Exploring language siblings: the similarities and differences between Swedish and Danish

The most characteristic aspect of the relationship between Swedish and Danish is the humorous, piquant, and relentless mockery.

It kind of resembles a sibling relationship: it’s fun and loving and at times serious. The Danes cannot understand the Swedes’ social awkwardness or strange fashion choices, and the Swedes tease the Danes by saying that they speak as if they had a hot potato in their mouth.

Since the Swedes and the Danes can understand each other, they often get themselves into heated, convivial, and heartfelt quarrels.

Sweden and Danish have an epic and contentious history together. In fact, Sweden and Denmark hold the world record for most wars fought between two countries.

Throughout their long and intense history, the neighboring countries, which are separated by a small strait, have fought approximately 30 wars since the 15th century.

Yet, despite their wrathful history, Swedes and Danes consider themselves linked together historically and culturally since the countries at one point or another have belonged to each other, and because Swedish and Danish are mutually intelligible.

Sweden

In this article, we’re going to examine some of the most striking similarities and differences between the Swedish and Danish languages.

Origins of Swedish and Danish

Swedish and Danish both originate from Old Norse, an extinct North Germanic language. Initially, the early versions of Swedish and Danish were quite similar, but over time the two languages started to diverge and display greater differences than before.

These differences grew stronger because of the many wars between Denmark and Sweden, and their epic rivalry also had consequences on the Swedish language.

For example, in the advent of the printing press, the Swedes took the opportunity to distinguish Swedish from Danish. At this time, it is believed that the Swedes were so appalled by the Danes that they wanted to distinguish themselves from them as much as possible.

The Swedes intentionally changed aspects of their language to separate Swedish from Danish: they started using the vowels “å”, “ä”, and “ö” (as opposed to the Danish “å”, “æ”, and “ø”), and chose to use the spelling “ck” instead of the Danish “kk”.

The structure of modern Swedish and Danish has thus been significantly affected by the historic rivalry between the two countries.

Are Swedish and Danish mutually intelligible?

Danish and Swedish are mutually intelligible to some degree. The Swedes and the Danes usually don’t have any issues communicating in writing. Swedish and Danish look very much alike in writing and even foreigners who speak neither language can clearly see the great similarities between them.

However, when it comes to speech, Swedes and Danes generally have some difficulty in understanding each other—there’s a reason why Swedes think that Danes speak as if they had a hot potato in their mouth!

In Danish, as opposed to in Swedish or Norwegian, the words are shortened and the endings are almost swallowed, which makes it difficult for Swedes and Norwegians to understand what they’re saying.

Similarities between Swedish and Danish

The similarities between these two languages are many, and it’s easy to see that they share the same origin.

Swedish vs. Danish vocabulary words

The Swedish and Danish vocabulary is extremely similar, almost to the point that it’s funny. Even a non-native speaker who is learning either Swedish or Danish would easily be able to understand both languages. Below are a few examples of the unmistakable similarities between Swedish and Danish.

Common phrases:

Common words:

Words that are different and similar at the same time

There are still plenty of common words that are different in Swedish and Danish, but even in those cases, Swedes and Danes can still understand each other. Here are some examples:

“Breakfast” is “frukost” in Swedish and “morgenmad” in Danish. These don’t look similar, do they? That’s because the Swedish word “frukost” comes from the German word for breakfast, “Frühstück”.

Yet, Swedes would be able to understand the word “morgenmad” since it’s comprised of two different words: “morgen” (meaning “morning”) and “mad” (meaning “food”).

In Swedish, the equivalent to “morgen” is “morgon” while the equivalent to “mad” is “mat”. Now they seem more similar, don’t they?

“Crosswalk” is “övergångsställe” in Swedish and fodgængerovergangin Danish. They don’t look similar, but once again the words that form the word fodgængerovergangare like Swedish. “Fodgænger” means “pedestrian”, and the Swedish equivalent is “fotgängare”, which is almost the same as the Danish word for pedestrian. Swedish and Danish sometimes use different words to construct the same meaning.

The few differences between Swedish and Danish

Even though almost all aspects of Swedish and Danish are similar, there are some tiny differences between the two.

Danish and Swedish Alphabets differ by 2 letters

The Swedish and Danish alphabets both originate from the Latin alphabet, and even though they are almost identical, two vowels differ.

Both alphabets consist of 29 letters: A to Z plus three vowels in the end.

In Swedish, the last three vowels are “å”, “ä”, and “ö” whereas the Danish alphabet has “å”, “æ”, and “ø”.

These letters might look different from each other, but they’re pronounced almost the same; the Danish vowels are somewhat shortened.

In Sweden and Danish, the letters C, Q, W, X, and Z are only used in loan words.

