© Alice Baguet Illustration by www.alicebaguet.com

How to Pretend to be Fluent in Norwegian

© Alice Baguet Illustration by www.alicebaguet.com
© Alice Baguet
Illustration by http://www.alicebaguet.com

Becoming fluent in Norwegian is a long and bumpy path, full of “YEAAAHHHH I am so good at this” and “Oh my God I will never make it” moments. In the down moments, when you burst out laughing thinking THAT was a joke (sorry it wasn’t, say the eyes of your mystified colleagues), you will need some little things to keep you going. Small expressions or words that will automatically make you feel more fluent than you really are. Who doesn’t like to hear “Du er SÅ flink i norsk!” (you are so good in Norwegian!) when you perfectly know you aren’t?

This blogpost is inspired by a short article in The Oslo Eye. I made my own list of things that make me feel like I am more fluent in Norwegian. Hopefully it will be of some help for other immigrants like me who want to learn fun Norwegian things to say instead of grammar rules.

Before anything, you will need to master Norwegian pronunciation and melody. This will help you hide your lack of vocabulary. 30 words well-pronounced will make you appear more fluent than 500 Words pronounced so badly no one understands you even after repeating 3 times. Start by pronouncing all syllables distinctively without swallowing vowels like you would do in your native language. Norwegians (unless they come from Stavanger) take their time when they speak, which is quite immigrant-friendly if you think about it. Then for the melody, give a happy ending to everything you say, even though you are not happy when you say them. The first word I learnt was “Glasmagasinet”. I first said it in a flat way. “No, no” said my first Norwegian friend “it is GlasmagasiNET”. I repeated like her with a high peak happy end note at the end and sounded just like a native (well…so she said).

To hide the fact that you don’t understand what people say when they talk directly to you, you can learn small words/sentences that will make others believe that you understand. For example, you meet a person you know in the street. He or she is telling you in some obscure dialect that they are going on holidays to Greece/hiring Polish workers to re-do their bathroom or they are having another baby. Just answer “så spennENDE!” (ending with a happy and high tone is very important) when they are done telling their little story, with a smile. It means “so exciting!” and Norwegians use it a lot (you can also exchange it for “så hyggelig” although it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing). When someone appears to be trying to convince you of something or trying to get your approval you can also throw a few “ikke sant” here and there and it will also do the trick. “Ikke sant” is a strange bird that means something like “isn’t it” and that people over-use. Just do like them to appear local.

To show some kind of cultural integration you might want to publicly embrace the linguistic diversity of your host country. To do so, you can learn dialect words and/or swear words (or even swear words in dialects! Creativity is encouraged here). To learn swear words just hang out with people coming from Northern Norway. They will usually say swear words without anyone asking, and will be happy to teach you. It is their regional speciality as they have swearing competitions up there. For example my friend from Vesterålen taught me a song involving reindeers in shameful positions: “Kva du sei, Kva du mein, Har du p… mange rein” which I cannot fully write here because it is rude but you can look it up.
Also, asking your friends coming from the regions to teach you expressions or special pronunciation from their dialect is also a good idea. Most locals will be very surprised (and amused) that you know this or that word from some dialect spoken by 200 people in a lost valley. Be careful though, you might end up liking it and use “Ho” instead of “Hun” and “Dokker” instead of “Deres” all the time. And then snobbish Oslo people will refuse to answer your questions (yes it happened to me: “That is NOT Norwegian” he said).

Finally, as the Oslo Eye suggests; learning expressions that make you sound a bit more Norwegian is a good idea especially if you use them at the right moment in a conversation. They can involve pigs: sofagris (couch potato or literally “sofapig”), heldiggris (very lucky or literally “lucky pig”), svinkaldt (very cold), svin på skogen. But my personal favorite is to use old fashion expressions involving owls and alpacas. If someone isn’t how it should be just say there are “owls in the moss” (“Her er det ugler i mosen”). If you are surprised by someone, you can say “Du, store alpakka!” (“you big alpaca”). Yes, Norwegians are very much inspired by wild animals. And how would a foreigner know that one? By hanging out with 80+ year old people, which also happens to be a great way to learn Norwegian. Their English is usually quite poor and they have all the time in the world to listen to your broken Norwegian while young hips in parties will impatiently switch to English.

Of course to appear fluent in Norwegian you might have to make a real effort (still): learn real useful words (alpacas take you so far…) and work your way to it. When do you know you are close to being fluent? When you stop answering “ja” or “nei” to a question that required a full sentence; when no one bursts out laughing after reading your latest email in Norwegian where you wrote løppemarked instead of loppemarked for example (yes that also happened to me); when you stop looking at people with blank eyes when they speak at a normal pace. Then when you have overcome all these delicate situations where you always look like a moron, you can proudly call yourself a Norwegian speaker. And as a reward buy yourself a Marius genser or get one knitted for you by your new 80 year old friend from Northern Norway.

