Illustration: Ole Johnny Hansen 2015 for

More proof showing Norwegian is not an easy language

Yes I am surfing on some kind of language wave here (see my previous post: Confusing things Norwegians say). I promise the next blogpost will be about something else.

Here is a list of words that have always confused me, and for a reason. A long vowel instead of a short one, a mistake in how you shape your “u”, making it into a “y”, forgetting to glue two words together…all these things can make the Norwegian native speaker listening to you completely confused. That is because you said something completely different than what you intended. But he is so polite he pretended he understood. The beauty of forgiveness, Norwegians never correct your mistakes in Norwegian! There might be mistakes here, please do forgive (and correct) me.

lys og lus
Here is the tough difference between Y and U. Most times Norwegians will hear that you made a mistake and get over it, but be careful, some words have a completely different meaning.
Example: Luset er så vakkert i Hellas! You probably meant to say that the light is so beautiful in Greece, but instead you said that the lice (yes, those little animals that make you scratch your head) were beautiful in Greece.

rutete og rotete
Depending on how you pronounce the U (not to confuse with the sound O), you will say completely different things. Jeg liker din rotete skjerf. You just told the guy you liked his messy scarf, when you probably meant you liked his checkered scarf (you know like the kilts for Scottish men). Rotete = messy, rutete = checkered

påfyll og på fylla
påfyll = a refill. You will see this above coffee machines or Sprite and Coke in IKEA. However på fylla means to be drunk.
På fylla? says the smiling waitress with a jar of coffee. She just asked whether you wanted to get drunk. What she probably meant was to ask if you wanted a påfyll, i.e. a refill of coffee.

et ting og en ting
I believed for a long time that Stortinget meant “the big thing”. I thought wow, Norwegians really aren’t that formal to call their Parliement the big thing. It doesn’t. En ting means a thing, et ting what Vikings used for legislative purposes and as a court. It was there criminals were judged and convicted. The word survived through times and now the Norwegian parliament is called Stortinget: the big Ting. (and not the big thing over there blocking the view).

fett og feit
Fett has many meanings: it means “fat” in the sense of “vegetable fat” in noodles for example: vegetabilske fett. But it also (strangely enough) means “cool”. It is also the name of a feminist magazine. And
Feit on the other hand means “fat”, for a person. Their pronunciation is not the same, “Feit” sounds like it has an A instead of an E (Fait), while fett has a short E (because of the double T). Be careful, if you want to tell someone they are cool, make sure you don’t say they are fat!

løpe og loppe
Now in the spring you might want to go and see loppemarked, and not løpemarked. Loppe means flea, therefore fleamarket and å løpe means to run. The difference here is quite massive for Norwegian native speakers, but it is hard for foreigners especially in the beginning, to say it well. Loppe has a short “o” (because of the double consonant) while løpe has a long ø and of course o and ø is not the same sound.
Vanligvis lopper jeg i Vigelandsparken. Nei nei. Du løper, kanskje til loppemarkedet.

gift og giftig
Er det giftig å gifte seg? Is it toxic/poisonous to get married. To me it seemed like these two words had the same root but they don’t (not that I know of at least). A snake is giftig and people get married (gifte seg). Do not say that “slangen jeg så i skogen var gift” after all he could have been married, it’s not like we know the personal life of snakes. Or that jeg giftig meg i fjor.

boller og bøler
This is something I do not master yet. Because I think it is tough. This is the same type of mistake than løpe and loppe as the same sounds are involved.
Bolle is a round bun (to eat), or a bowl (to eat in). Boller is the plural form of bolle, while Bøler is an area of Oslo in Østmarka. It is also the name of a great band (hei there Einar and Olav!) which happens to have musicians living in Bøler (and not in boller as I first thought). Make sure you say a short o and no ø in boller and a long ø in Bøler and you should be fine. Otherwise you’ll be telling people you live in a cinnamon ball.

russ og russere
Now you might wonder, like me, why those teenagers in red and blue trousers running around drunk in May every year are called “Russ”. They have no link to Russians, except for the liters of vodka they consume. Russians are “russere” and russ are well, I don’t know what they are called in English. Those noisy teenagers going around in colourful buses.

forsett og fortsett

Hva er dine nyttårsforsetter? Whaattt? Are you asking me what are my continuations for the new year’s? What kind of sense does that make? Forsett = resolutions (new year’s resolutions) and å fortsette = to continue. Add a little salt with fortsatt = still. Har du fortsatt nyttårsforsetter etter at du fortsatte å drikke? And then you wonder why it takes us years to master your language!

frisyre og fri syre
The rule here is to remember whether you should stick the words together or leave them apart. One means “hairstyle”; the other means “free acid” (yes, thre drug). Choose your business right. Same with ananas ringer (pineapple is ringing – like, on the phone) and ananasringer (pineapple rings, like the ones you eat).

