February 17, 2013, by Stephen Mumford

Nordic Knitwear – We’re all Scandinavian Now

Twenty years ago you have the feeling that if a Danish TV series had been aired in the UK it would’ve involved Scandinavian characters inexplicably speaking English to each other. But the appetite for Nordic noir seems insatiable nowadays, all in its original language and subtitled: Forbrydelsen, Broen, Wallander, Borgen, and so on. And why not? Those languages are so musical and wondrous to our ears. We want to experience the original languages because we all want to feel Scandinavian now.

Perhaps it is based on something as vulgar as economic prosperity, but there is certainly a growing self-confidence in those northern countries that has seen a rise in their cultural impact on the world: in film, TV, literature, furniture design and fashion.

Nations know that the way in which their greatness will be judged by history is through their cultural legacy. And it is certainly Scandinavia’s time. It is not just that they have the confidence to give us original-language productions, but it’s also what we want. We watch because we want an authentic Nordic cultural experience, which couldn’t possibly be complete without the language.

I love the way Danish/Norwegian has nine vowels. As well as counting y as a vowel, they also add ø, å and æ. And in Danish, consonant sounds have almost disappeared. Fun is made of this in Broen when the Swedes can’t pronounce lead Danish character Martin Rohde’s name right (and I once had a tough time asking directions to Køge, south of Copenhagen). I also love the way that Norwegians and Danes pronounce the language so differently, even though it is virtually identical when written. There’s a running joke between them that they can’t understand each other. Swedes have a different language yet Norwegians and Danes understand them better than they understand each other.

The rise of Scandinavia has to do with more than economic power, however. I’ve come to know those countries well in many visits over the past 15 years. And there is indeed something wonderfully appealing about the societies that have been created. They have not yet achieved utopia but the outsider sees a society far more at peace with itself than back home. There is better gender equality, the police sometimes seem more like social workers, and the gap between rich and poor is visibly narrower. And everyone is so darn cool, young and old alike, in dress, attitudes and behaviour. Why wouldn’t we all want to be Scandinavian? It’s aspirational.

I am a bit nervous about making observations like these. I fear lapsing into cultural stereotypes, especially when I have seen such beautiful Norwegian mountains and fjords and met so many wonderful, calm and thoughtful Scandinavian people. That may be inevitable when I move mainly in academic circles. At least all those crime dramas show that there is a darker side. To avoid those oversimplifications, it’s important that our universities maintain a proper academic study of cultures, languages and literatures. The benefits of better intercultural understanding are too numerous to list; and the dangers of cultural misunderstanding sometimes too catastrophic to contemplate.

I’m expecting world interest in Scandinavia will continue to grow. I think we are going to see more Nordic knitwear on show in the UK, more tourists visiting the northern countries, more reading the literature and more even speaking the language. Tusen takk. Vær så god!

Posted in Culture and Area StudiesFilm and TVLiteratureModern Languages