Swedish, Danish and Norwegian are similar languages. In fact, they are so similar that speakers of one language can read the other two without any difficulty. Understanding the spoken languages, however, can present more difficulties, especially for Swedes and Norwegians who have had little exposure to spoken Danish.
Danish and Norwegian, with the exception of certain Norwegian dialects, are very close to one another in vocabulary. Swedish and Norwegian, however, are very close in pronunciation. It has been said that Norwegian is Danish with Swedish pronunciation. While this is not completely accurate, there is some truth in the statement.
How can we tell Swedish, Danish and Norwegian apart? In Danish and Norwegian (with the exception of certain Norwegian dialects which have the same infinitive endings as in Swedish), infinitives usually end in an "e". In Swedish, they usually end in an "a". Here are a few examples:
Danish and Norwegian Swedish
komme komma (to come)
danse dansa (to dance)
tale tala (to speak)
skrive skriva (to write)
sove sova (to sleep)
In spelling, Swedish and Norwegian often have a "t" where Danish has a "d". Also, Swedish and Norwegian often have a "p" and a "k" where Danish has a "b" and a "g". Here are some examples:
Danish Norwegian Swedish
ud ut ut (out)
mad mat mat (food)
syg syk sjuk (sick)
kage kake kaka (cake)
pibe pipe pipa (pipe)
peber pepper peppar (pepper)
The vowels of Norwegian and Swedish sound very similar to one another. In general, they are pronounced with a longer duration than in Danish. The vowel "u" in the words "ut" and "ud" meaning out is pronounced very differently in Danish than it is in Norwegian and Swedish. The Danish vowel is the one heard in Italian, Spanish, German and many other languages. The Norwegian and Swedish vowel, however, is more like the English vowel in words such as "you" and "boot". It is a central vowel, not a back vowel as in Danish. Also, the vowel "a" in words such as "ja" (yes) and "mad" and "mat" (food) is quite different in Danish. The Danish vowel is a front vowel similar to the English vowel in words such as "sand" and "cat". The Norwegian and Swedish vowel, however, is a back vowel similar to the vowel heard in the English words "far" and "saw".
Another notable pronunciation difference concerns the letter "r". With the exception of some southern Norwegian and southern Swedish dialects which pronounce the "r" similarly to that of Danish, the Norwegian and Swedish "r" is trilled. However, it is important to note that in many parts of Sweden the "r" is very lightly trilled or in many cases pronounced very similarly to the English "r" in words such as "train", "road" and "strong". The Danish "r" is always pronounced similarly to the French "r". In other words, it is never trilled. Most Norwegian and Swedish speakers trill the "r", especially in the case of Norwegian speakers. With the exception of northern Sweden, however, the Swedish "r" is usually not trilled so strongly.
The intonation of Danish is also quite different from that of Norwegian and Swedish. Though some Norwegian and Swedish dialects have intonation patterns that are not so different from those of Danish, in general Norwegian and Swedish intonation is more varied than it is in Danish. Danish intonation does not seem so different from that of German, but Norwegian and Swedish intonation has a sing-song rhythm which reminds some British speakers of the English spoken in parts of Wales.
Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are languages which share many similarities. However, differences can be noted in spelling, pronunciation and intonation. Recognizing these differences can make it easy to tell them apart.