Tag Archives: Norwegian

Twitter does it again!

As you most probably know, I’ve been learning Norwegian for the last 23 months, largely by conversing with Norwegians on Twitter with the help of two grammar books and various dictionaries. It’s been a fascinating process. (I haven’t blogged properly about the process yet; maybe one day I will.)

What I didn’t quite realise when I first started was the three-for-the-price-of-one nature of the Scandinavian languages. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are really a collection of dialects stretching across Scandinavia, with no clear boundary between one language and the next. The borders between the countries determine which dialects are considered as belonging to which language, but that’s about as far as it goes. It turns out that learning one of the three languages means you can already understand substantial amounts of the other two if you’re prepared to do a bit of guesswork. Bilingual or trilingual conversations are common between the Scandinavians on Twitter: each participant tweets in their own languge, and generally has to explain only occasional words to the others.

Written Danish is so close to the Bokmål variety of Norwegian that Danish and Bokmål mostly just look like misspelt versions of each other. This isn’t very surprising, since  Bokmål is descended from written Danish. (Norwegian had no written form for several hundred years, while the country was under Danish rule.)

Swedish, however, is a lot less guessable, largely because the spelling is so different that Swedish words which are very close to the Norwegian equivalents can look quite different from them. But I’d like to be able to read Swedish without a struggle. I’m encountering more Swedish than I was, both on Twitter and elsewhere: for example I sometimes get Swedish replies to my Norwegian tweets or forum posts. Also one of my favourite authors, Tove Jansson, wrote her novels in Swedish, and I’d love to be able to read her actual words. Her writing is stunning even when translated, and I imagine it’s even more stunning in the original.

So I’ve been feeling the need to learn at least some Swedish. But I’ve no desire to laboriously plough through lots of information which simply repeats what I already know about the Scandinavian languages via Norwegian. What I’m really after is the differences from Norwegian. When is it safe to assume that the two languages work the same way? When isn’t it safe? Does that word which looks similar to a Norwegian one actually mean the same thing or not? It seems to me that learning Swedish this way is both less information to absorb, and a more integrated way of learning. Relating new information to what I already know makes it easier to remember and puts it in context, implying greater understanding than if it were random information.

So I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a book on Swedish written for Norwegians, rather than one for English-speakers.

Now, where does one get such a thing? Probably from a Norwegian publisher, at great expense . . .

Some of these thoughts came up in a recent conversation on Twitter between me, a Swede and a Norwegian. It was a good conversation which confirmed my feeling that getting material intended for Norwegians was probably the way to go. I wasn’t expecting what came next, though. Inger, the Norwegian, mentioned that she had a Swedish–Norwegian dictionary, from when she used to teach in a Swedish-speaking school in Finland. She said she had no further use for the dictionary, and that she’d therefore like to send it to me.

Human generosity is in my opinion a wonderful thing, and it’s no less wonderful when it comes from people you’ve never met. And in this case it came in a form which I’m happy to share in a blog post.

If you think Twitter is about nastiness, libel and boring minutiæ, then either you’re following the wrong tweeters or you’ve missed the point of the communities which form there.

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

Silicon is not silikon!

Not so long ago I wrote a post grumbling about the routine confusion among newsreaders between silicon and silicone. Silicon is the hard, shiny, brittle element used to make things like solar panels and microchips. Silicones are a huge range of silicon-containing compounds including oils, squishy plastics, and the gel used in breast implants. They’re as similar to silicon as cod liver oil is to diamond.

The other night I found myself talking online, in Norwegian, about silicone earplugs. The silicone they’re made of has a consistency somewhere between warmed-up beeswax and Blu-Tack. The problem I always have if I use wax earplugs overnight to keep noises out is that the wax is slippery and the earplugs tend to fall out too easily as a result. The silicone ones have a built-in stickiness, meaning that they stay in.

I wanted to recommend them to the person I was talking to. I also wanted to be sure that I was recommending silicone earplugs and not ones made out of silicon. Looking up silicone on EasyTrans (a site I use a lot for finding quick equivalents) took me to the Norwegian word silikon, which I only trusted 90%. So I looked up silicon, half expecting to see silikon again, but the translation shown was silisium. A quick check in Bokmålsordboka, the online dictionary run by the Norwegian Language Council, suggested that these were correct: it says that silikon is silisium-containing plastic. That’s not 100% accurate (not all silicones are plastics), but it’s the right way round. All silicones contain silicon.

Is Norwegian silikon the same term as English silicone, though? The easiest way to check this was to look in the Norwegian version of Wikipedia. Its entry on silicones confirmed for me that they are indeed the same. However, the section on terminology actually went so far as to include

I engelsk blir ofte «silicon» (norsk: silisium) og «silicone» (norsk: silikon) forvekslet, noe som skaper forvirring, selv om det ene er et grunnstoff og det andre er en kjemisk forbindelse.

which translates as

In English “silicon” (Norwegian: silisium) and “silicone” (Norwegian: silikon) are often mixed up, something which creates confusion, even though one is an element and the other is a chemical compound.

