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Introduction: What is Norden? (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
nordic flags
The home pages for the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.nordic
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Introduction: What is Norden?


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Subject: 2.1 

How does one define "Scandinavia" and "Nordic Countries"?

It may seem a bit silly, but this is actually a topic that every now and then causes rather heated discussions in s.c.n. So I'm going to be pretty thorough here.

map  

2.1.1 Background

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder mentions in 67 CE an island called "Scadinauia" in the sea at the edge of the world, north of Germania. This, as it dawned much later to the civilized world, was in fact no island but the southern tip of Sweden, the province of Scania (Skåne). The name is thought to be related to the word "skada", or "damage" that could be done to ships by the sand reefs outside southwestern Sweden. The "-avia" ending, on the other hand, probably comes from a word meaning "island", cf. contemporary Norwegian "øya". Thus the original definition of the word "Scandinavia" was purely geographical: it referred to the Scandinavian peninsula -- contemporary Sweden and Norway.

Later, as people became more conscious of their culture, formed political unions, colonized previously uninhabited areas and conquered the land of their neighbours, the definition of the word started to stretch. "Scandinavia" became more a political and cultural concept than a geographic one. And since cultural boundaries tend to be less clearly definable than geographic ones, and political boundaries on the other hand move around quite a bit, the current use of the word is a bit of a mess.

 


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2.1.2 What is "Nordic"?

Another term used of the countries covered by this FAQ is, of course, "Nordic countries", coming originally from French ("Pays Nordiques"). It was at first used of "northern" (European) countries in general, but with the common political, economic and cultural development of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland, the term has in English widely become established as referring exclusively to said five countries (still, not everyone agrees; you may, for instance, find Canadians who are under the misconception that *they* are Nordic :-> . Some examples from dictionaries:

   [Webster's Third New International Dictionary]      
   NORDIC                       
   4. of or relating to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Finland.

   [Oxford Reference Dictionary]
   NORDIC
   2. of Scandinavia, Finland or Iceland.
In the Nordic languages, one has the term NORDEN ("Pohjola" or "Pohjoismaat" in Finnish) which is commonly used of the five Nordic countries which since 1956 cooperate in the Nordic Council. Some have tried to implant this term into English, but without much success so far. It does, however, occur every now and then in this newsgroup.

In addition, it should be noted that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvia and especially Estonia have expressed a wish for extensive co-operation with the Nordic countries, emphasizing their many historical and cultural ties with Norden. If the Nordic Council manages to justify its existence even as Finland and Sweden have joined the EU (some politicians in the Nordic countries have questioned the importance of the NC in the current political situation), we may yet see Estonia and Latvia joining.

The "Nordic race" is a topic which now and then get brought to the groups attention. Mostly by people living abroad. Usually the Nordic participants in the discussion produce disappointment on the other side, by stating that we consider the typical nordic look as un-exotic and un-sexy.

Arne Kolstad writes:
       This is confusing, but nevertheless:
       While "Nordic" means somewhere a bit North; I think it is mostly understood as a (recently) politically defined collection of countries, including Scandinavia, Iceland and Finland. At least that is how it is understood in these countries. As a linguistic unity, Norden hangs well apart. In general, however, we dislike each other enough to form an active neighbourhood.
       Cultural relationships with other regions - Westwards for the Germanic, Eastwards for the Fennic - are interesting. If there is a political process with the outcome of defining them as Nordic (like the one some Balts are trying to establish), then so be it. I can't see, though, that poor old Scotland stands a chance as long as the evil empire rules.

 


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2.1.3 What is "Scandinavia"?

The word "Scandinavia" presents a bit more difficulty. In Nordic languages, the meaning is quite clear:

   Skandinavien:
   Sweden, Denmark, Norway (and sometimes Iceland)
   -- the ancient lands of the Norsemen.
The Scandinavian peninsula, on the other hand, is usually simply understood as comprising Norway and Sweden, despite the unclear border to the Kola peninsula. The northernmost part of Finland is of course also situated on the Scandinavian peninsula.

But in English, alas, there seems to be no standard usage. This is mainly due to the fact that English lacks a simple and clear term for the five countries, and the word "Scandinavia" tends to be used for that purpose instead. The term "Nordic countries", in its current definition, is a rather recent invention, its meaning is still a bit obscure especially to non-Europeans, it's awkward to use and to some people it carries unpleasant connotations of the Aryan "Nordic race". Therefore, you will find that it's quite common to define the word "Scandinavia" in English like this:

   [Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English]
   SCANDINAVIAN
   1. of the countries Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland
      in northern Europe, or their people or languages.
On the other hand, it is not uncommon to use the word "Scandinavia" in its more limited definition. An example:

   [The Concise Oxford Dictionary]
   SCANDINAVIAN
   1. a native or inhabitant of Scandinavia
      (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland).

And some encyclopaedias put it like this:

   [The Random House Encyclopaedia]
   SCANDINAVIA
   1. region of northern Europe consisting of
      the kingdoms of Sweden, Norway and Denmark;
      culturally and historically Finland and Iceland
      are often considered part of this area.

