Is Finland part of Scandinavia? Why Finland often gets left out when people talk about Scandinavia.
There must be something really special in the Arctic-chilled air in the north country of Scandinavia. After all, since the U.N. began publishing its annual World Happiness Reports in 2012, all of the Scandinavian nations have consistently ranked in the top ten, with at least a couple of them routinely turning up in the top five.
When you’re talking about the rankings of 156 world countries based on quality of life issues as reported by citizens of each nation, and when you’re talking about seven years in a row of consistently coming in that high on the list, it’s clear that these guys are doing something right.
But what’s up with Finland? For the last two years, Finland has snagged the top happiness spot, with Denmark and Norway coming in right behind. (And let’s not forget the Swedes: Sweden is right up there too, coming in at number seven in 2019, up from the number 9 slot in 2018.)
But the top honor belongs to Finland, yet again. Strangely, of the four countries mentioned above—Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland–only the first three are generally spoken of as Scandinavia. Except that sometimes Finland IS referred to to as a Scandinavian country, depending on who’s doing the talking.
So which is, it, is Finland part of Scandinavia or not?
Relationship status: It’s complicated
For the answer to the question is Finland part of Scandinavia, you’ve got to do a bit of digging in to the country’s geography, the history of the region, the languages spoken there, and the shifting politics over the course of long centuries stretching back to the murky medieval period when these countries were first emerging as proper nations.
After all, Finland shares a border with both Sweden and Norway, so there has been significant contact between them for hundreds of years. And along with those two nations and Denmark—which is the third country generally thought of as part of Scandinavia—Finland also shares a great deal in terms of culture, history, an affinity for the sea, Vikings and much more.
But when it comes to the majority of scholarly definitions, Finland usually gets left out of conversations on Scandinavia. To complicate matters even more, the definition of Scandinavia and whether Finland is in Scandinavia or not depends on the context and what exactly is being referred to.
Let’s break it all down.
History in the land of “danger”
A good place to start might be with the actual word “Scandinavia” and taking a look at where it comes from in the first place. Originally, the word stems from a region at the very southern tip of Sweden called “Scania.” Historians say that the ancient Romans were the first to give the region that name, when, in their explorations of the lands to the north of their strongholds in what is now Germany they believed it to be an island.
But although it’s generally agreed that it was the Romans who named the area Scania, the root of the word is disputed. It’s widely held that Scania, and therefore Scandinavia comes from a Germanic word for “danger” or “damage,” the same root that gives English the word “scathing.”
While the Scania region was once a part of Denmark, it has belonged to Sweden since the Swedes finally won a series of wars over control of the area in 1720. To this day, Scania remains the name of the southernmost Swedish province, and is home to 33 municipalities including Sweden’s third-largest city, Malmö.
But when you look at a map of the area that was roughly designated Scania by those long-ago Roman explorers, and then zoom out and see what a tiny piece of land it really is in the context of the region of Scandinavia, it seems weird that the entire massive area encompassing Sweden, Norway and Denmark would come to be named after this relatively tiny spot.
What’s even weirder to many outsiders is that it’s not clear even why the question of is Finland in Scandinavia exists in the first place, given its close proximity to and similarities with Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
Geography and colonizers
Finland is the eighth-largest country in Europe by land mass, but at the same time it is the European Union’s most sparsely populated nation. It shares a border with both Sweden and Norway to its north and west and with Russia to the east.
The southern part of the country occupies a peninsula separated from Sweden by the Gulf of Bothnia to the west, the Baltic Sea to the southwest, and the Gulf of Finland to the south, across which is Estonia.
Given that Finland is yet another northern European country with a similar culture and with a centuries-long shared history with Sweden, Norway and Denmark—not to mention the fact that it literally borders two of them—you would think that the relationship between Finland and Scandinavia would be fairly cut and dried.
But the traditionally-designated Scandinavian countries are somewhat isolated on their own peninsula with Denmark jutting up and away from the rest of Europe, and the North Sea separating all three from the rest of the world to the east, giving them centuries of relative isolation and insularity. And as can be seen with a quick glance at the map, the answer to is Finland part of the Scandinavian peninsula is a resounding no.
Finland’s political and historical case as a result of its geography is different as well, and it too colors whether Finland is in Scandinavia. That eastern border Finland shares with Russia has long been a game-changer in terms of the country’s history.
In fact, Finland’s capital Helsinki is less than 200 miles away from St. Petersburg, which was the capital of the Russian empire for centuries. Having such a powerful and ambitious neighbor on your doorstep has understandably made a mighty big influence on the development of Finland’s culture and identity, and must be factored into the equation of is Finland a part of Scandinavia, and if not, why not.
But the complications don’t end there, because as mentioned above, on Finland’s other side lies Sweden, which for many hundreds of years was also a massively strong, war-like, wealthy and well-equipped world power with empire-building ambitions of its own.
