How to differentiate between Norsk dialects
For a small country with a small population, Norway harbors a befuddling wealth of dialects—learn to tell them apart by asking them about their woolen socks
When you start learning Norwegian, everything looks nice and simple. With five million inhabitants in this country, you think, it can’t be that hard. You’ll learn the one language here and be fine. Okay, two languages actually, with Nynorsk. Wait, three with the Sámi language (actually there are many Sámi languages but they use one in official matters such as NAV).
Why are there more dialects than people in Norway?
It seems like there are more dialects in Norway than there are people. And when you are absolutely sure you can recognize a dialect from Sørlandet, you’re like, “Hey, you are from Sørlandet, right?” super proud of yourself, maybe trying a “from Kristiansand, right?” And then they will look at you like you are some kind of godfjott and tell you: “No, I come from Lillesand, a town almost 30 km away from Kristiansand. Nothing to do with Kristiansand dialect actually; we have our own particular dialect.”
And then the guy starts explaining to you why his dialect is so special. “You see, in Kristiansand they use this word, while we don’t. And they say their “r” like this but we say it a bit different.” “Oh really? Så spennende” is what I usually say, when what I really want to say is that where I come from, 2,000 km from here, the valley separating his hometown from the biggest city looks like peanuts on the map. I come from Marseille and most Norwegians don’t even differentiate that from Nice, which is more than 300 km away… Plus how long would it take me to recognize every single dialect from every village? Even Norwegians can’t do that!
Why do more than two persons living in every single valley, every single piece of fjord, every piece of land surrounded by water in Norway believe they have their own very specific way of speaking? Believe it or not, they actually do: before immigration and roads and oil and stuff, Norwegians had more interaction with sheep and goats than with other Norwegians (and that is why it is called a hyrdestund).
So accept and embrace Norway’s language diversity, and try as best you can to recognize every dialect. In order to recognize a Norwegian dialect, you need to follow these three simple steps:
1) Make sure it is not Swedish
This might appear completely off topic for a Norwegian, but for a foreigner Swedish actually sounds like a funny way of speaking Norwegian.
My technique in the beginning was to assume anyone with a dialect I’d never heard before is a Swede. I tell you honestly: it’s a very bad strategy. Because if there is something a Norwegian hates more than telling you he is from that valley over there and not from the closest big city, it is explaining he is not from Sweden.
Anyway, to recognize a Swede is easy; you wait for the “kj” sounds. They always take it from the throat whereas Norwegians don’t.
They also have another melody to their language, which is hard to explain here. And they have words such as smästua instead of hytte. But of course for a foreigner it all sounds the same. In a written form, it is easy to recognize: if you see ä and ö everywhere instead of å and ø, it is Swedish. If you see ø and å in the written form but all you hear is dlødludøo, then it’s Danish. (And if you confuse Danish and Norwegian when spoken you have a serious hearing problem.)
2) Figure out which big area the dialect is from
Once you’re sure it’s not Swedish, identify which part of Norway this person is coming from. There are big areas in Norway, with overarching dialects. After five years in Norway I can recognize only three of them: Østlandet, Vestlandet, and northern Norway. And a little bit of Trøndelag.
Østlandet? People from Østlandet and especially from Oslo have this habit of thinking that they speak “normal” or universal Norwegian and that the rest of Norway has a dialect. This is not true: as much as they write Bokmål, people from different parts of Østlandet and even from Oslo use different words and pronounce things differently from each other. For example, I am starting to hear differences between the people living east and west of Akerselva, the river splitting Oslo in two. Those in the east say Majorstua while the westerners say Majorstuen. Also those in the east of Oslo say skav instead of skog. And they drive less expensive cars. And they don’t have summer houses in Barbados and winter hytter in Chamonix.
Østlandet dialect has very open vowels and they speak quite fast. Most foreigners understand this dialect best because it is the one we learn at norskkurs. It is a bit plain, though; if you want some exciting expressions and interesting language habits, you’ll have to switch to another dialect.
Vestlandet? In Vestlandet people really had no contact with each other as they were each on their little island. There is a new dialect virtually every 20 km in Vestlandet.
In Bergen their “r” is like a French “r,” quite sharp in the throat instead of rolling like in Østlandet. Ålesund dialect has a lot of “k”s everywhere, as is proved by the sentence “Hakke dokke nokke dokke da?1” People in Vestlandet usually write in Nynorsk, which means that ikke becomes ikkje and noen becomes nokon. My favorite expression to date is bonete, which means harry2.
