Two years ago I was watching some video (or rather several hours of material) on YouTube of the amazing Norwegian musical comedy brother-duo Ylvis. (If you don’t know them, drop everything and go discover them. Or just wait for my long-overdue-rambling-superfan-blog post about them later). Since they generally perform in Norwegian, I along with most of their international fanbase was surviving on videos subtitled in English by some generous, kind fans. But in the hope of eventually seeing a filming of their talkshow live one day (which most definitely involves some talking in Norwegian), I also started toying with the idea of just learning the language myself.
As with being exposed to any language for long enough, I had already started picking up the odd words: some obvious ones like hei! (hello), velkommen! (welcome) and tusen takk! (many thanks) and some not so obvious, like klar, ferdi, gå! (ready, steady, go!), Det kan du vel! (like ‘sure you can!’) and the most useful word ever – Hæ?! (huh?).
One thing my odd little brain also started noticing were similarities to German, the only other language I’ve managed to speak to a (kind of) fluent level. For instance once, before I started learning properly, I remember hearing the word Unnskyld (pronounced like unnshuld, meaning ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ på norsk) and thinking Did he say ‘Entshuld’? Like, Entschuldigung? (also meaning ‘excuse me’ in German). Not quite, but the point is my brain made a connection and now I’ll never forget that word. Another true and slightly more impressive story: I was playing with a learn Norwegian app to test my vocabulary once and, I kid you not, I GUESSED the word for toothbrush in Norwegian. I literally thought Well it’s Zahnbürste in German, so it’s probably something stupid like tannbørste in Norwegian – AND IT WAS (!).
But seriously, that is one major advantage of learning this lovely language from an English and/or German speaking point of view. As an English speaker, Norwegian is not as grammatically challenging as say, German, and is considered one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn. As a German speaker, you’ll get the verb-2 sentence structure and there are enough similar-looking words to help speed up the learning process (which if you’re as bad as me at memorising new vocabulary is a god send). So in my case some of the frustrations of learning a new language were already eased, making learning Norwegian FUN. Way more fun than say, brushing up on my ‘actually useful in my life and career’ German skills (sorry Germany, meine leibe..).
After deciding to take on my new language learning challenge, I did a little research and discovered that Norwegian is actually arguably the best of the Scandinavian languages to learn first. If you know Norwegian, you will find it easy to read Danish, as the written Norwegian form Bokmål* derives from Danish, once the official language in Norway prior to the constitution. Secondly, if you know Norwegian you can probably understand a lot of spoken Swedish. I’ve heard from several (unofficial) accounts that Norwegians are better at understanding Swedes than the other way round, even though generally they can talk to each in their own languages and be mutually intelligible. This may have something to do with the differences in exposure Norwegians and Swedes get to each others languages growing up, from TV and so on. Even if not, learning Norwegian is still like a ‘3 for the price of 1’ deal on languages.
This similarity in the languages is actually one of the most fascinating aspects of Scandinavia to us outsiders. I mean, how can they be considered different languages if they are mutually intelligible? Are they actually just a variety of dialects? Is Danish just what a Norwegian sounds like drunk? I image many aquavit-fueled debates on the topic. However I did try to learn Swedish a long time ago without half as much success, which makes me think I should have listened to little brother Norway all along.
On the subject of little brother Norge, I was chatting to some Swedes a couple of years back who were joking about how Norwegians can never sound angry (resulting in some hilarious impersonations of angry Norwegians failing to sound angry). Like Swedish, Norwegian also has a a nice sing-song rhythm to it, often with sentences ending on a higher intonation, hence them sounding more confused as if asking a question than angry. Actually this is more related to the Oslo dialect, so (mostly Western) Norwegians tell me. The variation in dialects in Norway is as vast as in the UK, however unlike us Brits who tend to tone down our accents and dialects on TV, outside our hometowns or just about anywhere we don’t want to be judged, in Norway speaking ones dialect seems to be encouraged. Even if it might make for some embarrassing ‘wtf did they just say’ moments should I ever find myself in rural Norway, I still think this is a lovely thing.
Whatever the dialect, I personally find listening to Norwegians speak satisfyingly pleasant in a way I never found with English or German (except maybe when listening to German children talk. The German language IS capable of being as cute and fluffy as a puppy labrador). So I don’t even need a motivation to learn, because I can happily while away a few hours watching some film or program på norsk. And for television programs Norway doesn’t do badly. The hit teen series Skam has taught me all the lingo I’ll need if I ever wake up as a 17 year old schoolgirl in Oslo. I’m also equally entertained by shows giving silly insights into norsk culture such as Lilyhammer and Alt for Norge, and of course I’ve seen plenty of Ylvis.
Having a goal to strive towards is also recommended to keep up learning motivation. Towards the end of 2015 I did finally buy tickets to see a filming of the talkshow I Kveld Med Ylvis (Tonight with Ylvis) live in Oslo. That gave me a six month deadline to improve my Norwegian enough to follow and understand the show. Was I successful? Well I followed the show and managed to order myself pre-show drinks at the bar without resorting to English, so important steps were made. My next goal is to visit an old friend in Trondheim and get drunk at a bar while talking bad Norwegian (alcohol also aids with speaking practice).
So why am I learning Norwegian again? Short answer: I love the language, it opens up the world of Norwegian culture and it’s one of lifes pleasures I can enjoy doing for nothing more than fun. Although it does give me an excuse to repeatedly travel to Norway (like anyone needs an excuse).
Here are some ‘fun facts’ on the norsk spåk:
- * There are two official written forms of the Norwegian language – Bokmål and Nynorsk (Bokmål is the form most generally taught to foreigners).
- Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’) was created in the 19th century as an alternative to Danish, which was the main written language at the time (and from which Bokmål derives). The linguist Ivar Aasen constructed the form from a mix of west Norwegian dialects to more accurately represent the way people spoke the language in writing.
- Sami is another official language in Norway, spoken by the indiginous Sami people in certain parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
- There are many variations in dialects across Norway, to the point some people have even created their own personal dialects – hæ?