One day, in two million years, we’ll all be fluent in Norwegian. Dream on! And good luck, learning Norwegian gets more and more amusing with time. If you want to read more things I wrote about Norwegian language check out: How to Become Fluent in Norwegian (or Die Trying) and How to Pretend to be Fluent in Norwegian.

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

46 thoughts on “More proof showing Norwegian is not an easy language

  1. Ahaha excellent! I cant manage to hear the difference between the O and the U, beklager! When I’m pretty sure that I heard an O, it was surely an U. Another difficult set of words : Såpe, suppe og sopp! I don’t know how many times I’ve written in the shopping list to buy soap when I really needed mushrooms!

      1. No, Pål ! My dearest husband knows what I mean and always pick mushrooms from the shelf…and as a result we never buy soap, of course.

    1. Here’s some more for you:
      Sope – brooming the floor
      Ta en sup – drinking a small portion of your drink
      It’s one of the most common mistakes amongst immigrants, though, so don’t feel bad.

    1. Skjære is also a bird, magpie. Unfortunately quite a few Norwegians, especially younger, don’t bother with the difference between kj, ky, ki, skj, sky and ski. And there are words that would be more embarrassing to get wrong than Kjære and skjære.

    2. Depending on age, those are actually homophones. Older people will pronounce them differently, and younger people will not. And by younger I mean 35 and younger.

      It’s funny because language transitions like are rare, and here it has happened in about a generation. Linguists are pretty hyped about it, and older people are really angry that the kids no longer pronounce kjede differently from skjede. (And with that, they’ll incredulously asked when my bike got a vagina, because context is evidently not enough for these people.)

  2. And don’t forget the articles to nouns; en/ein, ei & et/eit. There’s no rules as to what article goes with what type of noun. Just as in French, you just have to know. Also, two different types of written Norwegian, that’s a funny subject you should blog about.

    1. If you can add an -en to the end of the noun(stolen) then en also goes at beginning of noun(en stol- stolen), if you can choose -en/-a ending(døren/døra) you can choose to use en/ei at beginning(en/ei dør-døren/døra). And if the ending is -et(fjellet) you use et at the beginning( et fjell-fjellet).

  3. As to the request for corrections, here comes a genuine norwegian, a proof reader none the less! No, not all norwegians are humble. 😉
    – “Luset” is really not a word, as the genus is wrong. It’s “lusen”. In some dialects, though, “luset” could mean that you are full of lice.
    – If a waitress asks you “på fylla?”, this is a sentence without a subject, which is quite common in oral and casual norwegian, as it is in english. I guess the best translation here would be something like “on a bender?”, so it’s not really about getting drunk, but the whole consept of a night out/partying, both in past and present.
    – A “bolle” does not necessarily have cinnamon in it, unless it’s a “kanelbolle” (cinnamon bun). It’s mainly just an ordinary sweat wheat pastry. Sometimes with raisins, sometimes with chocolate, but than you generally have the prefix that explains the extra content. Mostly boller are just boller. But, and here comes the twist: A “bolle” can also be a “bowl”, the type you put your soup or things like that in.

    1. Dear Jorun, thanks for your message. Some of the mistakes you flagged are actually made on purpose. The dialogues include the mistakes us foreigners make, to show Norwegians how wrong it sounds to them, but how similar it sounds to us. I didn’t know about bolle though! I never ate any and I thought all of them had cinnamon inside!
      thanks again for your input!

      1. Hi, I’m Norwegian and I love your blog. Boller (the plain ones with raisins) contains kardemomme. I think it’s called ditt skjerf, but you might have used din on purpose as a lot of non native Norwegians struggle with the difference between din and ditt.

  4. Here is one I always wonder about. “Du må ikke gjøre det”. Does that mean “you must not do that. You are forbidden”, or “You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to”? I think it depends on the tone of voice – just to mess things up a little more.

    1. As you say, it depends on the context.
      If someone tells you that in a clear ‘staccato’ voice it means: “don’t do that, there are big consequences”.
      If saying the same sentence to a child on the play ground, it’s probably because that kid just ate a bit of sand or something.
      If you’re asked to do something that you don’t want to do, like taking a shot of tequila on a night out, someone behind you might be saying that to mean,”you’re ok no need to do it”

  5. May I also shoot in that we have a guy in Norway whom has the worst English skills in history. The famous rallydriver Petter Solberg. Who managed to say on TV that ” I came with a great big FART (speed in Norwegian) and flew like a PRICK (prikk as in dot) in the sky..” Among other fantastic things 😀

    Besides that, I`m a Norwegian, and I just love your blog. Keep up the sarcasm, and all your good observations og the weird People in this country 😀

  6. As someone who has worked in languages my whole life, I have to say that there is no such thing as an easy language. You sometimes hear people saying Spanish is an easy language, and it is, if all you want to do is order a coffee, but there are grammar rules and cases that are extremely difficult to master.
    Even English has its complexity, but it’s a complexity that resides in our vast vocabulary not in our (relatively) simple grammar. So that as people become more proficient in English, they often find it far more difficult than they had imagined as they have to struggle with a wealth of synonyms for something which may only have one word in their mother tongue. As my Spanish friends often say, “you English have a word for everything”.
    I have to say I love the idea of asking for more coffee and then getting plastered as a result.

