On a family trip to Iceland and Norway several years ago, I decided to tackle Norwegian in the Duolingo language app. (Icelandic is way too difficult!)
Norwegian, a distant cousin of English, comes from the North Germanic family of languages, while English evolved from the West Germanic family. Though the Norwegians had an important written literature during the Viking era, later unions with Sweden and Denmark suppressed the use of a written Norwegian language.
After independence from Denmark in 1814, two written norms arose: Bokmal (book language), which is derived from Danish and is spoken more in the cities, and Nynorsk (New Norwegian), which is used more in rural districts. Bokmal, the more widely used, is the form in Duolingo and the form this article uses. However, many Norwegians view Nynorsk as more authentic, and its use remains a sensitive political issue. I remember watching English language television in Norway and seeing the subtitles in Nynorsk.
I studied Latin, French and Spanish in high school and college. I continue to use Duolingo to practice Spanish, French and Portuguese, members of the Romance language family, along with Norwegian, the first Germanic language I have studied. As I tackled this new language, I enjoyed applying language learning methods I have absorbed through the years.
One method to facilitate learning a new language involves the use of cognates, related words in two languages. Both English and Norwegian have cognates surviving from their original Germanic ancestor. English absorbed additional Nordic words during the Viking invasions in the centuries before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Modern words have been adopted among Norwegian, English, and other languages, often from Greek and Latin roots.
Unlike the Romance languages that I have studied, Norwegian and English use a particle to indicate an infinitive. In English, the “to” used to indicate an infinitive is a particle; “to” has no meaning on its own. In Norwegian, the particle “a” appears before the verb and otherwise has no meaning.
Since many everyday Germanic words from Old English survived in English after the influx of new words from Norman French, many English words have Germanic cognates that have also survived in Norwegian. Examples include mann (man), hus (house), melk (milk), sted (stead, place), strand (beach), a dekke (to cover, to deck), tusen takk (thousand thanks, thank you) and a krype (to crawl, to creep). We can better recognize cognates by learning common spelling changes, such as sk for “sh” in fisk (fish) and skip (ship), k for the hard “c” in kald (cold) and sjon for “tion” in stasjon (station).
Some common words have evolved to a more specific meaning in English, as a new word now has taken the broader English meaning. Dyr, for example, means “animal” in Norwegian, but has taken the meaning of a specific animal (deer) in English. Another, mat, means “food” in Norwegian, but has become “meat” in English.
A pitfall with cognates is the false cognate, a word that has a similar or identical spelling in the two languages but different meanings. A false cognate could result from a change in the meaning of a once related word or from mere coincidence. False cognates include barn (child but compare Scottish bairn), fare (danger), gift (both poison and married!) and gate (street but compare English place names such as Aldersgate). Some false cognates arise when the definite article suffix -en is applied to a word, such as teen (the tea) and listen (the list).
In English we often use a form of the verb “to go” as a helping verb with the infinitive to indicate a future action, as in the sentence “It is going to rain.” French, Spanish, and Portuguese also use the verb meaning “to go” in a similar manner. In an interesting reversal, Norwegian uses the verb meaning “to come” (kommer til) to indicate future action.
Prepositions are generally one of the hardest parts of a language to master. One preposition might be translated into several English words depending on the context. One example is pa: pa veggen (on the wall), pa jobb (at work), a haper pa (to hope for) and pa Tysk (in German). One travels “with” a motorcycle rather than “by” motorcycle (med motorsykkel).
A method for building vocabulary that we learned “back in school” was to determine the meaning of a compound word from its component parts. Norwegian, like German, frequently forms compound words by juxtaposing words into one word. In English, compound words often have Latin roots derived through French; in Norwegian, compounds are more likely to be Germanic words. One example is “to contain,” which is derived from Latin “con-“ (with, together) and “-tain” (to have, to hold). The equivalent word in Norwegian is a innholde (to hold inside).
Many Norwegian compound words are evocative because they are compounds of basic words. Many are cognates to English words. Examples include ordbok (word book) for “dictionary”; oyeblikk (eye glance) for “moment”; stovsuger (dust sucker) for “vacuum cleaner”; nodutgang (need-out-walk) for “emergency exit”; and sykehus, sykebil and sykepleier (sickness house, sickness car and sickness tender) for “hospital,” “ambulance” and “nurse.” Our fjord excursion was on the ship Polarlys (Polar light), named for the Northern Lights.
Only after our trip did I realize that our excursion line Hurtigruten was a compound word. I had failed to properly break the word down as Hurt-ig-rut-en. -Ig is a suffix, with a similar meaning to the English “-y.” Hurtig relates to “hurried” or “fast,” rut means “route” and -en is the suffix that indicates the definite article. We had sailed on “The Fast Route.”
Fortunately, almost everyone we met in Norway spoke excellent English, but it was still fun to attempt to read the signs and notices we came across. I whiffed on my one big chance to speak Norwegian when I forgot my prepared sentence, Jeg snakker ikke norsk (I don’t speak Norwegian)!
Banks Peacock retired as an information technology instructor from Wayne Community College in 2014.