Learning the basics of the Norwegian language

Norge (Norway) is a truly idyllic, fairy-tale like land. It brings to mind vast fjords, tall forests and fields of green that are regularly swallowed by heavy blankets of white snow.

Norwegians live quite sparsely compared to the urban cities you may be used to. You might find their typically wooden houses to be charmingly reminiscent of an enchanting little scene in a snow-globe. But there is more to Norway than Vikings, snow, and trolls.

The Norwegian people are as mysterious as their country, boasting a rather reserved and humble culture. It is not unusual to feel a frosty chill when attempting social interactions with Norwegians, but don’t be fooled - it is neither the climate nor that they dislike you. Don’t misunderstand their hesitance, Norwegians simply like structured interaction.

Where I come from, it wouldn’t be considered at all unusual to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus, but in Norway you might receive some odd looks if you say “hei” to anyone and everyone you see.

So you might be wondering to yourself, how on earth do you start on your journey toward speaking Norwegian, forging Norwegian friendships or perhaps starting a life in Norway. Well, it isn’t as simple as just deciding to learn the language.

Bokmål Norwegian vs. Nynorsk Norwegian

You first need to understand that due to its origins and developments, the Norwegian language is one with many dialects and two official variations. A good starting point is knowing which of the two you intend to learn.

This should be a simple decision, because around 80-90% of the Norwegian population use the variation known as bokmål, which translates to ‘book tongue’. This is the Norwegian-isation of Danish. Nynorsk on the other hand, which translates to ‘new Norwegian’, was the result of compiling a dictionary of Norwegian and its many dialects.

Nynorsk is used to a much lesser extent but both are taught in Norwegian schools. Those intending to learn Norwegian should absolutely stick to Bokmål, but be aware that Nynorsk exists.

In the course of learning the language, if you come across Norwegian that has widely different spelling from the rest of your learning materials, don’t panic! It may just be Nynorsk. Similarly, if you’re suddenly having a hard time understanding spoken Norwegian (or even knowing whether it’s the same language at all!), it could be one of the many dialects.

Norwegian alphabet pronunciation

With that out of the way, how does one begin to learn Bokmål Norwegian? Let me take you back to your childhood, how did you begin with your own language? That’s right – your ABC’s. Now prepare for your ÆØÅ’s.

Yes, with these additional vowels, the Norwegian alphabet totals 29 letters (26+3). To those unfamiliar with these symbols, you could be completely lost as to how to pronounce them. I assure you, they’re very easy and well within your capabilities.

To pronounce the letter æ, imagine the sound you would make if you saw a spooky ghost: ‘AAH!’ It is also like the ‘baa’ sound that sheep make. Now you know how to pronounce the Norwegian æ.

The pronunciation of the letter ø resembles the sound you would make if you stepped barefoot on a slug: That sound of disgust, the way you would pronounce the ‘u’ in ‘burn’ or ‘hurt’, this is precisely how one would go about pronouncing the letter ø.

Finally, we come to the letter å. Here is a more pleasant visualization: imagine the sound you would make if you saw a basket of kittens and puppies. Yes, they are very cute, so you would utter at least a small ‘aww’ sound. That is how you would pronounce the letter å. The same way you would when talking about those sweet little kitten and puppy feet – ‘paw’.

It is important that you familiarise yourself with these sounds, because an incorrect vowel often changes the meaning of a word. For example, ‘bær’ is the Norwegian word for ‘berry’, whilst ‘bør’ means ‘should’ and ‘bår’ means ‘stretcher’ (the medical kind).

Try practicing with this long but fun word – blåbærsyltetøy. It uses all 3 of the special Norwegian vowels:

Blå – bær – sylte – tøy

Phonetically: bl-aww baahr silt-eh t-uhy

That lovely combination of weird sounds you just made translates to ‘blueberry jam’. See? You’re making your first steps toward Norwegian already. Excited?

Useful Norwegian phrases

Now that you sound Norwegian, it is time to expand your vocabulary with useful phrases to unleash on unsuspecting Nords. They aren’t social butterflies, so it’s unlikely that you’ll unexpectedly be engaging in deep, meaningful conversations about love, life and the universe. Basic beginner words and phrases will help you get by better than you might imagine.

Greetings are important because they will be the first step to friendship. You could learn time dependent greetings like good morning or good evening (god morgen/god kveld), but ‘hei’ covers all bases. Many Norwegians like to repeat their greetings twice to convey informality and friendliness –

Unless your name happens to be Hannah, just substitute your own name instead. Note that, literally ‘Jeg heter’ means ‘I am called…’.

Finally, don’t be surprised if they Norwegian-ise your name. They tend to do this with many names and English words, it makes it feel more natural to them. You eventually get used to this distortion of your name. It is likely that you will find yourself using it too.

