Nordic VS Scandinavian? What’s what

When it was time to decide where I was going to travel to for my Erasmus – Sweden or Finland – it didn’t cross my mind that one of these countries was Nordic, while the other was Scandinavian. What a thing to look back upon! In my mind the terms Nordic and Scandinavian meant the same thing, and if there were nuances about their use, it did not seem important at the time. I just wanted to go up north, to a country where lectures were in English (and a country that was not the UK or Ireland) and that was enough for me.

In the end, equating these two important terms was a mistake. In the north of Europe, they magnify the little differences between one another and hold on to them tightly. Later on, and with the aim of speaking properly during my stay, I came across an article on a website called Nordic Culture. The article isn’t available anymore, but these ideas were the ones that I managed to save from it.

The debate: Nordic Vs Scandinavian

Did someone correct you when you called a Finn “Scandinavian”? Is Sweden a Nordic or a Scandinavian country?

As mentioned above, most of the world treat the words “Nordic” and “Scandinavian” equally, but that isn’t quite right. But is there a common definition? Apparently in the north of Europe, the countries themselves can’t agree on a definition of “Scandinavian” and “Nordic”.

Nordic or Scandinavian flags?
Are these flags from the Nordic Countries or from Scandinavian Countries? Depends who you ask. (But they are Nordic, I explain below) Source.

What is Scandinavia?

“An island at the border of the World”. That’s how the Greeks and Romans – the first to write about Scandinavia – said about this location. They had vague ideas about it, and thought its population was the same as in Germania.

There are two ways to approach the Scandinavian concept: geographically and linguistically. Geographically, there is such a thing as the Scandinavian Peninsula. It encapsulates Norway, Sweden and Lapland, the north of Finland. In this way, Scandinavia is just Sweden and Norway.

If we approach the matter linguistically, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian languages have a common word, “Skandinavien“, with a common meaning: the land of the Northern Men, which is for them Sweden, Denmark and Norway. This is the definition of Scandinavia most agreed upon.

But linguistically it also gets tricky: the Icelandic language also comes from the same linguistic root as the Scandinavian languages. Therefore, some people include Iceland in the mix. Furthermore, Swedish is spoken in some parts of Finland, as Finnish is spoken in certain parts of Sweden. An extreme definition, although not correct, of Scandinavia includes Finland.

Also, culturally and historically Sweden, Denmark and Norway had their own Game of Thrones, where Iceland was part of Norway and Denmark at some point, and Finland was part of Sweden.

What are the Nordic countries

Since these countries couldn’t agree, the French came to the rescue with another term: “Pays Nordiques“, Nordic countries, which also became a standard. It encpsulates Scandinavia, Iceland and Finland.

Besides that, one more term is “Norden”, which came out of the Nordic Council – a forum for inter-Nordic cooperation – to refer to these countries, but this term is quite unknown in English.

Nordic VS Scandinavian
This map is wrong and now you know why.

The ones left out: the Baltic republics and Greenland

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are not considered Nordic or Scandinavian. Nor is Greenland. Nonetheless, there are a some close ties with the Nordic Countries. The Baltic Republics have always been strongly influenced, especially culturally, by the Nordic Countries – the Estonian language, for example, is quite close to Finnish.

The same can be said about Greenland, a territory that is actually closer to the American continent than to Europe, but politically belongs to Denmark. Half of its history is very much tied to Denmark and that’s why some people tend to include Greenland among the other Nordic Countries.

In a nutshell

The best definition of Scandinavia? Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Of Nordic, the Scandinavian Countries plus Finland and Iceland.

More or less.

What’s your side of the debate? What did the inhabitants of these lands tell you?

I've been writing about Finland for 8 years. In these articles I am trying to transmit my passion for Finland, its marvelous nature and cities, its people and the culture of the country. Thanks for reading!