A Norwegian smörgåsbord

norwegian_sign_cropped

Okay, “smörgåsbord” is a Swedish borrowing, but close enough. It’s appropriate for this post, which will be a buffet of miscellaneous facts about the Norwegian language.

I became interested in and started learning Norwegian because my brother has been living in Oslo for the past several years, where he is getting his Ph.D. in lichenology.[1] My family and I traveled to visit him last summer. To characterize the country in a few words, I’d say Norway is – more iconically – Vikings, fjords, trolls, nature, Norse mythology, and – more personally – lichens, stellar black coffee, gross sweet brown cheese, overly-restricted booze-purchasing hours, part of my paternal ancestry, and vampires.[2]

Heddal stavkirke (stave church), built in the early 13th century

So what’s cool about Norwegian?

Dialects

First (as I mentioned in one of the recent dialect posts), Norwegian forms a dialect continuum with Swedish and Danish, languages with which it is, to a greater or lesser extent, mutually intelligible. These are Scandinavian or North Germanic languages, along with Icelandic and Faroese. My brother, who now has a decent command of Norwegian, says he can understand Swedish relatively well too, although Danish is harder. Have a listen to differences between Danish and Norwegian in this video.

However, there are also a staggering number of Norwegian dialects spread across Norway. People claim it’s often harder to understand someone from a different part of the country (for example, Oslo inhabitants vs. speakers of trøndersk, a group of sub-dialects in north-central Trøndelag county) than it is to understand a Swede speaking Swedish. Wikipedia corroborates: “Variations in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation cut across geographical boundaries and can create a distinct dialect at the level of farm clusters. Dialects are in some cases so dissimilar as to be unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners.”

There are two official standard forms for the written language, even if there is no standard for spoken Norwegian (since local dialects rule in most situations). Bokmål (literally “book tongue”) is used in the majority of publications, and Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”) in under 10% of written communication.

Lexicon and Morphology

Onto smaller language-y bits: words and morphemes. Norwegian is super fun because it is prone to extensive compounding (like German), and these compounds often break down into etymologically amusing or charming pieces. By this I mean that the component words reveal interesting (but usually sensible) semantic relationships with the larger compound. Let me give you some examples:

Norwegian compound English word Individual morphemes
fruktkjøtt “pulp” frukt (“fruit”) + kjøtt (“meat”)  ⇒  “fruit meat”
matbit “snack” mat (“food”) + bit (“bite”)  ⇒  “food bite”
sommerfugl “butterfly” sommer (“summer”) + fugl (“bird”) ⇒  “summer bird”
morkake “placenta” mor (“mother”) + kake (“cake”)  ⇒  “mother cake”
verdensrommet “(outer) space” verden (“world”) + s (possessive) + romm (“room”) + et (“the”)  ⇒  “the room of the world”
skyehus “hospital” skye (“sick”) + hus (“house”)  ⇒  “sick house”
grønnsak “vegetable” grøn (“green”) + sak (“thing”)  ⇒  “green thing”
støvsuger “vacuum cleaner” støv (“dust”) + suger (“suck[er]”)  ⇒  “dust suck[er]”
flaggermus “bat” flagger (“flying”) + mus (“mouse”)  ⇒  “flying mouse”
piggsvin “hedgehog” pig (“spike”) + svin (“pig”)  ⇒  “spike pig”

Morphosyntax 

rommegraut_cropped


Rest stop on the road back to Oslo. Rømmegraut is the Nynorsk word for a traditional porridge – kind of like cream of wheat, but sweeter and topped with butter.

One facet of Norwegian morphosyntax that was novel to me is the structure of its determiners. In English, both definite (“the”) and indefinite (“a / an”) articles are independent words that always precede their noun or noun phrase. So we have:

“the house”          “the big blue house”
“a house”             “a big blue house”

The same is true for the Romance languages I know about (French, Spanish, Italian), the other Germanic language I’m familiar with (German)… and it is simply not relevant for the Asian languages I’ve dabbled in (Japanese, Cantonese) because they lack articles entirely.