My problem is with the Stavanger dialect. First of all I find it very difficult to understand. The first time I heard a guy speak Stavanger dialect, I asked him where in Sweden he was from. He was not happy about that question, especially because people from Stavanger think they come from a very important place. Sure, the oil gets in from there, but keep it jantelovesque: stay humble.
Then it seems like no one is able to say which region Stavanger is located in. Is it Vestlandet? Is it Sørlandet? To a northern Norwegian all of these guys are Sørenga; to an Oslo inhabitant all of this is just the West of Norway. So they came up with Vestsørlandet. No sorry, Sørvestlandet.
Northern Norway? Northern Norwegians have a completely different melody to the way they speak. Also, most “hv” sounds become “k” so hva becomes ka, hvordan becomes kordan (or korsan), and hvorfor becomes korfor. They don’t say hun but ho, and they say helvete3 a lot. They don’t say full (drunk) but maurings, and a regular sentence, such as “Katti ælta æ sloget på vidda,4” can be impossible to understand even for other Norwegians.
When in doubt, start swearing. If it is a northern Norwegian listening to you, they will either smile or not even notice, because that is part of the regular vocabulary in northern Norwegian dialects (compared to the more puritan Sørlandet culture I’ve heard).
Note that dialects have not always been a topic of light discussions. Until the 1970s, those with a northern Norwegian dialect were discriminated against in Oslo because they were seen as dirty and unreliable. They could not find rooms to rent or jobs in Oslo, where ads were writing “Nordlendinger uønsket.” The discrimination against northern Norwegians stopped when others took on the role of unwanted strangers with a funny way of speaking: Pakistanis.
Trøndelag? People from Trøndelag don’t say dere or even dokker like northern Norwegians; they say dokk. They don’t say vann but vatten. When they say they are ready (klar) they actually mean they are tired. And they have crazy words like huggutullinj, which means you feel dizzy (svimmel), but that might just be in my friend’s little town of Haltdalen.
They have many expressions such as “Må itj fårrå nåles” (du må ta det med ro og ikke gjøre noe uoverveid5). All in all Trøndersk dialect requires subtitles.
3) Recognize every single dialect from each other using the woolen socks strategy
Once you know which overarching region the dialect is from, you need to figure out which little community with its own dialect this person comes from.
In order to do so, ask him or her how to say “woolen socks.” Woolen socks is something that every single Norwegian community had to think of naming, without the influence of other peoples’ language or dialect. You’ll get answers as far away as høssulæst, ullsokker (Oslo), hjemmestrikka læstra (Nord Norge), tjukksåkka, tjokke labba, labba, oillugg, oillsokk (Trøndelag), føslo (Valdres), uillhussu, raggsokker, lodder (Rogaland), ryfylket (Hjelmeland), uilsåkkan (Troms fylke), tjokkelæsta (Sunnmør), uillhussu, raggår, tjukkeragga, raggsokker (Lørenskog). I don’t have all the references here, but I am betting there are around 100 different ways of saying woolen socks in Norway.
You can of course also ask directly where the person comes from, but where’s the fun in that? Your second question needs to be “How do you say ‘woolen socks’ in your dialect?” so you can send me the answer.
This is by no means an exhaustive article. For tips to recognize other dialects, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until I’ve gotten better at this. I did my best to convey what I know about Norwegian dialects, which is not much. A complete overview would require maybe a PhD in Linguistics, which I encourage you to write (but I am sure someone else has thought of this before).
1) The Bokmål version of that is apparently “Har dere ikke noe dere da?” meaning “Don’t you have anything?” ed.
2) Cheap, tacky, ed.
4) This sentence from Alta dialect means: Når la igjen hun mindre attraktive jenten på ødemarka på toppen av fjellet (Once again, she left her less attractive girl on the deserted land at the top of the mountain, ed.). Alta men are obviously men of few words!
5) You have to take it easy and do not overlook anything
Lorelou Desjardins is The Frog in the Fjord: a French lady who lived in Denmark for a bit before moving to Norway for good. Her blog, afroginthefjord.com, is about the realities foreigners face. Her book, En frosk i fjorden—Kunsten å bli norsk, was published in Norway in 2017. She works as a freelance writer and holds lectures on inter-cultural issues and her experience of Norwegian culture. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article also appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.