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Q&A

Is Swedish more conservative than Danish and Norwegians?

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I have read somewhere that Swedish is more conservative than the other continental North Germanic languages, Norwegian and Danish. Clearly Icelandic is more conservative then these all. But is the claim concerning the continental languages correct and why is it so?

I could imagine listing a bunch of features of each language. Nynorsk (and to lesser extent Bokmål) has three genders, Swedish has common gender nouns with varying vocal in plurals (-or, -ar and -er) while the others are less varied, Norwegian has genitive forms like «katten min», etc.

However, such an ad hoc listing seems a poor way of coming to a conclusion. A more rigorous standard for establishing how conservative these languages are would be helpful.

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4 comments

It's going to end up rather subjective to attempt an answer of this, I think. Some words in modern Norwegian sound like old fashioned Swedish to Swedes and vice versa. "Spørga" for example has the direct Swedish equivalent "spörja", meaning exactly the same thing, except this is archaic Swedish that isn't used any longer (replaced by "fråga"), while modern Danish/Norwegian use it. Lundin‭ 4 months ago

I found lots of interesting reading on the subject at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Germanic_languages. There seem to be no historical claims that any of the languages are somehow more "progressive"/"conservative" than the others. Lundin‭ 4 months ago

I agree with the existing comments, partly because languages are complex systems and it's quite subjective to choose between syntax, morphology, phonology, lexicon, and so on. Further complicating dimensions of comparison are media (spoken/written), genres, styles, registers as those can greatly differ in conservativity, too. However, if you'd be interested in a feeble, lexicon oriented attempt at an answer, let me know. Jirka Hanika‭ 3 months ago

@Jirka Hanika There is no answer thus far, so please give it a shot. tommi‭ 3 months ago

1 answer

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Every language has lots of varieties which differ in conservativity among themselves. This effect can be massive[1]. If any particular methodology for assessing conservativity forces a choice between the spoken form and the written form, or between various available registers early in the process, such a decision may drastically influence the outcome.

Conservativity is a multidimensional quantity. Any of pronunciation, writing system, vocabulary, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics could be used as a basis for comparison with potentially different results. Looking exclusively at the pronunciation or the writing system obviously excludes some key language varieties from the comparison; and semantics and pragmatics are difficult to control for exo-linguistic factors of societal change. Let me therefore try and look at the basic vocabulary of the languages involved.

When several languages have a common ancestor, lexical differences between each one and that ancestor can be attributed to a combination of vertical (inner) influences and horizontal (external) influences. Vertical forces include sound laws affecting the form of words and meaning shifts affecting the semantic fields: a word can "wear out" and have to be replaced in its primary meaning under the pressure of acquiring secondary meanings. Horizontal forces include borrowings from other, not necessarily similar or genealogically related, languages.

Lundin has, in his comment on the OP, very aptly characterized a completely general problem which surfaces whenever a native or equally fluent speaker of one of the languages being compared looks at the other language, lesser known to them. ("Some words in modern Norwegian sound like old fashioned Swedish to Swedes and vice versa.") Vertical lexical differences tend to suggest that the lesser known language is the more archaic one, while the objective situation can be perfectly symmetric or even opposite to the apparent one. This happens when the common ancestor language offers several near-synonyms (words with overlapping semantic fields) and the descendant languages sort out the overlap differently; educated users of either language are likely to be familiar with reflections of both words in both languages for some time, using "their own" lexical item actively and recognizing "the other" item passively as indicative of either a non-standard dialect or archaic usage. The item is then subconsciously interpreted as a marker of "archaic" or "conservative" language use even in the other language, and this feeling might persist subconsciously maybe even after the speaker is made aware that the usage is entirely common and unmarked in that other language. This "subjectivity" of comparison is perhaps less of a problem with horizontal forces inside the traditionally linguistically sensitive Europe, as long as the external origin of loanwords to either language remains equally obvious to both its respective native speakers and to its foreigners.

To avoid drowning in the problem of subjectivity, it is practical to use a standardized battery of "core meanings" for the multi-way comparison (between the ancestor language and each descendant language). Constructing such a battery is a tricky business because we need to select concepts which tend to exist in every language in the world and have a single unmarked word to denote them. This task has been tackled by glottochronologists[2], whose basic tools were the Swadesh's lists.

Let me try quite unscientifically comparing Swedish against Danish and then also Norwegian (bokmål)[3] using the first 100 words from the list.

  • 44 identical items. (I did my best to land the items here when either language offered multiple lexical items or forms, per my bias toward a drawn result.)
  • 26 times the Danish word showed a vowel reduction compared to the more conservative Swedish spelling. Bokmål sides with Danish on these.
  • 5 relative pronouns (or question words) preserve a more conservative spelling with initial "hv-" in Danish compared to Swedish "v-"; however, the "h" is silent in Danish with no spoken difference. Norwegian is more divergent here, often reducing the cluster to /k/, which could be interpreted as being more conservative than either Swedish or Danish - while Danish is the most conservative one graphically on this overrepresented part of the lexicon.
  • 8 items look as if there's some German spelling influence over Danish, often spelling "nd" where Old Norse and most descendants had just a "n"; however, the "d" is silent in Danish, unlike in German. Norwegian tends to be written like Swedish here.
  • 7 items where Danish and Swedish preserved different lexemes from Old Norse. Norwegian tends to preserve both lexemes side by side, or dependent on the dialect. (I will count each one as a draw.)
  • 1 more such item (Danish "ikke" for "not") where it seems fair to say that Danish (and Icelandic) are the innovators here.
  • 3 items where Danish reflects an older "g" as "v", unlike the rest of the flock.
  • 1 item ("två") where Swedish preserves a "v" lost in Danish.
  • 1 item ("träd", meaning "a tree") where the Swedish word contains a fossilized definite article (which is so well baked in that it doesn't stand in the way of forming "trädet", meaning "the tree", yet another definite article now that the old one had been lexicalized)
  • 2 items (Danish "hånd" vs. Swedish "hand"; and Danish "lille" vs. Swedish "liten") where I was unable to make up my mind about who is being more conservative here.
  • 2 more items I lost track of (sorry for that), one where the Danish form superficially resembled Icelandic more than the Swedish form, and the other was vice versa; but I failed to check Old Norse for these, so this is in itself quite inconclusive and I will count these as two draws.

