Nordic vs Scandinavian

Nordic vs. Scandinavian: What’s the difference?

Nordic vs. Scandinavian, what’s the difference between them? Today, we’re going to be assessing this question before we move on to explain the key differences, to ensure you’re fully enlightened. If you’re ready, let’s get started!

Looking at a map of Northern Europe, it’s pretty easy to group every country as a part of Scandinavia. Many people do this, whereas others prefer to go with “Nordic” instead.

And while the pair of them might seem identical, they aren’t — and understanding the differences is wise if you plan to visit or live in this corner of the globe.

The Nordic region is perhaps the most integrated corner of the planet. Each area has close cultural ties, including (mostly) similar languages and a strong emphasis on social cohesion.

Borders are relatively fluid, and the people of Scandinavia and the Nordics follow a similar ethos regarding their economies and social welfare.

We’ve compiled this comprehensive guide to help you understand the Scandinavian vs. Nordic differences. You’ll learn more about which countries are part of the region, what the terms mean, and much more.

Nordic vs Scandinavian
Oslo, Norway. May 02, 2022: Pedestrian bridge in Oslo, Norway. View of urban architecture. A group of pedestrians

What’s the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic?

When we use the term Scandinavian, we largely refer to three countries: Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Much of this region was part of the Kalmar Union between 1397 and 1527, and you’ll still notice many similarities in areas close to each other today.

For example, Skåne — in Southern Sweden — sometimes feels like a part of Denmark when you visit.

One common misconception is that Sweden, Norway, and Denmark united as one country during the Kalmar Union days. This isn’t necessarily true; while they had the same monarch, each nation maintained its independence to a degree.

The Kalmar Union also included areas of Southern and Western Finland that the Swedes owned at the time. The Orkney and Shetland Islands, now part of modern-day Scotland, also formed part of the region — as did Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands.

Today, however, Scandinavian refers solely to the mainlands of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. When we talk about Nordic, we primarily refer to the three Scandinavian countries — along with Finland and Iceland.

The Scandinavian vs. Nordic countries

Today, the Scandinavian countries are bound by multiple common grounds. Norway and Sweden are both part of the Scandinavian peninsula (more on that later), and both have very similar languages.

Danish is also closely related to the Swedish and Norwegian languages, though it’s more difficult for both countries’ native speakers to understand — except for perhaps Skåne.

Icelandic is hugely different from modern-day Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish — though Danish is still taught in Icelandic schools (the country was a Danish colony until 1944).

The language has a lot of similarities with Faroese, which reads something like a hybrid of Icelandic and Norwegian (understandable, considering that the archipelago is between both countries).

While Icelandic is a North Germanic language, Finnish bears zero similarities to either that or any of the Scandinavian languages. Finnish is part of the Uralic family, which it shares with Estonian, the Sámi languages, and Hungarian — though it isn’t mutually intelligible with any of those.

What does Scandinavian mean?

The term Scandinavian has been around for a while, and it has a very specific meaning. Many historians believe that the name “Scandinavia” means “dangerous island”, and that is where Skanör in Southern Sweden also got its name from.

However, people have come up with plenty of other theories to determine where the term originates.

In modern terms, Scandinavian means multiple things. First and foremost, it refers to people from Scandinavia — though Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians wouldn’t call themselves Scandinavian before their first nationality.

“Scandinavian” is more frequently used by people outside of the region to talk about those living here as a collective.

Scandinavian also refers to the languages of Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. You will also see it used when talking about exports from this region, such as Scandinavian design and Scandinavian music (which often falls into the ‘Scandipop’ genre).

Nordic vs Scandinavian

The Scandinavian region

The Scandinavian region is pretty easy to define. It includes most of the Scandinavian peninsula, except for the part of Finland that forms a small section of it. Denmark and its many islands also form part of the Scandinavian region, as do the several islands off the coasts of mainland Sweden and Norway.

Scandinavia’s terrains and climates are diverse. If you go above the Arctic Circle in the very north of Sweden and Norway, you will experience the midnight sun in the summer and days when the sun does not set.

On the flip side, the winters are long and harsh; many parts of Northern Sweden and Norway have the polar night, where the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for months. It might seem depressing, but it’s somewhat magical — and of course, Northern Lights sightings are plentiful.

