Norwegian professors weigh in: Why do we say “Scandinavia” and the “Nordics”?

Scandinavia and the Nordics_ (2)Photo: Norway Today

The categorization of certain countries worldwide into groups has been happening for centuries. We’re all familiar with examples; the Balkans, the Baltics, the Nordics… And so on.

With such groupings, though, things can get complicated. They can be biased, incorrect, or created with prejudiced intentions. They can also be offensive – whether a certain country is included where some of its citizens think it should be excluded; or whether it’s excluded where some of its citizens think it should be included.

Norway is commonly included in two multi-country categorizations: Scandinavia and the Nordic countries.

But how can we determine what the “correct” name and inclusions are for a certain group of countries? Do “correct” denominations even exist?

We spoke to three experts from the University of Oslo to find out more information: Bjørnar Sæther, Professor at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography; Ruth Hemstad, Associate Professor II at the Department of Archeology, Conservation and History and Historian at the National Library; and Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Professor at the Department of Social Anthropology.

One region, many names

Let’s begin with an overview of the nomenclature of northwestern Europe. Associate Professor Hemstad explains:

“Today, ‘Scandinavia’ and ‘the Nordic countries’ are established, official terms denoting a specific part of the world – the Nordic region.

‘Scandinavia’ is the shared term of the area comprising of Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

“In English, this term is sometimes also used as synonym for ‘the Nordic countries’ (‘the Nordics’ as it is most recently also termed).

“‘The Nordic countries’ – or ‘Norden’ (literally ‘the North’) to use the common term in the Nordic languages – include the three Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden and Denmark) and Finland and Iceland.

“These five countries are sovereign states. The Nordic region includes in addition three autonomous territories: the Faroe Islands and Greenland (connected to Denmark) and Åland (connected to Finland).

“Sápmi is a cultural region traditionally inhabited by the indigenous Sámi people, stretching over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

“‘Scandinavia’ and ‘the Nordic’ countries’/’Norden’ are old names.

“They have been used both to describe a geographical area – with historically changing boundaries – and, since the nineteenth century, as well a cultural-political entity.

“‘Scandinavia’ is originally a Latin term, derived from Scania in the southern part of Sweden. It was used to describe the Old-Norse culture and inhabitants – ‘the old Scandinavians’ in the ancient era, and was reintroduced in the nineteenth century in the Nordic region.

“In the Nordic languages, ‘Nordic’ has been the most commonly used term.”

Professor Eriksen tells us, “In conventional usage, Scandinavia comprises Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, while the Nordic countries (Norden) also include Iceland, the Faroes, and Finland.”

Surveying “Scandinavia”

Map of Scandinavia
The Scandinavian countries form an Arctic Circle-facing triangle. Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica

As for why “Scandinavia” represents Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, as usually cited in the mass media, Professor Eriksen says:

“This is partly for historical reasons – the Union of Kalmar united the three countries briefly in the Middle Ages, partly for linguistic ones – the three languages are close and mutually intelligible – the categorization makes sense in certain contexts.

“Finland has a very different history from the others and did not have a state society until the eventually successful independence movement culminating in the last century. It was a Swedish province, like – for a shorter period – Estonia and part of Latvia.

“The other three [Norway, Sweden, and Denmark] are old kingdoms, which became Lutheran around the same time, with a shared Viking mythology and a common history through alliances, conflicts, and compromises. Norway was part of Denmark for four hundred years, and subsequently in a union with Sweden.

“The Russian connection may have something to do with it, but the linguistic distance is more important.

“However, in Sweden, the Finnish connection is strong: Hundreds of thousands of Swedes have Finnish origins; there remains a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland; and it was an integral part of the Swedish state for centuries.

“Danes and Norwegians feel less close to Finland. For this reason, perhaps, the term ‘Norden’ is used more commonly in Sweden than in Denmark or Norway, although we all speak of ‘the Nordic model’ (of governance) rather than ‘the Scandinavian model’.

“Iceland is linguistically and geographically sufficiently distant not to be considered part of Scandinavia. In fact, Icelanders who could make themselves understood to Scandinavians without having to switch to English would state that they spoke ‘Scandinavian’, i.e. some kind of mixed language.

“Recently, Icelanders are less strongly oriented towards Scandinavia than before; many study in North America rather than over here, and language proficiency in the Scandinavian languages has been weakened.

“In general, the Scandinavian identity has been weakened owing to globalization.

“Neighboring countries become less important in the era of YouTube and cheap flights than they were in my parents’ youth when a summer holiday typically included a spot of camping in Sweden and a trip to Legoland in Denmark.”

Professor Sæther gives us another example: “Look at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). SAS started out being owned by the governments of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

“There’s a historical background here. These three countries have a long history together of wars. Sweden used to be median-sized European power, not as powerful as France or the UK in the Middle Ages, but it was very powerful in Northern Europe.

Norway was a colony of Denmark for centuries, then Sweden.

“Finland is another story. Its closeness to Russia and Moscow to the east and Sweden and Stockholm to the west put it in a location between two powers, both of which wanted to control it.

“During WWII, Finland had to be careful of Russia invading and cooperated with Germany at times.

