Why learn Norwegian? Lecturer in Scandinavian studies Guy Puzey lists the delights of the language.
Norway has deep cultural connections with its neighbours across the North Sea. In fact, Norway is Scotland’s closest continental neighbour, only about 200 miles away from Shetland.
Still, as with many lesser-taught languages, people who learn Norwegian always seem to get asked why they made that choice. The most common reasons are having some relationship with Norway, Norwegians and Norwegian culture, but there are plenty of others.
Norway has a fascinating culture
Norway has come top of the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures quality of life, more times than any other country in the world. It leads the world in fields as diverse as the maritime and energy industries, crime fiction, architecture, knitting, black metal music and so-called ‘slow TV’: hours of video of train journeys, logs burning, or salmon fishing.
What’s more, if you want to apply language skills professionally in fields like translation and interpreting, Norwegian makes an excellent choice. Competency in Scandinavian languages is a niche skill that’s highly in demand. Many graduates in Scandinavian studies go on to work as literary translators, which can be fascinating work.
Why I learnt Norwegian
There isn’t a single explanation as to why I chose to learn Norwegian, but it feels like a very logical course to have taken. As a child, I spent hours studying maps and atlases, and planning imaginary journeys. Among the places with which I felt a special affinity was Norway.
As a teenager, I had a battery radio that came in handy during power cuts. There was only a bit of sea and some oil rigs between Norway and where I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland, so it was usually possible to pick up the medium wave radio transmissions from Norway.
When I first heard these broadcasts from across the North Sea, I was intrigued that it was possible to get the gist of some of what was being said without ever having studied Norwegian. I became interested in Norwegian music, and made friends through an online fan club for a Norwegian singer called Lene Marlin, including one especially charming person from Italy who is now my wife. As a result, I decided to study languages: in particular Italian and Norwegian.
Learning Norwegian in the UK
The best way to learn Norwegian is with other people. I learnt the language at the University of Edinburgh, where I am now a lecturer in Scandinavian studies. Our students come from all over the world: the only continent not represented is Antarctica, but that’s made up for by Sir Nils Olav, a famous penguin at Edinburgh Zoo who has been granted honorary brigadier status in the Norwegian Army.
The vast majority of students start university with no knowledge of Scandinavian languages. By the end of the second year, they’ll read books in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, and will be prepared for their third year abroad. When they return to Edinburgh for their fourth year, they study more advanced literature, linguistics, history, and translation.
You can also do short evening courses at several universities in the UK, or attend summer schools in Norway.
Improve your Norwegian by watching television
It’s easier than ever before to access Nordic films and TV series. People studying Scandinavian languages today are extremely lucky, as these are usually available in the original languages with English subtitles. If you’ve been learning for a while, try watching Norwegian films and TV programmes with subtitles on in Norwegian, so you can read and compare what you see with what you hear.
For several years, Norway was arguably a little behind Denmark and Sweden in terms of exporting quality films and TV series. The exception was the ‘slow TV’ concept, which meant marathon viewing experiences (such as a 134-hour coastal journey from Bergen to Kirkenes), usually involving a lot of breath-taking Norwegian scenery but not much talking.
The real game-changer, for people who want to hear more Norwegian spoken, was the acclaimed web-based drama series Skam, telling the story of a group of high-school pupils in Oslo. Although the initial target audience was fifteen-year-olds, it has proved wildly popular with all ages. If you can, watch it: you’ll be hooked.
Norwegian is a democratic language
Norwegians speak their own dialects in virtually all social contexts. It was decided as early as 1878 that children should be taught in their own spoken language, which effectively means that children are allowed to speak dialect, and that teachers have no right to correct the way that children speak. This is a profoundly democratic idea, and gives Norwegians great linguistic self-confidence.
There are two forms of written Norwegian
Norwegian has not only one official written standard language, but two: Bokmål (literally ‘book language’) and Nynorsk (literally ‘new Norwegian’).
In 1814, after more than 400 years of Danish rule, Norway was put into political union with Sweden (eventually becoming independent in 1905). Written Norwegian had fallen out of use, so Norway had no written language of its own, although Norwegian dialects were still being spoken.
Two main solutions emerged. A self-taught linguist from western Norway, Ivar Aasen, proposed a clean break with Danish, and created a new written language based on a common denominator of dialects spoken in Norway. This became Nynorsk.
Meanwhile, a school teacher, Knud Knudsen, proposed gradual spelling changes to bring the Danish written language closer to spoken Norwegian. This became Bokmål.
