you think looks cozy. It`s ingrained in us – we seek this atmosphere of kos/hygge/mysigt, especially in the winter. You don`t quarrel or discuss politics. It`s a time for just enjoying yourself in the company of other people.

A way to survive winter

I`m sure a lot of you have wondered how we Scandinavians survive our dark and cold winters. Why aren`t we sinking into deep depression from October till April? I`m fairly sure it`s because of the kos/hygge/mys. We seek each other`s company and we create our little warm heaven where we enjoy ourselves. That way winter is absolutely tolerable!

So if you want to feel a little Scandinavian tonight, close your curtains (you don`t want the sun to ruin everything), make some gløgg (cocoa or coffee will do – red wine too), invite friends/family and light as many candles you can – the fireplace too if you have one. Talk about nice topics only and feel the calmness enter your body.

Nice, right?

Æ, Ø, Å – Those weird Scandinavian letters

I felt the need for something lighter. A song, perhaps. I found this song pretty cute – about the letter Æ, Ø and Å and how size matters, even when it comes to the alphabet 🙂

And I`ll add a comic:

Read more of the amazing Scandinavia and the World comics