There’s really no question that Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are Scandinavian countries. But when it comes to Iceland, Finland, and the Faeroe Islands, it’s apparently not so cookie-cutter-simple. While Icelanders generally feel Scandinavian, many “Scandinavians” insist on denying Iceland the honour.
Now if you’re thinking, ‘okej, let’s settle this barney with a dictionary,’ think again. The ever-so authoritative free online Merriam-Webster dictionary says:
Scan•di•na•via geographical name
1 peninsula N Europe occupied by Norway & Sweden
2 Denmark, Norway, Sweden –sometimes also considered to include Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, & Finland
Já, I know. A free online dictionary is perhaps not so authoritative. But consulting Oxford, in print, is no better:
Scan-di-navia / skændI’neiviə / noun [U] a cultural region in NW Europe consisting of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and sometimes also Iceland, Finland and the Faeroe Islands.
That’s just frábært, right? Tack for nothing, Merriam-Webster and Oxford. To be fair, regardless of whether a dictionary authority had provided a definitive answer, the debate would probably still continue.
Lately I have been at total loggerheads with a Swede who is adamant that Scandinavia refers to only Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. “People travel a lot between the three countries, and not nearly as often to Iceland or the Faeroes,” he reasons. “Lots of young Swedes go to work in Norway, Norwegians come to Sweden to buy alcohol, and Danes visit Malmö, et cetera.”
So in other words he is discriminating against Iceland for being a hassle to travel to, and perhaps for not having cheap liquor and exciting jobs for fresh Swedish engineers. Behind this silly reasoning, he seems to be hinting at a geographical problem with Iceland being a three-hour flight away. Perhaps it’s also problematic that Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) is the official flag carrier of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Geographically speaking though, Scandinavia can be defined as the peninsula consisting of Norway and Sweden, as Webster says (also parts of Russia are in there, it turns out). And some old maps do in fact depict Scandinavia as an island (yes, they got that wrong) made up of modern day Norway and Sweden. But surely the definition cannot simply be geographical. If it were, Denmark wouldn’t be part of Scandinavia and Finland would be because it’s pretty much part of that peninsula/island. Not to mention, Swedes often go there to buy cheap, tax-free alcohol.
In addition to being a geographical term, Scandinavia can also be defined as a cultural term, as Oxford says. The Swede has plenty to say on this front too. “Even as a wee lad you just KNOW Sweden-Norway-Denmark is Scandinavia, nothing more, nothing less,” he says. “We are the same people.” But, this is a rather shaky way to exclude Iceland from the mix when the country was in fact settled by the Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson, and was under Norwegian and then Danish rule until June 17, 1944.
Echoing my sentiment, an Icelander tells me, “I have never understood this distinction some people make—Iceland was settled by Vikings originating mostly from Norway, subsequently with some mixing by people of Celtic origin.” Then he ponders light heartedly, “Swedes, Danes and the Norwegians are tall and blond, while Icelanders tend to be less so, to the point that the Icelandic male was recently described disparagingly as being short, pudgy and mousy-haired.” He wonders if this might be the distinction.
Common heritage and appearances aside, however, Scandinavians are also known to conduct themselves similarly. They are often characterised as Prot-estant, social democracies with a highly educated and literate populace. This too describes Iceland. And especially if one ignores the fact that Icelanders hunt whales—which perhaps makes Iceland a little bit too Japanese—what’s the problem?
Despite the similarity in societies, and the fact that Icelanders engage in many of the same activities as other Scandinavians, such as drinking heavily and eating loads of black liquorice candy, the Swede dismisses Icelanders as being bigheaded—a trait frowned upon by Scandinavians who abide by Jante Law.
Unlike Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Faeroe Islands, Iceland does not follow Jante Law, which is called Janteloven, Janteloven, Jantelagen, Janten laki, and Jantulógin in the respective countries. For whatever reason, the term is not even in the Icelandic online subscription-based dictionary ordabok.is.
The basic idea is that people should not go on about being better than others, and admittedly this makes Iceland somewhat of a black sheep. But, perhaps our Scandinavian brethren should forgive us, as it may very well be that the nation suffers from an inferiority complex after all those years of being a neglected colony of Denmark. Thanks a lot, Danes!
Then there’s the so-called Scandinavian language bond due to the fact that the trio—Denmark, Norway and Sweden—can essentially communicate with each other in their own, mutually understandable tongues.
But this is silly! As Icelanders often boast (remember, they don’t subscribe to Jante Law), the Icelandic language is so pure that they can still read the Old Sagas. In actuality, Iceland is more authentically Scandinavian in this sense because Icelandic is most similar to the language once spoken throughout all of the Scandinavian countries.
Whatever. Let them have their Scandinavian language. The Icelanders and Faroese have more fun speaking to each other anyways, what with the number of similar words with totally different meanings. For instance, an Icelander in the Faeroe Islands is likely to run into signs that say, ‘Bert Starfsfólk’, which means “Staff Only” in Faroese, but ‘Naked Staff’ in Icelandic. Now tell me that’s not more fun.
Rather inconclusive. For one reason or the other, Scandinavia is made up of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and sometimes Finland, Iceland and the Faeroe Islands. It just depends on whom you ask.