The Scandinavian languages

The Scandinavian Languages are members of the Germanic family within the broader family of Indo-European languages. The ancestral language, North Germanic (Common Scandinavian), began to divide from the Germanic group around 500-800 CE and then to split into East Scandinavian (the Kingdom of Denmark, the southern two thirds of Sweden and adjacent parts of Norway) and West Scandinavian (most of Norway, with Iceland and other Norwegian settlements in the North Atlantic). Until Christianity came to Scandinavia around 1030, a runic alphabet was used.

In the late 19th century, two forms of Norwegian became officially recognised and have remained separate, despite government attempts to merge them:

  • Bokmål (book language), once called riksmål (state language), a norwegianised form of the Danish used by the elites while Norway was under Danish rule from 1380-1814.  This is now used by some 80%-90% of the population.
  • Nynorsk (new Norwegian), once called landsmål (national language), a codified form of those (predominantly western) Norwegian dialects that were closest to Old Norse.

The Scandinavian Languages are now often divided into two groups: Mainland Scandinavian (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) and Insular Scandinavian (Icelandic and Faroese, as well as Old Scandinavian). Thus Norwegian (in both varieties) now patterns more closely with Danish and Swedish than with Icelandic and Faroese. In general, the Insular languages have a richer inflectional system than the Mainland languages.

Features of Scandinavian languages

Holmberg and Platzack (2005) highlight some features common to all the Scandinavian languages:

  • like all German languages (except English), they are verb-second (V2) languages: no more than one constituent may precede the tensed verb in a main clause. The constituent placed in first position is often the theme of the clause: information that is shared by speaker and hearer.
  • if the subject of a clause is referential (for example, referring to a particular person), that subject must be expressed. In contrast, in some other languages (for example, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin) the subject does not need to be expressed overtly in some cases.
  • the object of a non-finite verb must go after that verb and before adverbials of time, manner and place and other content adverbials. This applies in both main and embedded clauses, though the object may be the first constituent in a main clause.
  • a weak pronominal object may precede sentential adverbs (adverbs that modify the whole clause). This outcome is generally known as object shift (because some analyses treat these objects as being shifted to the left).
  • auxiliaries (auxiliary verbs) precede the main verb.
  • these languages have prepositions (not postpositions), and prepositions may govern clauses (both finite clauses and infinitival clauses).
  • these languages all have a possessive reflexive pronoun. For example, in Swedish, Han tvättade sin bil: he washed his own car, but Han tvättade hans bil: he washed his car, ie someone else’s car.
  • nouns carry inflectional morphemes for both number and definiteness. For example, Swedish häst-ar-na: horse-s-the [normal spelling does not include these hyphens, but they are added here to show morpheme boundaries]
  • attributive adjectives precede the noun and, as in all German languages (except English) agree with the noun. Unlike in other Germanic languages, adjectives used as predicates also agree with the noun.

Finnish and Sami

Although Finnish and Sami are spoken in Scandinavia, they are not Scandinavian languages and indeed are both Uralic languages, not Indo-European.

Sources used

The Germanic Languages (Ekkehard König and Johan van der Auwera,1994)

Chapter 10 The Scandinavian Languages (Anders Holmberg and Christer Platzack) in the Oxford Handbook of Comparative Syntax (Guglielmo Cinque and Richard Kayne, 2005)

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