Tolkien Gateway

North Germanic languages

he North Germanic languages or Scandinavian languages make up one of the three branches of the Germanic languages, a sub-family of the Indo-European languages, along with the West Germanic languages and the extinct East Germanic languages. The language group is sometimes referred to as the Nordic languages, a direct translation of the most common term used among Danish, Swedish and Norwegian scholars and laypeople. In Scandinavia, Scandinavian language(s) is also used as a term referring specifically to the mutually intelligible languages of the three Scandinavian countries. The term "North Germanic languages" is used in genetic linguistics, while the term "Scandinavian languages" appears in studies of the modern standard languages and the dialect continuum of Scandinavia. Approximately 20 million people in the Nordic countries have a Scandinavian language as their mother tongue, including a Swedish minority in Finland. Languages belonging to the North Germanic language tree are, to some extent, spoken on Greenland and by immigrant groups mainly in North America and Australia.


From around the year 200 AD, speakers of the North Germanic branch became distinguishable from the other Germanic language speakers. The early development of this language branch is attested through Runic inscriptions. After the Proto-Norse and Old Norse periods, the North Germanic languages developed into an East Scandinavian branch, consisting of Danish and Swedish; and a West Scandinavian branch, consisting of Norwegian, Faroese and Icelandic. Scandinavian settlers brought Old North Germanic to Iceland and the Faroe islands around 800 CE. Of the modern Scandinavian languages, written Icelandic is closest to this ancient language. An additional language, known as Norn, developed on Orkney and Shetland after Vikings had settled there around 800 CE, but this language became extinct around 1700. In medieval times, speakers of all the Scandinavian languages could understand one another and they referred to it as a single language, called the "Danish tongue" until the 13th century in Sweden and Iceland. In the 16th century, Danes and Swedes still referred to North Germanic as a single language, which is stated in the introduction to the first Danish translation of the Bible and in Olaus Magnus' A Description of the Northern Peoples. Yet, by 1600, the genetic East Scandinavian and West Scandinavian branches had become reconfigured from a syntactic point of view into an insular group (Icelandic and Faroese) and a continental group (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish). The division between Insular Scandinavian (ö-nordisk/ø-nordisk) and Continental Scandinavian (Skandinavisk) developed due to different influences, and is based on the degree of mutual intelligibility between the languages in the two groups.