Unique words let one experience a culture
How wonderful language is! It so enriches our knowledge of a culture, serving as a barometer of its nuances.
I have favorite words in a variety of languages. In Spanish pimiento (pepper) and in Greek spanakopita (spinach pie). These were chosen not for their meaning but for their melodic sounds and tripping rhythms.
And in Norwegian I love the expression koselig for its sweet tones, but even more for its wonderfully loaded meaning—to be cozy when sharing the warmth of friends or even when solo enjoying soft candles and warm fires. It is a feeling, a mood, an intangible, which makes this word all the more potent. And I do not think there is any other word in the entire Norwegian language that serves as a higher form of praise to a host. It means you’re the cat’s meow in that circumstance.
It is always wonderful to learn a new expression in a foreign language, especially when there is no equivalent in your own language. For instance, I recently came across the Norwegian word friluftsliv. I have to admit, it is a word I had never heard before.
According to a Vimeo documentary on the word and subject, it is defined as “an ancient Nordic philosophy of outdoor life. It is an ingrained philosophy in Norway and Sweden but relatively unknown to the rest of the world. This philosophy embodies the idea that returning to nature is returning home.”
Just to clarify, this concept is not limited to Scandinavia. The folks from Hurtigruten Voyages explain that there are similar ideas found in other cultures. “Japan has the concept of Shinrin-yoku, translated as ‘forest bathing’ … [and in] Hawaiian culture, the locals are called maka’ainana, or ‘people of the land.’”
Why all this verbiage about language, culture, and nature? I was inspired by an email notice I recently received about a webinar to be broadcast by Hurtigruten Voyages, entitled “The Power of Nature: Arctic Fjords and the Culture of Norway.” Dr. Terje I. Leiren, Professor of Scandinavian History and Culture at the University of Washington, explained: “We will discover the extraordinary Arctic fjords of Iceland, Greenland, and Norway and connect with the history and natural wonders that have shaped and strengthened Norway’s distinctive culture of fortitude, exploration, and friluftsliv over the centuries.”
Of course this was a marketing device, albeit a very sophisticated one, reminiscent of the tack Viking Cruise Lines has taken as they focus on experiencing authentic culture and cultural learning on their trips. And of course we should not be too serious, so there has to be a little kitsch as well, such as the Arctic Baptism where King Neptune pours ice water from a ladle over your head on the deck. No worries, the shot of aquavit that follows will transform the bracing freeze into liquid warmth.
I thought the webinar was terrific, but mostly because it illustrated something I knew instinctively, even though I have grown up on the asphalt streets of Brooklyn—that Norwegians and nature are intimately connected. Hurtigruten Voyages has taken it a step further as they are trying to brand the concept of friluftsliv with their product—nature and cultural travel. In fact, it is a way to let others not only confront and embrace the Norwegian culture, but to truly be one with its people. By osmosis the traveler experiences something so integral to the psyche of the Norse people that they can become a Norwegian. Alas it is only so temporarily.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.