    1. I have a Spanish friend (who is extremely fluent in English) who loves English for just that reason – there are so many more descriptive words than in Spanish. I can see why it makes it so hard to learn because of it though. There is so much subtlety.

    1. Don’t give up, though… All languages have some difficult parts, but if you want to live in Norway, don’t let your friends laugh at you: take a Norwegian course instead and you will certainly learn it!:)

  7. Hei! One tiny correction….flea market, not flee market…sorry!

    And then there are my own two now infamous stories of learning Norwegian, both true.

    Lompe\rompe. I was asked by a friend in Bergen to go down to the shop to get those flat pancake like wraps Norwegians eat hot dogs in. I forgot the word on the way down, and asked ‘har dere ferske romper i dag?’, meaning ‘do you have any fresh arses today’. Huge laughter from the salesman behind the counter.

    Kjede\skjede. I went into a jewellery shop in Andenes to get a Christmas gift for my mother back in the US. I asked for a ‘gullskjede’ rather than a ‘gullkjede’, meaning I asked for a golden vagina for my Mom, rather than a gold chain. Serious embarrassment from the saleswoman behind the counter.

    Mistakes like these are the best way of learning to NEVER make that mistake again!

  8. Hi,
    This was fun to read 🙂
    A little comment:
    When you use the word “fett” about something cool, it’s always about a situation – not a person. You can say “det var fett”, but you never say “du er fett” or “hun var fett”. If you want to tell a person that he/she is cool, it’s better to use the word kul.

  9. It’s always a pleasure to read your posts, Lou, and even more so when they’re about language (IMHO as a Dutch linguist who’s learning Norwegian)! I looked it up, and it turns out that giftig and gifte seg are in fact related. Their origins are both about giving: gifte seg used to mean something like ‘being given away to each other’, and gift, a.k.a. poison, was something that was given to people. Gift was borrowed from German, so there’s a good chance that back in the (early) Middle Ages, nobody linked marriage to venom in Norway 😉

  10. I will always remember when, in the first months i was in norway, I wrote a CV to work in a kindergarten, and was wanting to say “i like to listen (to people)”.
    I wrote “Jeg liker horer” instead of “jeg liker å høre”. (i thought at the time that “to listen” was “å høre”, but it is “å lytte”).

    I am certain that you would agree that “I like whores” is not a very suitable thing to say when you apply for a kindergarten job, which is what “horer” means. (å høre means to hear)

    Now i am working in a retail shop in oslo city.
    A month ago, i was making some decoration in there, and made a little package of things that i entitled ” Perfekt innflyktningsgave” instead of “Perfekt innflyttningsgave”. Now i was wanting to mean that it was the perfect gift for people moving in (innflyttningsgave, a very common social thing Norway), not a gift for people “immigrating” in Norway :p.

    Though all this made people laugh a lot :p.
    I keep making these mistakes, and it is just a lot of fun every times. Misunderstandings are fantastic in the sense that they create very funny situations, most of the time :).

  11. Here’s one more for you. Kok vs. Kokk. I suggest the foreigner to thoroughly learn the difference between these two words. If you don’t learn it and want to stand up at a Christmas party (or at any dinner party) to toast the chef for the deliciously meal, you’ll be learning the difference the hard way. Your pronunciation is vital.

    Trust me, I know this one. Drinking, then screwing up this one could prove to be one of the evening’s highlights.

  12. What about bønner og bønner (prayers and beans)? Or, the from the dialect you love (stavanger); kanskje and kan’skje (maybe or can’t).

  13. On giftig and gift: They actually have the same root in norse; they are both from “to give”. Poison is something given, and the father gives away the bride.

  14. Here’s one for tour next, excellent blogpost about norwegian language:
    “Jeg har vært vert hvert år, men det har det vært verdt!”

  15. Real good observations!!
    Just one thing: “Russ” are graduates from secondary school. The word comes from latin: “Depositurus Cornu” which means something like: “Taking away the horns of ignorance” The caps they wear are in some way copies of the traditional Norwegian student cap. (a kind of hat you don’t see anymore)
    I was celebrating “russ” almost 36 years ago, just to find out: This is heavily overrated… I have loved conversations with sober people ever since….

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