Despite the term being rather clear for the Scandinavians themselves, disputes remain about how the term would be understood and derived in English. If the word is understood as a geographic term, how can then Denmark be included - as most do. If instead it's deduced from the area where the languages are quite similar North-Germanians, should Iceland logically be excluded?

At the risk of disturbing some people's sleep, we will use "Nordic" and "Scandinavian" interchangeably throughout this FAQ, for practical reasons. You have been warned. :->

 


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2.1.4 What is "Baltic"?

"Baltic" as a single word is in itself a bit vague, because it can mean either the Baltic peninsula (Balticum) or the Baltic sea (Mare Balticum), and it depends on the context where it's used.

But, when this "Baltic" is used in connection with the word "country", there are two distinct concepts:

The latter is normally used in connection with environmental issues concerning cooperative protection of the Baltic sea, and in some other efforts of public utility - such as occasional Miss Baltic Sea contests.

 


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Subject: 2.2 

What makes Nordic countries a unity?

From the Viking age onwards, the Nordics have fought each other, formed unions with each other and ruled over each other. Sweden ruled over Finland for over 600 years, Denmark ruled over southern Sweden also for over 600 years (or, alternatively, Sweden has ruled over eastern Denmark for the past 300 years) and over Norway for nearly 500 years, while Iceland was ruled from Norway for some 200 years and then from Denmark yet another 500 years, and the list goes on (but Finland hasn't ruled over anybody, and is very envious because of that :-> . Unavoidably, this has caused some anti-pathies, but it has also made the Nordic cultures more uniform.

 

2.2.1 Culture

Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland shared a more or less homogenous "Viking" culture in the Viking Age (800 - ~1050 CE), and Finland, while not strictly speaking a "Viking" country, did have a "Viking age" and a culture very close to its western neighbours, and at the close of Viking age was united into the Swedish kingdom. Scandinavian culture today could be described as a potpourri of this "original" culture, medieval German influence, French influence in the centuries that followed, and several other smaller sources, not forgetting local development and national romantic inventiveness, of course.

A significant factor is also the fact that the Nordic countries never had an era of feudalism to speak of; personal freedom is highly valued here. One of the expressions of this freedom is the Allemansret / Allemansrätt ("Everyman's right") in Norway, Sweden and Finland, giving all residents free access to the forests, seas and uncultivated land.

The Nordics are rather heavy drinkers, the "vodkabelt" goes right through Finland, Sweden and Norway; the Danes are more of a beer-drinking nation, but don't say no to a glass of akvavit either. Smörgåsbord with pickled herrings and open-faced sandwiches is no rare sight. Women are emancipated. Towns are clean and well-functioning enough to make a Swiss clocksmith feel at home. And so forth; myths and stereotypes about Scandinavia are many. Some of them are, of course, less true than others, but their very existence illustrates the fact that we do have quite a lot in common.

 


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2.2.2 Religion

The Germanic pagan religion has left its mark on customs and festivals; celebrations with bonfires and maypoles mark the Finnish and Swedish midsummer, and the Nordic Christmas bears many similarities to the midwinter feast of the Vikings, starting with the word for Christmas (sw. Jul, fin. Joulu) which comes from the Old Germanic word "hjul", meaning the wheel of the year. Trolls and gnomes still inhabit Nordic households, although the once revered and feared mythical beings have been reduced to the lowly caste of soft toys.

The Finns and the Sámi ought to have a common set of folklore and old relicts of religious traditions, but it is rather hard to find a common denominator for Fenno-Ugric traditions. For instance are the Sámi the only Fenno-Ugrians where shamans are known. Probably the Finns and the northern Germanians have made impressions in both directions. In any case: Bears had a central role in myths and rites, and beings ruling the nature, Haltia in Finnish, are more central in the Finnish and Sámi tradition than among other Nordeners.

The Nordic peoples were converted to Catholicism in the 10th to 12th centuries, but the Lutheran reformation embraced in all Nordic countries wiped out most of the Catholic customs and memories in the course of the 16th century. Having become a stronghold of protestantism against Catholics in the south and Greek Orthodox in the east had some unifying effect on Scandinavia even though wars between the countries kept raging on; religion was, after all, the most important basis of one's identity well into the 18th century. The Lutheran ideal was to require the common people to be able to read the Bible on their own, which had a enormous educating effect on the Nordic peoples. This, along with the protestant work ethic, had a significant role in the forming of the Scandinavian societies, enabling their economic and cultural growth and the pioneering work that the Nordics have played in decreasing social inequality. No doubt it also shaped the national character of each country to a similar direction (a common complaint in Norden: we're such joyless, grey and angst-ridden people ---> it's all the Lutheran Church's fault! :->

Even today, all five Nordic countries have a Lutheran state church to which a vast majority of the population belongs (there is of course full freedom of religion granted by the constitutions of the five countries). Paradoxically, this is probably the reason why Scandinavians are among the most secular peoples on the face of the earth. Despite its seemingly all-pervasive presence in various state institutions and the ceremonies guiding the life of the average Scandinavian, Lutheranism has in most parts of Scandinavia retreated to the fringes of culture and has little meaning to the average person. Church attendance is record-low, the liberal morals hardly reflect specifically Lutheran ideals, religion is no major issue in politics, etc. The official, institutionalized religion offered by the state churches has to a large extent vaccinated the Nordics against Christian fundamentalism of the American kind.