I still remember the first conversation I understood in this strange but also new and melodious language. I was at the gym and these two older ladies were discussing something. I took some extra time to put on my woolen underwear so that I could carefully listen to their conversation and understand it. “Hva spiser du til lunsj?” “Knekkebrød og makrell i tomat” “så spennENDE!”. Yeah I forgot to tell you. Like in every other language, becoming fluent in Norwegian will not prevent you from having to listen to very boring conversations.

This blogpost was chosen to be Freshly Pressed, as part of the best selection of the month by WordPress.com under the category Language.


74 thoughts on “How to Pretend to be Fluent in Norwegian

  1. Ahah! that is hilarious! It’s crazy, they are using the same expressions in Danish too: spændende. Det er logn! Der er ingen ko på is!

    1. My Danish teacher actually made it a joke with us: he asked us to use typicall Danish expressions in our essays, to show that we were mastering it… there is no cow on the ice

      1. Det kommer an på hvor gammel du er og settingen Bjørn T.

        Om man sier “Nå ljuger du” med det “rette” tonefallet vil kun sære mennesker bli fornærma.

  2. Note that ending normal statements with a high pitch is a characteristic of the dialects of Østlandet as well as Trøndelag, while dialects from Vestlandet and Nord-Norge are flatter, with the pitch slightly dropping towards the end. (But there are still exceptions, just like in other language, e.g. you can end in a high-pitch syllable to indicate interest in having your statement corroborated or your question answered.)

    Also within Østlandet, speakers will turn up the pitch to varying degrees. I’m unsure to what extent this is a true dialect difference within Østlandet, but I guess it is more of an individual thing or a social marker more than a geographical marker. In any case, those who turn the ending pitch up the highest can often sound very grating to the rest of us. So don’t over-do it …

    By the way, there was a short TV documentary series on NRK this autumn called Dialektriket, which was very fun to watch. It delves into some of the dialects, but mostly covers the attitudes people have to dialects here in Norway, which are quite dissimilar to the attitudes in France. You’ll find it on tv.nrk.no.

  3. Such a great blog, witty and so spot on! Can’t wait to read and relate to your next observations!

    The next development in learning Norwegian is when you start directly and unwittingly translating Norwegian sayings to English (it goes over – “det går over”) and combining English and Norwegian in sentences (I need to clip the grass)… then there’s a whole new set of weird looks to contend with!

  4. Great post (ikke sant!). I am a New Zealander living in Oslo and a friend just forwarded me the link because I recently started a little clothing brand inspired by the Norwegian language. Some of the words really crack me up. Lakenskrekk, Fylleangst, Utepils…I mean in any other country an utepils is just a beer. But in Norway the fact that occasionally it is warm enough to drink that beer outside means it deserves its own special word. There are definitions some great Norwegian words on the website – good ones to throw into a casual conversation!: http://www.mariusgris.com

  5. – Koselig! Så spennende! Det gleder meg til!
    – Hva?
    – Kjøttbøller! Til lunsj!
    – … o___O… bien sûûûûr…

    1. Elina, that was almost correct 🙂 You only missed one word in one sentence: “Det gleder JEG meg til!”.
      Love this blog, and would be happy to explain Norwegian to foreigners all day long. (As I’ve been doing on several occations due to having many foreign friends.)

  6. Eg hater så mykkje å få komplimenter, særlig når det gjelder norsken min. Er misunnelig når eg ser tyskerne og nederlenderne som lærer seg språket på 6 måneder…

  7. Hehe, nice. Regarding translating Norwegian sayings to English, our rally driver Petter Solberg has had some memorable moments ….

    “It’s not the fart that kills, it’s the smell”. or
    “But but, it’s not only only”

  8. I’m having SO much fun reading your posts! As a Norwegian (Nordlending) I don’t always think about these things, so reading them through a foreigner’s eyes is just så spennende! And koselig 😉

  9. Oh my god, so thrue!!! And best way to learn Norwegian dialect: work with demented people: they don’t understand anything else!

  10. “Du er sååå flink!” Spot on! Maybe you could expound on the word ‘flink’ in a blog post some time…

  11. I’m Norwegian and I almost fell off my chair I was laughing so much reading this. I have an American boyfriend who is trying to learn how to speak Norwegian, but it is hard (not only to learn for him, but also for me to teach him since I haven’t really studied or paid much attention to the grammatical rules of my languge since I automatically know what would be correct).

  12. Great post! Just wanted to do a minor correction when it comes to, as you write it, “Du, store alpakka!” The “Du” in this expression is more of an outburst,like an “åh!”, making the entire phrase an outburst. Like “Great Scott!”. “Oh, great alpaca!” seems a more appropriate translation. (With Llamas and alpacas being pretty similar, I have always when translated the phrase into english punned with using it for greeting the Dalai Lama. “O, great alpaca – what is the universe?”)

