Snakker du svorsk?

Can Swedes and Norwegians understand each other?

Norwegian/Swedish border

Photo: Heiko Junge/NTB
Many Norwegians and Swedes communicate with each other in the hybird language called svorsk.

The Norwegian American

With the recent airing of the PBS mini-series Atlantic Crossing, there’s been a lot of buzz around the linguistic talents of Swedish lead actress Sofia Helin, who spent over a year learning Norwegian for the role of Crown Princess Märtha. The result was, of course, perfection, since the crown princess really was born in Sweden and would have spoken Norwegian with some Swedish inflection. 

But for many of us, the transition between Norwegian and Swedish or vice versa does not always come so easily. Yes, the two languages are mutually intelligible, and Swedes and Norwegians can navigate through each other’s countries, with varying degrees of difficulty, depending on the regional dialects. Both languages have a common ancestry in Old Norse, and over the centuries there has been much commerce and cultural exchange. Some would even go so far as to call the languages dialects of each other.

But perhaps the languages are too close, and it is easy to get confused and lapse into a mixing of the two languages. Alas, not many can truly master the Norwegian-Swedish linguistic transition—not even native speakers—and they find it easier to speak the curious language svorsk. I should know, for I speak it myself.

Yes, it is no secret, I came to my Norwegian language skills through a Swedish back door, when I spent a year studying in Sweden as a young girl. I love the two countries and have ties to both, but I had to choose. My choice then was to study music with a Norwegian music teacher outside of Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden. She kept me on my Norwegian toes, as I sang my way through Edvard Grieg, and in the end, I think she, too, was speaking a variety of svorsk with me. We had a great rapport, became the greatest of friends, and understood each other very well!

A few academic degrees later, many hours of reading and practice, and lots of traveling across the border between Norway and Sweden, I’ve more or less gotten things down, but svorsk speakers beware—there are plenty of false friends between the Norwegian and Swedish languages.

Here are some of the most common: 

Norwegian word:
anledning (time/opportunity)
bløt (soft)
enkelthet (detail)
forstørre (make larger)
le (laugh)
prov (proof)
rolig (calm)
rommet (outer space)
snor (string, lace)
straks (immediately)
utsette (to postpone, delay)
uvillkorlig (involuntarily)
vaske (to wash)

Looks/sounds like Swedish word:
anledning (reason)
blöt (wet)
enkelhet (simplicity)
förstöra (destroy)
le (smile)
prov (test, exam)
rolig (fun, funny)
rummet (the room)
snor (snot)
strax (soon)
utsätta (expose to, subject to)
ovillkorlig (unconditional)
väska (bag)

This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.