History Files


Northern Europe

What's in a Name - Scandinavia

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 29 December 2017

The use of Scandinavia as a name is perhaps a little poorly defined. Today it refers to the countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, but these are relatively recent formations, created during the medieval period. Finland and possibly Estonia too can be added to a broader definition of the region as the 'Nordic Countries'.

Until the medieval period and the later years of the Viking Age, only the very south of modern Finland was called Finn-land, coastal districts mainly, while early Sweden and Norway were also relatively small southern territories occupied by Germanic tribes which were in the process of forming the nation states we see today. Early Denmark lay even further south, although with a strong foothold in the southernmost parts of modern Sweden - a region known, appropriately, as Scania, demonstrating the use of the same root as 'Scandinavia'.

Today, these nations dominate all of Scandinavia, but if these countries haven't always governed the region then where did the name 'Scandinavia' come from?

A tricky question

Unfortunately, there's no clear answer that that question so for once, although the usual detailed breakdown of the name and a pursuit of its deeper meaning will be provided, the analysis won't be able to supply a cast-iron result.

In fact the name's origins are rather mysterious, despite what may be claimed elsewhere online.

The Baltic Sea was known by ancient writers as Codanus Sinus ('sinus' meaning 'waterway' in Latin), with a possible origin of this name either in the Germanic god, Woden, or the word's meaning, 'a magician' (see Tribal Warfare of the Gods in Scandinavia, for more details via the link in the sidebar). The name 'codanus' is sometimes held up as a Latin transformation of a Germanic original form of Scandinavia, which has a root of 'skan-' or 'skand-'. This is not the case, though. None of the possible proto-Germanic root words look plausible for this original form, so 'codanus' does not descend from an early form of 'Scandinavia'.

However, the suffixes contain '-av' or '-au', a very familiar Germanic language element which refers to a low place next to water. So something of the name actually is Germanic in origin, but only a later part of it. The root word still holds its mystery.

Cutting down the number of contenders

The Sámi who inhabited (and still inhabit) northern Scandinavia don't use the 'sk-' except in the form of loan words. These people predate the arrival of Finno-Ugric groups towards the end of the fourth millennium BC. They once had their own language but this has long since been supplanted by Finno-Ugric, leading some to reach the erroneous conclusion that they are a Finno-Ugric people.

Map of Scandinavia c.AD 100
Early Germanic peoples in Scandinavia were clustered for the most part along the coasts of southern Scandinavia, and only began to expand inland from the third century AD or so (click on map to view full sized)


The only other known prehistoric group in Scandinavia are the Kvens (otherwise referred to as Kainu). These were tribal - and generally peaceful - people who occupied the vast swathe of central Scandinavia before the Germanic kingdoms pushed their borders further northwards.

The Kvens are generally claimed to be Finno-Ugric in origin, but there's no clear proof for such a belief, no more so than there is for the Sámi. Given the Sámi example, a better conclusion would be that the Kvens may have used the Finno-Ugric language, certainly in later centuries, but probably as an adaptation because the dominant language usually wins. [1]

Since at least the nineteenth century, modern scholars have been attempting to pin the label 'Kven' down to a specific location or group, but this seems to be missing the point. They could probably only be found in a few specific regions by the time they were mentioned by Viking chroniclers because they had already largely been absorbed into the ranks of the early Finns, or were already northern residents of the expanding kingdoms of Norway and Sweden.

The clear likelihood is that they were there first, and the relative newcomers (the Germanics and Finno-Ugrics) came to dominate them.

As for 'Scandinavia', even claiming the name of a giantess called Skađi as a basis for the name doesn't actually define the word itself. The Norse gods are all descended from giants anyway. In fact 'the giants' can be equated to the earlier peoples of Scandinavia (and Britain too) who were defeated by their Germanic (and Celtic) successors.

Given the early Swedish connections with the Kvens anyway, it seems likely that Scandinavia owes its name to the Kvens, although the lack of survival of any Kvenish language prior to its replacement by Finno-Ugric makes an examination pretty much impossible.

The only surviving language of Neolithic Europe - that is, Europe prior to its domination by Indo-European daughter languages - is Basque. This does contain a 'zk' combination which can also be seen in their own name for themselves - Euzkara. If German linguist Theo Vennemann is correct in his claim that Basque is the last survivor of a language group which occupied most of Europe before invasions from the east (and this does seem to be likely) then we would expect the language of the Kvens to be related to Basque.

The lost root of the name 'Scandinavia' is most probably related to a northern form of Basque which was spoken by the early Kvens. If this really is the case then it's a name which is very old indeed, at least four thousand years old.


[1] This is certainly true of Germanic and Finnish tongues in Fenno-Scandinavia. It also appears true both of Indo-Iranian in Central Asia, which replaced just about all preceding languages, and Indo-Aryan in northern India. It is equally true of Anglo-Saxon in Britain - how many Brythonic-speaking (early Welsh) populations are there east of Offa's Dyke? None of course. It didn't quite work for the French-speaking Norman conquerors of England after 1066, although they did enjoy two centuries of dominance.


Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

The United Sites of Indo-Europeans



Maps and text copyright © Edward Dawson & P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.