In Norwegian (as well as in Swedish and Danish), indefinite articles are, familiarly, the independent words which precede the noun, while definite articles are actually suffixes, which attach to the end of the noun they modify. What’s more – if you place something in front of the noun, like an adjective or a number, there’s another set of determiners to use, called demonstratives (in English: this, that, these, those). These precede the noun phrase (adjective/number + noun), where the noun already contains its definite suffix. Again, a table might help illustrate:

Norwegian (Bokmål) determiners

Indefinite articles

Definite articles

Masc. singular

Fem. singular

Neuter singular

Masc. singular

Fem. singular

Neuter singular

en

ei

et

-en

-a

-et

en sykkel
“a bicycle”

ei jente
“a girl”

et hus
“a house”

bilen
“the car”

døra
“the door”

huset
“the house”

Demonstratives + noun phrase

den

den

det

den røde bilen
“the red car”

den røde døra
“the red door”

det røde huset
“the red house”

Because Norwegian and English are closely related in their linguistic genealogy, a native English speaker may have less trouble learning Norwegian than, say, Taa (also known as !Xóõ, a southern African language with possibly the largest phoneme inventory in the world, including dozens of clicks) – but as the determiner situation here demonstrates, it’s still no piece of bløtkake.

IMG_20180708_100933

View (!) from our rental house deck on Hardangerfjord

Phonology and Prosody

Norwegian is what’s called a pitch-accent language. There are roughly three categories of languages when it comes to stress and pitch. Here’s a super abridged breakdown [3]:

  1. Stress-accented languages

Stress (emphasis) is placed on a syllable in a word, or on a word in a phrase/sentence. This can create a difference in word meaning, but it doesn’t have to. Stress is a combination of loudness, length, and higher pitch.

  • Example languages: English, Czech, Finnish, Classical Arabic, Quechua, Italian
  • Example words/phrases [English]:
    • On a word in a sentence (no difference in meaning) – “I REALLY like your jacket”
    • On a syllable in a word (meaning difference) –

NOUNS vs. VERBS
REcord vs. reCORD
INcrease vs. inCREASE
PERmit vs. perMIT

  1. Pitch-accented languages

A syllable on a word/morpheme is accentuated by a particular pitch contour (instead of by stress). So only pitch is involved, not loudness or length. Distinct tonal patterns occur in words that otherwise look and sound the same, giving them different meanings.

  • Example languages: Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese, Turkish, Filipino, Yaqui (a Native American language)
  • Example words/phrases [Norwegian]:
    • Norwegian has two kinds of tonal accents or pitch patterns:

ACCENT 1 (ACUTE) and ACCENT 2 (GRAVE)

(Audio extracted from video by “Norwegian Teacher – Karin”)

hender – “hands” vs. hender – “happens”
ånden – “the spirit” vs. ånden – “the breath”
bønder – “farmer” vs. bønner – “beans”
været – “the weather” vs. være – “to be”

  1. Tonal languages

Each syllable of the language has an independent tone or pitch contour. Tones are used to distinguish between words (they create a difference in meaning between words that otherwise look and sound the same).

  • Example languages: Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, Zulu, Navajo, Yucatec (a Mayan language)
  • Examples words/phrases [Mandarin]:
    • Tones combine with the syllable ma, resulting in different words:
  1. “mother” [high level tone]
  2. “hemp” [mid pitch rising to high pitch]
  3. “horse” [low with slight fall]
  4. “scold” [short, sharply falling tone]
  5. ma (an interrogative particle) [neutral, used on weak syllables]

 

The pitch-accent feature of Norwegian contributes to the language’s sing-song quality. Just listen to the melodiousness of Norway’s King Harald V as he gives a speech:

(Audio extracted from full NRK video)

Orthography

Norwegian writing uses the same Latin alphabet as English, except that it has three additional letters at the end – æ, ø, and å. I highly recommend insist that you watch this ridiculous video to hear how the vowels are pronounced, as well as be entertained in musically nerdy fashion. (Final note: Contrary to the video’s main argument, several letters – c, q, w, x, and z – are not actually used to spell Norwegian-native words, although they’re sometimes used in loan words. One could therefore quibble that they shouldn’t count towards the alphabet size…)

vowels_cropped

 

 

[1] If you want to ogle some gorgeous macrophotography of lichens, scope out his Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/lichens_of_norway/.

[2] The ancient stave churches for some reason reminded me of True Blood (plus three of the show’s main characters, Eric, Pam, and Godric, were Swedish and Norwegian); also I was coincidentally reading The Vampire Lestat while we were there… but NO I’m not generally obsessed with vampires.

[3] This subject gets really complex. There are a lot more subtleties and distinctions than I make above.