We not no understand

All the books [1] seem to describe Norwegian, Danish and Swedish as “three mutually comprehensible languages”. This seems to be true for the written languages: for example I’ve had one or two conversations on Twitter where the other person uses Danish and I reply in Norwegian, and I’ve noticed that the Scandinavians routinely converse in this way. I need to ask about the odd word here and there, but mostly the words are so close to Norwegian that the meaning is obvious if I know the Norwegian word. The spellings are different and sometimes the meanings aren’t identical or the grammar looks wrong, but it’s comprehensible. Swedish is more of a challenge, but still often guessable given a bit of effort.

Apparently Norwegians find spoken Danish a lot less comprehensible, though. @Sandramogensen on Twitter [2] recently introduced me to this sketch from a Norwegian comedy show. You don’t need to know any Norwegian or Danish to watch it.

Just so you know, there’s next to no Norwegian or Danish in the video. The parts that sound as if they might be Danish are actually in Danish-sounding gibberish.

There’s is, however, a sentence which might be in Danish. I’m not 100% sure what the shopkeeper says in his final attempt to communicate with the customer. It’s one of these:

  • Vi . . . forstår . . .  ingen . . .  ikke . . . !
  • Vi . . . forstår . . . hinanden . . . ikke . . . !

Those are both made entirely out of real words, but only the second is made out of real grammar. Vi forstår ingen ikke “translates” as something like “We not no understand”, while Vi forstår hinanden ikke is correct Danish and means “We don’t understand each other”.

I really want it to be the first one, since I think it makes the sketch funnier, but having listened a few more times I think it probably is hinanden rather than ingen.

I should probably also point out that kamelåså is an invented word. Google results for it lead either to the video or to pages talking about the video.


I’ve become aware of several things since writing this post nine months ago.

  • Several Norwegians and Danes have confirmed to me that the shopkeeper’s words are definitely Vi  . . . forstår . . . hinanden . . . ikke! (which I can also now hear quite clearly).
  • A Dane pointed out that the sketch contains one other snatch of real Danish. Towards the end, the milkman says [mumble mumble] tusen liter melk, just before saying in English “You just ordered a thousand litres of milk”. Tusen liter melk of course means “thousand litres of milk”.
  • There’s either an error or a pun in the Norwegian subtitles translating the English speech. The words “He gave me a file” are translated in the subtitles as Han ga meg noe feil, which means “He gave me the wrong thing”. “File” and feil sound identical and the file was in fact feil, so it’s hard to know whether that’s a joke in the subtitles or just an error.


[1] The two or three I’ve looked at. Which may or may not be a representative sample.
[2] And also at  http://www.sandramogensen.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s