Some spelling differences bewteen Swedish and Danish

As mentioned above, the Danes use “å”, “æ”, and “ø” instead of the Swedish “å”, “ä”, and “ö”, and it’s thus simple to tell the two languages apart based on only these letters.

However, these are not the only differences when it comes to spelling. Here are some other examples:

Words that begin with “v” in Swedish, start with “hv” in Danish (the “h” is usually silent)

Swedish uses “ck” while Danish uses “kk”. The Swedish word for hill, “backe”, becomes “bakke” in Danish

In Danish, words that contain the sound “x” are spelled “ks” while it’s spelled with an “x” in Swedish. The Swedish word “strax”, meaning “soon”, is spelled “straks” in Danish.

Pronunciation is more difficult in Danish than Swedish

According to Swedes, Danes speak as if they had a hot potato in their mouth. The reason why Swedes say this is simple: Danish pronunciation is different from Swedish and difficult to master.

Below are some examples that explain why Swedes are confused by the Danish pronunciation:

In Danish, whenever the letter “g” isn’t at the beginning of a word or syllable, it’s usually silent. A Dane would not pronounce the second “g” in “gulerodskage” (carrot cake), and this would be completely foreign to the Swedes, who always pronounce the letter “g” no matter where it is placed.

The Danes pronounce the letter “d” in various ways while the Swedes pronounce it one way. For example, in Danish, the “d” is silent when it appears after “n” or “L”—and this can make it difficult for Swedes to comprehend what the Danes are saying. The Danish word “hånd” (hand) is pronounced “hon”, which in Swedish sounds like “hon” (she).

Danes have the notorious “soft D”—a combination of “L” and the English “th” sound. To give an idea of what the soft D sounds like, imagine that someone who has just had a tooth extraction tries to say “l” and “th” at the same time.

Swedish has a gender-neutral pronoun (and not Danish)

Since the introduction of the pronoun “hen” into the Swedish language in 2015, the usage of the neutral pronoun has caused a heated debate.

The usage of hen was introduced by Swedish feminists who argued that social structures and institutions, as well as linguistic norms, together continuously work to oppress certain individuals in society.

Through using the pronoun hen, the sex of the individual can remain unknown.

Swedish used to consist of only two gender-specific pronouns, “han” (he), and “hon” (she) and did not have a gender-neutral pronoun like German does.

Hen is a gender-neutral personal pronoun that works as an alternative to the gender-specific “han” and “hon”. The pronoun “hen” can be used to avoid stating a gender and to reference individuals who belong to a specified sex or third gender.

Nowadays, “hen” has gained widespread acceptance and is frequently used by politicians, journalists, and scholars. The idea of a gender-neutral personal pronoun was also considered by the Danes around the same time, but it did not catch on.

The existence of a gender-neutral personal pronoun is thus today a striking difference between Swedish and Danish.

Which of the two languages is easier to learn for anglophones?

Learning a new language requires time and effort, no matter how easy or hard the language is, and since Swedish and Danish are so similar, it can be difficult to choose between the two.

The Swedish and Danish grammar and vocabulary are incredibly similar, so no matter what language you choose, you’re going to be able to understand the other language too, at least to some degree.

In terms of easiness, Swedish would have a slight advantage over Danish, only because of the easier pronunciation.

Danish is known to be difficult to pronounce, even for those who already speak Swedish or Norwegian.

Which language should you learn first, Swedish or Danish?

Before deciding what language to learn, there are three main aspects to consider: interest, difficulty, and usefulness.

Learning a language requires a lot of effort and dedication, and therefore it’s clever to choose a language you’re interested in since you’re less likely to give up on it. So, before you start learning a new language, you should take a moment to ask yourself which language you’re the most interested in.

Another aspect to consider is the level of difficulty. As previously mentioned, Swedish is easier to learn for native English speakers than Danish because of the difficult pronunciation.

The third aspect to take into account is the usefulness of the language. Make a mental cost-benefit analysis in terms of which one of the languages would be the most useful to you.

Do you live near Denmark or Sweden? Do you have a Swedish or Danish love interest? Are you planning on moving to Denmark or Sweden? In case your cost-benefit analysis results in a tie, go with the easier of the two.

Conclusion

Swedish and Danish are astonishingly similar: they belong to the same language group, so they use words, grammar, and spelling that look alike (for the most part).

It quickly becomes evident to anyone who compares Swedish and Danish that they are indeed language siblings (caught in a love-hate relationship).

No matter what language you choose, you’re going to find that Swedish and Danish each have their little quirks, rules, and unique surprises.

However, even though learning Swedish or Danish certainly has its challenges, they both offer double the reward: when you learn one, you learn both of them!

PS: you can use our free web app, VocabChat to record your own Swedish and Danish phrase lists.