Before visiting Norway, I decided to learn some Norwegian. I was already deaf in English, German and Spanish and thought it would be nice to be deaf in a fourth language. Actually, it is always nice to be able to say please, thank you and where’s the bathroom in the local language [Alie says there are some things you would rather not act out].
So I purchased a phrase book, borrowed some CDs and set to work. Many Norwegian words are similar to English and German. It was annoying, however, that the pronunciations in the phrase book didn’t seem to jive with those on the CDs.
I persisted and arrived in Bergen armed with the imagined ability to have a short conversation, count and order in a restaurant — but it was just an imagined ability.
Most Norwegians seemed to speak English, but I persisted. They didn’t understand me, and some of their words didn’t sound at all like what I learned despite the context.
A clerk at the Rosenkrantz Tower straightened me out. There is no Norwegian language. There is simply a collection of dialects. They have no “official” language. There is a formal written language and a “train station” dialect used mostly by officialdom. The dialect used by residents in Oslo is dominant simply because Oslo has the most people.
It is all a matter of geography. Norway has about five million people scattered over a narrow country around 1100 miles long. Steep mountains and narrow fjords kept Norwegian villages and towns isolated.
Vikings unified the country but even then there were no national armies. Viking raiders usually came from the same village, not from a “country.”
The country became Christian in the 11th century but geography did not change. Only merchants and traders had much need to talk to other communities.
Then in the 14th Century, the Black Plague killed from half to two-thirds of the people leaving the rest isolated and for the most part illiterate.
The nation was united with Sweden and Denmark in 1397. Danish was the official language. Sweden became independent in 1523. In 1814, Norway was ceded to Sweden, and some feared Swedish would be the new official language. Norway declared its independence. But during all those centuries, Danish remained the language of the elite, the language of intellectuals.
Throughout the 19th century, various groups pressed for a national language. Bokmål [“book language”] was developed as the written language and officially recognized in 1907. Some Norwegians, not content with one written language, created Nynorsk [“new Norwegian”] and others developed Riksmål [“national language”].
Generally there are said to be four main dialects: north, central, western, and eastern, but inland and southern are often thrown in to make six. In reality, little villages often have their own way of speaking separate from others.
The same word may have long “a” sound in Oslo and an “eye” sound in Bergen. “Street” in Bergen is “gatta” and “gate” in Trondheim.
The geographic isolation became clearer as we cruised north. We stopped in Hellesylt [Norse for “Holy Swamp.”] with a population of 260. Then we went on to Geiranger, Norway’s 2nd most active cruise port with 160 ships visiting a year. The permanent population of Geiranger is 250. The 108 mile long road from Geiranger to Aalesund was not open in winters until 1954.
From Geiranger we took the “Eagles Road” climbing 2000 feet over 11 hairpin turns to Eidshal, Norddal and Herdal to see the 300 year-old Herdal Summer Farm. The surrounding mountains were between five thousand and six thousand feet high. The total population of all four towns barely breaks 1000.
Norwegians can usually understand each other, but speaking the language is a challenge for a traveler just stopping at different places for a short stay. With small villages and roads that are few, difficult or non-existent: the Norwegian language is all a matter of geography.
Click on photos to enlarge.
P.S. The word ski comes from a Norwegian word for a piece of wood. But the Norwegians don’t ski; they either “walk on skis” – cross country skiing or “stand on skis” – Alpine skiing.