Almost 80% of the population of the Nordic Region have Danish, Norwegian or Swedish as their first language. This is a clear advantage in many contexts, but it is also important to acknowledge the linguistic diversity of the Nordic countries.
About 20% speak Finnish, and many minority languages are also spoken.
Most of the Nordic languages belong to one of three families:
Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish belong to the North Germanic “Nordic” branch of the Indo-European languages. All originate from the same common Nordic source language, but they have diverged over the last 1,000 years. Nonetheless, it is still perfectly possible for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish speakers to understand each other.
Finnish is the most widely spoken of the Finnish-Saami branch of the Region’s Finno-Ugric languages, but it is not the only one. Various Saami languages are spoken in northern Finland, Norway and Sweden. Some Karelian is spoken in Finland, while Kven is spoken in Norway, and Meänkieli or “Torne Valley Finnish” in Sweden.
Greenlandic or “Kalaallisut”, which belongs to the Inuit branch of the Eskimo-Aleut languages, is spoken in Greenland. It is related to a number of languages spoken in northern Canada and Alaska.
The individual countries
Danish is the official language. German is spoken by a minority in Southern Jutland (North Schleswig). The German minority’s cultural and language rights are protected by the Copenhagen-Bonn Declarations of 1955. The Declarations also protect the Danish-speaking minority in South Schleswig.
Swedish is the first language of approximately 6% of population, most of whom live on the south and west coasts.
In three local authorities (Korsnäs, Närpes and Larsmo), Swedish is the only official language. Saami has official status in four local authorities: Enontekiö, Inari, Utsjoki and the northern part of Sodankylä.
The Saami, Roma and other groups have the right to maintain and develop their language and culture. The Finnish Language Act enshrines the right to use sign language.
Icelandic is a West Nordic language, but also incorporates many words of Celtic origin.
The modern language preserves most of the Old Icelandic vocabulary and inflections, so it is relatively easy for Icelanders to read ancient texts – especially the sagas.
Icelanders have long been aware of the importance of preserving and maintaining their language, both because of its unique history and because it affords access to a very special literary heritage.
Icelandic language policy seeks to avoid loan words such as “computer” and “telephone”, but instead uses Icelandic equivalents such as “tölva” and “sími”.
The Icelandic Language Council stresses the importance of using Icelandic in all walks of life, even though English is becoming increasingly dominant in international contexts.
Several languages have different degrees of official status: Norwegian (two forms: Bokmål and Nynorsk), Saami (three written forms: Northern Saami, Lule Saami and Southern Saami), Kven, Romani, Romanes and Norwegian sign language.
Saami is an official language in the local authorities of Kautokeino, Karasjok, Gáivuotna (Kåfjord), Nesseby, Porsanger, Tana, Tysfjord and Snåsa.
The Norwegian Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs’ recommendation “Mål og meining” describes Norwegian language policy.
According to the Swedish Language Act, Swedish is the main official language and the one generally used in society. There are six official minority languages: Finnish, Meänkieli (Torne Valley Finnish), Saami, Yiddish, Romani Chib and Swedish sign language.
The Faroe Islands
Faroese is the first language. According to the Home Rule Act, Danish must be taught in schools, and people have the right to use it in all official contexts.
Greenlandic is the official language. The Greenland Home Rule Act of 2009 does not require Danish to be taught in schools, nor does it confer the right to use it for official purposes. The Greenland Home Rule government does, however, publish official information in Danish.
According to the Åland Home Rule Act, the Åland region is Swedish-speaking. Finnish citizens have the right to speak Finnish in the courts and in other official forums.
Other languages in the Nordic Region
The Nordic countries also have their own national variants of sign language. Icelandic sign language is derived from the Danish, while Finnish sign language is based on the Swedish variant.
Last, but by no means least, a whole range of immigrant languages are spoken in most of the Nordic countries.
The Nordic languages elsewhere in the world
Danish is an official minority language in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Finnish is spoken in the Republic of Karelia in North-west Russia. Approximately 2% of the population are Finns. The Republic of Karelia’s official web portal publishes information in Finnish.
The Nordic languages are used to varying degrees by emigrants in North and South America. However, they have no official status, and it is difficult to assess how widely spoken they are in practice.
In the Middle Ages, the Nordic language Norn was spoken in Caithness in the north of Scotland, and on the Shetland and Orkney islands. Few traces remain of this language, which was closely related to Faroese. It died out around 1800, but certain words and phrases are still used in dialects in the north of Scotland.
Danish, Finnish and Swedish are official languages of the European Union.
Language use in Nordic co-operation
Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are the working languages for official Nordic co-operation. For meetings of the Nordic Council and Council of Ministers, an interpretation service is offered between Finnish, Icelandic and Scandinavian, but not between the Scandinavian languages.
The Nordic countries have concluded several agreements on Nordic language co-operation.