« Norway - it's a weird place! | Main | Bunad: Norwegian National Dress »

Do You Speak Norwegian?

Continuing yesterday’s Fun Facts about Norway and Norwegians, I figured I’d write about our language today. (Language is an important part of culture, and culture is a part of travel, so I think I am within the parameters I set for myself!)

When discussing the Norwegian language, it is natural to talk about the other Scandinavian languages as well, which makes it necessary to define Scandinavia. Scandinavia is a geographical region consisting of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Finland and Iceland are NOT in Scandinavia. If you group together Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and Færøyene, they are called the Nordic countries.

With that taken care of, we can move on to more Fun Facts! Or maybe some basic facts first:

Norwegian is the official language of Norway, spoken by approximately 4.7 million people. (Very soon I can say that we have “almost five million people” instead of “four and a half million”!)

Today’s Norwegian is very close to Swedish and Danish; some might call them dialects, not separate languages. However, there are really no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, but there are some commonly used “tests”, if I can call it that. Language varieties are often called languages if:
- They are recognized as literary languages
- The speakers have a state of their own
- They are used in press and literature

Norwegian fulfills all of this so I will proudly call it a language! Of course, since we were under Danish rule from around 1400 to 1814, the language (and especially the written language) is heavily influenced by Danish.

Norway technically has three official languages; two of them are variants of Norwegian. (The third is the Sámi language, or rather languages, spoken by the indigenous people of northern Norway.) The two varieties are called Bokmål (literally "book language") and Nynorsk (literally "new Norwegian"). According to Wikipedia, “the Norwegian Language Council recommends the terms "Norwegian Bokmål" and "Norwegian Nynorsk" in English.” The history of these two varieties can be traced back to the whole Danish thing again (damn those imperialists!); one coming from the Danish-influenced Norwegian spoken by the city elites, and one coming from a concerted effort of writing down the language spoken in the country side and everywhere outside the cities. But this is getting too long, so I will refer you to Wikipedia for further study of the topic. All I will say is that 90% of us write bokmål and the rest nynorsk.

Now on to some Fun Facts!

Our language has some tonal qualities to it. About tonal languages, Wikipedia tells us that:

A few Indo-European languages, namely Panjabi, Ancient Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, Swedish, Norwegian, Limburgish, Lithuanian, and West South Slavic languages (Slovene, Croatian and Serbian) have limited word-tone systems which are sometimes called pitch accent or "tonal accents". Generally there can only be at most one tonic syllable per word of 2-5 different registers, as well as additional distinctive and non-distinctive pre- and post-tonic lengths.

This means that two words can sound identical to the untrained eye, but actually mean different things because the pitch is different. “Beans” and “farmers” are two such words; one is sort of pronounced with even pitch on the two syllables, while the other is pronounced with a low pitch on the first and a high pitch on the second. Fun!

If you have a Norwegian-English dictionary and an English-Norwegian dictionary, the second will be a LOT bigger. We have fewer words…

BUT we have three letters English doesn’t have! Æ, Ø, and Å! English 1 – Norwegian 1.

Some English words that come from Norwegian: Them, steak, ombudsman, ski…

Norwegian seafarers settled Iceland, so the languages were originally very close. Iceland was also under Danish rule for a long time (1380-1918) but because of its isolation, their language was not colored much by Danish. Therefore, Iceland is much much closer to Old Norse than what Norwegian is. I am jealous of that! The Icelandic can read the Sagas of the Viking era while we have to work hard to do that – they try to teach us in school but not much time is dedicated to it so it doesn’t really work.

And that's probably enough for today!

Comments (9)

Wow Chiocciola, this s a very interesting post, I love languages, although I have hard time learning them,lol.
I have been to Sweden before,so I know what you mean about tonal languages, I also grew up in Greek church, and we prayed in ancient Greek, another tonal language,it is so funny when learning or teaching a tonal language, because people could mix up words pretty easily and it is hilarious!

Barb Cabot:

Chiocciola, I found this post very very interesting. At slowbowl I met a slowtraveller born in Italy who learned Danish while in Florence. She then went to Denmark to work as caregiver for children. I know some Danish so when I found out from her friend that she spoke we had some fun conversing. I find languages so interesting. Thanks for todays lesson.

I didn't realize the Norwegian language had such a history. Very interesting post! That is sad the people from Iceland can read the Sagas of the Viking era easier than people from Norway.

Great post - this is fascinating stuff. Just the fact that this is a group (Panjabi, Ancient Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, Swedish, Norwegian etc)is pretty cool.

I also didn't know the parameters of Scandinavia. Keep the info coming (I love reading posts like this!).


Very interesting, I didn't realize Norway has three official languages (I think there may be similarities between the Sámi languages and those spoken by some of Canada's Northern indigenous peoples.)

You must have a particular Norwegian keyboard to be able to make the three letters, with accents, that don't appear in English. (My French keyboard gives me most French accents but I can never find the circumflex!)

As a possible suggestion, for another post on Norway, I think your sovereign wealth funds are very interesting and a real success story!


These are really fun, and I am learning a lot!

Candi, I didn't know that (ancient) Greek was tonal, that is interesting. Chinese is very tonal so that must be very hard to read!

Barb, how cool that you speak some Danish!

Sandra, there are shortcuts, either you can use the ALT+ rules, or in Word it is very easy: Hold down control, then press forward slash, then the o, and you get the o with the line through! Å you get by holding down Ctrl, then Shift, then 2, then a. Æ: Ctrl - Shift - 7 - a.


What an interesting post. I didn't know about Iceland. Cape Breton in Nova Scotia has a similar connection with Scotland, and the Gaelic language. I might have to print off all your Norway posts and give them to my father-in-law who is very proud of his Norwegian ancestry.

Thanks for sharing this, I had no idea! A very interesting and educational piece, I've learned lots!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 2, 2009 8:13 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Norway - it's a weird place!.

The next post in this blog is Bunad: Norwegian National Dress.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.33
© 2004 - 2010 Slow Travel