The Flag of Sweden, the Scandinavian country where Swedish is spoken. Image from

The Great Norwegian – Swedish Mismatch Game

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know I’ve embarked upon a new journey of late. It’s a strange, yet also strangely familiar one. I’ve skipped across the Norwegian frontier and am learning Swedish.

Learning a language so closely related to one you already speak is a very particular kind of language learning. Uniquely, you’re not starting from scratch. In fact, you most likely already have a decent degree of passive comprehension, either in reading, listening, or both. It’s what made annual Melfest viewing so much more rewarding, despite never having studied a jot of Swedish formally!

Because of that passive comprehension, though, beginners’ resources are much less useful when you hop across to sibling languages. For one thing, they’re boring; you feel like you already know the basics, as everything is so familiar. Instead of step-by-step textbooks, a better tactic is systematic exposure to higher-level media like podcasts, TV shows and current affairs apps, with a mindful eye on learning the features that distinguish the two languages.

Swedish ≠ NOrwegian in Disguise

Naively, I thought that might be almost entirely tonal, before I started out on my language family hopping. But no – Swedish isn’t just Norwegian with a cutesy accent. There are a lot more vocabulary differences than I’d expected.

Sometimes these are due to borrowing from different sources. Swedish, once the language of an expansive European great power, might have a Middle German loan (like fråga, question) where Norwegian has a North Germanic root (spørsmål). Other times, it’s Swedish that preserves the Norse root (bjuda, invite), while Norwegian has an international interloper (invitere). And then there are times they both go native in different ways (Swedish jämföra and Norwegian sammenligne, to compare).

In any case, my Swedish vocab strategy is to audit the mismatches I find, rather than make a record of all the vocabulary I come across. It’s fascinating watching it come together, like a tale of two siblings who were thick as thieves before going their separate ways. You can see the results so far below, a rather random hotchpotch of items I’ve spotted my recent listening and reading. It’s still early days, and it’s impossible ever to make this exhaustive, of course.

But that said, I hope other double-Scandi learners find it interesting and/or useful!

The Great Norwegian – Swedish Mismatch List


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
en avis en tidning a newspaper
en bedrift, et selskap ett företag, ett bolag a company
en edderkopp en spindel a spider
en flamme en låga a flame
en forskjell en skillnad a difference
en lommebok en plånbok a wallet
lykke, flaks tur (good) luck
oppførsel beteende behaviour
ei pute en kudde a pillow
et samfunn ett samhälle a society
en sang en låt a song
en sky ett moln a cloud
en ting en sak a thing
en ulv en varg a wolf
en utfordring en utmaning a challenge


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
bruke använda use
finde hitta find
fortelle berätta tell
invitere bjuda invite
like gilla, tycker om like
pleie å gjøre bruka göra to usually do
sammenligne jämföra compare
snakke prata, tala speak, talk
spise äta eat
stole på lita på rely on
unngå undvika avoid


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
alle allihop everyone
cirka ungefær approximately, about
den eneste den enda the only one
en om gangen en i taget one at a time
en slags … en sorters … a kind of …
fordi eftersom, för att because
… igjen … kvar … left (over)
klar redo ready
nettopp (gjort) precis (gjort) just (done)
nå for tiden numera these days
selvsagt, åpenbart självklart obviously
skuffet besviken disappointed

Are there any biggies you’d add to this nascent list? Please share in the comments!

Up the etymology garden path with ChatGPT

This week’s story starts with an instinct. I’ve been learning Swedish, which, as a Norwegian speaker, has advantages and disadvantages. One downside is the need to fight the assumption that the vocabulary of each matches up exactly with an identical etymology, when this is so often patently untrue.

In fact, Norwegian and Swedish have walked separate paths long enough for all sorts of things to happen to their individual vocabularies. For instance, take trist and ledsen, both meaning sad in Norwegian and Swedish respectively. Adding ledsen to my list of Swedish differences (I’m using my Swedish Anki deck just for the differing words), I started wondering about the etymology of both. Norwegian trist, clearly, I thought, is a French borrowing, probably via Danish. On the other hand, ledsen looks like it was inherited from the North Germanic parent language.

ChatGPT Etymology

Since I’m exploring the use of AI for language learning both personally and professionally at the moment, it seemed like a good test case for a chat. I went straight in with it: is the Norwegian word trist a borrowing from French?

But shockingly, ChatGPT was resolute in its rejection of that hypothesis. The AI assistant insisted that it’s from a Nordic root þrjóstr, the same that gives us þrjóstur (stubborn) in Modern Icelandic, with the variant þristr which seems to have evolved into Modern Norwegian trist.

Now, the thing with ChatGPT is that it can be so convincing. That’s entirely thanks to the very adept use of natural language in a conversational format. The bot simply speaks with an authoritative voice like it knows what it’s talking about.

So it must be true, right?

Manual Etymology

At this point, it all felt a bit off. I just had to do some manual digging to check. In Bokmål cases like these, my first port of call is the Norsk Akademi Ordbok. If there is an authority on Norwegian words, there’s little that comes close.

So I key in trist, and – lo and behold – it is a French borrowing.

The entry for 'trist' in the Norwegian Academy's Dictionary, showing its etymology.

The entry for ‘trist’ in the Norwegian Academy’s Dictionary, showing its etymology.

There’s no mention of Danish, just the French and the Latin that comes from. I suspect, with a bit of digging, it might turn out to have been borrowed into Danish first, but NAOB is definitive. Not a hint of Norse etymology.

Now there’s a chance ChatGPT knows something that NAOB doesn’t, although I doubt it. More likely, it’s just the innate talent the emergent AI has for winging it, and making best guesses. That’s what makes it so powerful, but, like human guesses, it’s also what makes it fallible just now. It’s a timely reminder to double-check AI-generated facts for the time being.

And maybe, to just trust your own instinct.