Weather-wise, the Scandinavian region experiences different climates. Summers are usually warm but not hot, though temperatures can sometimes exceed 30ºC in the three capital cities.

Norway and Sweden have colder winters than Denmark, which experiences rain and wind more often than snow; ditto for much of Skåne.

Despite being part of Norway, the northern archipelago of Svalbard — which is where you’ll find the world’s northernmost settlement — is not part of the Scandinavian region.

The Scandinavian peninsula

The Scandinavian peninsula isn’t the same geographic region as Scandinavia as a whole. It refers to the mass of land that the Swedish and Norwegian mainlands cover and a tiny slice of Finland.

While Swedes speak Swedish and Norwegians speak Norwegian, you will find a host of dialects that you need to consider. In some cases, Swedes might find it easier to understand Norwegians from close-by areas than they might for other Swedes — and vice versa.

Officially, Norwegian has two written forms. The first is Bokmål, which 85-90% of the country uses and is the standard you’ll learn in most foreign language courses. If you visit Oslo, you will use Bokmål to read and speak.

On the other hand, Nynorsk is mainly spoken in parts of Western Norway. If you visit Bergen, the country’s second-largest city, you will see Nynorsk written — along with the regional dialect. The two are pretty similar; consider the differences between an Englishman speaking English and a Scot doing likewise.

Swedish has a couple of variations, with Swedish-speaking Finns having different words. However, the official written form doesn’t change throughout the country — though you will notice heavy dialect differences.

Skånsk has several similarities with Danish, whereas the incredibly popular Gothenburg dialect perhaps sounds a little more like Norwegian.

In terms of terrain, the Norwegian side of the Scandinavian peninsula is more rugged — with plenty of mountains and fjords. Meanwhile, the Swedish side of the Scandinavian peninsula is largely characterized by forests and lakes.

The country’s southern parts are largely flat, though Skåne has impressive cliffs and ravines that attract Danish and Swedish tourists.

Nordic vs Scandinavian

The Nordic region

The Nordic region includes all of the Scandinavian regions, along with Finland and Iceland — plus the other Nordic territories. More than 20 million people live in the area, which is characterized by many as the land of high taxes and cold weather.

The utopian image many people give isn’t entirely accurate, but if you can handle the cold and darkness, it’s not the worst place to live.

The population of the Nordic region is roughly as follows:

  • Sweden: 10.3 million
  • Denmark: 5.8 million
  • Norway: 5.4 million
  • Iceland: 366,000
  • Finland: 5.5 million
  • The Faroe Islands: c.53,000
  • Greenland: c.56,000
  • Svalbard and Jan Mayen: 2,572
  • Åland: 29,789

The Nordic region covers over six million square kilometers. You can travel between Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm within an hour by plane; Helsinki (c. 1h 30m) is a little further away.

Meanwhile, Reykjavík is around three hours from the Scandinavian capitals and three hours and 45 minutes from Helsinki.

Despite being sovereign countries, you can travel around much of the Nordic region without dealing with border checks. The Nordic region also forms the Nordic Union, which is a political agreement between the territories; its headquarters are in Copenhagen.

The union was founded in 1952 and consists of the five Nordic countries, plus Åland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands.

What does Nordic mean? 

When we speak about the term’s origins, Nordic is much easier to understand than Scandinavian. It broadly means “north”; in the Scandinavian languages, the region is commonly referred to as Norden.

What’s the difference between the Nordic countries and the Nordic region?

When talking about the Nordics, many people get confused because the region has a lot of autonomous territories. While Iceland is an independent country today, Greenland and the Faroe Islands are still part of the Kingdom and Denmark.

People from both of these territories receive Danish citizenship, and Greenlandic people can choose whether they want the Danish EU passport or a different one.

The Nordic countries are Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland, but not their autonomous territories. Svalbard is part of the Nordic region, as are Greenland and the Faroes — as we’ve already discussed.

The Åland Islands are between Sweden and Finland, and they’re a bit of an anomaly. While the official language is Swedish, the archipelago is officially part of Finland, and citizens receive a Finnish passport. The territory is part of the Nordic region but not the Nordic countries.

Not many people know that Norway has territories in the Southern Hemisphere. Bouvet Island is one of these and is close to Antarctica; many people believe that it’s the most remote island on the planet. It’s uninhabited and largely volcanic, and it’s not considered part of the Nordic region.

