Norwegian and German: How similar are these languages?

People who are interested in learning new languages often wonder if Norwegian is like German. That is a legitimate question given that Norwegian and German are both Germanic languages and hence have evolved from the same ancestor language.

There are many similar vocabulary words between Norwegian and German which we will explore in this article. In the instances where Norwegian vocabulary differs from German vocabulary, there are interesting linguistic patterns to notice.

German & Norwegian: similarities and differences in vocabulary

In order to develop an understanding of the differences between Norwegian and German it is useful to look at the vocabulary words which are similar between these two languages.

Some vocabulary words which are similar between German and Norwegian:
English German Norwegian
art Kunst kunst
vacation Ferien ferie
teacher Lehrer lærer
work Arbeit arbeid
dog Hund hund
cold kalt kald
freedom Freiheit frihet
important wichtig viktig
necessary notwendig nødvendig
famous berühmt berømt
war Krieg krig
peace Frieden fred
impossible unmöglich umulig
dangerous gefährlich farlig
careful vorsichtig forsiktig
flower Blume blomst
language Sprache Språk
rare selten sjelden

Often, where a Norwegian word has the letter ‘d’ the corresponding German word has the letter ‘t’ instead. For example:

It turns out that this is part of a more general linguistics phenomenon called the high German consonant shift.

About 15 centuries ago, the German language went through a series of changes in the way the consonants were pronounced. Many consonant sounds shifted to other consonant sounds, and the (d → t) shift is one of these.

This consonant shift happened only in German, and not in the other Germanic languages, leading to a divergence of German with respect to to the other Germanic languages (like Norwegian and English)

Below is a table of vocabulary words in Norwegian and German which illustrate this (d → t) consonant shift.

Some Norwegian and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (d→t) consonant shift :
English Norwegian German
cold kald kalt
day dag Tag
word ord wort
God Gud Gott
good god gut
door dør Tür
red d rot
rare sjelden selten
page side Seite
necessary dvendig notwendig
work arbeid Arbeit

Notice how the (d→t) consonant shift has affected only German vocabulary, while Norwegian and English have kept the original consonant.

Besides the (d→t) consonant shift, there are other consonant shifts which result in differences between Norwegian and German vocabulary words. For example the (p→f) and (k→ch) consonant shifts:

Some Norwegian and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (p→f) consonant shift :
English Norwegian German
help hjelp Hilfe
a ship skip Schiff
hope p Hoffnung
sharp skarp scharf
running ping laufen
to buy kjøpe kaufen
Some Norwegian and German vocabulary words which illustrate the (k→ch) consonant shift :
English Norwegian German
language språk Sprache
visit besøk Besuch
false falsk falsch
milk mjølk Milch
frog frosk Frosch
chess skk Schach

Some German-Norwegian vocabulary words which are very different

Here is a list of German and Norwegian vocabulary words which are significantly different:

Some German and Norwegian vocabulary words which are very different:
English German Norwegian
love Liebe kjærlighet
nice schön hyggelig
ugly hässlich stygg
money Geld penger
dark dunkel mørk
friend Freund venn
pants Hose bukser
spoon Löffel skje
expensive teuer dyrt
car Wagen bil
empty leer tømme
funny komisch morsom
woman Frau kvinne
potato Kartoffel potet
bicycle Fahrrad sykkel
poor arm fattige
jealousy Eifersucht sjalusi
newspaper Zeitung avis

This table serves to illustrate that there are differences in vocabulary between Norwegian and German which go beyond the consonant shifts discussed previously.

Many of the Norwegian words in this table come from Old Norse. For instance, the words «kjærlighet», «kvinne», «fattig» and «stygg» come from Old Norse.

The Norwegian word «sjalusi» comes from the French word "jalousie". Similarly the Norwegian word «avis» which is a loanword from French, but in French it means an opinion, or a notice.

German-Norwegian vocabulary "false friends"

In the context of language learning, the term “false friends” refers to pairs of vocabulary words which appear to be similar between two languages, but which have different meanings.

Here are some German-Norwegian vocabulary false friends:

German & Norwegian: other similarities and differences

Norwegian and German are similar in how these languages create compound nouns.

Compound nouns are nouns which are made by combining several words (for example “swimming pool”). While compound nouns are common in Germanic languages, there are some differences between how they are formed in different languages.

When it comes to constructing compound nouns, Norwegian and German are alike in that they typically put no spaces between the words which the compound noun.

For example:

In the English language, some compound nouns have spaces (like “swimming pool”) and some don’t (like “toothpaste”). German and Norwegian are languages where the absence of spaces is most common even when compounding many words.

A consequence of this is that longer words are more common in Norwegian and particularly in German than they are in English.

Verb conjugations in Norwegian vs. German

Verb conjugation is an aspect of language learning where Norwegian is easier than German.

In contrast to German in English, Norwegian verbs are not conjugated according to the subject pronoun.

For example, here are the conjugation tables for the verb "to be" in English, Norwegian and German:

In English:
I
am
you
are
he/she/it
is
we
are
you (pl.)
are
they
are
In Norwegian:
jeg
er
du
er
han/hun/det
er
vi
er
dere
er
de
er
In German:
ich
bin
du
bist
er/sie/es
is
wir
sind
ihr
seid
Sie
sind

Grammatical cases make learning German harder than learning Norwegian

The common ancestor of Germanic languages had a system where word endings would change to indicate the grammatical function of that word in the sentence. The linguistic term for this phenomenon is declension.

Declension is common in several languages of the Indo-European family (which is the parent family of the Germanic languages). For example Latin, Russian and Sanskrit are Indo-European languages in which grammatical cases are indicated using declension.

The use of declension to indicate grammatical cases, has been preserved in the German language, while it has mostly disappeared from Norwegian and English.

In languages like English, grammatical function is made clear through prepositions (like “in”, “to”, “of” .. ) and word order, instead of using declensions.

Because of this, the use of declensions for grammatical cases is not something that English speakers are very accustomed to. English speakers typically find that learning a language which doesn't use them (such as Norwegian) is easier than using a language which does (such as German).

Conclusion

Learning Norwegian is a good entry point to the Scandinavian languages. This is because Norwegian is probably the easiest Scandinavian language for English speakers to learn.

After acquiring a knowledge of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish become quite accessible, because Swedish is similar to Norwegian, and - although it is more difficult in terms of pronunciation - Danish is also very similar to Norwegian.

Although learning German is more difficult than learning Norwegian, there are some good reasons to learn German as well. The most obvious one being that German is the 2nd most spoken Germanic language (after English which is also a Germanic language).

As a West Germanic language, German is similar to Dutch. So someone who has learned German will have a much easier time learning Dutch.

PS: you can use our free language tool, VocabChat to record your own vocabulary and phrase lists.