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?
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.