What’s more, further muddying the question of is Finland Scandinavian is the fact that the Swedish are not only Finland’s neighbors — they were once the rulers of Finland. The Swedes actually controlled Finland for over six centuries, starting sometime in the mid-13th century when the Swedish seized control of Finland and began sending thousands of colonists to live there and spread their culture and language.
This period of Swedish colonization and control of Finland occurred during the era of the Crusades, when the Swedish government and religious power elites saw it as not only a holy mission to convert Finland’s largely pagan population to Christianity, but also as a lucrative venture by which they could exploit Finland’s people and resources.
Sweden’s hold on Finland ended in the early 1800s with the Finns throwing off Swedish control via a war of liberation. However, given that over the course of hundreds of years Swedish colonists had made themselves at home and become assimilated in coastal areas while at the same time importing their language and customs, the identity of the Finnish people was forever altered.
So the question remains: Is Finland Scandinavian? And, given the influence of the Swedes in Finland, which is after all another nation that is universally accepted as part of Scandinavia, why is Finland not part of Scandinavia also?
Well, funny thing about tossing out the Swedish governors and shedding their control: By 1809 the Russians—remember the Russians on Finland’s other border?—had stepped in and incorporated Finland into the Russian Empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland. Despite the Finns declaring themselves independent after the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russian influence on the internal affairs of Finland continued well into the Cold War era.
Which brings us to the next complication in the turbulent and confusing mess that is the question of whether Finland is a part of Scandinavia: Language.
So despite Russians stepping in in the 1800s, the Swedes had already ruled over Finland for over half a millennia and succeeded in integrating thousands of their people into coastal areas of Finland via colonization projects. So it makes perfect sense that the Swedish language is widely spoken.
Indeed, Finnish and Swedish are both recognized as national languages of Finland. The inclusion of Swedish as a nationally recognized official language—not to mention all the rest of the history of Sweden’s intermingling with Finland’s people, governance and history—would seem like a strong argument in favor of affirming that Finland is part of Scandinavia.
But just hold on a second, as there’s yet another twist in the saga of answering whether Finns are Scandinavian.
That’s because while the three nations that are traditionally recognized as Scandinavia share mutually intelligible languages—that is, Norwegians, Swedes and Danes can all pretty much understand each other in all three languages—Finnish is not a part of the same linguistic family.
Finnish is a Uralic language, more closely related to Estonian than Swedish. Indeed, it’s only one of four languages spoken in the EU that is not rooted in Indo-European, the common thread from which most European languages stem.
The other point that helps explain why is Finland not considered a Scandinavian country is that, despite all those years of Swedish control and colonization, and the adoption of Swedish as one of Finland’s national languages, the land area the colonizing Swedes occupied is relatively tiny compared to the vast size of the country as a whole.
As a result, the native language of fully 89 percent of Finns is Finnish, with only 5.3 percent of the country’s populace speaking Swedish as their native tongue. You also have to remember that Finland has a large and unique population of indigenous people called the Sami who live in the far north and speak their own separate languages.
So at the end of the day, with the vast majority of the country speaking languages that aren’t as readily compatible with those of the traditionally-defined Scandinavian nations, we end up with a fairly strong argument as to why Finland is not a part of Scandinavia.
But let’s take a step back: Given the ancient, original use of the word Scania, the root of the word Scandinavia, and the fact that it referred only to a tiny slice of the tip of Sweden, how is it that we’ve come to accept that Scandinavia refers to all of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, sometimes even including Denmark’s extraterritorial holdings like Greenland and the Faroe Islands?
Why won’t those guys play nice and just let Finland be in the club too? One word:
Politics of Scandinavism
The funny thing about the word Scandinavia is that despite its roots in those ancient Roman mariners’ naming part of what is now Sweden Scania when they mistakenly thought it was an island, its modern day use is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Referring to people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark as Scandinavian only began to become common in the mid-1800s. That’s because it was popularized as part of what has been termed the Scandinavism Movement, a political position that sought to unite Norway, Sweden and Denmark in a spirit of cooperation.
Scandinavists promoted the idea of a uniquely Scandinavian shared past through culture, literature, and language. Led largely by students and looked on with suspicion by the monarchs ruling their nations, the Scandinavists sought to unify all three countries in a manner similar to those who sought to do the same in Germany and Italy at the time.
Keep in mind too that during this period, and as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, Finland had been brought under the wing of the Russian Empire. Thus, despite Finland’s Swedish immigrant population vociferously supporting the Scandinavist position, for the nation as a whole, the Czar and his armies were a tremendous reason why Finland and Scandinavia were further apart than ever.
Another important factor in those 19th-century students choosing not to include Finland in their definition of Scandinavia that must be acknowledged is that there was a certain amount of longstanding prejudice on the part of the Swedes towards the Finns. There’s a well-documented history through the 17th and 18th centuries of Swedish people treating the Finns as a subjugated people, one whose language and culture were primitive compared to that of Sweden.
