The Languages of Scandinavia: Seven Sisters of the North

The Languages of Scandinavia: Seven Sisters of the North

by Ruth H. Sanders

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From fjords to mountains, schools of herring to herds of reindeer, Scandinavia is rich in astonishing natural beauty. Less well known, however, is that it is also rich in languages. Home to seven languages, Scandinavia has traditionally been understood as linguistically bifurcated between its five Germanic languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese) and its two Finno-Ugric ones (Finnish and Sámi). In The Languages of Scandinavia, Ruth H. Sanders takes a pioneering approach: she considers these Seven Sisters of the North together.

While the two linguistic families that comprise Scandinavia’s languages ultimately have differing origins, the Seven Sisters have coexisted side by side for millennia. As Sanders reveals, a crisscrossing of names, territories, and even to some extent language genetics—intimate language contact—has created a body of shared culture, experience, and linguistic influences that is illuminated when the story of these seven languages is told as one. Exploring everything from the famed whalebone Lewis Chessmen of Norse origin to the interactions between the Black Death and the Norwegian language, The Languages of Scandinavia offers profound insight into languages with a cultural impact deep-rooted and far-reaching, from the Icelandic sagas to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s internationally popular Millennium trilogy. Sanders’s book is both an accessible work of linguistic scholarship and a fascinating intellectual history of language.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226493923
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/24/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ruth H. Sanders is professor emerita of German studies at Miami University of Ohio, where she taught Swedish language and German language, culture, and linguistics. She has traveled widely in Scandinavia, and has studied and worked in Sweden and Finland. She is the author of German: Biography of a Language. Sanders lives in Oxford, Ohio, with her husband.

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Prologue to History

Habet quoque id ipsum immensum pelagus in parte arctoa, id est septentrionali, amplam insulam nomine Scandiam, unde Nobis sermo, si Dominus jubaverit, est assumendus.

(The same mighty sea has also in its arctic region, that is in the north, a great island named Scandza, from whence my tale [by God's grace] shall take its beginning.)

Jordanes, De origine actibusque Getarum, AD 551.


The last gasp of the Ice Age, or the Last Glacial Maximum, as it is called by geologists, ended around 20,000 BC. Its vast glaciers covered the North and most of the British Isles, along with the greater part of northern continental Europe. They took in what are now the northern parts of France, Germany, Poland, and Russia, including Siberia. This ice-over was the latest of several that had waxed and waned in parts of the Northern Hemisphere over millions of years. By around 10,000 BC, only some polar regions remained under ice. The people arrived in the North soon afterward, when plant and animal colonization in Fennoscandia was sufficient to support human population.

Studies of archaeological and human remains in both Sweden and Finland suggest that these early settlers are the ancestors of today's Scandinavians (Karlsson et al. 2006, 963). Whether they were replacing even earlier, preglacial populations of the North who had been killed off or driven away by the inhospitable cold and barrenness of the rumbling glaciers, we cannot know. Presumably any earlier populations would have been not Homo sapiens (biologically modern humans) but Neanderthals. The massive moving mountains of ice scraped away all evidence that would tell us with certainty.

Clans of hunter-fisher-gatherers began to enter Scandinavia as the last Ice Age ended, around fifteen thousand years ago. "The land was already infiltrated by vegetation, then entered by animals, and eventually occupied by people sometime after 13,000 BC," writes archaeologist T. Douglas Price (2015, 1). Signs of settlement, preserved in layers of Scandinavian bog and unearthed in modern times, include fishing hooks, axes, and heaps of hazelnut shells. Hunting of elk and reindeer has been dated by archaeologists to around 9000 BC in what is now Scania (local name Skåne, in southern Sweden), while reindeer hunting in Finland can be reliably dated at the earliest to around 6000 BC (Siiriäinen 2003, 45-47).


The Stone Age, named for the stone that was the principal material the people used to make tools, occurred later in the North than on the European mainland, in tandem with the later settlement process in the North. The Stone Age is usually considered to have three parts everywhere:

• The Paleolithic, including, in Scandinavia, the periods before as well as after the earliest human habitation sometimes referred to as Early Stone Age

• The Mesolithic, in Scandinavia beginning around 6000 BC

• The Neolithic, also called Late Stone Age, in Scandinavia beginning around 4000 BC

The three eras are defined by the increasing sophistication of design and the skill of manufacture visible at their borders. The Neolithic saw the beginnings of agriculture and domestication of farm animals such as cattle, accomplishments that fundamentally changed human life wherever they occurred.

Though the people of the North had long imported copper and bronze from other regions, it was not until about 1800 BC that they learned to smelt copper and manufacture bronze (copper alloyed with tin or arsenic), thus beginning the Nordic Bronze Age. Now they were able to forge more effective weapons and utensils than the old tools chipped out of stone.