As polite as we try to be, we sometimes make mistakes: we inconvenience someone, we step on their foot, or we let a burp slip at dinner. It is always hard to find the right words when apologising but saying ‘excuse me’ is a good start.

Dropping the personal pronoun and essentially only saying ‘excuse’ is extremely common, though both forms are acceptable. The usage of this phrase in Norwegian is quite versatile. It can be used to get someone’s attention like tapping them on the shoulder. It can also convey that you would like to squeeze past them, requesting that they physically excuse you. To some degree it can be used as a minor apology. It would not be the best phrase to use for a more major apology.

For those more serious situations, one should use the word ‘beklager’, which is more formal.

Neither of these words would typically be used when you have misheard someone, or not heard them at all. When asking them to repeat themselves, you would typically use a term that makes many English speakers uncomfortable:

If your parents always drilled good manners into you then this may come across as extremely rude. Rest assured; Norwegians do not interpret it that way, it is perfectly conventional to use this monosyllabic utterance.

Continuing with our monosyllabic essentials, I don’t think these words warrant much explanation. You may even find them familiar, as many of the Germanic languages use similar sounding words for affirmation and refutation.

So let’s set the scene. You walk into the bar and say ‘hei’ to the bartender, calling him over with a cheerful ‘unnskyld’. You try to ask for a beer but, oh no! Somehow you have found a member of the 10% of Norway that doesn’t speak English! “Hæ?” he responds. How do you tell him what you want?

It more accurately means “can I receive”, (In Norwegian, when asking for something, you don’t say “can I have”, because “can I receive” is more polite).

Alcohol is a great social lubricant all over the world, but particularly in places like Norway. They have a much tighter control on alcohol than much of the western world, so it is harder to purchase. Its sale is restricted to certain stores and certain times of the day. More exciting beverages (over 4.75%) can only be purchased in a special government-owned retailer called ‘Vinmonopolet’. Norway isn’t a holiday destination for cheap booze.

So how expensive are we talking? Prices are often not listed in bars the way they are in grocery stores or coffee shops, so unless money is no object, you’d better call the bartender over and check!

Wow, all that interesting information and alcohol sure works your brain and liver. Better freshen up and find the bathroom, but how would you do that? Toilet signs may be universal, but not always very visible, so here is a useful phrase:

After all that help getting drinks and needing the bathroom, be sure to flex those gratitude muscles and thank those helpful strangers!

Norwegians are unendingly polite and so they love to thank people wherever possible. They have specific phrases to express gratitude for specific things. The default ‘thank you’ is quite charming when you learn that ‘tusen’ is actually the word for ‘thousand’; they are thanking you a thousand times over. If that seems a little excessive, you can do as most Norwegians do and just say ‘thanks’ instead – ‘takk’.

With your thirst quenched, your bladder empty and your spirits high, you should say goodbye to your new friends before you leave. The two most common ways are used slightly differently: one to wish someone well and the other when you know you will meet this person again.

With the first phrase here, a more literal translation is ‘have it good’. It’s very common for people to drop the end word and simply say ‘ha det’, so when saying goodbye, you are telling people to ‘have it’. Have what, you may ask – Well they are telling you to have it good in general, that they hope life goes well for you.

The second phrase would only be used with people you expect to see again soon, as can be inferred from the idea of seeing them ‘later’. The phrase literally means ‘we see!’, because rather than telling them you will be seeing them, you will really be seeing each other. Cute.

Practical Norwegian phrases

For complete beginners, you may want to prepare a few phrases in advance to help you find English speakers to come to your rescue:

Most Norwegians speak English because they are taught it in school and consume a lot of English media. In fact, one of the bigger hurdles you may face is actually getting Norwegians to speak Norwegian with you! Norwegians speak English very confidently, so they are likely to speak it unless you specifically ask them to use Norwegian.

You may want to request that they speak Norwegian with you, inform them that you are learning, or simply assure them that you understand. The following phrases should come in handy:

The Norwegian expression for please is used surprisingly little, so you can leave out the ending. They won’t find you any less polite, just less formal.

The adverb ‘ikke’, the Norwegian version of not/don’t, is placed after the verb it describes instead of before it. Rather than saying “I don’t understand”, they are quite literally saying “I understand don’t”.

Norway is a very peaceful place, ranked 5th happiest country in 2020 and among the top 10 safest countries in the world. But this doesn’t mean accidents can’t happen. If you are in an emergency situation in Norway, here are some helpful phrases:

Norwegian Social phrases

The modern Oslo opera

Here are some phrases you can use in social contexts to get the ball rolling:

This is the way you would ask how someone is, but it literally translates to ‘how goes it?’

You rarely hear this entire phrase unless it is a more formal setting like a job interview. Instead, Norwegians opt for the informal short-hand ‘hyggelig’.

