The Mutual Intelligibility of the Scandanavian Languages

In the comments section, heg clears up some of the nonsense about the dialect chain in Scandinavia. It’s commonly held in Linguistics that Danish, Swedish and Norwegian form a dialect chain where they can all understand each other, more or less. Heg points out that this is not really true.
First of all, Heg says that in Jutland, in Denmark, a language called Jutish is spoken. I was aware of this, but I was not sure how different Jutish was from the rest of Scandinavian. Jutish speakers can understand Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, but Danes, Norwegians and Swedes can barely understand a word of Jutish.
Heg also points out that Scots, a separate language from English spoken in Scotland, sounds much like Jutish. He says if you can understand Jutish, you can understand Scots.
This is very interesting, because Scots really is just an Old Saxon lect, let’s face it. Three tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, from southern Denmark and northern Germany, migrated to the UK in the 600’s.
This Germanic tongue became Old English, which, if you have ever tried to read Beowulf, is quite unintelligible to English speakers. As an aside, there is an Old English Wikipedia, there are Old English conferences and magazines, and there are even speakers, readers and writers of Old English! Why people want to learn dead languages is beyond me, but it’s better than committing suicide by fork like most Americans do for a hobby.
Heg says that Swedes can also understand Norwegians and apparently vice versa, though he did not elaborate on whether Norwegians could understand Swedes. Norwegian TV shows are regularly shown on Swedish TV, and most Swedes can understand them just fine.
Likewise, Danes can understand Swedes, but crucially, Swedes can hardly understand a word of Danish.
Further, there are lects inside of Sweden that are not intelligible to a speaker of Standard Swedish, for instance, Dalecarlian. In fact, Dalecarlian itself is split into multiple varieties that are not even intelligible with each other.
There are lects way up on the northwest coast of Sweden near Norway, in Bohuslän that are not intelligible to other Swedes. Gutnish, spoken on the island of Gotland, is not intelligible with Standard Swedish. There are also some highly divergent and unintelligible lects way up in far northern Sweden such as in Överkalix, Västerbotten, Norrbotten and Piteå.
Scanian is not fully intelligible with intelligible with Swedish, although this is controversial. Jamtska is said to be fully intelligible with Swedish..
Heg says that most Danes understand most Norwegians and vice versa.
One of the Norwegian spelling systems was copied over from Danish (Norway was long a Danish colony), and the other was a nationalist response to this that was based on the Norwegian language actually spoken in Norway at the time. So began the Bokmål and Nynorsk wars in Norway.
It’s freezing cold up in Norway, and when they aren’t being evil progressives and engaging in The New Anti-Semitism, Norwegians sit around and engage in the stupidest fight over language that I have ever heard of. Oh well, if it’s that cold, you may as well argue about just about anything if only to warm yourself up.
Bokmål is the one taken from Danish, and Nynorsk is the nationalist one based on Norwegian. They are not so much ways of speaking as they are ways of writing.
Bokmål is clearly more popular, but Nynorsk just won’t go away. You would think that one would be championed by the Right and another by the Left, but it’s not so simple. The Left often champions Bokmål, the language of the colonizer, and Right often supports Nynorsk, the nationalistic tongue. As in other parts of Europe, nationalists here are often rightwingers instead of leftwingers.
To make things even more insanely confusing, there are various forms of Bokmål and Nynorsk, including forms associated with the working class or rural areas and forms that are more urbanized, upscale, etc. While it is true that the Left supported Nynorsk in the 30’s as some kind of populist gambit, by the 60’s, things had reversed. 60’s radical hippies were championing the working class forms of Bokmål. Since then, the Right seems to be taking the Nynorsk mantle.
There is also something called Riksmål, which I guess is transitional between Bokmål and Nynorsk? And there is something called Høgnorsk, which is some kind of purist Nynorsk or something. I’m getting confused just writing about this stuff.
After spending an hour or so reading about this language fight, I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I always try to narrow complex issues down to make them more understandable, but this is one case where I could not do it. The fight makes no sense in sociopolitical terms. It’s about as sociopolitical as people arguing about which way to put the toilet paper on the roll, in or out.
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10 thoughts on “The Mutual Intelligibility of the Scandanavian Languages”