In the Celtic Iron Age, which lasted roughly from 600 BC to AD 1, the knowledge of smelting and casting iron was brought to the North by Celts, or perhaps by northerners who had traveled to Celtic regions of the European continent. In the Roman Iron Age, AD 1-400, trade with the Roman Empire flourished over land and water routes from continental Europe, and Roman influence is seen in Scandinavian methods and types of ironworking.

The peoples of the North during the ages depicted in this chapter did not yet have any form of writing; they recorded the events of their lives in pictorial rock carvings, leaving only archaeological scraps for modern scientists to discover. Written documentation of large or small events cannot be dated anywhere in the world before about 4000 BC in the Middle East and southern Europe, and these writings did not include descriptions of the North until Roman times, thousands of years later. Table 3 lists some of the major events that occurred between the time when the North was settled and the time when evidence of its peoples emerged in recorded history.


Evidence of the earliest human settlement of the very far north of Fennoscandia, which later became Sámi territory, was found at the River Utsjoki, in northern Finnish Lapland, on the border with Norway. Settlers arrived there as early as 8100 BC from Lake Ladoga, in what is today northwestern Russia (Aikio 2004, 5); transient hunters may have been in the area even earlier. Archaeological evidence provides no clue as to their language (more on this in chapter 7).

The earliest known settlers in southern Finland, their language likewise still unidentified, left evidence of their settlement around 7200 BC (Jutikkala and Pirinen 1988, 10). Of varying tribes and genetic backgrounds, the settlers seem to have come from many areas, including the Pontic steppes (today western Ukraine and Kazakhstan), though their ancestral tribal homelands may well have been in Europe or even the Middle East.

On the Danish and Norwegian-Swedish peninsulas and their associated North Sea islands, the earliest post-Ice Age settlers were probably migrants from the northwestern coasts of the European continent. It is not known what language they spoke or from what location they had previously migrated.

These migrations of peoples, from the east and from the west, settled what is today Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. But when did the ancestors of the languages we know today come to the North? To answer this question, we must look to deep history in the areas both west and east of the Ural Mountains, where the two ancestor languages of the North got their start.

The Language Families of the North

Historical linguistics often categorizes languages into families; the oldest ancestor language that linguists have been able to identify is characterized as the "mother" of the "daughter" languages that developed from it. Proto-languages are theoretical reconstructions of languages that have not survived to the present, based on linguistic evidence (for example, from similar words in related languages) as well as cultural and archaeological evidence. It cannot be known with certainty whether a given proto-language actually existed in its reconstructed form, and for this reason words or parts of words hypothesized for proto-languages generally appear with an asterisk in front of them. Two proto-languages are the oldest known ancestors of the languages of the North: Proto-Uralic and Proto-Indo-European. Both were once spoken over large areas of the Eurasian continent, along with an unknown number of other languages that have left no trace in modern times.

Proto-Uralic (PU) is the older of the two. Spoken from probably around 5000 BC in the areas to the east of the Ural Mountains (hence "Uralic"), it is the ancestor of thirty or so languages spoken both east and west of the Urals, including in the Arctic territories of what is today Russia. Proto-Finno-Ugric (PFU) is a western subgroup of Proto-Uralic believed to date from around 4500 BC (dating is from Janhunen 2009, 68) and is the one more relevant in this volume, since PFU is the more immediate ancestor of Finnish and Sámi (for a discussion of the PU/PFU language family, see Campbell and Poser 2008, 88).

However, there is evidence of a non-PU/PFU language or languages, now extinct, spoken in Sámi territory in very early times and called by linguists Paleo-Laplandic. Paleo-Laplandic is believed to be a substrate language underlying Sámi; it left its footprints in words not traceable to Proto-Finno-Ugric or to any other known language. Finnish linguist Ante Aikio sees evidence of a process of linguistic replacement rather than of population replacement. "The earlier speakers of 'Paleo-Laplandic' languages belong to the cultural and genetic ancestors of the Saami even if they were not their linguistic ancestors," Aikio concludes (2012, 106). According to this hypothesis, the speakers of Paleo-Laplandic living in the northern reaches of Scandinavia for some (unknown) reason abandoned that language. In taking up a new language, they retained some useful words from their old language. Examples of such words include names of birds native to the northern Sámi territory, not known in territories further south where PFU originated: állat 'snow bunting' and giron 'rock ptarmigan'. Other examples are place names ending -ir, such as Gealbir, Hoalgir, Jeahkir, suggesting a "substrate lexeme meaning mountain," as Aikio writes. He has dated these substrate words to the same era as the Proto-Scandinavian borrowings into Sámi, that is, AD 200-700, the time of "the spread of Saami languages to Lapland and the disappearance of the unknown Paleo-Laplandic languages" (2012, 87). Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the mother of almost all European languages, had its origins either in what is today Turkey or in the Eurasian steppes, according to scholars (see page 18). However, still another large shift had to occur before the PIE languages of the North became differentiated into Germanic and then Scandinavian.

