Norwegian Language

Considering that I’ve spent about a year in Norway, many people have asked me if I’ve learned Norwegian. Unfortunately the answer is no, although I can navigate the grocery store quite well and say things like hello, thank you, and have a nice day. I have to admit that my greatest struggle with the language has been pronunciation. Even properly pronouncing the name of my upper secondary school, Byåsen, has been a bit of a struggle. Now I would argue that half of my trouble stems from the fact that there is no standard form of spoken Norwegian. But before I can address spoken Norwegian, it’s necessary to spend some time talking about written Norwegian.

Written Norwegian breaks down into two official norms, Bokmål and Nynorsk. The reason for the two written languages can be traced back to the 19th century. Norway was a part of Denmark from 1397 to 1814, and their union meant that the Norwegian elite spoke and wrote in Danish (albeit with a Norwegian accent), while the lower classes, or the other 95% of the population, communicated in dialects that had sprung up under Danish rule.

However, this all changed when in 1814 Norway was given to Sweden. Part of the agreement stated that Norway would only enter the union as an equal partner. In other words, Sweden and Norway would be two equal and independent countries ruled by one king. This newfound independence ended up having a huge impact on the language because the Norwegians had to decide if they were going to:

  1. Stick with Danish
  2. Create a written language based on Norwegian dialects
  3. Create a more Norwegian version of Danish

While the first option was rejected, the other two were put in motion.

The second option was undertaken by Ivar Aasen, a linguist and poet. After studying different dialects in the western and central parts of southern Norway, he developed what later came to be known as Nynorsk, or “New Norwegian.” It later included dialects from Eastern Norway, but to this day has never gained much popularity with Norwegians. Only about 10-15% of the population uses Nynorsk. In fact, Nynorsk is one of the required classes that my students constantly complain about.

Bokmål, on the other hand, was the answer to the third option. It was developed by Knud Knudsen, and although it originally corresponded to the informal language used by the upper classes, it later came to include the language of the lower classes. Today approximately 85–90% of Norwegians write in Bokmål.

As you can see from the numbers, most people use Bokmål in their writing. I’ve been told that using Bokmål tends to show an affinity for urban culture, while using Nynorsk tends to display conservative and nationalistic tendencies. In order to keep things somewhat balanced and to protect Nynorsk, the government has passed laws requiring the use of Nynorsk. For example, 25% of national broadcasting has to be done in Nynorsk.

As for spoken Norwegian, due to the way the written languages were created, each dialect will either relate to Nynorsk or Bokmål. Because dialect is the spoken language, there is no standard spoken Norwegian per se, although foreigners tend to be taught spoken Bokmål, which is close to the Oslo accent. To give you an idea of how accent is (still) debated in Norway, one of my co-teachers told me that back in the day there were riots over how to properly pronounce the name of my city, Trondheim, and that people will still occasionally squabble over it now. My students have even quibbled with their teachers about writing in Bokmål instead of in dialect (in other words the students want the teacher to write out how the Trondheim dialect sounds).* Alix was even told off by some of her colleagues when she said she was trying to learn Norwegian pronunciation by listening to the way the bus stops are pronounced on the automated bus system–apparently the voice over for the public transportation system has an Oslo accent, something that caused an uproar in Trondheim when it was first implemented.

But it’s not all about accent. Each dialect tends to have something unique about it, whether it is certain turns of phrase or even the number of swear words used (I’m told that Northern Norwegians have a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush). As you can see, it all gets a bit complicated quite quickly. And although I didn’t manage to master Norwegian in my brief time here, I have to admit that I appreciate the depth of thought that Norwegians have devoted to language.

*Students are taught in either Bokmål or Nynorsk in primary school and are then taught the other language in secondary school.

Quirky Norwegian Things

I’ve had a number of draft posts sitting around that never quite seemed to make it onto my blog, but, as it’s time for me to start wrapping up my scribblings on Norway, I thought I’d give these drafts some body and talk about some of the quirky Norwegian things I’ve noticed here in list form.

