Icelandic horses. Image from freeimages.com.

Learning Icelandic and Norwegian Together : Close Buddies and False Friends

There are advantages and disadvantages to learning very closely related languages together. And despite the benefits generally outweighing the snags, false friends are probably the most irksome spot of that downside. Icelandic and Norwegian are one such pairing that seems really popular in polyglot circles lately.

Because of the conservatism of Icelandic, tackling the two often feels like studying contemporary and ‘historical’ Norse side by side (although we need to be careful not to fall into that trap – Icelandic is a modern language that has been developing from Old Norse as long as Norwegian has).

That closeness gives us plenty of hooks to transfer knowledge. For example, Iceland þ (th) will show up as Norwegian t where the latter has inherited the same word:

🇮🇸 þreyttur – 🇳🇴 trøtt (tired)

But elsewhere, even when there is a really transparent cognate pair, meaning and use have drifted in the sands of time.

Traps to Trip You Up

One subtle cognate slip-up occurs with semsom, the relativiser in clauses such as the book that I read. Icelandic and Norwegian agree as far as that is concerned:

🇮🇸 bókin sem ég las – 🇳🇴 boka som jeg leste

But that’s all they can agree on. Firstly, sem is not optional in Icelandic, whereas Norwegian can do as English does and simply say boka jeg leste.

What’s more, they also fall out when it comes to the other, more prepositional use, as in like a cat:

🇮🇸 eins og köttur – 🇳🇴 som en katt

That’s, like, a bit tricky.

Taking a Liking

Likewise, líkur / lik (alike) don’t always map onto each other like for like. While ‘they are alike‘ can be:

🇮🇸 þeir eru líkar – 🇳🇴 de er like

…in Icelandic, you’re more often than not going to come up against that eins again to mean ‘alike’:

🇮🇸 þeir eru eins

As eins clearly derives from the number one, it’s not hard to connect this to phrases like one and the same in English, or en og samme in Norwegian. Still, Icelandic uses eins pretty much everywhere that Norwegian uses like, so it’s another distinction to mark on the map.

Add to the fact that Icelandic uses cognate líka for also (også in Norwegian), and it has even more potential to be a confuser.

Do You Really Like It?

And like it or not, we’re not finished with like yet. It actually turns out that it really likes to mess with us. The Old Norse verb líka has ended up in both languages (just as English ended up with like from a more distant common ancestor). However, in Icelandic, líka is used in purely impersonal expressions:

🇮🇸 mér líkar það (lit. to me likes/pleases it)

…whereas in Norwegian, it works just the way like does in English, with the liker as the subject, and a direct object as the liked thing:

🇳🇴 jeg liker det (I like it)

Not only that: while expressions with líka in Icelandic do translate as like, they’re not the most colloquial way to express liking any more, and may come across as rather archaic. These days, you’re better off with a phrase using skemmtilegur (amusing, entertaining) like:

🇮🇸 mér finnst það skemmtilegt (to me finds-itself it amusing)

Admittedly, these quirks can seem less than amusing as a beginner learner, to be sure.

Crazy House

Funnily enough, it’s the realm of house and home where a little cluster of words diverges quite radically in meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising for words relating to everyday living arrangements; as customs and practices change, old terms get repurposed and attached to ever more differing concepts. But stand by: this set seems like it went through a tumble dryer.

Norwegian rom will be familiar to English speakers as the cognate room. It meant largely the same in Old Norse – any room or internal space. But in Icelandic, it can now have the meaning bed. There’s quite an interesting theory for how that shift happened here.

Meanwhile, Norwegian seng, which means bed, is cognate with Icelandic sæng – which means duvet. And Norwegian dyne, which is duvet, materialises as Icelandic dýna – which means mattress. Utter bedroom confusion (as if deciding which side to sleep on wasn’t hard enough already).

Honorable Mentions

There are, predictably, plenty of these pitfalls between the languages – far too many for a short article. But amongst the hotchpotch of favourite falseish friends between Icelandic and Norwegian are two more favourites of mine.

Firstly, the word lag can mean layer in both languages. In Icelandic, however, it can also mean song. It’s notably a word in the title of one of Iceland’s most successful Eurovision entries, the boppy Eitt lag enn (one more song) of 1990. In Norwegian, on the other hand, it can mean teamOne more team just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

Along similar lines, we have grein (spelt gren in some varieties of Norwegian), which means branch to both Icelanders and Norwegians. But in Icelandic, the very same word is used for an article in a newspaper. A case of a word branching out, perhaps?

