Finland Is Definitely Happy, but Is It Part of Scandinavia?

By: Mark Mancini  | 
Finland, along with Denmark, Norway and Sweden, consistently wins the prize for the general happiness and well-being of its citizens. But why is this ridiculously happy country typically left off the list of Scandinavian countries? PublicDomainPictures (CC0 1.0)

Geographically, Finland is the eighth largest country in the European Union. With a land area of 117,344 square miles (or 303,920 square kilometers), it's bigger than Italy, Austria or Greece, to name a few.

The place is not easily categorized. Modern Finland shares borders with Russia, Sweden and Norway. Also, it's flanked by the Gulf of Bothnia and (go figure) the Gulf of Finland. So Finland is obviously part of Northern Europe.


But since humans love classifying things, there's a natural urge to lump this home of 5.5 million souls into a smaller, clearly defined subregion.

Some sources — like various travel guides and the Monty Python musical, "Spamalot" — will tell you Finland is Scandinavian. Yet it's more often cited as one of the "Nordic Countries." While those two terms are related, they're not necessarily synonyms.


Uniting Scandinavia

The word "Scandinavia" is derived from "Scania," the name of a historical province in southern Sweden. "Scandinavia," as a distinct term, was first popularized in the mid-1800s.

Pull out a map and you'll see that Sweden is located on the Scandinavian Peninsula. This mountainous stretch of land in the North Atlantic also contains the entirety of Norway — plus bits of Russia and Finland.


Finland is larger than most people realize, encompassing an area greater than Italy, Greece or Austria.
Encyclopaedia Britannica/Getty Images

Thing is, not every country with holdings on the Scandinavian Peninsula is considered "Scandinavian." Russia definitely isn't. And Finland ... well, we'll get back to Finland.

Denmark and Sweden had been recurring rivals for centuries, waging numerous wars against each other (often with Norway's involvement). But in 1851, academics in both countries started calling for solidarity. "Pan-Scandinavianism" — as their movement came to be known — emphasized the rich cultural heritage that Danes shared with Swedes and Norwegians.

Language was one of the many things their people had in common.


Let's Have Words

The Danish, Swedish and Norwegian languages are all related. They're classified as North Germanic languages, putting them in the same linguistic family as Icelandic and Faroese. Many words and phrases are shared between them. Native Swedes can often decipher texts written in Danish or Norwegian, for example.

A statue of Alexander II stands in front of the Helsinki Dom, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran cathedral which is a distinctive landmark of Senate Square in the capital city.
ullstein bild/Getty Images

Which brings us to one of the key differences between Finland and its Scandinavian neighbors. See, Finnish isn't a North Germanic language at all. Actually, it's a Finno-Ugric language, which puts it in the same family as Hungarian and Estonian. One notable feature of the Finno-Ugric languages is their lack of grammatical gender; in Finnish, the pronoun "hän" means both "he" and "she."


Swedish Ties

Thanks to their similar languages and the legacy of the Pan-Scandinavianism movement, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are the three countries universally regarded as "Scandinavian" today (even though Denmark's not a part of the Scandinavian Peninsula).

So case closed, right? Well, let's not be too hasty.


We can't ignore the fact that the Kingdom of Sweden ruled parts of Finland for 600 years. Right up until 1809, when the Russian Empire claimed it during the Napoleonic Wars.

Although Finland became an independent nation in the early 20th century, it still retains Sweden's influence. After all, Swedish is the native language for over 5 percent of the Finnish population.


The Nordic Countries

Defining cultural regions can be tricky. (Is Texas a Southern state or a Western one? You tell us.) The usual consensus among Northern Europeans is that "Scandinavia" only includes Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

On the other hand, the New York City-based American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF) describes itself as "the leading cultural and educational link between the U.S. and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden." Note the expanded list of nations.


Ultimately, the question of whether Finland is Scandinavian or not is open to some debate. But here's a point everyone agrees on: The land of Nokia phones and Santa Claus Village is one of the "Nordic Countries." That gang is made up of Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden — along with their autonomous regions and territories (ergo, Greenland and the Faroe Islands make the cut; they're both part of the Kingdom of Denmark).

Representatives from all these places sit on the Nordic Council. An inter-parliamentary body, this organization facilitates cooperation between its member countries.