Scientific Studies of Intelligibility in Scandinavian Languages

I’ve been asked to provide this information from some folks who, incredibly, are insisting that Danish, Swedish and Norwegian are all one language. What makes it even more painful is that at least one of them is a Swedish-language speaker.

I suppose it makes sense that people are outraged by the splitting of these closely related languages. Many Swedes and Norwegians can understand the other language pretty well. I think a lot of this is because they have actually learned the other language, but at any rate, intelligibility between these languages varies. In order to communicate well, Swedes and Norwegians often have to speak slowly. There are all sorts of other variables, but I think that in cases of 90-100% intelligibility, we are looking at a lot of bilingual learning.

I only had one set of figures for the Scandinavian languages, but these were attacked because, while detailed, they lacked a reference for who or what study, if any, came up with those numbers. In looking around, I quickly discovered that there have been intelligibility studies with the Scandinavian languages. Unfortunately, they don’t look good for the case that this is all one language. The data is from a study conducted by the Nordic Cultural Fund from 2002-2005. Subjects were young people under the age of 25. The results can be seen here:

%            Danish    Swedish   Norwegian Average

Århus 	               37.4      46.8      42.1
Copenhagen 	       36        41.3      38.7
Malmö        50.8                49.7      50.2
Stockholm    34.6                55.6      45.1
Bergen 	     65        61.5                63.2
Oslo 	     65.7      71.2                68.5
Faeroe Is.   82.8      57.5      70        70.1
Iceland      53.6      33.4      34        41.9

The highest score of all is Faroese-Danish. Faroese understand 82.8% of spoken Danish. However, this is contaminated by the fact that all Faroese must begin taking Danish classes at Grade 3, and they are tested at Grade 9 to see if they can go on to a higher level.


Faroese is the official language of the ‘fólkaskúli’, and it is the first language that students are taught. Students then begin to learn Danish in third grade and English in fourth grade. In eighth and ninth grade, the curriculum consists of a number of compulsory subjects which prepare the students for upper secondary school and a range of optional subjects from which the students can choose. At the end of ninth grade, students need to pass an exam that gives them entry to upper secondary schools.

The worst scores of all are for Iceland. Icelandics understand only 34% of Swedish and 33.4% of Norwegian.

Although not tested, the intelligibility of Faroese and Icelandic is one way. The Faroese understand the Icelandic, but not the other way around. This is due to dipthongization and other phonological things in Faroese.

Malmö is located in Scania in the south of Sweden where they speak a dialect called Scanian that is closer to Danish. That is why Malmö understands Danish better than Stockholm does.

Based on the notion that >90%+ intelligibility would be the minimum necessary to say that these lects are all one language, the notion that these five languages, much less that big three, are all one language is simply not supported by the available data. In fact, we are not even able to combine even two out of the five into a single language. Hence, all five Scandinavian languages are separate languages, not dialects of one or more macrolanguage.

Are they close? Sure. Are they all one language? Sure doesn’t look like it. Could a speaker of one quickly pick up another one. Quite possibly.


Delsing, Lars-Olof and Åkesson, Katarina Lundin. 2005. Håller Språket Ihop Norden? In Forskningsrapport Om Ungdomars Förståelse Av Danska, Svenska Och Norska. Data above is from Figure 4:11: “Grannspråksförståelse bland infödda skandinaver fördelade på ort”, p.65, and Figure 4:6: “Sammanlagt resultat på grannspråksundersökningen fördelat på område”, p.58.
Maurud, Ø. 1976. Nabospråksforståelse I Skandinavia. In Undersøkelse Om Gjensidig Forståelse Av Tale- Og Skriftspråk I Danmark, Norge Og Sverige. Nordisk Utredningsserie 13. Nordiska Rådet, Stockholm.
Smith, Norval. Linguistics professor, Netherlands. July 2013. Personal communication.
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10 thoughts on “Scientific Studies of Intelligibility in Scandinavian Languages”

  1. Dear Robert
    Such studies should be a bit longer. It takes a little while for people to figure out what the other guy is saying. For instance, I sometimes listen to a 90-minute Portuguese radio program. For the the first three programs, I was missing a lot, but after the 4th program it was smooth sailing. If there is no immediate intelligibility but high intelligibility after less that 10 hours of exposure, then we can really talk about one language with variation.
    I bet that if those Scandinavians had been asked to read a normal text in the other 4 languages, the score would have been much higher.
    Regards. James

    1. Those studies never use written communication. The Scandinavian languages are quite a bit higher on written than on spoken.