Variety Show

It’s all fun and games, of course, and one of the reasons it can be so fascinating to learn languages within the same grein of a family tree. For one thing, you end up collecting juicy etymological trivia in droves (the kind of stuff you can spin out for an upbeat language blog, for instance).

But a final point for fellow dual learners concerns the variety of Norwegian you learn. If, instead of vanilla Bokmål, you study Nynorsk, or any of the traditional dialects of Norway under that umbrella, you might well come across a few more cognates and similarities to Icelandic. Bokmål, as the heir to Riksmål and the imported Dano-Norwegian of centuries past, has levelled out some of the more Norsey features of traditional norsk. Dialects often preserve these beautifully. If you’re up for exploring this further, then a good place to start is NRK’s language programme Språksnakk, which regularly answers questions on local vocab features that bear more than a passing resemblance to islenska.

Do you have similar experiences with this or any other pair of languages? Let us know your favourite drifting cognates in the comments!

Five stars - what you hope to get from your TV picks in a foreign language! Image from freeimages.com

Joyful, Joyful TV for Maintenance Language Impetus

I type this fresh from the jubilance of seeing my favourite Stjernekamp (Star Fight) contestant sail through to the final of the popular Norwegian TV series. Alexandra Rotan, known to many as one third of Eurovision act Keiino, sang her heart out and won a place in the final two.

Watching light entz and pop culture in your target language is always a popular tactic in polyglot circles, and for good reason: it’s just plain fun. I spotted a recent #langtwt tweet cheekily polling people’s favourite ‘trash’. And while I’m far too nice to call it that, I do get the sentiment – it’s content which is far from high-brow, but unthinkingly, unchallengingly cosy and feel-good.

So it is with the wonderfully joyful Stjernekamp.

The Sun Always Shines on (Target Language) TV

The thing is, I’ve not been making a deliberate effort to get more of it into my life lately. Norwegian is one of my most beloved and strongest foreign languages, but currently, I’m just maintaining it rather than working actively on it. The reason it keeps budging its way in, hitching a ride on Stjernekamp and other vehicles, is impetus.

Back in my active learning phase, I’d done the groundwork already. I’d followed norsk favourites like Stjernekamp, Skal vi danse and Maskorama on all my social media channels, filling my daily scrolls with target language. I’d downloaded on-demand apps from Norway, and set up notifications for all those shows. And they’re all still there, popping up in my line of sight, without any effort on my part.

And that is the very essence of maintenance.

Keeping It Light

Granted, it’s getting easier and easier to do this today. A click of the Subscribe button, and you’ve forged a pipeline supplying language input 24/7. With international TV franchises, a lot of that input is warmingly familiar, too.

But a word of caution: I’ve found the tone of what you choose really colours your attitude towards the language. Stjernekamp – much like other musical reality shows, like the BBC’s Strictly – is a thing of pure joy. Frivolous, fanciful fun. In my Norwegian fallow season, it has become what the language is to me. My heart leaps a little when a notification pops up.

On the other hand, for some languages, I ignored those instincts. I added – gulp – serious news feeds instead. Now, I’ll backtrack a little here, as I’ve sung the praises of adding current affairs feeds in the past. That’s because in some cases, it does work a treat. For instance, many apps, like NRK’s news service, allow you to select the topics to be alerted on. Science and technology? Tick for me. And other services, like podcast series News in Slow and Radio Prosty Polski, break the stories down into short, manageable chunks.

On the other hand, the Polish TVP Info app just gives you everything in all its shocking, miserable detail. And, especially lately, everything in the news can be a bit… hmm… depressing? That’s not to mention the elevated style of news articles and frequent pomposity of style. Give me singing, dancing celebs over that any day. Needless to say, I dejectedly swipe away most of those TVP alerts. I clearly need to spend more time streamlining my Polish apps and socials to redefine what Poland is to me in a much happier light.

The moral here, of course, is be mindful about your media. It can make the difference between switching on and off to your target language(s).

What pop culture media helps you stay switched on to your target languages during a maintenance phase? Let us know in the comments!

 

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialect deviants? Celebrating linguistic diversity

Spoiler alert: the language you’re learning probably isn’t the language people are speaking. Thanks to dialect, you might be surprised when you chat with your first native speaker.

