Similarities and differences within Scandinavian languages

The Scandinavian languages are similar to each other, but also differ from each other. Here is an example that illustrates nicely some of the similarities and differences. I came across it in The Syntax of Icelandic, Höskuldur Thráinson (2007). Although Höskuldur Thráinson uses the example to make one specific point about word order, I use it here to make some interesting general points, before picking up his word order point at the end of this post.  

I present the example in 2 parts. Here is the first part. It shows the same sentence in 4 Scandinavian languages: Icelandic (Ic), Faroese (Fa), Norwegian (No) and Danish (Da).

hvortþaðhefurveriðeinhver kötturí eldhúsinuIc
umtaðhevurveriðein kettaí kjøkinumFa
omdetharvoreen kattpå kjøkenetNo
omderharværeten kati køkkenetDa
whethertherehasbeena catin kitchen.the 

Meaning: ‘whether some cat has been in the kitchen’

The symbol <þ> is pronounced as [θ], roughly like English <th-> in thin. The symbol <ð> is voiced version of that sound, and pronounced as [ð], roughly like English <th-> in that. Notes on characters

Similarities between the languages

Here are some of the similarities between the 4 versions:

  • Most of the words are identical, or very similar.
  • All 4 languages use an expletive (in 2nd place), corresponding to English ‘there’. This conveys no separate meaning. It just acts as the grammatical subject and introduces the logical subject (‘a cat’), which comes later in the clause.
  • All 4 languages use the perfect tense, formed of the auxiliary verb meaning ‘have’, followed by the supine (a form of the past participle, but not varying to mark the number or gender of the subject).
  • As is typical of many verbs in Germanic languages (particularly ‘weak verbs’), the supine (and the past participle) is formed with a suffix containing a dental suffix (/t/, /d/ or /ð/), though this suffix is no longer present in the Norwegian version.
  • The languages with an indefinite article en (‘a’) place it before a noun to mark it as indefinite.
    Because Icelandic has no indefinite article and the distribution of a completely unmodified noun might be restricted, the Icelandic version of this example instead includes einhver (‘some’) to modify the noun.
  • All 4 languages attach a suffix /-in/ or /-en/ to mark a noun as definite.
  • The form of the indefinite article and of the definite suffix mark the noun’s gender.    
  • The word order is the same in each language:
    firstly, a complementiser (‘whether’);
    secondly an expletive;
    thirdly a finite verb (in this case, the auxiliary);
    fourthly the main verb (in the past participle or supine form);
    fifthly the logical subject; and
    finally a prepositional phrase.

How the languages differ

Icelandic and Faroese have retained some inflectional complexity that Norwegian and Danish (and, indeed, Swedish) have discarded:

  • Icelandic and Faroese both retain a system of grammatical cases. The suffix /-ur/ (Icelandic) /a/ (Faroese) marks the noun as being in the nominative case. The suffix /-u/ (Icelandic) /-um/ (Faroese) marks the noun as dative.
    Norwegian and Danish no longer have grammatical cases, except in pronouns and in some fossilised expressions.
  • Icelandic and Faroese still both inflect finite verbs to show the person and number of the subject.
    In contrast, Norwegian and Danish have a single form for all persons, covering both singular and plural.     
  • Icelandic, Faroese and some forms of Norwegian (Nynorsk and some less traditional forms of Bokmål) still distinguish 3 genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.
    Danish and traditional Bokmål Norwegian distinguish only 2 genders: common and neuter.

There are also small differences in vocabulary and usage:

  • Icelandic has a different word for ‘whether’—hvort instead of um / om
  • Icelandic also has a different word for kitchen—eldhús instead of kjøkin / kjøk(k)en
  • Norwegian uses the preposition (‘on’) instead of i (‘in’).

Word order

Höskuldur Thráinson states that Norwegian, Danish (and Swedish) allow only one position for a logical subject introduced by an expletive. In contrast, he says Icelandic and Faroese allow 2 positions, and this is, in fact, the main point of his example. Those languages allow both the word order shown above and another order.

In that other order, the grammatical subject (einhver köttur / ein ketta) precedes the past participle (but still follows the inflected auxiliary verb), as shown below.  

hvortþaðhefureinhver kötturveriðí eldhúsinuIc
umtaðhevurein kettaveriðí kjøkinumFa

Referring to Icelandic names

Höskuldur Thráinson points out that the second component of Icelandic personal names is not a surname but a patronymic. It is made up of the father’s name, plus the suffix -son (for a man) or -dottir (for a woman). Because it is not a surname, he says that texts should:

  • refer to Icelandic people using their full name (as I have done above).
  • sort Icelandic names into alphabetical order using the first name, not using the patronymic.

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