Bokmål and Nynorsk today
Officially, both standards have equal status, but Bokmål is the first written language of about 85 per cent of Norwegians, and the language of the largest urban centres. Nynorsk is mostly associated with rural parts of the country, especially on the west coast. Both standards have gone through many reforms over the years to bring them closer to the ‘language of the people’.
Which should you learn?
If you really want to understand Norway, it’s a good idea to become acquainted with both. Most learners start by learning Bokmål because it is the dominant language, and there are more textbooks available for Bokmål, but it depends where you go. Although I learnt Bokmål first, I prefer to use Nynorsk, and being familiar with Nynorsk will help you to get to grips with Norway's diverse dialects.
How different are the two standards?
It varies. Some phrases may look exactly the same, for instance: Det er kaldt i dag (‘It’s cold today’).
Other times, every word might be different. You might learn to ask Hvor kommer hun fra? (‘Where does she come from?’) in Bokmål, but the same question in Nynorsk would be Kvar kjem ho frå? Even the name of Norway is slightly different in the two standards: in Bokmål it’s Norge, and in Nynorsk it’s Noreg.
Norwegian has liberal grammar and spelling rules
There's a surprising degree of variation in both standards of Norwegian. For example, like many languages, Norwegian nouns are organised according to gender. There are normally three genders in Norwegian (masculine, feminine, and neuter), but in Bokmål, you can choose to use a two-gender system, treating some or all feminine nouns as if they were masculine.
Take the feminine nouns bok (‘book’) and sol (‘sun’). You can treat these as feminine, using the definite forms boka and sola, or as masculine, in which case you would write boken and solen. Most Bokmål users end up using two and a half genders (masculine, neuter, and varying degrees of the feminine gender).
There are also liberal rules for spelling. Thousands of words can be spelt in more than one way, or have more than one acceptable form. For instance, in Bokmål, ‘milk’ can be either melk or mjølk, ‘road’ can be either veg or vei, and ‘stone’ can be either stein or sten (in Nynorsk, they can only be mjølk, veg, and stein).
In Nynorsk, the second-person plural pronoun ‘we’ can be either vi or me, ‘friend’ can be either ven or venn, and ‘school’ can be either skule or skole (in Bokmål they can only be vi, venn, and skole).
To start with, this can be a bit confusing, but I think most learners of Norwegian eventually find it liberating. The important thing is to try to be consistent.
Three (or four) languages for the price of one
One of the best things about learning Norwegian is that, with a little extra effort and training, it’s quite possible to understand Danish and Swedish too. In fact, of the three mainland Scandinavian languages, Norwegian is the one that puts learners in the best position to understand the other two.
This is because it sits linguistically in between the other two: written Bokmål is a development of written Danish, which makes Danish quite easy to read. Spoken Danish is more of a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. Meanwhile, spoken Norwegian is closer to Swedish. So if you learn Norwegian, you’re really getting three languages for the price of one (or four, if you count Bokmål and Nynorsk).
Typically Norwegian words
If the English language had to borrow some words from Norwegian, it could do a lot worse than going for vocabulary related to packed lunches, not least pålegg. This noun describes different toppings for open sandwiches, the stereotypical Norwegian lunch. Once you’ve prepared your open sandwiches, you can put a piece of specially adapted greaseproof paper (mellomleggspapir) in between each slice and then do some origami to wrap the whole thing in more greaseproof paper (matpapir).
Another special word is dugnad, which was once voted the most Norwegian word of all. It describes a type of communal voluntary work, where neighbours spruce up common areas and gardens. Typically, once the work is done, everybody shares some food.
Some Norwegian words have become internationally known, such as ski (which is actually pronounced like the English word ‘she’).
What's difficult about learning Norwegian
The hardest thing about learning Norwegian is that practically all Norwegians speak English very well. This means it’s easy to fall into the trap of just speaking English with Norwegians. It’s important to get past this, and people will normally understand if you say you’d like to practise your Norwegian and ask them nicely to be patient.
In terms of the language itself, the hardest things to master are probably choosing the right prepositions (e.g. på, i or til) and learning to distinguish between the two differently pitched tones, which give most dialects of Norwegian a song-like intonation. Crucially, you also need to get used to the differences between dialects. Tell Norwegians how much you like their dialects, and ask them to speak a little more slowly so you can tune in to them.
The other real challenge about learning Norwegian is that Norway can be an expensive country: so start saving now.
Guy Puzey is a lecturer in Scandinavian studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Find out more about Norway and other Nordic countries by visiting the Nordic Matters festival at the Southbank Centre until the end of 2017.