If you’re not prepared for it, the surprise can be disconcerting at best, and demoralising at worst. I remember the first time I tried out my fresh, pristine, textbook Norwegian in Bergen. I marched up to the tourist information desk, and enunciated my request for a map with all the precision I could muster. And the answer? Gobbledegook. Nothing like my Norwegian learning CDs back home. Was that really Norwegian? Or was I really that bad at learning languages?

OK, I was naïve back then! But dialect can still pose an issue for anyone hoping to get a functional, everyday knowledge of a foreign language.

Golden standard

When you learn a foreign language from a textbook, you’ll be learning a standardised form. This will be some general, accepted form of the language, often prescribed by an official language body in the country of origin. Some of these organisations have remarkable pedigrees; the Académie Française has been looking after the French language since 1635, for example. Spain’s Real Academia Española has been around since 1713. Sometimes, publishers or private companies will become semi-official language keepers, like Germany’s Duden, or the UK’s Oxford English Dictionary.

These lofty institutes (a full list can be found here) are custodians of the ‘dictionary’ forms of language. Consequently, it’s these forms that we’ll find in textbooks as foreign learners, and for good reason; native speakers use language in such varied ways, it would be impractical to learn every manner of speaking from every region. But out in the field, it’s everyday, spoken, dialectal forms that can add a lot of colour to your language experience.

Norwegian dialects: Extreme sport

If you know Norway, you might well consider people like me slightly masochistic. Norway is an pretty extreme example of dialect diversity. In fact, there is so much linguistic diversity in Norway, that there are two official standard forms: bokmål and nynorsk. The interplay between the two gives rise to the great language controversy that continues to play out across the country today.

However, accessing this diversity is gaining an insight into something very close to Norwegian hearts. I recently happened upon a book in Oslo that I just had to buy. In fact, it’s not just a book. It has a big, whopping MP3 player attached to it. Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) is a compendium of Norwegian dialects to read about and listen to! It’s pretty amazing:

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

What grabbed me particularly was this line from the introduction:

Vi nordmenn er stolte av dialekten vår.
We Norwegians are proud of our dialect.

Look at that: proud. Dialect isn’t just something that makes learning Norwegian a bit tricky. It’s actually something that makes Norway Norway. A source of national pride. So you might not understand everything straight away. But you can enjoy something that is as much a part of Norway as reindeer and hurtigruten: marvelling at how rich the country’s linguistic landscape is.

Celebrate diversity

One of the greatest thing about this book is its celebration of all dialects. This is something Norway does very well, where other countries can sometimes stigmatise dialect as ‘substandard’. When I compare this to the situation of my native language, British English, I’m a little ashamed; recent studies suggest a continued prejudice towards certain dialect and regional accents. Even qualifying accents with the seemingly innocuous term ‘non-standard’ hides a snootiness that places them outside some prestige ‘norm’. Can’t we all be more like Norway, please?

Dialect for the learner

So, dialect is a key to richness and diversity in your chosen language’s culture. You needn’t view it as an obstacle, but rather an amazing opportunity. The first engagement as a learner should be to acknowledge that dialects exist, and to expect diversity from your very first interactions. There are a couple of things you can do to maximise your enjoyment, though.

Prepare yourself

Research the linguistic topography through Internet searches. Simply starting with ‘German dialects’ in Google, for example, leads to a wealth of material.

Interrogate your textbooks

Check the intro – does it say which variety of the language you are learning? Does it give information about alternative forms that aren’t included? Welsh, for example, comes in two standards, like Norwegian. Which one are you learning? Be aware.

Expose yourself!

Aim to soak up as much contemporary language as possible. You don’t need to be in the target language country for this. Mine online TV channels and podcasts for examples of real speech. National broadcasters are good places to start; the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has a wealth of podcasts available, for example.

Reap the rewards

If you can cope with a relatively obscure rural dialect that differs a great deal from the standard you are learning, then you have something to celebrate! Dialect comprehension shows that you’re starting to gain a very deep, active understanding of the language. Like native speakers, you’re able to hear unfamiliar words and make educated guesses at meaning.

Being able to pick out dialects can give you so much more cultural access to your target language country, too. There’s a delicious satisfaction when you hear a dialect and can place where the person is (probably) from.

Look beyond your standardised textbooks, and be prepared for colour, richness and diversity in your language learning experience. Most of all: enjoy it.