There is one absolutely essential social phrase that it is imperative you learn:

All joking aside, you’d be surprised how often this phrase comes in handy. Norwegians prefer small-talk to unplanned and unwarranted social interactions. Running into friends unexpectedly at a grocery store is a pleasant surprise, but one that should be dealt with quickly. The weather is a reliable and easy topic, especially since it can vary so wildly in Norway. You can also substitute the adjective ‘nice’ with bad, warm, cold, or any number of alternatives as your vocabulary expands.

Dårlig – bad Varm – warm Kald - cold

If the weather happens to be very bad, or you feel general exasperation and dissatisfaction, Norway has the perfect expression:

Uff da!

You would use this phrase after receiving bad news, having to do something difficult or after something bad has happened to you. It has no real English equivalent, it’s just an exclamation. Imagine you drop a piece of bread on the floor and it lands butter side down. Uff da! You walk outside with the sun shining, walk a few steps and it begins to rain. Uff da! It feels good to use, try it out!

On the subject of weather, here is a saying that Norwegians enjoy:

This light-hearted saying always elicits a smile, whether it is their first time hearing it or their hundredth. Showing appreciation for Norwegian culture and using these common sayings is always greeted with positivity. Norwegians tend to have a shy sort of patriotism about them, but they are also culturally humble and reluctant to boast. They love foreigners taking an interest and expressing a mutual love for the country.

Subjects like the weather usually act as a springboard to allow for easy follow-up conversation subjects. They might mention how it affected their plans. This tosses the ball back into your court, providing you with a convenient topic to ask about next - what do they have planned? They volunteered the subject of their plans, so nothing is random and no personal information pried into.

Learning the basics of the Norwegian language for dating and romance

In this day and age, dating someone from a different country is not the impossibility it once was. More than ever, people are learning a second language to help their long-distance relationships, or just to seem more smart and appealing on dates. The following phrases should be a helpful step towards Scandinavian seduction:

Norway doesn’t have terms for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’. Instead they have a gender neutral term for a partner that literally translates to ‘dearest’.

Both of the above terms mean I love you, but they are used in very different ways. The first is used more often, with friends, parents, partners, and pets. It is the less passionate of the two and can be used more freely. ‘Glad’ means ‘happy’, so it is more akin to saying ‘I am happy you exist’.

The second is something reserved for serious expressions of love, the kind you would use when marrying someone. Moving from the first kind of love to the second is a big step! Strangely though, when talking about your favourite book, colour or ice-cream flavour, you can use either! I guess it just depends how passionate you are about buttered pecan.

These are words you should know if you were hoping to request physical acts of love. Public displays of affection should be kept to a minimum, as it is in quite poor taste to shove your tongue down someone else’s throat in front of other Norwegian people. In spite of that, they have a very liberal culture surrounding sex and hooking-up - context is important, and consent is key. ‘Klem’ also means to squeeze in Norwegian, since hugging someone is a lot like a giving them a friendly squeeze.

Here are some complimentary words you can use to describe anyone (or anything) you find visually appealing. When using them to refer to people, they clearly express physical attraction. As you might expect, ‘kjekk’ is generally reserved for talking about men, whilst ‘pen’ and ‘vakker’ are more often used for describing women.

In Norwegian, ‘å gifte’ means ‘to marry’. It is important to remember that even though this word is identical to the English word for present, the ‘G’ is pronounced more like ‘Y’. Funnily enough, this is the same word for ‘poison’ in Norwegian, so many jokes are made about this play on words.

We already covered how to request something earlier, but if you don’t want to lose touch with someone then it’s important you get those digits! If instead you would like to find them on social media, you can substitute ‘telefonnummeret’ for the name of the platform you have in mind. Since it is a name, it will be the same in Norwegian but with the pronunciation slightly Norwegian-ised.

Social struggles

I’ve mentioned many times now, how hesitant Norwegians can be when it comes to social interaction. This isn’t a universal rule of course, you are sure to find some who are more eager and outgoing. However, it is largely a cultural norm for social interactions to be more structured. Usually there is no social interaction to be had on the bus, in an elevator, or waiting in line at the coffee shop.

They like to have a reason to talk to you which helps them break the ice - a framework in which the both of you exist, so that they can approach you. Usually this is a club or sport of some sort, a workplace or a place of worship. They need staging areas and activities for purposeful communication. With situations like these they are free from wondering if they are bothering you or whether you share a common interest. It’s hard and it takes time. As the Norwegians say:

It can be difficult to progress from acquaintance to friend. It takes time and confidence, so celebrate your successes. Raise a glass with your Norwegian friends! Show them that you appreciate them, drink to your comradery, declare your joy with a hearty ‘Skål!’

You can use our free web application to record your own Norwegian phrases.