  1. Most norwegians has no problem to understand sweds whatsoever.
    I like dialects very much. When I was in Palestine for six month ther was those three guys from Irland in the moshav. Nobody understud a word they was saying. One week later I spook at their pace. Irish is very, very fast, cut words in half and use of expressions not commoningly known.
    Some dialects is just butt ugly. SAAB HQ is in the swedish town Trollhättan, one hour north of Gutenburg and the dialect is … Lets say UGLY.
    To the east-south there is the town Kalmar, kalmaritish dialect is very beutiful, its like music to the ear, just like Finn-sweds swedish and norwegian from Trondheim. In Dalarna, Siljan Lake they also speak a very nice dialect.
    Danish is a butt ugly language really.

  2. Jutish is as different from danish, norwegian and swedish as Welsh is from english.
    No englishman can understand a word a welsh says. Jutish is on that level.

  3. Jutish is as different from danish, norwegian and swedish as Welsh is from english.
    No englishman can understand a word a welsh says. Jutish is on that level.
    If you can speak welsh, then you can understand any english version, but they cant understand a word you say in welsh or juth.

  4. ” Heg also points out that Scots, a separate language from English spoken in Scotland, sounds much like Jutish. He says if you can understand Jutish, you can understand Scots.
    This is very interesting, because Scots really is just an Old Saxon lect, let’s face it. Three tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, from southern Denmark and northern Germany, migrated to the UK in the 600’s. ”
    You’re way off the mark with this. There is no one Scots dialect. There is the highland Gaelic, which few speak anymore, and was never spoken in lowland Scotland, which is descended from the Irish Gaelic ( Goidelic Celtic); and there are a lot of regional dialects of English, same as in England. Shetland is a bit more extreme; they don’t really consider themselves Scots. Every area and large town in Britain has some unique vocabulary, an inheritance from the very mixed ancestry of the British, different mixes in different areas – plus, of course, a bit of homegrown inventiveness. The ‘Scots’ of ‘Trainspotting’ (colloquial Edinburgh) is, once you get used to the accents, just as English as the Baltimorese of ‘the Wire’. I’m Scots – I KNOW.
    I HAVE heard that Jutish is the closest surviving language to that spoken at the time of the migrations, the language of Beowulf, but it is not likely to be more akin to any of the regional Scottish accents than to any of the English ones.

  5. Ok, LS. There are 3 Scottish languages. Scottish English, probably pretty much intelligible to me – just Standard English with a Scottish accent. Scottish Gaelic, which is NOT Scots. As you noted, it’s Gaelic. That’s not what I am referring to. Then there is a language called Scots. That’s the language that they were speaking in Trainspotting. Most people just think that is English with a Scottish accent, but according to Ethnologue, it is actually a separate langauge.
    Ethnologue entry for Scots. So I am not really sure what Ethnologue is referring to when they speak of Scots. I think they are talking about that thing that they are speaking in Trainspotting. Ethnologue lists the various dialects as Insular, Northern Scots, Southern Scots, Ulster. Lallands is said to be the prestige variety. The Scots spoken on the northern Islands is so different it is said to be a separate langauge -IOrcadian or Shetlandic.
    I think that stuff you are calling “regional dialects of English” is actually a separate language called Scots for the most part, since it is so unintelligible to us.

  6. There was a famous group called Swe-Danes, Alice babs was the femal singer from Sweden, and the other two male were From Denmark. They played jazz, iI do not like jazz so I never paid them much attention. They were a lot on TV. What the danes do is they speak swidish with danish accent, not real danish.
    Magnus Härenstam is a very well known swedish comedian, and he is also very well known in Norway, and what he does is is speak very clear and with norwegian vocabulary. There are some expressions you use in D and N but are not used at all in Sweden. If you can pass that and speak clear and rather slow you are in business.
    Danceband is a big thing in Sweden. Just look up Vikingarna, they are very well known in both D and N. The singer is very clear and slow singer, dans and norwegians has no problem to understand them at all. There are also som well known N who sings and are well known in S. There is a few danes who sings and made it in S but they are very rare. Sanne Salomonson is one, but again, she sings very slow.
    Danish is really a butt ugly language. I speak danish and I cant say I know any dialect that sound nice. Some individual danes that knows scandinavic can have a nice voice, but for the rank and file danes, danish is a butt ugly language.