Even famed Danish author Hans Christian Andersen was a supporter of the movement, and he penned a poem called “I am a Scandinavian” in 1839. Andersen wrote of the poem that he sought to paint “the beauty of the Nordic spirit, the way the three sister nations have gradually grown together.”
The Scandinavist movement lost steam by 1864 when Denmark, under attack by the Austrian Empire, found its entreaties for assistance from its formerly good friends Sweden and Norway being ignored.
Scandinavian vs. Nordic
But Andersen’s poem brings us to yet another point of confusion to answering the question of why isn’t Finland part of Scandinavia: What’s the difference between Nordic countries versus Scandinavian countries?
While we have seen why there is some understandable confusion over the term Scandinavia and what is meant by “Scandinavian countries,” it is actually rather widely accepted that when you hear the term “Nordic countries” the speaker is referencing not only Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, but also Finland and Iceland along with all of their associated territories. This more comprehensive set of definitions is the one used most often by modern scholars.
It’s also much more common to hear reference to the more inclusive “Nordic countries” or simply “the Nordics” from natives of the region. If you speak to people from the area, especially those from the younger generations, you’ll learn that many of them find “Scandinavian” in reference to only Sweden, Norway and Denmark to be an outdated and unnecessary separation of people who are after all quite similar in many respects.
After all, when you consider what these countries have in common—especially given Finland’s long intertwined history with Sweden—a more inclusive stance just makes more sense.
For starters, there are still tons of people who speak Swedish as their native language in Finland. All five of the Nordic countries share common ancestors who sailed freely between all those shores and many more to boot. Bringing it up to modern times, you have to mention the fact that the economies, politics, and social structures of the five Nordic countries are all remarkably similar. They even share a special regional passport agreement called the Nordic Passport Union, surely a sign that what they have in common far outweighs their differences.
So perhaps a better question yet would be is Finland Nordic or Scandinavian? As we’ve already seen, as far as the strictest definitions of those two terms go, you could make a fair argument either way.
Finland clearly has strong ties to Sweden culturally, what with having been essentially ruled by Swedes for 600 years and still having a significant portion of their populace speaking Swedish to this day. Neighboring nation Norway and Denmark are close by as well, and there has been plenty of cultural and DNA exchange between them and Finland over the centuries as well.
On the other hand, there’s a thing called the Scandinavian peninsula, and a good chunk of Finland ain’t on it. The actual peninsula is comprised of Sweden, Norway, the northwestern part of Finland, and a small bit of Russia.
On the other OTHER hand, Denmark, long considered to be an integral part of Scandinavia isn’t on the Scandinavian peninsula either, so there’s that.
Perhaps what it comes down to more so than geography is people’s ways of categorizing themselves and each other. History of course resonates well beyond the years when the events occurred, and continues to color the way nations and people are seen today.
When you look at the origin of the popularization of the word Scandinavian back in the early 1800s, for instance, there was a deliberate choice of the student leaders of the Scandivanism movement to answer those who asked are Finns Scandinavian with a resounding “No.”
Additionally, the fallout from the events of the Russian Revolution had a significant historic impact on how not only the Swedes and the Finns would decide is Finland Scandinavian — it also colored how the rest of the world saw the issue. With the proximity to Russia ever-present, the Finns were perhaps understandably put into a separate category from the rest of its nearby neighbors.
What do the Finns think?
But if we’re going to say that it’s the people themselves and their own cultural definitions that matter most, then ultimately the question of is Finland part of Scandinavia should be answered by the people of the region.
Do the Finns consider themselves to be Scandinavian?
Opinions are of course going to vary from person to person on that. But even a minimal bit of research will turn up plenty of people who are from the area who say that they find the term “Nordic” to be not only more inclusive, but also a more logical a term.
If we circle back to the beginning, just remembering that all five Nordic countries are regular stars at the top of the scale of the World Happiness Report due in large part to their shared values and ways of caring for the lives of their citizens should go a long way toward answering the question is Finland part of Scandinavia:
It sure looks like it is, at least in spirit anyway.
The best answer to the question of why isn’t Finland in Scandinavia may be this: Perhaps it isn’t, not by the strictest definition. But what’s more important in this day and age is that the long ago dream of solidarity and cooperation among nations like Norway, Sweden and Denmark has been broadened and modernized to accept Finland and Iceland today.
These days, the people of the Scandinavian nations—and more inclusively, the Nordic countries—often see themselves as part of a greater family of people who share common roots, cultures, history and social priorities.
And after all, isn’t that the most important thing?
Scandification. Discovering Scandinavia.
Scandification explores and celebrates the magic of Scandinavia. Stay tuned and we’ll bring the essence of Scandinavia to you.