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the Scandinavian languages compared (s.c.nordic texts)
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The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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the Scandinavian languages compared




From: Eugene Holman
Subject: Re: Norwegian vs. Swedish
Newsgroups: soc.culture.nordic
Date: 10 May 1996 16:35:11 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki



Jerry Green wrote:
> Could someone please elaborate on the fact that native speakers of
> each language are somewhat able to understand the other languages?  I
> have been told that this is possible.  Is the difference accent, such
> as the English spoken in the UK contrasted with the English in the
> States?
> 
> Thank you!
> 
> Jerry


The late Einar Haugen, one of the leading authorities on the Scandinavian langauges, once characterized Norwegian as "Danish spoken with a Swedish accent". The essential difference between the three Scandinavian languages is that Danish and (Bokmål) Norwegian have a long history of shared culture and vocabulary which Swedish lacks, while Norwegian and Swedish have many shared features of pronunciation, which Danish lacks. Actually, the truth is somewhat more complex, since Norwegian and Danish have radically simplified their pronunciation and grammar in a way that Swedish has not, but the pronunciation of Danish has subsequently been influenced by that of German, while Swedish and Norwegian have not.

Here are some of the most salient differences in tabular form. Please note, only the "standard" forms of the languages are being dealt with here (also the Swedish spoken in Finland is omitted). The spoken local forms of the three Scandinavian languages actually form a continuun with no really sharp breaks; the three standard languages are relatively recent cultural artifacts imposed "from above":

    
                                      Danish Norwegian  Swedish
1. Pitch accent                         -       YES       YES
2. Glottal stop ("stød")               YES       -        -
3. Reduction of unstressed vowels      YES      YES       -
4. Retroflex consonants                 -       YES       YES
5. Retention of Old Norse diphthons     -       YES       -
   (au, ei, öy)						     	      
6. Voicing of voicelss stops           YES       -        -
7. Long stressed syllable rule          -       YES       YES
 

Examples:

  1. Pitch accent
    Danish jeg taler "I speak" has a heavy stress accent on the tal. The second syllable is pronounced indistinctly with a reduced vowel. Its Norwegian analogue jeg snakker [the Norwegian verb would in Danish and Swedish mean "chat, banter" rather than "speak"] as well as the Swedish jag talar have less stress on the first syllable, with the second syllable being pronounced distinctly and at a higher pitch than the first syllable - this despite they being unstressed.  

  2. Glottal stop (stød)
    Danish hund "dog" is pronounced [hun?], with the stop articulation replaced by a "creaky voice", conventionally indicated by a glottal stop sign [?] in phonetic transcription. The corresponding word in Swedish and Norwegian has the stop pronounced [d] and no creaky voice.  

  3. Reduction of unstressed vowels
    Compare Danish/Norwegian kvinden/kvinnen with Swedish kvinnan "the woman". Swedish regularly distinguishes between o, a, and e in unstressed syllables. Norwegian and Danish have reduced these contrasting vowel qualities to a shwa [@] spelled e.  

  4. Retroflex consonants
    Most types of Swedish and Norwegian pronounce the combinations /rt/, /rd/, /rn/, and /rl/ as retroflex consonants (articulated with the underside of the tongue touching the front of the hard palate). Danish does not do this, for which reason words like kort "short", hård "hard", barn "child, and karl "fellow" sound quite different in Danish than they do in Norwegian or Swedish.  

  5. Retention of Old Norse diphthons
    Norwegian retains the Old Norse diphthongs in words like laupe "to run", bein "leg", høyra "to hear" as do many rural dialects of Swedish. Compare standard Danish/Swedish løbe/löpa, ben/ben, høre/höra.  

  6. Voicing of voicelss stops
    Danish has gone a long way towards voicing older voiceless stops and fricativizing older voiced ones:
    Danish bog "book, cf. N/S bok
    Danish sidde "sit", cf. N/S sitte/sitta
    Danish skov "forest", cf. skog  

  7. Long stressed syllable rule
    Norwegian and Swedish have preserved the long syllable rule. According to this, all stressed syllables are phonologically long, containing either a long vowel or a long consonant:
Overall, the combination of these phonological features makes spoken Danish rather difficult (indistinct) for Swedes and Norwegians until they have hade some practice; to a Dane, on the other hand, spoken Norwegian, and particularly spoken Swedish, sound over-articulated and somewhat archaic.

unstressed vowels

The reduction of unstressed vowels has resulted in the obliteration of several older contrasts:
    Danish        Norwegian     Swedish
    jeg elsker    jeg elsker    jag älskar     "I love"
    jeg køber     jeg kjøber    jag köper      "I buy"
    tændstikker   fyrstikker    tändskickor    "matches"
    pengene       pengerne      pengarna       "the money"
    cigaretter    sigaretter    cigaretter     "cigarettes"
Swedish conjugates some verbs with -ar, others with -er, Danish and Norwegian have reduced this to -er; some Swedish nouns have their plurals in -or, others in -ar, others in -er, Danish and Norwegian have eliminated the contrast between the vowels, while Danish has gone even further and gone further than either of its two sister langauges towards using -e as a universal plural marker.

similar words

In their lexicon Danish and Norwegian usually share words similar or identical in form and meaning, with Swedish being the odd man out:
    Danish        Norwegian     Swedish
    billed        billed        tavla          "picture"
    jernbane      jernbane      järnväg        "railway"
    lomme         lomme         ficka          "pocket"
    uge           uke           vecka          "week"
    værelse       værelse       rum            "room"
Sometimes the same word has evolved somewhat different meanings: Danish/Norwegian rolig means "peaceful, tranquil", but "pleasant, amusing" in Swedish. Thus, to continue the comparison made by Einar Haugen, a Norwegian can almost always understand the words spoken by a Swede, but he might be unsure about what they mean. On the other hand, he might have more difficulty understanding the words spoken by a Dane, but he could be pretty sure he understands what they mean.



Finally, a few examples of the differences:

Danish:    Hvad heder dette sted? Her er meget smuk, er her ikke?
           [va~ 'hed@ 'det@ 'ste~  'heR e@ mai@t smuk, e@ heR ig@]

Norwegian: Hvad heter dette stedet? Her er meget pent, ikke sant?
           [va 'heet@r 'dett@ 'steed@   'heer er `´meeg@t 'pennt, `´ikk@ 'sannt]

Swedish:   Vad heter det här stället? Det är mycket vackert här, är det inte?
           [va 'heeter de 'hæær 'stællet   'Dee e `´mykket `´vakkeT hæær, 'e de `´inte]

"What's the name of this place?   It's very beuatiful, isn't it?"
Even if some of the words appear to differ from language to language, almost all of them are found in all the other languages, often with a slight difference in style, nuance, or meaning, e.g. Danish smuk "pretty" corresponds to Swedish smycke "ornament, adornment". Native speakers of one of the three languages would have little trouble dealing with the written versions in the other languages. Norwegian, as the sentence shows, is closer to Danish in grammar and lexicon (e.g. the demonstrative dette "this" rather than the compound "det här" or Swedish, negation with ikke rather than with inte in Swedish (the Swedish equivalent icke is only used in formal style). Norwegian pronunciation, on the other hand, is closer to that of Swedish, and would be much easier for a Swede to understand than would that of a Dane.



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- Is the text above really reliable?
- See the discussion in section 1.2.2!
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