A popular new TV series that’s been running on state broadcaster NRK this fall has sparked new debate over Norway’s many dialects and how they’re used. The dialects can confuse newcomers to Norway and make learning Norwegian even more difficult – but they’re rich in culture and regional pride.
“Placing dialects is almost a national sport,” says the show’s presenter, Jasmin Syed. “While in other countries people ask where you work, the first thing Norwegians ask is where you are from.” Dialect is like a bunad (national dress) that “tells about your roots and the place that has formed you,” Syed says. It’s a passionate and sometimes painful topic, with the latest episode of “Dialektriket” (“Dialect Kingdom”) attracting nearly 700,000 viewers (a lot in a country of just 5 million).
Dialects can also be a big headache for anyone struggling to learn Norwegian as a second language. Although Norwegian has no standard language, “bokmål” (one of the country’s two official languages) is what most newcomers are taught in language classes. So dialects that are closer to “nynorsk” (Norwegian’s other official form, literally meaning “New Norweigan”) are often the hardest for learners to understand.
“It’s not just about variation in individual words, it’s about whole linguistic systems that are different from one dialect to another,” according to Olaf Husby, associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. He says that learners are placed in a kind of triangle between the local dialect where they live, the teacher’s dialect (if they come from a different place) and the language in their textbooks.
Bokmål is the written form of Norwegian that is closer to Danish, which dominated in Norway for hundreds of years. Danish was the language that was traditonally spoken by the rich and powerful in Norway, who tended to look down on poor farmers who spoke dialects. These old divisions can still dictate attitudes and snobbery about dialects today.
The dialect that is closest to written bokmål is “østlandsdialekt” spoken in the eastern part of southern Norway, including in Oslo, and it still arguably dominates culturally and politically. This is the dialect that Norwegians often decide to adopt when they move away from home, literally or psychologically.
Presenter and actress Syed is a self-confessed lover of dialects, and grew up speaking a mixture of ‘Vinje’ dialect and English. She grew up in her mother’s hometown of Vinje in Telemark County and her father was from India. Her own roots led to her receiving an angry letter from one viewer, who said that, as an “immigrant,” she didn’t know anything whatsoever about “our Norwegian language.” Syed, who has won awards for her use of Vinje dialect, responded by posting the letter on her Facebook page, including all its anonymous writer’s spelling and grammatical errors.
“It’s hard to take that kind of thing seriously,” she told NRK, but she knows that language can be provocative. She has traveled up and down the country meeting people who are both proud and ashamed of their dialect. Some make claims for theirs being the best, and display their favourite local word in huge capital letters. Others have painful memories of being teased or bullied over the way they spoke, or not fitting in when they moved to a new place. She interviewed a woman from Northern Norway who said she became more defensive and cold when she was forced to speak østlandsdialekt after moving originally to Oslo to work as a nurse .
“Everyone adjusts their dialect and their words according to who they’re talking to. Dialects are a big part of our identity, and it does something to our whole personality if we switch to another dialect,” Syed told newspaper Aftenposten. In one episode she interviewed a woman who speaks two completely different dialects and has two totally separate identities in each of them, and even two different names. It can confuse and upset people if she switches, because they don’t know where to place her.
There is even a Norwegian word “knoting” meaning someone who “speaks in an affected way” and abandons their dialect. Some Norwegians apparently see this as the ultimate betrayal. “They think that you are showing that your language isn’t good enough, and the people at home aren’t good enough,” Syed admits, adding that she has also been guilty of “knoting,” since she moved away from her hometown in 1982, and asks viewers to forgive her. “I don’t mean to, but it’s not so simple anymore,” she writes on Facebook.
According to Olav Husby at NTNU, some of the most challenging dialects for foreigners are from Western Norway, Trøndelag (in central Norway) and Northern Norway.
Husby has now designed a computer programme, where people can listen to the thousand most commonly used words in Norwegian, hear them in the four major dialects, and train to hear sound contrasts that don’t occur in their mother tongue. Download the programme for free on the NTNU website by clicking here.
Syed feels that she has been good at holding onto her dialect, but that she has started speaking more “broadly” since presenting the programme. She says she has always been a bit of a parrot and speaks like the people around her. “In Trondheim I speak like a trønder, and in Kristiansand I speak like a sørlending (southerner). Language is like music to me, if I hear something wrong, it’s like someone’s singing off-key.”