Scandinavia and Linguistic Distance

This week, I’d like to take a brief look at something different. I recently read through the amazing webcomic, Stand Still, Stay Silent (here’s page one), set in a unique post-apocalyptic Scandinavian setting. There are a billion good things about SSSS—fascinating usage of Nordic folklore, detailed worldbuilding, delightful character interactions, and an engaging storyline among them—but something I’ve legitimately never seen anywhere else is its use of languages. It’s worth exploring these dynamics to create more linguistically vibrant world.

In the world of SSSS, the only areas that have survived an apocalyptic plague are the Nordic nations of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland (at least, those are the only inhabited places we’re aware of). Unlike similar settings that take place in other locations, like the United States, the Nordic region is very linguistically diverse. Each of the five nations has its own language, and this hasn’t changed during the 90 years between the end of the world and the comic’s events. The author, Minna Sundberg, grew up in Sweden and Finland, so she brings a lot of personal experience to the table.

The party agreeing that the cat should be called Kitty—kind of. Note the flags in the dialogue boxes to show what language people are speaking—and that the person speaking Norwegian (far left) and the one speaking Icelandic (second from the left) are talking past each other, since their languages aren’t mutually intelligible (more on that in a second).

As tempted as I am to do a deep dive of the languages involved, a quick overview is enough to extract some valuable lessons. Minna has a great in-world graphic to explain the dynamics:

SSSS on the Nordic languages (written by an in-world Icelander, so it’s a bit harsh on Finnish)

Essentially, there are two main groups: Norse languages and Finnish. The Norse languages (Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) all come from Old Norse. The three Scandinavian languages (all Norse languages except Icelandic) are “mutually intelligible,” meaning that while someone who speaks one of them can understand the others with some effort. (As an aside, English isn’t really mutually intelligible with any other languages; the only thing that comes close is Scots, and that’s a stretch. The lines in that clip are “If he was a wee bit closer, I could lob a caber at him, ken?” and “It’s just nae fair making us fight for the hand of a queen that doesn’t want a part of it, ken?”, (“ken” here meaning “you know?”) which you can just barely make out.)

The odd one out is Finnish, which is very different from the others. Finnish isn’t even part of the Indo-European language family, which practically every other language in Europe is a member of. In technical terms, Finnish is “linguistically distant” from the Norse languages. This, along with deep cultural and religious differences, makes it very hard for Finns and other Nordic people to relate with each other.

The party’s Swede trying to speak with the Finn after a couple months of trying to learn the language. One interesting thing is that the third person on the far right doesn’t actually speak Swedish, only Danish, but they can understand each other due to mutual intelligibility.

These real-world dynamics provide lots of fodder for worldbuilders. Most people think of languages only in terms of extreme linguistic distance, like Finnish and the Norse languages. Mutual intelligibility is never considered. By creating settings with varying degrees of distance, you can inject both realism and nuance into your worlds.

I hope you enjoyed this brief diversion! Feedback and suggestions are always welcome.


One thought on “Scandinavia and Linguistic Distance

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  1. I’ve never thought about having mutually intelligible languages in the book I’m working on, but now that I think about it, it would make sense to have very similar languages.
    Thank you:)


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