 


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2.2.3 Geography

Norway, Sweden and northern Finland form the Scandinavian peninsula more than 2'000 kilometers from south to north. Denmark is a peninsula stretching out from continental Europe, accompanied with an archipelago of large and small islands, while Iceland is situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Except for Iceland, the countries are situated relatively close to each other, often sharing borders with one another. They do not really form a geographical unit, but this is rather irrelevant since seas and waterways have historically, instead of separating peoples, united them. And we are, after all, talking about the best seafarers of ancient Europe.

Finland, Sweden and Norway receive many tourists camping outdoors and hiking in the (relatively) unpolluted wilderness, taking advantage of the "Allemansret" (the General Right of Public Access) - the ancient right to move over land and waters of others, and to pick berries, and mushrooms, as long as one doesn't disturb and doesn't cause harm. Some tourists even travel by bicycle.

Since the kingdom of Denmark includes also the autonomous area of Greenland (area: 2.2 mill. km², pop. 53,000) the area which could be regarded as "Norden" is huge.

map

 


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2.2.4 Language

Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese are all North-Germanic languages developed from the Old Norse spoken in Viking age Scandinavia. (Also English is classified as a Germanic language.) A Swede, a Dane and a Norwegian can understand each other with varying degrees of difficulties, but none of them will fully understand Icelandic or Faroese without studying the languages. Finnish is an entirely different case, it's a Finno-Ugric language related to Estonian and Hungarian. There is, however, a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, which ties it linguistically to Scandinavia. Also, Finnish is related to the Sámi languages spoken in Norway, Sweden and Finland by the Sámi or Lapps, the aborigines of northern Scandinavia (and the Kola peninsula and adjacent lands).

Melodic accent & glottal stop

Norwegian and Swedish except Finland-Swedish belong to the few European languages with a melodic accent. (Others are Lithuanian and Serbo-Croatian, and some dialects of Germany, for instance Thuringian. Also Old Greek was a language with Melodic Accent.)

The way this melodic accent is expressed vary quite a lot between different dialects, but the dichotomy exists everywhere having an important role to differentiate between words which otherways would have been confused.

Words with one syllable, words stressed on the end and short words with an unstressed suffix usually has what could be called "one syllable accent" (rarely marked, but then by acute accent). Words derived from two-syllable roots usually have an almost equal stress on both syllables.

In south Swedish dialects the "one syllable accent" is expressed as a falling tone on the first syllable, while "two syllable accent" is expressed as a rise and a fall of the tone on the first syllable. Questions are expressed by a rising tone on the second syllable.

In most Danish dialects (and some Scanian too) this melody accent has been replaced by a glottal stop (stød) in place of the "one syllable accents".

Are linguistic definitions of any value?

Maybe not, but nevertheless they show up now and then in the group.

An example:

Dr. R. Rautiu <r.rautiuradu@ic.ac.uk> writes:
Contemporary Germanists are dividing the North-West Germanic branch in a

  1. Continental branch comprising: Swedish, Danish, Bokmål (Norwegian)
  2. Insular branch comprising: Icelandic, Faeroese and sometimes Nynorsk (closer to insular than continental linguistic traits), some specialists put Nynorsk as a transitional language between the continental and the insular groups.

Tor Arntsen <tor@spacetec.no> replies:
About trying to group Nynorsk and Bokmål to different East/West Nordic groups: It's really a red herring as Nynorsk and Bokmål exist as written languages only. No one actually speaks Nynorsk for example. The same goes for Bokmål.

Some dialects would be "closer" to either one or the other, depending on what you end up with if you try to create a "written" form of a dialect. Norwegian language has as many dialects as there are cities and villages and valleys and fjords, and there is no way to create a common written language from that. Bokmål and Nynorsk are just two constructed written languages, where Bokmål is something that once upon a time came from written Danish, and Nynorsk was constructed from south-west Norvegian dialects -- and some personal colouring from the constructor (cultural and political).

 
Eugene Holman writes:
The majority of the traditional inhabitants of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and some regions of western Finland speak closely related Germanic languages belonging to the North Germanic ( = Scandinavian = Nordic) subgroup. North Germanic is a subgrouping within Germanic (formerly called Teutonic). Thus English, German, Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Frisian, Lezebuurjesh, and the now extinct Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Old High German, Gothic, Burgundian, Vandal, Longobardian, etc. are all Germanic or Teutonic languages ( - but they are not Nordic languages).

The late Einar Haugen, one of the leading authorities on the Scandinavian languages, 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.



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© Copyright 1994-2001 by Antti Lahelma and Johan Olofsson.
You are free to quote this page as long as you mention the URL.
The line of flags is modified after a picture at det Åländska skoldatanätet.
This page was last updated April the 16th in the year of 2001.

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