So there you are: English-speakers’ bad English is bad enough to be worthy of mention in a non-English Wikipedia article . . . (Though i engelsk looks a bit dodgy to me. Shouldn’t that be på engelsk?)

And it’s clear that silikon is one of those words one has to beware of because the English word they look equivalent to is in fact the wrong one. Related, but wrong.

  • silisium: silicon
  • silikon: silicone.

Incidentally, something similar arises with this nice set of words which starts off looking equivalent to English but then goes somewhat haywire:

  • fotografi: photography (so far so good)
  • å fotografere: to take photographs, or to pose for photographs
  • en fotograf: a photographer
  • et fotografi: a photograph.

There’s a connection here with music practice, too. When learning a piece, you need to practice the obvious, easy parts as well as the difficult ones. Otherwise you can come a cropper in the concert when you suddenly forget which of the various obvious fingerings you were going to do, or discover that the note which was obviously an F sharp is actually an F natural and you’re the only one playing it as a sharp . . . Similarly in learning new words, it’s important to check that they mean what you think they do even if it seems obvious. Sometimes the obvious meaning is right, sometimes it’s wrong, and sometimes it’s just one of a range of meanings a word has. Often the other meanings aren’t obvious at all, but are ones which you want in your vocabulary because they’ll come in handy at some point.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, WHAT?!

In my randomly systematic wanderings through Norwegian vocabulary I’ve finally got round to learning the days of the week. Not that I was completely unaware of them before, of course; but most of them are so similar to the English ones that they hardly need learning when it comes to understanding Norwegian. (There are a couple of exceptions. It’s easy to mix up tirsdag and torsdag, the words for Tuesday and Thursday; and lørdag, which looks as if it should mean “the Lord’s day”, i.e. Sunday, is actually Saturday.)

You probably know that several of the days of the week in English were originally named after Norse gods: Thursday, for example, is Thor’s Day. German calls it Donnerstag and French jeudi, both of which look very different, until you remember that Thor was the god of thunder and was considered equivalent to the Roman god Jupiter or Jove. Jeudi is a version of “Jove Day” and Donnerstag means “thunder’s day”. Similarly in Welsh it’s Dydd Iau, in which Iau looks to me suspiciously like another version of Jove. Thursday is “the day of the god of thunder” in a whole range of languages.  (Incidentally the rudimentary Latin I learnt at school included the exclamation Iupiter tonnans!,  “Thundering Jupiter!”)

Given my approach to learning Norwegian, it’s probably obvious that I wouldn’t be content with just learning the words. I wanted to look up their derivations, which I did using the Språkrådet / Oslo University online dictionary. Given where Norway is, I expected to find that the days were all named after Norse gods. Well here they are, with their approximate literal translations. (Where there are two versions, the first is bokmål and the second is nynorsk.)

What? Sun, moon, war god, chief god, thunder god, love goddess or mother goddess, and then laundry?

Well almost.  From the little information I’ve found online, @anitaleirfall’s reply to me on Twitter seems accurate (not that I doubted it):

It wasn’t really washday, then. It was bath night. But even so. Various heavenly bodies and beings and then . . . bath night.

My first instinct with this was to wonder whether “washing day” referred in fact to some kind of religious cleansing ritual. That might at least have some connection with the Norse gods, and make lørdag seem a bit more logical. And The Norwegian Wikipedia entry for lørdag does in fact make that suggestion, saying it was the traditional day for “rituelle vaskeseremonier“, and offers the nynorsk dictionary entry linked to above (for laurdag) as its source. The dictionary entry says only that there might be a link to religious washing.

So I don’t know whether any religious practice was behind this or not. Another explanation I came across seems at least as plausible: the days are named after the Norse versions of the appropriate Roman gods, but there wasn’t one equivalent to Saturn (after whom Saturday is named).

It does seem, though, that the Vikings had a reputation for having a bath on Saturdays, and that this was not universally regarded by non-Vikings as a normal thing to do. Here’s a wonderful quote which I discovered on The Viking Answer Lady’s site:

Perhaps the most telling comment comes from the pen of English cleric John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, who complained bitterly that the Viking Age men of the Danelaw combed their hair, took a bath on Saturday, and changed their woolen garments frequently, and that they performed these un-Christian and heathen acts in an attempt to seduce high-born English women:

It is reported in the chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford that the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.

[See original page for the references.]

In other words, “They come over here and they steal our women by wearing clean clothes and having a bath every week!”

So whether the Saturday bath was religious or not, it was enough of a feature of Viking life to make an impression on  foreigners and to have a day of the week named after it.


It’s all connected

Finally—after rather a long break in which all I really did was keep the vocabulary warmed up—I seem to have resumed the Norwegian-learning. Still the same technique: interact on Twitter in Norwegian, and learn whatever vocabulary and grammar I find I need in doing that. One or two people have made startlingly positive and very encouraging comments to the effect that I’ve been learning quickly.

