Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nordic vs Scandinavian: The Terms That Launched a Thousand Ships

Today we've got a great post from Colin, clarifying a point that has confused many folks (myself included).

A recent post on this blog generated some comments about the cultural connections between Scandinavia and Finland. The discussion brings up an interesting issue about the distinctions between Scandinavians and their eastern neighbors.

In America, the words “Nordic” and “Scandinavian” are used more or less interchangeably, but there’s a distinction between them that’s worth making. Strictly speaking, “Scandinavian” is a term referring to people who share a common Germanic linguistic and cultural ancestry, and live in or come from the countries we now know as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The term “Nordic” is meant to encompass a larger group of people living or coming from a geographic region, roughly defined as stretching from Finland to Iceland, or even Greenland, depending on the context.

Scandinavians are the linguistic and cultural descendents of tribes of wandering Germans who ventured north as the last glaciers receded. Even today, their languages are very similar and to a great degree, mutually intelligible. Finnish, on the other hand, is completely different, and is far closer to Hungarian than any of the Scandinavian languages.

Despite the linguistic divide, there has been a long history of cultural and political connection between Finland, Scandinavia, Greenland and, for that matter, the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Over the centuries, various groups have invaded, conquered, colonized, fled, migrated to and been pushed out of each other’s countries, the borders of which have changed significantly through history. Thus, the ethnic and cultural makeup of the Nordic region is far more complex than people commonly think. There are Swedish-speaking people in Finland, Finnish-speaking people in Sweden, ethnic Danes in Greenland, the Eskimo-Aleut Greenlanders, the Kven people in Northern Norway, various groups of Roma (gypsies) throughout the region, immigrants from all over the world, and of course the Sami, who might be related to the Finns, but maybe not – no one really knows for sure. The term “Nordic” is convenient, if not tremendously specific, because it lumps all of these people more or less together.

In America, we’re fairly inconsistent about how we use these terms. Your typical “Scandinavian” gift store will also include a good number of Finnish items. At the University of Minnesota, I studied Norwegian under the aegis of the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, although the same department also offers Finnish; this is reflected in that my major is known as “Scandinavian Languages and Cultures and Finnish” which is misleading given that, unfortunately, the closest I ever got to studying anything remotely Finnish was to read The Finn Family Moomintroll, a children’s book series written by a Swedish-speaking Finn. On the other hand, the Nordic American Thanksgiving Breakfast event is dutifully so titled because it includes representatives from the Finnish-American community, and various incarnations of Sons of Norway’s mission statement have taken pains to make the distinction: The mission of Sons of Norway is to promote and to preserve the heritage and culture of Norway, to celebrate our relationship with other Nordic Countries, and provide quality insurance and financial products to our members.


louisjanus said...

Hmm, I would have been even more conservative with the term Scandinavia. I thought it only "officially" applied to the Scandinavian peninsula -- that is Sweden and Norway. But as a linguist, I'd have to agree with Humpty Dumpty -- I pay my words well, so they mean what I want them to mean.

MJ said...

Very interesting. See you tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Helpful and interesting. Thank you.

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