(I haven't specifically elaborated on too many Norwegian items, and that's mainly because bokmål appears (judging only from these top 100 lexical items) to have been so much influenced by Danish, Swedish, or both, that the complicated question of conservativity of Norwegian could perhaps be approximated by a simpler question of tracking down those influences on the written and spoken form of this or that dialect and register of Norwegian.)

In retrospective interpretation of several of my findings, I have greatly benefitted from this resource and this resource, especially in cases where it was not obvious which form had been the original one.

Time to score - written forms:

  • Swedish emerges as more conservative than Danish: 26 + 8 + 1 + 3 + 1 = 39
  • Danish emerges as more conservative than Swedish: 5 + 1 = 6
  • Draw: 44 + 7 + 2 + 2 = 55

Time to score - spoken forms:

  • Swedish emerges as more conservative than Danish: 26 + 1 + 3 + 1 = 31
  • Danish emerges as more conservative than Swedish: 1
  • Draw: 44 + 5 + 8 + 7 + 2 + 2 = 68

Don't take my totals too seriously as I don't speak those languages myself and I was sure to miss many important points especially in the vocalic space, and I was biased toward a drawn match.

However, if either language has turned out to be more conservative than the other, it has been Swedish, and it has been so mostly because of extensive vocalic reduction in unstressed syllables, as well as non-historic "-nd-" and "-ld-" clusters found in written Danish. I may conjecture that some of this is a result of German historically expending a little bit more of an influence over the evolution of Danish compared to the undetected influence of, for example, Uralic languages over Swedish. But it would be a mistake to consider this explanation to be the only possible one, or to consider the overall effect strong.

Remember that a close look at morphology or even at the lexicon as a whole could hypothetically arrive at the opposite conclusion; the method above is unable to detect whether a language tends to solve its new naming needs through derivation from old morphemes or through borrowing, which is something where Icelandic draws a lot of its fame for being conservative within its subfamily from. (It's rare to encounter an internationalism in Icelandic.)


  1. Written English has barely changed since Shakespeare (Early Modern English), but pronunciation changed enough to make the modern listener lose lots of originally obvious puns (when either reading or listening to modernized pronunciation), or to have difficulty understanding (when listening to a "reconstructed" Early Modern English pronunciation.) ↩︎

  2. It is paradoxical for this answer to turn for help to glottochronologists whose early premise was that language change proceeds at approximately constant pace across languages. Taken to the extreme, contemporary Icelandic could not be any more conservative than contemporary Danish, because their temporal distance from a fixed common ancestor[4] would be identical by definition. Later refinements of the theory would exclude horizontal change (borrowings) as indicators of language age and that would enable predicting that insular languages would tend to preserve more of the ancestral vocabulary in its original meanings over the same period of time. We don't benefit from this refinement and we are shamelessly reusing Swadesh lists which predate it. ↩︎

  3. I decided to look primarily at bokmål; I would ignore nynorsk to limit the size of this experiment, although I hope the method is clear enough for anyone else to include it if desired. Bokmål itself is to some degree Danish based which reduces the variability of the "competition to Swedish" by another bit. ↩︎

  4. In theory, the closest common ancestor is uniquely defined. In reality, selection of that common ancestor dialect in temporal and geographical dimensions can bias the measured closeness to either Icelandic or Danish greatly. Glottochronology is shown in the best light when such details aren't advertised too heavily. Further reading. ↩︎

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6 comments

Thanks, nice answer, since I learned something. tommi‭ 3 months ago

Well, that comparison is very subjective :) For example the word "ikke" also exists in Swedish - "icke", with the very same meaning. Except in Swedish, "icke" is formal/archaic and "inte" is modern, but you can use both. It is interesting to note that Swedish doesn't have double k "kk" though, always "ck" like in English. No idea why, would make an interesting question of its own. Lundin‭ 3 months ago

Overall I would think that Danish and Norwegian would have more influences from English, since most viking immigrants in the UK came from those countries, less so from Sweden (and Iceland, which in early middle-ages was rather a place you'd immigrate to rather than from). I think all Nordic countries had lots of influence from the various German countries. Sweden also had a period around 1700-1800 where French was very fashionable, during which lots of words were borrowed from French. Lundin‭ 3 months ago

@Lundin, this is repeatable science with its flaws of the method and errors of measurement. I had bound my hands, as to the choice of lexemes representing each language, by strictly perusing the referenced 207 word list in the wiktionary (you can click on "comparing" in the answer to access it). A subjective factor was in my getting lazy half way, stopping after only 100 words. I may have also misunderstood a specific etymology or several. Jirka Hanika‭ 3 months ago

If you choose to compute and post your totals on the same word list, or from an independent word list (let me suggest the last 107 words from the same 207 word list) I'm sure that multiple people will be interested to see how much we differ numerically. Jirka Hanika‭ 3 months ago

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