From Iceland — Scandinavia Explained To The English Speaker

Scandinavia Explained To The English Speaker

Published July 27, 2015

Scandinavia Explained To The English Speaker
Photo by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

To the outsider, the Scandinavian countries tend to all look the same. This is, in fact, not entirely true. First of all, Scandinavia refers only to Norway, Sweden and Denmark, who are same-ish and yet all have their unique attributes. If you add Iceland and Finland, you are dealing with the Nordic countries. But how do you tell them apart? Native English speakers are notorious for not mastering foreign languages, so, let’s have a closer look at the English-speaking world in search of analogies.

Denmark here has the role of Great Britain, a former colonial power who cling to their scandal-prone royals for want of Empire. Danes have been in touch with the outside world the longest and Copenhagen is arguably the most cosmopolitan Nordic capital. Other Nordic countries grudgingly look up to them for historical and cultural reasons, while making fun of the way they speak.

Sweden is the United States of the Nordics. It tore itself away from the Danish Empire in the 16th century and became a superpower in its own right, eventually eclipsing the old motherland. Fought a series of wars with Germany and hereditary enemy Russia, but eventually lost. It is the industrial powerhouse of the region, which sometimes inspires envy and resentment even if it is no longer quite what it used to be comparatively. Something of a cultural melting pot with the largest number of immigrants per capita, but with a habit of assassinating their leaders.

Norway are the country cousins who struck it rich, a bit like Canada. The sparsely populated north reaches far above the Arctic Circle and they have considerable natural resources which they use to fund an impressive social system. Norwegians have historically spent much time explaining to the world that they are not Swedes, but apart from A-ha, Darkthrone and Jo Nesbø, they have still to make the same cultural mark internationally as the Swedes did long ago with Abba, Bergman and others.


Iceland is the Australia of the North, a sparsely populated island with a virtually uninhabited interior and a few settlements along the coast. Feels very far away from everyone else and everything seems a bit upside down here. A strange culinary tradition. Some interesting music—we have Björk and Sigur Rós and they have the Bee Gees and AC/DC (pronounced “Akkadakka”). But whereas the dingos and crocodiles and boxing kangaroos and other critters of Australia will kill you if you stray too far from the beaten path, here it is the country itself that is likely to open up and swallow you whole.

The Faroe Islands are the Kiwis of the North. Much like Iceland in many ways, but even smaller and more isolated. The only famous Faroese person is singer Eivør, and she moved to Iceland to make the bigtime.

The Åland Islands are probably like Guernsey. No one knows very much about them, but you can take a ferry there. They also have a different tax regime.

Finland is an outlier much like Ireland. On the outskirts of a bigger country and with a propensity for drink and strange humour. Unlike the Irish, though, the Finns held on to their bizarre language and Swedish speakers are in a minority along the coast, a reversal of the Gaelic-English divide in Ireland.

Estonia is a little bit like Northern Ireland. They are a lot like the Finns in most ways, but were ruled by a foreign great power for far longer and hence divorced from their cousins. Many people still identify more with Russia than Estonia, and the divide can be problematic, though so far mostly peaceful.

So this only leaves Greenland, a vast country with a very different culture but still a part of the Nordic Countries due to colonisation in the 18th century. A bit like India without independence, perhaps?

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