British anthropologist David W. Anthony estimates that northwestern dialects of PIE gave birth to a pre-Germanic proto-language beginning around 3300 BC in what is today coastal Denmark (2007, 82) and then, about 500 BC, to Proto-Germanic (for a full discussion, see Ringe 2006), which developed eventually into the Germanic languages as we know them today. In Scandinavia, stages following Proto-Germanic include Proto-Scandinavian, Common Scandinavian, Proto-Norse, and finally Old Norse, mother to the Germanic Scandinavian languages.

Languages, Peoples, and Ethnicity

A people's settlement patterns may result in language change, and even a people that lives in a contiguous territory and speaks the same language for thousands of years may at some point change languages. For these reasons it is a mistake to identify any language with a particular ethnic group. For example, it may seem surprising that the Sámi could have lived for thousands of years in the North and then changed their language, without changing their locality, but this seems to have happened, as we saw in the Paleo-Laplandic hypothesis.

While the reasons for the Sámi language change are not known, such a change has been documented many times in human history. One cause is migration into a settled population by a group of newcomers with a new language, even if the newcomers are relatively few in number. A voluntary shift of the settled population to the new language may occur if the migrants and their language are perceived by the original inhabitants as more powerful than they and their previous language. This would happen if the migrants had a superior technology-for example, knowledge of agriculture or animal husbandry, or more effective manufacture of tools or weapons. Or the language shift could have come about because the newcomers were invaders who were able to take control of the population and force the new language on them. Without material evidence, we cannot know what forces were at work among the Sámi, only that before they began to speak a Proto-Uralic language, out of which modern Sámi developed, they spoke some other language (see chapter 7).

Genetically, the peoples of modern Fennoscandia have been mixed, dating to early times and continuing until today; and the modern populations cannot in all cases be firmly linked to the two major ancestor peoples. The genetic profile of the modern populations may be plotted on an east-west gradient, with the Sámi people, though still predominantly western, the most inclined toward an eastern profile. Likewise, trade, exploration, and shared territories between the peoples of eastern and western Scandinavia are traceable to Stone Age times, and these connections remain strong to this day.

Nearly as striking as their commonalities, however, are the differences between the two prongs of settlement. The western Scandinavian languages (Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese) are strongly differentiated from the eastern Scandinavian languages (Finnish and Sámi); and their speakers, for all their shared genetics and history, retain notable differences in culture and tradition. Even within Finland, as we will see in later chapters, there are differences in dialect and custom between the western and the eastern parts of the nation, although both are Finnish-speaking. The Sámi, for their part, are one people who live in three Scandinavian nations as well as in Russia (although this volume focuses only on the Sámi in Scandinavia). In Sweden, Norway, and Finland, the Sámi people have retained many of their folkways even as they partake fully in the modern cultural and political life of the majority populations.


It is impossible to say definitively what language was spoken by any prehistoric peoples, because they have left no written evidence; normally linguists or other scientists develop a hypothesis through a chain of reasoning in which a people's customs, such as funerary habits (for example, burial or burning), styles of pottery, and design of housing are associated with a language known or believed to have been spoken by contemporaneous peoples with a similar culture. Several competing hypotheses exist concerning the origins of Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Uralic, prehistoric language families of the North.

The Origin of Proto-Indo-European: Two Views

According to British archaeologist Colin Renfrew, Proto-Indo-European originated in Anatolia in south-central Turkey and was spoken by the world's first farmers, who gradually migrated to Greece beginning around 6500 BC, then continued northward, arriving in northern Europe around 3500 BC. The farmers brought the peoples already living in these areas not only the art of agriculture, but also their language. This is Renfrew's Anatolian Hypothesis (Renfrew 2000). PIE also took hold in those prehistoric times on the western coasts and islands of what is now Finland, areas that have been in historical times, and remain, Swedish-speaking (seechapter 7), even as Finnish was, and remains, dominant on the central and eastern Finnish peninsula. Possibly because weather and soil conditions were less favorable to farming in prehistoric Proto-Finno-Ugric-speaking territory, agriculture became the major source of subsistence there much later than it did in what is now Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (Vuorisalo et al. 2012, 168).


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Dead Man Talking 1. Prologue to History 2. Gemini, the Twins: Faroese and Icelandic 3. East Is East: Heralding the Birth of Danish and Swedish 4. The Ties That Bind: Finnish Is Visited by Swedish 5. The Black Death Comes for Norwegian: Danish Makes a House Call 6. Faroese Emerges 7. Sámi, Language of the Far North: Encounters with Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish Epilogue: The Seven Sisters Now and in the Future

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