How easy, or difficult, is Norwegian?

Many people ask me whether Norwegian is a difficult language. This sounds like a simple question, but it’s not; what is easy for one person, can be difficult for another. However, in this article I will try to give you an answer. I will not claim that my answer is exhaustive. Nevertheless, it may give you an idea of what to expect if you start learning Norwegian yourself.

The Norwegian vocabulary

Your ability to learn a new language will always depend on your knowledge of other languages. It should not be any surprise that it is easiest to learn a language that is close to one that you already know. Norwegian is part of the Germanic language group, which English also belongs to. The English vocabulary has its origins from many different 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 Scandinavian.  Window, egg, knife, guest and leg are words of Scandinavian origin; in Norwegian you say vindu, egg, kniv, gjest and 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 when studying 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. For clarity: the Norwegian examples in this article are all taken from Bokmål, the most commonly used written standard of Norwegian. The other standard is called Nynorsk.

Englishhousepipelousenutbookstream
Dutchhuispijpluisnootboekstroom
GermanHausPfeifeLausNussBuchStrohm
Norwegianhuspipelusnøttbokstrøm

Norwegian sentences – a little bit like 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.

But sometimes it’s done differently. The subject (the agent) 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”

By the way, maybe now it’s time for a break. This song is about a man who says that he must go now. Enjoy!

Eurovision 1968

The easy Norwegian verbs

Finding the right place for the verb can sometimes be tricky, but conjugating them is easy.  In English, you have to think about who is doing something in order to use the right verb form. In Norwegian, that’s not so, as you can see from this  example:

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

This looks pretty easy, doesn’t it? And in the past tense the pattern is the same. “I was” is jeg war, while “we were” is vi var.

The confusing Norwegian nouns

According to the dictionaries, Norwegian has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. This is the case for both Bokmål and Nynorsk. But if you look more closely at Bokmål, you will find that you often have a choice. Many nouns that are said to be feminine can also be turned into masculine. You can even choose to avoid feminine all together. In order to be politically correct these days, you can use the term common gender, a category covering what otherwise could be either masculine or feminine.

The difference between masculine and feminine is clearly to be seen in the definite form, the form that we use when we say the book. An important difference from many languages is that in Norwegian, the article is put at the end of the word. In a way you say “book-the” – you make a new word out of it.

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 also choose to use masculine instead: boken.

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. This category is given, and it also influences the adjective. The word for car (bil) is masculine, while hus (house) is neuter, leading to this pattern:

en gul bil = a  yellow car

et gult hus = a yellow house

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

Every language has its own system of sounds. People learning English often find all the different vowel sounds confusing, and the same applies to Norwegian. The Norwegian alphabet has 29 letters; the three last ones being the vowels Æ, Ø and Å.

In Norwegian, the vowels have a clean vowel sound, they are not gliding. They can all be either short or long – you will see some examples below. If you have diphthong (gliding vowel), you write two vowels after each other. In order to give you a general impression, I can tell you that A, E and I are pronounced approximately like in German, Spanish or Italian. O is pronounced like the German or Spanish U, while the U comes closer to the English U. The Y is somewhere in between the U and the I.  The letters Æ, Ø and Å were introduced in order to cover the remaining sounds.

The Norwegian vowels including the three special letters æ ø å
The nine vowels of the Norwegian alphabet

Norwegian also has some gliding vowels, like ei, au and øy. By the way, au is what you say if you want to express pain, while the word øy means island. Underneath you’ll find the pronunciation of the nine Norwegian vowels, and of ei, au and øy as well.

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:

tak (roof) – takk (thanks), hyle (scream) – hylle (shelf), ren (clean) – renn (skiing competition)

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.

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

Norwegian has a spelling that often seems to be phonetic.  An ideal of the spelling reforms has been to spell the words more or less the way they are pronounced. This has also been done to words of foreign origin. The letter c is mainly avoided, so is the letter q.  So you write k when you hear k, and you write s when you hear s. You also write ks instead of x, and s instead of z.

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

The phonetic spelling of these words (and many others) is accepted by everyone nowadays. 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:

gul (yellow)bunn (bottom)funn (finding)
lukke (close)lomme (pocket)rope (scream)
sove (sleep)tog (train)hoppe (jump)

Norwegian also has many cases of mute consonants.  They tend to be mute in certain combinations and in a number of specific words. For instance, the consonant h is usually pronounced, but is mute before a v or a j. The t is mute in some clearly defined cases, while the rules are far less clear for the letter d, as you can see below:

D is pronounced:Gud (God)fred (peace)lyd (sound)
D is mute:brød (bread)rød (read)blod (blood)

If you are in doubt, you can choose to say the d, even in cases where the Norwegians don’t pronounce it. Then at least you’re sure that people will understand you.  

As you can see, the spelling is not always that obvious, but most foreigners manage to cope well after some time.  And by the way, personally I find the English spelling far more confusing than the Norwegian.

Farmers, beans and prayers – tonal differences in Norwegian

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.

Tonal variations are actually important in Norwegian, but in another a different way that to what you may be used to. In Norwegian, another tone often gives the word a new meaning. You may think that this is like in Chinese, but it’s not entirely like that. In Chinese, the tone  creates a different meaning in words of one syllable, while in Norwegian, the tone differences relate to words of two or more syllables. Another word-accent (also called pitch-accent) often gives the word another meaning. Here I will give you some examples, including a sound file:

bønder (farmers)loven (the law)gjenta (repeat)
bønner (beans, prayers)låven (the barn)jenta (the girl)

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 is so. For instance, you can pronounce the r as a rolled r or as an r in your throat, it’s all part of the regional variation.  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. But not all kinds of pronunciation will be accepted. There is still a lot that you need to get right, because 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. And there are similarities to English in vocabulary and the way you build sentences as well.

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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