Is Norwegian easy or difficult?

How easy, or difficult, is Norwegian?

I am a native speaker of Norwegian, and I also teach my mother tongue as a foreign language. Many people ask me whether it is a hard language to learn. This sounds like a simple question, but it is not; what is easy for one person, can be difficult for another. However, in this article, I will try to give you an answer, based on my own experiences from teaching. The examples in this article are all taken from Bokmål, the most commonly used written standard. The other standard is called Nynorsk.

Viking influence on English

Norwegian is part of the Germanic language group, which English also belongs to. The English vocabulary has its origins from many sources, but a large proportion is common to other Germanic languages. Through their presence, the Vikings also influenced the English language, bringing it even closer to the Scandinavian languages.  Window, egg, knife, guest and leg are actually all words of Scandinavian origin. If you translate them into Norwegian, you get this:

vindu, egg, kniv, gjest, legg

Later in the Middle Ages, many French words were introduced into English, turning the language into the mix it is today. Norwegian, on the other hand, has remained more purely Germanic in its vocabulary. German and Dutch are two other examples of Germanic languages. If you know one of them, it will certainly make it easier for you to study Norwegian. The vocabulary has many similarities, and there are some structural similarities as well.

Below you will find a list of Norwegian words, and you find the translations into English, German and Dutch. You easily see the similarities.

Englishhousepipelousenutbookstream
Dutchhuispijpluisnootboekstroom
GermanHausPfeifeLausNussBuchStrohm
Norwegianhuspipelusnøttbokstrøm

Norwegian sentences – a bit like in English

But how do you make the sentences? As a matter of fact, Norwegian and English phrases often have the same word order. In Norwegian, you can say:

Jeg har ikke vært der

Which can be translated word by word into:

“I have not been there”

In many other languages (like German), you would make a sentence with another word order. Some scientists even say that the English way of making sentences comes from the Vikings, just like parts of the English vocabulary, as mentioned before.

But sometimes it’s done differently. The subject and the verb swap places in certain sentences. That’s what is done when you ask questions, and also in quite a few other cases.

Here is an example:

Jeg må gå nå = “I must go now” (literally translated)

But if you put the word (now) at the beginning, you suddenly have to change the word order:

Nå må jeg gå –  literally translated as “Now must I go”

The easy Norwegian verbs

Finding the right place for the verb can sometimes be tricky, but conjugating them is easy. In English, a verb must agree with its subject in number and person. In Norwegian, that’s not so, as you can see from the example below. This table gives you the Norwegian translation of the English verb “to be” in the present tense.

EnglishI amyou arehe/she iswe are you are they are
Norwegianjeg erdu erhan/hun ervi erdere erde er

As you can see, this is not very complicated. And also the past tense is easy: “I was” is jeg var, while “we were” is vi var.

How many genders: three, two or somewhere in between?

According to the dictionaries, Norwegian has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of learning the gender of every noun.

However, you may simplify this for yourself by turning feminine nouns into masculine. You can actually do that without breaking any official spelling rules of Bokmål. Some people even avoid feminine all together – they talk about common gender instead of masculine and feminine.

This may sound confusing, so I will give you an example. The dictionaries indicate that bok is a feminine word, meaning that you can say “boka” when you talk about the book. But the dictionary will also tell you that you can choose to use masculine instead: boken.

As you can from this example, the definite article is put at the end of the word. In a way you say “book-the” – you make a new word out of it.

How to use masculine and feminine is everyone’s own choice. But the language user’s freedom of choice relates to far more than just the nouns. This can be complicated, because it’s a matter of finding your own style. The good news is that you don’t really make mistakes when making “wrong” choices –  it only sounds strange. By the way, in Nynorsk, you’ll have to stick to three genders, but as you may know, most foreigners learn Bokmål.

As explained above, the third category is neuter, which is a fixed category. The words that are neuter cannot be turned into masculine or feminine, nor can masculine or feminine words be turned into neuter.

By the way, people writing Nynorsk, have to stick to three genders. But as you may know, most foreigners who study Norwegian learn Bokmål.

Then some more good news, at least if you don’t like reading grammar books. Norwegian doesn’t have a case system for its nouns; there is no accusative or dative or other cases, like you would have in German or Russian. 

Æ Ø Å:  the peculiar Norwegian vowels

Many people find it difficult to learn the Norwegian vowels properly. There are nine of them, and you see them all on this photo. Under the photo, there is a sound file that explain how they are pronounced.

Have you been listening? Do you hear the clearly the difference? Of course, the difficulties will never be the same for every learner of Norwegian — it also depends on what is your own mother tongue. However, my experience is that many people find the y the y more challenging than the other vowels.

