Like everyone, I’ve always wanted to learn another language but no one told me I would have to learn how to learn language first.
Reading and writing Norwegian is fine (it just seems like English spelt badly) but trying to learn how to listen and speak Norwegian is a whole different language – literally! You see, the language that you learn in Norwegian class is called Bokmål (book language), which is only a written language, and only a pretend spoken language. The other written language is Nynorsk (new Norwegian) – which should be called ‘old Norwegian’ as it is a historical representation of the old country language.
Unfortunately, in real life, no one speaks Bokmål, they speak Norwegian and there are hundreds of different dialects spoken across Norway. Each town and village has its own take on the language and this is what makes learning Norwegian so hard. What I learn to say in class is most often not what you say in real life. Even in my town, Tromsø, I can’t understand what people are saying – and my hubby, Moose, he speaks a whole different dialect altogether.
Listening to Norwegian is very amusing – it sounds like a gothic jellybean language. Sometimes I would have to pinch myself to make sure I hadn’t fallen down a rabbit hole into another world. It seems that everyone is stuttering at the end of their words, however, all the ‘-nenes’ and ‘-erers’ do have a function in the language.
Olsofolk make me nervous as they always seem to be asking questions. (I have recently developed a phobia to questions from Norwegians). They speak with a sing-song rhythm and the end of each sentence rises up. It reminds me of a child telling a very exciting story.
Northerners, or ‘the Mumbles’ as I like to call them, have a very deep and English sounding rhythm but they melt their words together like mozzarella cheese. This makes it hard to know if they are talking about poisoning someone (forgifte) or married couples (for gifte).
The people in the west, especially from Stavanger, have German hock-backs and seagull-sqwark tones. I guess it’s because this old Viking sea village was a popular Germanic trading market.
Norwegian women have perfected talking on the in-breath. (It is certainly quite a talent to talk continuously.) However, this technique is not used for continuous conversation but as a means to preserve energy. The wispy ‘Ja’ is often used as an unconscious reply or agreement and requires less power and control than a ‘Ja’ on an exhale. I wonder what made them evolve to doing that?
I am now afraid of Norwegian conversation. I always tell people ‘Jeg snakker veldig lite norsk’ (I speak very little Norwegian) but I think ‘little’ must mean something different in Norway as I still get six foot conversation. It is actually quite embarrassing when you can’t understand even the simplest of phrases. I am so used to not being involved in conversations, just standing there in my own little world, that when someone speaks Norwegian to me I often can’t find my ‘on’ button. I think not understanding has become a bad habit because even when I do know what people are saying I quickly reply ‘Jeg snakker engelsk’ (I speak English.)
This time in my life has definitely been the quietest – not in terms of noise but in solitude. Not being able to eaves drop on conversations makes life less cluttered, even peaceful. I’m glad I don’t understand the radio talk or what the kids are saying on the bus, or the guys in the pub yelling at the football. For the first time I can fill my ears with things I want to listen to – and that’s nice. I feel a little sad that things will have to change though…
Norwegians really value their language – it is part of their cultural identity – and since my family is Norwegian I want to embrace this culture. I’ve discovered that the way to overcome the usual hardships of being an immigrant is by being involved in society. However, it is hard to be involved in Norway if you can’t speak the language. So, I’m learning Norwegian. I can’t wait until I can reminisce about the crazy time I didn’t know the language. But until then, ‘Jeg skal øve norsk min inntil kuene kommer hjem’. (I will practise my Norwegian until the cows come home.)