The Scandinavian Brotherhood

When people outside of Denmark ask me about my native language, Danish, I always say that learning Danish is sort of a “learn one – get two for free” deal. By that I mean that the three Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are so similar, that if you’re fluent in one, you have to put in very little work in order to learn to read and understand the other two. But unfortunately, reading is one thing, listening and understanding is quite another.

When I last visited Sweden, I was at a conference in Malmö and went up to the lady at the reception desk at the conference to get my ID-card. This is how the conversation went: Lady (in Swedish): “Hello, welcome, what’s your name and what company are you with?” Me (in Danish): “Hi, I’m Helle and I’m with XX-company.” Lady (looks like someone just hit her over the head with a hammer and continues very slowly and carefully in English): “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”

This little incident neatly illustrates how it’s not always the ability, but also the will to understand one another that factors in when communicating across languages. The Scandinavian countries have a long, common history, they used to be one country and even though this is a long time ago, to this day, we still lead a love-hate-relationship. We Danes love to think of the Norwegians as sweater-wearing fishermen, and to consider the Swedes… Well… Swedes. In fact, since many Danes can’t hear the difference between Swedish and Norwegian, Swedish tourists might opt for passing as Norwegians when travelling in Denmark in order to get better service.

As disturbing as this is, I do like to think that the relationship between the Scandinavian countries is similar to that of siblings: We might tease and mock each other, but when the going gets rough, we have eachother’s back. Check out more funny-because-they’re-true cartoons at!


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