The length of the vowel also matters, and people can misunderstand you if you get it wrong. Here I give you some examples of pairs of words with respectively long and short vowels:

Long vowelhyle (scream)pen (pretty)møte (meet)måte (a way of)
Short vowelhylle (shelf)penn (pen)møtte (met)måtte (had to)

Are you able to hear the difference in pronunciation for every word pair? As you can see, it does make a difference, because the meaning changes when the vowel gets longer or shorter. However, my experience is that foreign students manage this very well after some time.

Norwegian also has some gliding vowels (diphthongs), like ei, au and øy. Many people find au and øy tricky. By the way, au is also what you say if you want to express pain. Below you will find the pronunciation the following words with gliding vowels:

sau (sheep), øy (island), stein (stone).

The spelling of Norwegian – write it the way you say it?

The Norwegian spelling has been reformed at several occasions. As a result of these reforms, most foreign words are written in a typically Norwegian way. The letter c is in most cases replaced by an s or a k. You also write ks instead of x, k instead of q and s instead of z.

Here are some examples:

sjåfør (driver), konjakk, sentrum, ekstra, sebra, sjampinjong, kakao

The same has happened to some English words. You write tøff (tough), kul (cool) and røff (rough).

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just write the way it’s said. But is everything that easy? No, not at all, because there are many exceptions. For instance, the vowels o and u can both be pronounced in different ways.

The consonants h, g and t are mute in some specific situations. Also the consonant d is very often mute. However, many people find the pronunciation rules confusing, also because there are many exeptions.

You will find an overview of the of Norwegian pronunciation rules here.  

Tones and intonation – does it matter, and how?

Foreigners often get the impression that Norwegians always ask questions while they are talking. This is because the tone often rises at the end of a sentence. As you may have guessed, it cannot always be questions. In Norwegian, the sentence structure will usually tell you whether it’s a question or not. And if not, you will in most cases be able to understand the meaning based on the context.

However, this does not mean that tones are not important in Norwegian. This can be seen in different ways, for instance in the so-called pitch accents or word accents. This phenomenon relates to words of two or more syllables.

Listen to the words bønder (farmers) and bønner (beans, prayers) in order to get an idea.

It’s possible that you hear little difference, or maybe no difference at all. Well, then I have some  good news again. You can achieve a good mastery of the Norwegian language, even if you never learn this. The Norwegians will understand you very well, as long as you pronounce the rest of the sentence more or less right. They don’t expect foreigners to speak without an accent. And after all, communication is always based on understanding the context.

Regional accents and dialects in Norway

Like many other countries, Norway has a large variation of regional accents. But in Norway, this variation is generally more accepted than what you see in most other countries. Also in Oslo, you will hear different accents and dialects on the street.

If Norwegians can speak the way they want, shouldn’t that also be the case for someone who learns the language? To some extent, that’s the case. For instance, you can choose to pronounce the r either as a rolled r or as an r in your throat.  The melody of the language is also different in the different regions. For instance, in the North, it almost sounds like people are singing while they are talking. However, not all kinds of pronunciation will be accepted. After all, people need to be able to understand you. 

For a foreigner, this regional variation can certainly be a big challenge. Even if you think that you’ve learned to speak Norwegian well, you may have difficulties understanding the dialects of some areas. If you go to an area outside the Oslo region, you will often find that people speak their own dialect all the time in all kinds of situations.

But there is also some good news here. If you move to an area with a pronounced dialect, there is no need to learn to speak like the locals. However, you need to be able to get used to the dialect in order to understand it.  My experience is that foreigners manage that very well after some time. 

Conclusion: Is Norwegian easy or difficult? 

Learning a new language is challenging, whether it’s Norwegian, or any other language. However, if you go to Norway, you will see that there are many foreigners who speak Norwegian surprisingly well, also people who arrived there as adults. What they all have in common is that they made a serious effort to learn the language. Like with any language, learning Norwegian requires work and patience, at least if you want to reach a higher level. But in my opinion, it’s not a very difficult language. The Norwegian grammar can be mastered more easily than the grammar of many other languages. Besides, Norwegian has surprisingly many similarities to English.

Have you followed Norwegian lessons yourself? If you have, you may still have learned something that you didn’t know already. And if you haven’t, you probably now have a better idea of what Norwegian is like. Hopefully, you found this article interesting, and maybe it has also motivated you to learn more about the Norwegian language.

PS: As also explained earlier, the examples in this article are all taken from Bokmål. Norway has had a lot of polemics concerning the language.  If you want to learn more, you can read my article about Bokmål, Nynorsk and the Norwegian language conflict.

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