If you’re lost, we’ll briefly summarize everything below.

The Nordic countries are:

  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Finland
  • Iceland

The Nordic geographical region is:

  • The five Nordic countries
  • Svalbard and Jan Mayen
  • Greenland
  • The Faroe Islands
  • Åland
Nordic vs Scandinavian

Are Greenland and the Faroe Islands considered Scandinavian?

Although Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, they are not considered Scandinavian. The two territories have several laws that differ from mainland Denmark.

Neither the Faroe Islands nor Greenland is in the EU, even though Denmark is. Faroese citizens receive Danish citizenship, but they are not EU citizens by default.

If you moved to the Faroe Islands as an EU citizen, you would need to comply with the rules set in the Danish Aliens Act — which covers immigration for third-country nationals in Denmark.

Nordic citizens are allowed to reside in the Faroe Islands without a residence permit, and they can do likewise in Greenland.

Despite not being part of the EU or Scandinavia, both Greenland and the Faroe Islands use the Danish Krone as their official currency. In the Faroes, you can also use the Faroese Króna (FOK) — which has the exact same monetary value as the DKK.

Greenland had plans to introduce its own version of the Krone, which — like the Faroese Króna — would have had the same monetary value as the Danish version.

Are the Nordic countries the only countries in Northern Europe?

The term Northern Europe varies depending on who you ask. While many people think it simply involves the Nordic region, this isn’t true in all cases.

If we look at the United Nations (UN) ’s definition of Northern Europe, we will see that it includes Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark. However, the UK is also considered Northern Europe.

The UN also classifies Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as part of Northern Europe — even though many people consider them Eastern European instead.

On the flip side, the CIA World Factbook defines the five Nordic countries as Northern Europe — along with the Faroe Islands, Svalbard, and Jan Mayen.

EuroVoc categorizes the five Nordic countries and the Faroe Islands as part of Northern Europe, along with Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

If we were to classify Northern Europe, we would say that it goes as follows:

  • Sweden
  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • Iceland
  • Estonia
  • Svalbard and Jan Mayen
  • Åland
  • The Faroe Islands

Geographically, Greenland is closer to North America.

Nordic vs Scandinavian

Is Estonia Nordic?

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia has become one of the former Eastern Bloc’s largest success stories. The country has become an attractive destination for tech companies, with the likes of communications giant Skype having their origins here.

If you ever visit, you will notice a lot of similarities with Finland. But in the Scandinavian vs. Nordic debate, does Estonia fall into either of these categories?

Many people argue that Estonia’s years under USSR occupation robbed it of the chance to join the Nordic Union. The country has also previously been under Danish rule; legend has it that the Dannebrog fell from the sky during a battle on Estonian land.

Its customs and cuisine are very similar to Finland, and its language is part of the same family.

A lot of people in Estonia consider themselves to be Nordic, and the country has freedom of movement with each nation — though this is because it’s part of the EU and Schengen Area, not because it’s in the Nordic Passport Union.

Officially, Estonia is not Nordic. Whether or not the country joins the Nordic Council one day remains to be seen, but that probably won’t happen in the near future. While it is in Northern Europe, Estonia is instead part of the Baltic region rather than the Nordics.

Which other countries are part of the Baltic region?

The three Baltic states are Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. All three countries were part of the Soviet Union, but the trio has since gained independence and become full members of the EU — with each country adopting the Euro as its official currency.

Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian are very different languages. Lithuanian and Latvian are both in the Indo-European language family and under the Baltic category — but neither are mutually intelligible.

Quick-fire questions

Okay, so you now have a good idea of the Nordic vs. Scandinavian differences. So far, you’ve learned which countries are part of the region — along with the territories that are in this area.

We’ll finish off this article with some of the biggest quickfire questions you’re probably asking.

Which countries are Nordic but not Scandinavian?

Iceland and Finland are the two Nordic countries that are not a part of Scandinavia.

What’s the largest city in the Nordic region?

With a population of 975,819, Stockholm is the largest city in the Nordic region. Copenhagen is the second-largest Nordic city, followed by Oslo in third. For those who like participating in pub quizzes, Tampere in Finland is the Nordics’ largest inland city.

What’s the largest country in Scandinavia by land mass?

