Where is Scandinavia? It’s a question we hear often and it’s harder to answer that one might think. What constitutes a Scandinavian country changes depending on the context, and on who you ask. If you’re talking about geography, culture, or language, the answer may be different. When you throw the word “Nordic” into the mix, things get even less clear; when do you use “Nordic,” and when do you use “Scandinavian?” Some people seem to use them interchangeably, while others assign specific meanings to each word.
While we can’t pretend that everyone agrees on the definitions, we’ve gathered the various terms and the context in which they’re applied to try to make sense of this Northern mess.
Here is the definitive answer to “where is Scandinavia?” Sort of.
What does the word “Scandinavia” mean?
The term “Scandinavia” arose in the early 18th century as a result of Danish and Swedish universities championing the shared history, mythology, arts, and culture of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The base of the movement was Scania, also known as Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden; this gave rise to the term “Scandinavia.” Remember: until 1814, Denmark and Norway were actually united under one kingdom. After that time, Norway and Sweden were under one kingdom until Norway’s independence in 1905.
The meaning of Scandinavia is a group of countries in northern Europe that includes Denmark, Norway and Sweden, sometimes also Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.
We’ve started with the easy one! When referencing the geographic region of Scandinavia, there are three countries: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Greenland, which is a Danish territory, and the Faroe Islands, which is a self-governing part of Denmark, are also included in the list.
Finland and Iceland are not considered part of Scandinavia geographically.
This is probably the most widely used context for talking about Scandinavia, and also the least clear. When people refer to Scandinavian culture, they’re referring to shared history, traditions, literature, and design. Because Scandinavian design has become so popular around the world, the term often used when talking about minimalist and mid-century design aesthetic traditions.
Because the histories of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland are so intertwined, as well as things like holidays and traditions, this group of five countries is often referred to as culturally Scandinavian. The political systems across all these countries, especially their welfare models, are similar, though not identical. When referring to the “Scandinavian” or “Nordic” welfare model, all five countries are generally included.
Finland’s design and architectural history is closely tied to that of the rest of the region, and it would be a mistake to leave Finland out (and designers like Alvar Aalto, for example) when discussing Scandinavian design. It is therefore reasonable to include both Iceland and Finland when discussing Scandinavia as a cultural region. It would also be correct to refer to “Nordic culture.”
If you’ve ever studied comparative linguistics, you’ve likely heard the term “North Germanic languages.” This refers to a branch of Germanic languages, a sub-group of Indo-European languages. North Germanic languages include Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese, and Icelandic.
So what language is spoken in Scandinavia? The term “Scandinavian languages” refers exclusively to the three languages that are mutually understood (in theory) by speakers of each language: Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian.
Finnish is part of the Finnic group of the Uralic languages, which also include Estonian and Hungarian. Swedish is also an official language of Finland and Swedish-speaking Finns constitute 5% of the population; this dialect is called Finland Swedish.
Is Finland part of Scandinavia?
That depends! Politically and geographically, Finland is part of the Nordic region but not the Scandinavian region. Linguistically, Finland falls into a peculiar category: the country’s majority official language is unrelated to Scandinavian, and even Indo-European, languages. It does, however, have a significant minority of Scandinavian (Swedish) language speakers, so much so that Swedish is a minority official language.
Culturally, Finland can certainly be considered Scandinavian. From the history to the welfare model to the design traditions, Finland is solidly tied to the rest of the Scandinavian countries. In terms of design, important Finnish brands such as Artek, Marimekko, and Friends of Industry all fall squarely into the Scandinavian design heritage.
Is Iceland part of Scandinavia?
That depends! When discussing Scandinavia as a political or geographic region, Iceland is not included. It is, however, part of the Nordic region. In terms of language, Icelandic is part of the North Germanic language sub-category, also called the Nordic languages.
Iceland was part of Norway, then the Kalmar Union, then Denmark, before gaining recognition as a sovereign state in 1918 (while defense and foreign affairs were still managed by Denmark), then declaring full independence in 1944. Iceland therefore has significant historical and cultural ties to the region.
The main elements of Icelandic design align with general Scandinavian design: minimalism, functionality, and a focus on craftsmanship. Icelandic design falls under the umbrella of Scandinavian design. It is therefore correct to call Iceland culturally Nordic or Scandinavian.
Are the Faroe Islands part of Scandinavia?
Yes! The Faroe Islands are a self-governing entity that is part of Denmark, and therefore by any definition are considered part of Scandinavia. Faroese culture and language, however, may be considered separate from Scandinavian culture and language, though the language is part of the North Germanic languages.
What about the word “Nordic?”
When beloved Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, a proponent of pan-Scandinavism, wrote his 1839 poem “I am a Scandinavian,” he noted that he wanted to capture “the beauty of the Nordic spirit.” Essentially, ever since the words “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” have existed, they have been used interchangeably by some.
The word “Nordic” can be used specifically to refer to the geographic and political Nordic region, which includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland.
So…what’s the gist?
If you’re speaking of a specific current geographic or political context, “Scandinavia” means the region that includes Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Faroe Islands. If you’d like to include Finland and Iceland in that same context, use the word “Nordic.”
When speaking of a cultural region including shared history and design, the words “Scandinavian” and “Nordic” are interchangeable.