  1. Overall, I would say that Americans tend to fall into the action based go-getter category. Norwegians on the other hand tend to be a bit more passive and like to avoid conflict. In my experience, this has led to a few interesting interactions. Sometimes my assertiveness can lead to things happening, while at other times it seems to cause people to shut down.
  2. Norwegians tend to be a bit anti-social. In fact, many of my students have said that when they go to the States they are considered rude. It’s not uncommon for people to avoid eye contact on public transportation, resist striking up conversations with strangers, and sometimes just go out of their way to avoid people. One Norwegian told me that she’s perfectly happy to hop into a nearby store if it means avoiding saying hi to someone.
  3. Norwegians have a large amount of respect for personal space. A bus in Trondheim is apparently considered crowded if you have to sit next to someone. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to stand on the bus in order to avoid sitting next to someone.
  4. Norwegians tend to avoid being very expressive unless drunk. This tends to lead to interesting situations, especially around drunken social events like julebord, or Christmas parties. One Fulbrighter mentioned getting a guide on how to deal with the aftermath of a drunken julebord party, including what to do in the event that you hit on your boss.
  5. Norwegians are shockingly law abiding and have a large amount of common sense. In the middle of winter, people would light streets with candles (since street lamps are somewhat uncommon), and as far as I could tell this harmed neither people nor candles–if this were to happen in the States I would predict fiery madness.
  6. If you ever go to dinner with Norwegians, you might hear the phrase “Norwegian elbows.” In Norway, there is no need to ask someone to pass a dish–just grab it!
  7. Taco Friday is a tradition in Norway, where the “Mexican” food in the supermarket is discounted on Fridays.
  8. Alcohol is expensive in Norway, so home brewing is pretty popular, as is raiding duty free whenever flying in from abroad, and buying alcohol in Sweden.
  9. Norwegians tend to have what I like to call the Norwegian sigh. They will do something that’s  somewhere between a sharp intake of breath and a sigh. If you encounter it, don’t worry it’s not an asthma attack, just a sign of agreement.
  10. Smoking! Most Europeans seem to smoke like chimneys, but this is generally not the case in Norway. Snus, powdered and packaged tobacco, is preferred. That’s not to say that smoking doesn’t happen in Norway, it’s just that it’s not very common. This makes sense considering how cold it is for most of the year. In fact, on Svalbard the smokers apparently have a smoking bus, an old bus where people go to smoke since no one wants to smoke in negative degree weather.
  11. Once winter starts to approach, Norwegians become obsessed with candles. Lighting candles is important to create a sort of cozy feeling, referred to as koselig, and I would also argue that it actually helps you get through the winter months.
  12. In Norway there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing
  13. Tanning salons are incredibly popular here
  14. Cod liver oil is considered nothing short of the fountain of youth. It’s a medical cure all.
  15. Norwegian roads seem to be constantly undergoing construction. While I found this a bit silly in August, when perfectly good roads seemed to be constantly being repaved, this now makes much more sense in June, when a number of the roads have pretty significant potholes in them from winter.
  16. Although there are debates as to how fit Norwegians are, on the surface Norwegians seem to be incredibly active. People LOVE cross country skiing in winter and constantly seem to be moving year round. I kid you not, I once saw an elderly man on his bike going faster than the bus that I was riding on (and no the buses here aren’t slow).
  17. Many people dress and style themselves similarly. Most of my students seem to have the same closets (granted there isn’t as much diversity in clothing as there is in the States), and they all seem to have the same two or three hairstyles.
  18. Sunday is the day when everything shuts down. It’s a day set aside so that people can spend time bonding with their families, with the most popular bonding activities being hiking and skiing.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve noticed, but if you’d like to learn a bit more about Norwegian culture, I’d recommend The Social Guidebook to Norway, a book that I recently discovered filled with fun and accurate comics on life in Norway.

Trip to Tromsø

For those of you who are wondering, the ø in Tromsø means that it’s pronounced more like Tromsa than Tromso. While Tromsø is not as far North as Svalbard, Tromsø is Norway’s northernmost town and boasts a population of roughly 70,000. It’s the biggest town in Northern Norway (and I believe the only place in Northern Norway that can technically claim the title of town) and, to my surprise, is pretty much shut off from the rest of Norway. The train system in Norway doesn’t go much further than Bodø, where Alix and I went for part of our trip to the Lofoten Islands. As far as I can tell, the only really ways in which Northern Norway is connected to the rest of the country is by car, boat, specifically the Hurtigruten ferry, and by plane.