      The study was funded by the governments of the region and the conclusion was that young people did not know the neighboring languages all that well. The governments want people to speak neighboring languages better.

      Usually with closely related languages, after 3 weeks of close, heavy exposure you can understand the other language pretty well. If you can figure the other lect out a lot quicker than 3 weeks of close contact, we may just be dealing with divergent dialects.

      I didn’t know you were losing your Portuguese. I’m sorry to hear that.

      Happy New Year!

  2. Aren’t the Faroese Islands part of enmark and don’t they use Danish as an official language? Icelandic is still a heavily inflected language while Swedish, Danish and Norwegian have practically no inflections left. That may hinder communication.
    Cheers. James

  3. Dear Robert
    I’m not losing my Portuguese, which is part of my identity. I just had to train my ear a bit to understand the European Portuguese of the radio program. It is comparable to you having to adjust to a radio program carried out in British English.
    Have a happy new year. James

  4. The Scandinavian languages are divided into two branches: East and West.
    The East Scandinavian languages are Swedish, Danish and Norwegian Bokmål (which is based on the Danish).
    The West Scandinavian languages are Icelandic, Faroese and Norwegian Nynorsk (which is based on the original Norwegian).
    The Faroese Islands is part of the Danish kingdom, and the learn Danish in school, and in Iceland they do so as well (Iceland used to be a part of Denmark as well). Many people from Iceland and Faroese Islands come to Denmark to go to university or other kind of higher educations.
    Swedes, Norwegians and Danes can understand each other with only small difficulties – if they make a little effort. I think it’s the same with Icelandics and Faroeses.

  5. “I don’t understand the historical processes of North Germanic that would make Faroese so close to Danish or Icelandic so far from Swedish and Norwegian. Maybe someone can clue me in.”
    This is a matter of politics. Icelandic is a very well-preserved language and is supposed to be a lot like what Norwegian (and Danish) was like in the Viking Age and the same somewhat goes for Faroese. However at some point in history the Danes seized control of both Iceland and the Faroe Islands and it wasn’t until 1918 that Denmark finally let fully go of Iceland – the Faroe Islands have remained a part of the Danish Kingdom though it has gained some sort of self-government.
    Naturally, during the time of the Danish domination the official languages of both places was Danish and Danish is still taught in Faroese schools – Danish is practically a second language for the Faroese people – but the Icelandic people quickly abolished the Danish language.
    Faroese is an insular Scandinavian language with tight bonds to the original Norwegian so mastering both Faroese AND Danish obviously gives the Faroese people a great advantage in comprehending all the Scandinavian languages.

  6. In the case of the norwegian language, there is a huge difference between understanding our neighbour languages if it is in written or oral form. Written danish is more or less 100 % understandable for Norwegians, but to hear it can be dificult, depending on which part of Norway you would come from. The written danish language represents our academic traditions and 400 years of common history when we were one kingdom and written norwegian didn’t exist. The danish language in its written form looks for Norwegians like a bit oldfashioned but very polite and “high-level” version of written Norwegian.

    The danish pronounciation is quite diferent, and therefore not easy to understand unless you have some practice in listening to it.

    Norewegian is one of the few languages with no normalized spoken form, and our language has dialects which are widely in use and are quite far from the written language. Our spoken language in the eastern part of Norway is quite similar to spoken swedish, but most Norwegians have quite some dificulties with the written swedish language, especially in academic level.

    The test mentioned above shows a lot about the attitude and the special relations between written and spoken norwegian. Norwegians may tend to understand the other languages better than vice versa. We do get some danish “for free” because our written language has evolved from danish. Furthermore we used to be the “smaller brother” in scandinavia and wanted to listen to music and watch tv from the other neighbours, while there was little interest the other way.

    To make the historic basis even more confusing, the Norwegian language area is a part of both the west and the east Scandinavian language area, still shown in the dialects. Should this original main diferences have been followed in the shaping of the Scandinavian languages in stead of politics and military power, the eastern part of Norway including Oslo (+ the maybe the north) could have formed a language together with swedish and the southern cost with ther soft consonants and blurry pronounciation could have been a part of the danish language area.

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