“Norway, Denmark, and Sweden were always westward leaning.

“The languages of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are quite mutually understandable. For example, I can understand Danish writing easily, spoken is a little harder, but still understandable.

And of course, language is an important part of cultural history.”

Indo-European languages
Today, far-flung Indo-European languages might seem as different as day and night from each other, but they share their roots. Photo: Minna Sundberg

Naming the “Nordic countries”

Associate Professor Hemstad gives us insights into the “Nordic region”:

“There are many similarities among the population and societies in the Nordic region based on shared historical experiences, similar cultures and traditions, common religion and kindred languages, and in more recent time similar political systems and values.

“Norway has been in a close union with Denmark (1397-1814) and in a personal union with Sweden (1814-1905), Finland was an integrated part of Sweden until 1809. Iceland was part of Denmark until 1918/1944.

“During the nineteenth century, pan-Scandinavian ideas underscored and nurtured a Scandinavian identity, which functioned as a complementary identity to the respective national identities.

“As small countries on the outskirt of Europe, there are many reasons to cooperate to promote common interests.

“Since the second part of the nineteenth century, there has been an expanding transnational Nordic cooperation within different fields, also within different international organizations.

“Since 1952, there is a broad official Nordic cooperation through the Nordic Council and later (1971) the Nordic Council of Ministers.

“In the twenty-first century, ‘Nordic branding’ has been a response to increased international interests in Nordic cultural production or brands, such as ‘Nordic noir’ or ‘new Nordic cuisine’.

“The Scandinavian countries have traditionally been at the core of the Nordic region.

“Finland has a common history with Sweden for centuries, hence the role of the Swedish language in Finland today, although the majority language is Finnish and not comprehensible for Scandinavians.

“The Nordic cooperation of today, and Nordic identity and branding, is based on five sovereign states having a lot in common – although there are important differences, historically as well as in the societies of today.”

Nordic countries
The Nordic countries on a map. Photo: Hayden120 / Wikimedia

As for why the name “Nordics” represents Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, the Faroes, and Finland, as usually cited in the mass media, Professor Eriksen tells us:

“Lumping these countries together makes a lot of sense, just as lumping the ex-Yugoslav states, the Baltics or Britain and Ireland; of course, every simplification has its limitations, but it may also be useful.

“The comparable population sizes of these countries (bar Sweden, which is the major power in the region, naturally) and their geographical location in a contiguous region, their egalitarian political culture and welfare states, high standards of living, cold climates, gender equality, and Protestant Christianity are sufficient as criteria to lump them as a particular “kind” of countries.

“Amongst ourselves, we are naturally obsessed with our mutual differences, but seen from afar, those countries must come across as pretty similar.”

Professor Sæther states “It’s important to mention that we have the Nordic Council, in which the Nordic countries have been cooperating since the mid-20th century.

“The Nordic countries aimed to integrate in a common market and allow for travel without a passport.

“The Nordic Council remains an important political arena today, even after Finland, Sweden, and Denmark joined the European Union.

“There are so many commonalities between the five countries, in terms of organizing society, being a welfare state, providing benefits for all… For example, when women give birth they have paid leave from work with full benefits.

“Ideas have been traveling between these countries for years.

“The Nordic countries are, aside from Iceland and Denmark, marked by their large size as well.

“Of course, these countries are not identical but there are many commonalities.

“In the past, the Nordic countries had wars and conflicts but not anymore. In the last 100 years, they’ve been very friendly (they were invaded but by Germans) amongst each other.

“It took us many years, but we learned to love the Swedes again.”

Figuring out Fennoscandia and the Scandinavian Peninsula

Associate Professor Hemstad tells us, “The Scandinavian Peninsula is a common term, broadly used especially since the nineteenth century, and consists of Norway and Sweden.

“The area including Finland, the Kola Peninsula, and Karelia, in addition to the Scandinavian Peninsula, is termed Fennoscandia or the Fennoscandian Peninsula, primarily as a geographical term.”

Professor Sæther notes, “The Scandinavian Peninsula is made up of Norway and Sweden. Finland is also included in Fennoscandia, which is a strictly geographic/geological term and is not used often.

“The countries of Fennoscandia have similar geology. Denmark is not a part of Fennoscandia; it has different geology, and from a geographic point of view, it is part of northern Germany.

“This geological common denominator exists. The very old geology of Finnmark, which is parts of northeastern Norway, north Finland, and north Sweden is more than 300 million years old.

“Water and weather have polished the land here. Most parts of the north are covered by boreal forests and they have similar fauna and flora.”

Professor Eriksen says, “The Scandinavian peninsula consists of Norway and Sweden.

“Fennoscandia also includes Finland and the Kola peninsula and is a purely geographic/geological designation with little cultural import.

“Geographically, Denmark is the northern rump of Germany, but linguistically, it is more closely related to the other Scandinavian countries.”

Curious to continue exploring?

We highly recommend reading academic work by the professors (linked above).

Associate Professor Hemstad has additionally kindly pointed us to further resources for anyone seeking more information.

Find relevant websites here, here, here, and here.

Source: Norway Today


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