I’ve been interested in visiting Tromsø for a while but I decided to plan my trip in early February so that I would be able to attend Tromsø’s Sami Week. The Sami are the indigenous people in Northern Scandinavia, specifically Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula (part of Russia). To make matters more complicated, there are different kinds of Sami, and they have different rights and living situations depending on where they live. In Norway, the Sami are well known as reindeer herders and to this day reindeer are an essential part of their culture. Sami have a much stronger presence in Northern Norway than they do in Southern Norway and they even have their own capital, Karasjok, and parliament in Northern Norway. That is not to say that everything is rainbows and butterflies. The Sami have historically experienced a good amount of discrimination in Norway, and this discrimination continues to the present day. According to recent a survey, the Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians (United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe). Other obstacles the Sami face include the loss of their native languages and issues surrounding land rights.

Tromsø’s Sami Week coincides with Sami People’s Day, or the Sami national day, on February 6th. This date marks the meeting of the first Sami Congress in 1917 in Trondheim. Why Sami Week is not so well celebrated in Trondheim or even in Trondheim remains a mystery to me. Anyways, Sami People’s Day has grown into a week long celebration in Tromsø and consists of things such as a lasso throwing competition, winter market, cultural events, and reindeer races. Yes, reindeer races are a real thing. In fact, the races were the main reason I was in Tromsø.

Lucky for me, flights from Trondheim to Tromsø are pretty short and easy to catch. My hope was that I’d be able to see the northern lights in my time above the clouds, but unfortunately the sun was up for the duration of my flight. Once we descended however it was a completely different story. I was greeted with snow.

Thankfully the Fulbrighter that I was staying with, Kari, gave me very detailed instructions on how to get to her place, and it didn’t take me too long to find the correct bus into Tromsø. Once I arrived, I was pretty happy to settle in for the night and to curl up with my chosen post-Svalbard reading: The Golden Compass. I’m proud to say that I got unreasonably excited over the Svalbard sections of the book and of  my ability to identify terms such as sysselmann, or governor.

The Bacon Bus: Or Grocery Shopping in Sweden

Like I mentioned, grocery shopping in Norway can be a bit pricey, especially when it comes to meat and alcohol. The solution to this? Go to Sweden!*

Trondheim is conveniently located close to the Swedish border and there is a free bus that runs from Trondheim to Storlien. Just to give you an idea of how much traffic this place must receive from Norway, the bus is free and the shopping center seems like it’s the heart of the town (though calling it a town might be a bit of a stretch).

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As you can see, Storlien is literally as close as you can get to the Norwegian-Swedish border.

The bus is quaintly nicknamed the fleskbussen or “bacon bus” because many of the people take the bus to buy cheap bacon. When I took the bus I used the Thorleifs Bussreiser system and called ahead (+47 72 55 33 94) to make a reservation on the bus.

Getting there takes about an hour and a half, and the bus leaves you about an hour to shop before returning to Trondheim.

As for prices, two kilos of boneless chicken costs around 120 NOK and beer is cheaper at about 70 NOK/six pack (and thankfully the stores accept Norwegian kroner). Other forms of alcohol are also cheaper, but for alcohol over 3.5% you have to order in advance, usually at least two days before your trip. In order to do this you have to go to the systembolaget website, select the appropriate shop (in this case Åre), select your desired alcohol, and checkout. An email with a confirmation code will be sent to you and you have to present this code at the store in order to pick up your purchases.

Funnily enough, it’s not just broke college students who try and take advantage of the cheap alcohol and meat in Sweden. About half of my bus was filled with non-college students, and the elderly man sitting in front of me actually asked if I would pretend to own half of his alcohol in the event that we were stopped by customs. To my surprise, there were no customs or passport control at the Swedish border, and as far as I could tell it seems like you can cross the Norwegian-Swedish border without having to do anything special.

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*I’ve even heard of people flying to Poland to go grocery shopping since the total cost is still less than it would be in Norway, but I have not reached those levels of desperation.