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The fellowship of language is one of the things that binds Nordic co-operation together. Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are so closely related that, with relatively little effort, you can learn to understand all the languages, if you speak one of them.

Nearly 80 per cent of Nordic residents have Danish, Norwegian or Swedish as their mother tongue. This is obviously an advantage in many contexts, but it is important to remember that the Nordic countries offer a linguistic diversity besides the Scandinavian languages.

About 20 per cent speak Finnish, and, in addition, a great number of minority languages are spoken.

Language families

Most of the Nordic languages belong to one of three linguistic families:

Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish belong to the North Germanic "Nordic" branch of the Indo-European languages. The languages have developed from a common Nordic language, but have moved away from each other during the past 1000 years. However, it is still perfectly possible for Danish, Norwegian and Swedish speakers to understand each other.

In the Finnish-Sami branch of the Finno-Ugric languages, Finnish is the most widely spoken language in the Nordic region. However, other languages in this family are also spoken in the Nordic countries. Various Sami languages are spoken in northern Finland, Norway and Sweden. Karelian is spoken a little in Finland, the Kven language in Norway, and Meänkieli or "Torne Valley Finnish" in Sweden.

Greenlandic or "Kalaallisut" belongs to the Inuit branch of the Eskimo-Aleut languages and is spoken in Greenland. The language is related to a number of languages spoken in northern Canada and Alaska.

You can read more about the languages of the Nordic countries in the book "Dynamic languages with roots".

Language in the different 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 protect the corresponding Danish-speaking minority in South Schleswig.


Finland's national languages are Finnish and Swedish.

Approximately six per cent of Finns speak Swedish as their mother tongue. The majority of Swedish speakers in Finland live along the country's south and west coasts.

Swedish is the only official language in three municipalities (Korsnäs, Närpes and Larsmo). Sami has official status in four municipalities: Enontekiö, Inari, Utsjok and the northern part of Sodankylä.

The Sami, Romani and other peoples have the right to maintain and develop their language and culture. The right to use sign language is set in the Finnish Language Act.


Icelandic is a West Nordic language, but has many words of Celtic origin.

Most of the Old Icelandic vocabulary and inflections have been preserved in the modern language, so it is relatively easy for contemporary Icelanders to read ancient texts, at least the sagas.

Icelanders have long been aware of the importance of preserving and maintaining their language, both because of its special history and because it gives access to very unusual literature.

Icelandic language policy is characterized by the avoidance of most foreign borrowed words such as "computer" and "telephone". They are replaced instead by Icelandic words such as "tölva" and "sími".

The Icelandic Language Council emphasises that Icelandic should be the language used in all areas of Icelandic society even though English is becoming increasingly dominant in international contexts.


Several languages have different degrees of official status: Norwegian (two language forms: Bokmål and Nynorsk), Sami (three written languages: Northern Sami, Lule Sami and Southern Sami), Kven, Romani, Romanes and Norwegian sign language.

Sami is an official language in the municipalities of Kautokeino, Karasjok, Gáivuotna (Kåfjord) Nesseby, Porsanger, Tana, Tysfjord, and Snåsa.

Read about Norwegian language policy as recommended in "Mål og meining" from the Norwegian Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs.


According to the Swedish Language Law, Swedish is the main language and the common language in society. There are six official minority languages: Finnish, Meänkieli (Torne Valley Finnish), Sami, Yiddish, Romani Chib and Swedish sign language.

The Faroe Islands

Faroese is the main language. According to the Home Rule Act, Danish must be taught well in schools, and Danish should be used for official purposes.


Greenlandic is the official language. Greenland's Home Rule Act of 2009 does not require Danish to be taught or the use of Danish for official purposes. Greenland's Home Rule provides 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 on their own behalf in courts of law and with other authorities.

Other languages in the Nordic region

Besides the so-called "natural" languages national variants of sign languages are used. The Icelandic sign language is derived from the Danish, while the Finnish sign language is developed on the basis of the Swedish variant.

Last but not least, a number of immigrant languages are spoken in most Nordic countries.

The Nordic languages outside Scandinavia

Danish is spoken by a minority in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, where the language has the status of a minority language.

Finnish is spoken in the Republic of Karelia in Northwest Russia. Approximately 2 per cent of the population are Finns, and the Republic of Karelia's official web portal offers information in Finnish.

The Nordic languages are used in varying degrees as emigrant languages in North and South America. The languages have no official status here, and it is difficult to assess how much they are used in practice.

The Nordic language Norn was spoken in the Middle Ages in Caithness in northern Scotland, and on the islands of Shetland and Orkney. The language, which was closely related to Faroese, was only handed down very sparingly. It was extinct around 1800 but certain words and phrases still exist in several dialects in northern Scotland.

Danish, Finnish and Swedish are official languages in the European Union.

The Nordic languages in Nordic co-operation

Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are the working languages in official Nordic co-operation. During meetings in the Nordic Council and the Nordic Council of Ministers interpretation 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.


Marita Hoydal
Phone: 0045 29692915