    Apart from that, these tricks make me think you understand a whole bunch about how we Norweskis work our language 😉 Keep up the good work! Du er så flink! *cough*

  13. Norsk sounds so soothing! Watching Norwegian TV shows, I managed to pick up some words. At a later stage, checking what the meaning of the words, I realised most of them are not to be said in public :)). Is it just my impression or the word “helvete” truly has a hundred of uses and meanings?

    1. I’m from the north of Norway, and in the north “helvete” means anything from “oh dear”, “drat”, to a general negative, such as “helvetes tullk_k”. A straight translation would be “damned idiot di_k”, the actual meaning would lean more towards being stupid and annoying. I live in the south now and have done for some years, and my impression is that people here don’t swear that much. If I do they don’t seem to react to it (it’s the, oh but she’s from the north, that’s just the way she talks thing), but when they do swear they tend to look shocked and embarrassed by it.

      1. Sweet! In fact, I’ve got addicted to that “helvete” word – it sounds soft yet powerful. So when you feel like releaving yourself from negative emotions you can say it and nobody can understand :).

  14. I can’t speak Norwegian (although apparently when I try, I sound Danish) but I can just about follow a basic conversation and stagger through reading a sentence. I’ll have to try and remember these phrases for next time I’m in Norway and astound my friends!

  15. I have no clue what Norwegian language even sounds like. Anyway, I think I’ll stick to faking my fluency in Chinese (which I’ve lost a lot) or French (which I have high school level because French is required language learning in Canada for children).

  16. If I ever go to Norway I’ll try out some of these phrases. And probably make everyone think, “Who’s this idiot American trying to pass off as a local?” Interesting article.

  17. Reblogged this on Language for Peace Forum and commented:
    Even if it’s not Norwegian you’re learning, many language learners could relate to this writer’s experience of “faking it till you make it,” which is actually a very effective language acquisition strategy! This includes useful tips such as repeating certain listening phrases to keep the conversation going and chatting with elderly people in your community who have lots of time and stories to share. Perhaps this is a good example too of how language learning is truly a relational journey, best experienced in the context of community.

  18. Reblogged this on Maria Holm and commented:
    So funny to read. I once tried to learn Russian and it was very difficult. Traveled a few times in Russia and tried to speak. Some turned away from me in utter contempt and others spoke very slowly back so I experienced the joy of understanding and being understood. Studying language is a wonderful thing and helps you from getting senile

  19. Ummmm, that was a most excellent post.
    I’ve not been exposed to much in the way of Scandinavia as others here (only got to see Norway, Sweden and Denmark for a few weeks) – but I will say, “Takk.”

    I am going to have to go back for another visit in the near future and enjoy the region again.

  20. je regrète que tu n’ais pas traduit chaque mots de Norvegien…Mais c’esttoujours aussi fun ! D’ailleurs j’ai décidé de ratraper le gros retard pris à la lecture de ce blog.
    trois aujourd’hui. I work my poor english !
    J’adhère demain à “honesty”

  21. Veldig interessant blogg, fornøyelig og interessant.
    Kan bidra med litt faktaopplysninger. Det er helt riktig at dyr og natur er sentralt i mange norske uttrykk. Når det gjelder de to du nevner her så har kommer uttrykket “Du store alpakka!!!” fra en norsk tv-serie og en rekke filmer om S.T.O.M.P.A. De handler om norske gutter på en pensjonatskole på 50/60-tallet. “Du store alpakka!!!” er Lektor Tørdals favorittuttrykk, uansett om han blir glad, overrasket eller sint.

    Utrykket “Ugler i mosen” var tittelen på en populær film-komedie fra slutten av 60-tallet.

    Håper å lese mer fra deg…

  22. I enjoyed reading all your articles about Norwegian behavior, their likes & dislikes, their language & culture, etc.
    Please continue to input your experiences & knowledge on anything Norwegian. I am fascinated by this beautiful country and their people and your articles have been very educational and interesting to fill my thirst of wanting to know more.

  23. Interestingly, the phrase “Ugler i Mosen” is actually not Norwegian, it’s Danish. Originally, the phrase meant wolves in the marsh (Ulve i Mosen), a rather descriptive way of saying there’s danger ahead.

  24. I appreciate your blog posts very much. You are on spot with almost everything I have read, but “du store alpaka” is without a comma, and not really meant to compare a person with the animal. In fact, it has nothing to do with neither the person you are talking to, or yourself, it is simply said to show suprise. 🙂

  25. This is so true! As a Canadian living in Norway I have problems with emphasis of words and pronunciation. I sometimes find myself just saying an english word with a norwegian accent hoping that it will pass. I live in the west and there are so many dialects that I feel that I will never fully learn norwegian. I´ve been here two years and as you said have some days when I think – yeah, I´ve got the hang of this now and the next day I think – I will never learn this language!
    Love your blog!

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