I always think Scandinavian languages are like football teams. You pick one and you stick with it.
It was Norwegian that I plucked out of the polyglot hat very early on. Admittedly, as with many of those early language choices, it was my Eurovision favourites that led the way. I positively lapped up Norway’s entries in the 90s, so resolved to learn as much as I possibly could about the country and language (or languages, as I soon found out).
Scandinavian Value for Money
The thing is, with a Scandi lang, you get bang for your buck. First-language speakers of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish grow up with this in mind. They readily understand each other’s languages – to varying degrees – and consume media from each other’s countries with few issues.
As a second-language speaker, you too can gain access to that value for money party to some extent. Learning Norwegian equips you with an ability to read Danish and Swedish with little difficulty, and, I soon found, to follow the gist to the most animated of Melodifestivalen presenters. You can even fake speaking one of the other languages semi-successfully by adjusting your accent and tone. It’s like supporting your team, but nipping over to see a rival team’s games now and again.
But this year, of course, Sweden went and won Eurovision (again). And if there’s anything that makes me want to learn a new language ‘properly’, it’s the thought of visiting a country to attend said Eurovision. How hard can it be, I thought? Norwegian and Swedish are so similar, it’s just a case of tweaking here and there.
Little Difference, Big Difference?
Ohhhh, no. I soon realised that it’s a slippery slope to assume any of the Scandilangs line up with each other perfectly. As I delve into formal Swedish study for the first time, I’m learning how unintentionally hilarious that assumption could be. For instance, the Norwegian word ful can mean clever or sly. Don’t go calling anyone in Sweden that, though. There, it means ugly.
Other mismatches are perhaps less likely to get you into actual trouble, but will still give you away as a blagger, not a speaker. You’ll need to remember that a newspaper is a tidning, not an avis, for example. You don’t like (like) and huske (remember) but rather tycka om and komma ihåg, using phrasal constructions that Swedish seems so much more partial to than Norwegian. And before you cry wolf, be aware that it’s a varg, not an ulv (incidentally, Swedish ditched the latter due to superstition, a fascinating phenomenon known as taboo replacement).
In any case, having a real go at Swedish is opening my eyes to how different the languages are from each other, and challenging the flawed assumption of equivalency. Maybe soon, I’ll be singing along to those Melfest favourites in the original language, and not my best faux Swewegian.
I’m still Team Norway – but might have sneakily bought a Sweden scarf to whip out at the right moment now and again too.