Why some languages are similar

Posted by JM on Dec 20, 2013

The more languages you learn, the more you see relationships between them, e.g. shared characteristics, roots, and features.

The more languages you learn, the greater your skill becomes in developing a practical system that can accelerate acquisition. As soon as you start seeing patterns, instead of an isolated language, it becomes easier to understand where to start, how to progress and what to learn.

English, German and Norwegian share the same Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Until just recently, English was thought to have shared the same Western Germanic family as German. But researchers are now convinced that English is a Scandinavian language, and therefore shares the same Northern Germanic family as Norwegian, Icelandic and Danish.

This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Language, and its variations and dialects, is influenced by the movement and geography of people. Where two or more people lived and mixed, a new or hybridised language or dialect was born, all in the name of communication.

The Vikings and Nordic peoples travelled extensively. They settled in Great Britain and its surrounding islands. If you’ve ever visited the Faroe, Shetland and Orkney Islands, you can hear the similarity of the local dialects to the Scandinavian languages, especially Norwegian.

Originally, English was believed to be a merging of the Anglo and Saxon dialects. But now it may just be the Vikings who were behind the shaping of the new language. However, Old English underwent great change when the Normans later arrived in the British Isles. With French as the official language of business, Old English transformed into Middle English and around one third of English became French.

The key to the French-Scandinavian linguistic connection are the Normans. The Normans’ ancestors were the Vikings, and as they came to France, they quickly ‘integrated’ into the local community, and merged their language with the Romans and Franks.

The result of this cultural and linguistic melting pot in the British Isles - as well as in Norman France - is that today, there are many similarities shared by English, French, German and Norwegian. This makes it particularly easy to learn all four. But the similarities do not stop there. Knowing these languages, also makes it easier to learn Dutch and Flemish (the language of the Belgian Dutch population living in Belgium).

It seems that wherever the Vikings went, we may see traces of their presence in the local language and culture. This is true for Lithuanian, which although is a Baltic language, has remained largely unchanged from its Proto Indo European roots. Despite this, it has words similar to modern Norwegian, which may have come about from its steady trading contact with the Vikings. The only other language to have preserved its Proto Indo European roots is Greek, and is why Lithuanian also shares many similarities in verbal and written forms to Greek.

Starting to see the patterns forming?

As you study German and/or Norwegian, you’ll no doubt decide for yourself from where English originates. One thing that you’ll realise though is that English is a hybrid language, and has been influenced greatly by German, Latin, French and the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian and German on the other hand have remained relatively intact, preserving their linguistic rules.

What about Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Finnish and Norwegian? Finnish is not a Scandinavian language - it’s a Uralic language. The true Scandinavian languages consist of Danish, Swedish, Icelandic and Norwegian. Icelandic is perhaps the closest to old Norse, having remained unchanged for 1,000 years. In both Norway and Iceland the Old West Norse dialect was spoken. Whereas in Denmark and Sweden, the Old East Norse dialect was spoken.

Norwegian is the modern version of the language that shaped Old English, and stands as a middleman between English and German. Danish on the other hand is the most similar to Norwegian in written form, but sounds vastly different (pronunciation is more like Dutch, Friesan or Platt Deutsch).

Swedish sounds more similar to Norwegian but is different in its written form. Sweden was once part of the great Hanseatic League, and came into constant contact with German, Finnish and Dutch merchants. This perhaps influenced the way Swedish is written today. Nonetheless, if you know Norwegian, you’ll have no trouble in understanding Swedish and Danish.

And now the circle is complete. You’ve seen in a short time just how close the above-mentioned languages are. Hopefully this helps you see that learning a language is not about jumping into the great unknown, but rather, about connecting the dots and finding relationships.


  • Laissez sortir les autres
  • Let others step out first
  • Lassen Sie die anderen erst aussteigen
  • La andrene stige av først

and just for fun, in Dutch

  • Laat de anderen eerst uitstappen



  • http://sciencenordic.com/english-scandinavian-language
  • https://tv.nrk.no/serie/vesterhavsoeyene/DVFJ65000112/sesong-1/episode-1
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