  7. ” Then there is a language called Scots. That’s the language that they were speaking in Trainspotting. Most people just think that is English with a Scottish accent, but according to Ethnologue, it is actually a separate langauge.”
    Well, Ethnologue is wrong – I’m Scottish; I should know. The singsong accent of the speakers in ‘Trainspotting’ is common to East Coast Scotland, but the slang vocabulary is unique to Edinburgh. But the language is English. You would have just as much trouble with Geordies (from Newcastle, in England), if not more. If you mixed with Edinburgh folk for a few days, you’d find Trainspotting perfectly comprehensible
    “Lallands is said to be the prestige variety.” – it’s ‘Lallans’. I googled this and came up with some encyclopedia entries that are, unfortunately largely wrong. They are based on the assumption that Scotland, unlike England, and everywhere else in the world, doesn’t have local or regional accents, but one language called ‘Scots’ – sorry, it doesn’t exist, never has. The word ‘Lallans’ ( apparently meaning ‘lowlands’) may have cropped up since the 17th century, but it never corresponded to any reality except relating to the project of the poet Hugh McDiarmaid and his admirers. Robert Burns wrote (phonetically) in the local colloquial language of the Ayrshire of his time, not ‘Lallans’ – he might have recommended this as a practice for Scots poets, I don’t know. But McDairmaid certainly did. He wrote, e.g. ‘a Drunk Man Addresses the Thistle’, in what he hoped would become a standard literary Scots, distinct from English. One of many reasons for this failing was that his arbitrary choice of vocabulary resulted in a ‘Lallans’ that wasn’t and isn’t spoken by ANYBODY. There is a Lallans society, where admirers continue the project and practice, but this is no more a Scots language, than the Black mountain poets, or L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, constitute an American language.
    “The Scots spoken on the northern Islands is so different it is said to be a separate langauge -IOrcadian or Shetlandic.”
    There is a lot of Norwegian vocabulary in use in Shetland and Orkney, but the language is still English, if barely recognisably so, until you get used to it.

  8. As a native English speaker , it is hard to fully understand the notion of ‘mutual intelligibility-simply because English has become so far removed from its cousins. West Frsian is supposedly the twin sister of English, but when one listens to it on youtube one starts to realise that they can’t understand sweet FA.
    But then we come to scots. Well I can understand the written form, and most of the spoken form. I’d argue that the differences between English and scotts are no more greater than the differences between the scandinavian languages.
    ‘Brea, butter en gren chieese’ may be good English and good Frise, but thats where it ends with frisian and english, a couple of similar phrases. I’d say scotts is the closest an english speaker can come to a ‘mutual intelligibility’ experience….That is,, if scots can be classified as a stand alone language.

    1. English and Scots have 40% intelligibility. That’s close to the Scandinavian languages. Scots is clearly a separate language from English. There is little debate about this. Another thing you may want to look at is the Caribbean creoles, especially Jamaican. Those are also separate languages and I can barely understand them.
      Frisian has about 0% intelligibility with English and so does German. Scots is 500 years from English and Frisian is 1000 years. That’s what happens to languages after they have been apart for that long.

  9. i have 2 disagree about some stuff here. Jutish is very understandable for Norwegians, just as with normal danish and swedish. us Norwegians understand swedish tongue better than danish tongue, but read danish just as norwegian. we have 2 or more dialects per county in Norway, so we learn to understand a lot of different dialects. this is just what i think.
    funny story by the way: i meet two guys in town the other day, one swede and one dane. they spoke their mother tongue to me, but english to each other. this is because norwegian is in the middle of the languages in many ways.

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