I’ve never felt I was learning it from scratch, though. For a start, I learnt German at school; Norwegian is another Germanic language, so there are lots of connections. If you know that eigentlich and wichtig in German mean  actually and important for example, it’s not so difficult to remember that egentlig and viktig in Norwegian mean really and important. In fact it’s a pretty fair bet (so far) that if changing –ig at the end of a Norwegian word produces something similar to a German one ending in -ich, the meaning will be roughly the same. Changing –lig to English –ly often works, too: for example nemlig means namely among other things. It’s all about connections.

These connections come up all the time. For example, it puzzled me for ages why Norwegian uses the word og for and. It’s clearly nothing like and or its German equivalent und. Neither is it like the French or Latin word et. It seems to be out on a limb, apart from being a bit like och which I happen to know is the Swedish version.

Except . . . well there’s og and there’s òg. They’re closely connected in meaning:  òg is an emphatic word for also. (The usual word for also is også.) Also isn’t so far from and. Maybe there’s a clue here . . .

I haven’t learnt Dutch, but I can understand odd snippets by relating them to German. Often the key is to replace a k with ch. So when yesterday I was looking at the Dutch word ook in a tweet, I found myself wondering whether it was equivalent to German auch and meant also. It does. And then suddenly og made perfect sense. Of course it’s nothing like and or und, because that’s not where it goes. It belongs with the German for also. Norwegian og = Swedish och = German auch. Suddenly it fits nicely into a pattern.

I visualise this as a sort of network with branches and interconnections. I hadn’t been able to see the connection because I’d wanted to attach og to the wrong branch. When I found the right one, the connection was obvious.

Staying connected

When I learn a new word—unless it’s a short one with no obvious connections to anything else—I try to learn not just the word, but its connections to other words too. This is a bit different from how we mostly learnt at school, where in most cases a new word was simply a new word which came as a single unit of information.

Take for example bemerkelsesverdig, which came up a few months ago. I learnt this group together:

  • å merke: to mark, notice
  • å bemerke: to remark
  • -else: ending used to make a noun from a verb
  • ei bemerkning: a remark (I had to learn this to avoid thinking it would be en bemerkelse)
  • verdig: worthy
  • bemerkelsesverdig: remarkable, noteworthy
  • I should also have learnt verd(-et), “(the) worth”, but didn’t think of it at the time.
  • I noted, but didn’t put on my vocabulary list, that be- at the start of Norwegian verbs seems to do pretty much the same thing that it does with English ones.

This has several advantages:

  • Learning all the bits of a word (morphemes) means you’re half way to learning lots of other words too which use the same bits.
  • You mostly don’t end up learning long obscure words before short frequently-used ones. A long obscure word is likely to be made up of several short frequently-used ones, which you learn straight away.
  • You start to get a feel for how Norwegian words work.
  • Sometimes you pick up little bits of grammar from seeing how the words are made.
  • The words fit into a logical pattern, which makes them easier to remember.
  • At least for me, the connections are interesting in themselves. Information you’re interested in is much easier to remember than things you feel neutral about.

Thinking back to when I first learnt a foreign language, I remember being encouraged to make connections between words. Guessing was not just allowed but encouraged. What does the unfamiliar word look as if it might mean? What English word might it be similar to? Have a guess! The guess might be right or wrong, of course . . . so you have to check. If you were right, a theory forms about how the language works. If you were wrong, you learn that the theory behind your guess didn’t work. Either way, you’ve learnt something.

I love these connections. They’re one of the things I most love about languages.


German was one thing. There was however another subject at school, which I absolutely hated: history. The school version had two basic problems.

  • It seemed not to be about anything remotely interesting or edifying. Most of the time it was about people killing each other or perpetrating other acts of inhumanity, mostly for rather silly reasons. (I’d hoped it would be about things like the history of science, or how archaeology works.) This made it incredibly depressing. There was enough cruelty in the world already, without having to hear about previous centuries of it as well.
  • I found it next to impossible to remember the information. It was a mass of names which all sounded the same, and dates which may just as well have been random numbers. There was no logic to it; no pattern of connections.

The second of those is the relevant one: I couldn’t absorb history because I couldn’t make the connections.

Not everyone might instinctively make such connections when learning a language, though. I was actively encouraged to do so. But I can imagine someone thinking entirely differently when they begin: “Don’t guess, because you might be wrong.  Look it up first, or ask the teacher. If you’re wrong, you’ll be setting yourself back by learning the wrong meaning. Since it’s a completely different language from your own, you must put thoughts of your own language out of your head. If you try to make connections they’ll just get in the way and mislead you.” That seems logical on the surface: if you’re going to learn something, you want to learn it right. But it takes away what I think is the most important tool for remembering things: connecting them to other things. It also, I think, stops you freely applying your intelligence to what you’re learning.


And so today I found myself wondering about these two opposite approaches, and about whether they might be reflected in how easy or difficult someone finds it to learn a language. Do different people gravitate towards one or the other approach, and find it easy or difficult as a result, or is it simply a matter of some people finding some types of information easier to connect together than other types? Or are some people able to remember random-seeming information without needing a pattern, even? I don’t know, but I find it an interesting question. As for me, I’ll continue making all the connections I can.