Norway has the largest land area in Scandinavia, and its coastline is the second-longest in the world behind Canada.

What’s the largest country in Scandinavia by population?

Sweden’s population of 10.3 makes it by far the largest Scandinavian country by population.

What’s the smallest territory in the Nordic region?

The Faroe Islands are the smallest territory by area in the Nordics, with an area of 1,393 square kilometers.

Where else can you find the Nordic Cross on flags?

Apart from Greenland, every Nordic territory has a Nordic cross on its flag. However, other areas also have one.

The Shetland Islands’ flag has a Nordic cross, as does the Orkney Islands and Pärnu County in Estonia. Other regions with a Nordic cross on their flag include Barra and South Ulst.

Do Nordic citizens need a visa to live in each other’s countries?

Not for the most part, no. Nordic citizens can freely live and work in each other’s countries without needing to obtain a visa beforehand.

Svalbard is visa-free for all nationalities, but you need to support yourself financially if you want to move here. Moreover, living in Svalbard as a non-Nordic national does not mean you can automatically move to the Norwegian mainland.

Are the Nordic countries in the European Union?

Yes and no. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are all members of the EU; Åland has special rules that allow it to make its own rules.

Sweden joined the EU in 1995, as did Finland. Denmark is a longer-standing member, having first become a member in 1973.

Norway and Iceland are not EU members. Iceland had applied to join the EU in 2009, though the move was by no means widely supported. Its application was withdrawn in 2015, but the country is part of the European Economic Area (EEA).

Norway is also part of the EEA, and citizens in the country have voted against joining the EU on multiple occasions.

Which currencies do the Nordic countries use?

Despite being part of the EU, Denmark does not use the Euro. Instead, you’ll use the Danish Krone here.

Finland, on the other hand, does use the Euro; the country replaced the Markka in 2002.

Sweden uses the Swedish Krona instead of the Euro, but it’s obliged to adopt the currency sometime in the future.

Norway uses the Norwegian Krone, and Iceland uses the Icelandic Króna.

Which languages do people in the Nordic region speak?

Danes in mainland Denmark speak Danish, with Swedes speaking Swedish and Norwegians speaking Norwegian. Finns communicate in Finnish, but Swedish is also an official language in the country, and many people use it as their mother tongue.

The indigenous Sámi people, who live in Sweden, Norway, and Finland, have their own group of languages — while Greenlanders speak Greenlandic and people from the Faroe Islands communicate in Faroese.

Danish is taught in both Greenland and the Faroe Islands, while Finns learn Swedish at school.

Can Nordic people understand each other’s languages?

It depends on where you go. Swedish and Norwegian are, in a spoken sense, largely mutually intelligible. Swedes and Norwegians can read Danish, but they might struggle to understand the spoken form — and the same goes vice versa.

Finnish has little in common with any of the Nordic languages, and Icelandic — despite sharing many words with the Scandinavian languages — is not mutually intelligible.

Sámi languages are part of the Uralic family with Finnish, but they’re not one and the same. Greenlandic is in the Inuit language group.

Can you see the Northern Lights in the Nordics?

Yes, but it depends on where you go. Your best chances of seeing the Northern Lights are in Iceland and Greenland, plus the northern parts of Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

There are plenty of trips you can book onto to see the Northern Lights in Iceland.

You can occasionally see the Northern Lights as far south as Denmark, but it’s highly unlikely. You’re better off sticking anywhere above the Arctic Circle, though you can also see the phenomena in Iceland — even though most of the country is south of that particular region.

Nordic vs Scandinavian

Nordic vs. Scandinavian: They might seem like one and the same, but they aren’t

As you can tell, defining Nordic vs. Scandinavian requires more work than the average person thinks. The terms are very complex when you break them down, and a lot of it depends on the context in which you use them. Not a lot of people live here, but each country has a whole lot to explore.

Regardless of whether you’re Nordic or Scandinavian, the quality of life isn’t too different for the most part. Regions like Greenland can be especially harsh to live in, but the mainlands have well-developed welfare systems and low levels of income inequality.

Gender equality is also big here, and the countries are tied together in many cultural ways too.

If you want to live on the Scandinavian peninsula, in particular, you’ll want to choose carefully between Sweden and Norway; both countries have several differences. Luckily for you, we wrote a complete article comparing the two nations.

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