Yet Another Scandinavian Intelligibility Study

We’ve reviewed several of these studies before, and this subject seems to send a lot of Scandinavians up the wall for some reason. Especially Swedes are quite insistent that Swedish and Norwegian are a single language. They get pretty furious when people say that they can’t completely understand each other. A new study I found adds some weight to that notion. Here are the results of a study of Scandinavian students on an intelligibility test of other Scandinavian languages:

                  Swedish  Norwegian Danish
Norwegians        89                 75
Swedes                     83        24
Finnish Swedes             75        14
Danes             53       57

As you can see, Norwegian and Swedish are almost dialects of a single language. In this test, Swedish-Norwegian intelligibility was 86%. That’s not quite dialects of a single language, but it’s very close. It’s better to say that they are extremely closely related languages. If we include Finnish Swedes, the results go down somewhat, but most Swedes don’t live in Finland.

Norwegian-Danish intelligibility was lower, but still high, at 66%. That’s higher than Spanish and Portuguese. Norwegians can understand a lot more Danish than the other way around, but the Danes can’t seem to understand their neighbors very well.

Swedish-Danish intelligibility was lowest of all at 39%. It’s safe to say that these two don’t understand each other well at all. The Swedes and especially the Finnish Swedes can hardly understand Danish people at all.

Here are the results of a study of “Dutch” students on an intelligibility test of other “Dutch” languages:

                         Dutch  Frisian  Afrikaans
Dutch                           55       62
Frisians                                 67
South Africans           44     25

The intelligibility of Dutch and Afrikaans is much exaggerated. Swedish and Norwegian are much closer. Combined intelligibility of Dutch and Afrikaans is only 53%. That’s about the same as Spanish and Portuguese, not so good. In particular, Afrikaans speakers seem to have a hard time understanding the Dutch.

The intelligibility of Frisian and Dutch is also much exaggerated. Here, Dutch understood 55% of Frisian, about the same as Spanish and Portuguese. Frisians were not tested on Dutch since they all understand Dutch.


Gooskens, Charlotte. 2007. The Contribution of Linguistic Factors to the Intelligibility of Closely Related Languages. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 28:6, 445-467.

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6 thoughts on “Yet Another Scandinavian Intelligibility Study”

  1. Dear Robert
    I think that it makes a lot of difference whether you are following a conversation in which you are one of the interlocutors and following a conversation in which you are only a listener. A Dutchman who has to follow a converstion between two Friesians is likely to miss much more than a Dutchman who is engaged in a converstion with a Friesian in which he speaks Dutch and the Friesian speaks Friesian.
    Regards. James

    1. You misread the study.

      There were *three* tests.

      *Two* tests found Dutch had *a harder time understanding Frisian than Afrikaans*.

      The *third* test found that Dutch found Afrikaans and Frisian equally difficult. Gooskens feels that the third study, *one finding no differences*, ONLY, is invalid.

      So, she *upholds* the first two tests, showing *Frisian is harder to understand than Afrikaans*. Which is precisely what is represented in the data above.

      Dutch speakers:

      Frisian 55%
      Afrikaans 62%

      Frisian is harder to hear. The results above are valid.

  2. As a swede, I would have to say it depends on pronounciation. The scandinavian (north-germanic) languages share a common vocabulary with very few exceptions, probably amounting to just a few per cent. The problem swedes and danes might have when it comes to intelligibility most likely stems from a very different way of pronouncing words that in written form more or less are spelt the same way.

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