My grandfather, who lives in Meldal, Norway, often talks about our family in Minnesota. The descendants of the original emigrant relative, Sivert Pederson Ree, have been back to visit us in Europe several times. I remember one of these visits, listening to a distant relative speaking her broken, heavily accented Norwegian, the language vastly transformed by distance and time. Her husband, bored and a little lost as the only one speaking nothing but English, was visibly relieved to meet me—I was the only one present whose English was fluent, meaning I could talk to him without getting tired.
Telling this story always elicits the same reaction: “But you Scandinavians speak such good English!” This is true—a lot of us do, especially young people. But my grandparents speak none. My parents speak a very serviceable English, but there are lots of holes. With that comes uncertainty, which leads to hesitation and lots of heavy lifting for the brain. This means that after sixty minutes of speaking English they’re exhausted, and desperate to go back to the language closest to the heart. After an hour on the phone with them from my adopted home of London, England, I get that feeling too: there’s a sense of relief when I can go back to English. Finally, I can stop scrambling for words.
This is a story about a small language being slowly overwhelmed by English, written in English by someone whose mother tongue is so stiff from lack of use it’s hardly serviceable. The irony isn’t lost on me.
The small language in question is Norwegian, spoken by about five million people and also by me, once upon a time. I grew up in Norway and lived there until I was 19, so sure, I can carry a conversation. But my entire adult life has happened in English. It’s been over a decade since Norwegian was the language I used to get around. It doesn’t sit comfortably in my mouth anymore, because another language has taken its place. I struggle to find the words to express an idea more complicated than the weather. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write this in the language of my home country.
As I’ve grown more English, so has Norwegian. New words keep appearing in speech, but they don’t sound like they belong. Most of the new words are English ones. I understand what they mean, of course, but the first time you hear “fancy11stilig” or “touch22berøre” randomly dropped into a sentence in a different language, it sounds so alien. I catch myself wondering, who decides which English words the people of Norway will adopt this year? Where does this come from?
Languages are living things, constantly evolving. In that sense, you could argue that resisting change is unnatural. But as a speaker of a small language, it can be alarming to hear the rapidly increasing influx of new words from a dominant force. Back in 2000, linguistics researcher Sylfest Lomheim caused upheaval by claiming the Norwegian language wouldn’t survive the next century. Is this the beginning of the end?
Now, a warning: this is where I reveal myself as a cranky old lady of 35, complaining about the butchering of the Norwegian language. Because this trend, as is often the case, is led by the young. My friend Irene Størseth Knutzen and I bond over this issue, although her credentials for criticism are more sound; we both got top marks in Norwegian and English when we went to upper secondary school together, but Irene’s native language has continued to develop because she stayed put in Norway.
So when tell her I’m writing about the influx of English into Norwegian, Irene is immediately keen to discuss. “This is exciting and relevant!” (Except where noted, all quotes in this article are translated from the Norwegian.) “Kids nowadays, they think they’re so cool!” Irene laughs. “But on a serious note, I do think lots of people use English while speaking Norwegian because they think it sounds good.” Irene lists examples from technology— such as streaming33 strømming —new phenomena for which people often reach for the original term. But this isn’t what annoys Irene, who’s a stickler for accuracy in language. It’s the random use of English when there are perfectly decent, established Norwegian words. When a Norwegian says “weekend,” this isn’t because there’s no good local alternative. There most certainly is, and it’s even shorter and snappier: “helg.”
As we video chat, Irene’s baby daughter keeps popping into the frame; she’ll probably be effortlessly bilingual when she’s grown. I, on the other hand, take ages to switch between languages. It’s obvious which language dominates my thoughts: I construct sentences with the English word order. I’ll catch myself picking the Norwegian word that sounds like the English one—the languages are related, so this is a common error if you’re not fluent. But I’m not alone in doing this, says Irene, who’s a manager at Norway’s state alcohol retailer. She tells me how a colleague recently talked about growing vegetables—the correct word in Norwegian is “dyrke” but he said “gro,” which actually means heal. I know why I mess this up, but why does he?
Even Irene isn’t immune to English language creep. In fact, everyone I spoke to for this article used an English word a couple of times. Irene says she makes an effort when she’s out, but admits it can get pretty bad when she’s just with her husband. They often discuss films or TV shows, most of which are in English: “It’s easier to use the expressions you hear on screen. Half the time we can’t be bothered to translate.” She lists some examples: “surveillance,44 overvåkning ” “in character”55 inne i rollen —they’re currently watching The Americans. “It’s completely unnecessary to use those English terms. Plain laziness! But I suppose it’s because when you’re inside that world, the Norwegian language is simply not present.”
I call Janne Bondi Johannessen, a prominent linguistics research professor at the University of Oslo, to ask if she’s concerned about English eclipsing Norwegian in everyday use. “What’s happening has far more to do with trends, than with practicalities,” she tells me. Most of the time there are local words available, even for new things; the Norwegian for “memory stick” is the nifty “minnepinne,” a direct translation. Some people use the new word, while others prefer the English. But this doesn’t explain why people will all of a sudden start using English words like “fresh” and “keen” in the middle of Norwegian sentences, abandoning local terms “frisk” and “ivrig.”
“When you pull new words into a language, it’s not necessarily because you need them. It can just feel trendy or cool,” says Bondi Johannessen. From a linguistics perspective, this “coolness” is actually at odds with how languages normally evolve: “Nouns tend to be the open category, where you see new words emerging. But this isn’t the case for spoken Norwegian.” Instead, you tend to see new adjectives popping up, and interjections: “Those types of words are where you express personality.” The fact that Norwegians watch a lot of English-speaking TV and film has a lot to do with it, says Bondi Johannessen. “Interjections, like ‘wow’ and ‘cool’, are very expressive. They tell you a lot about someone.” Then there’s the fact that they’re often stand-alone words, making it a lot easier to reach for English. Nouns are trickier because they have to be put it into grammatical context, which can end up sounding comical.
A language lives as a loose agreement between the people who use it.
The English language is constantly evolving as well, with new words popping up all the time. But in Norway, new ways to use language tend to follow one simple recipe: reach for English. The Norwegian slang for kissing used to be “kline,” a lighthearted word that literally means “smear.” But now, teenagers say “hook’e”—adding the E at the end so it works grammatically—from the English “hooking up.” Bondi Johannessen thinks young Norwegians are exposed to English to such an extent they’re starting to feel like it’s a second mother tongue.
Some Norwegians are strongly against this. “For them, it’s like saying, ‘We won’t be pushed around, let’s do something fun with our own language!’” Bondi Johannessen points to a recent surge in Norwegian-language pop and rock, not to mention the fact that Norwegian rappers have always stuck to local prose.
At this point I start to wonder: who am I to question how Norwegians choose to speak? Leaving a country separates you from language development, because a language is not a static thing. It lives as a loose agreement between the people who use it. North America has nearly as many Norwegians as the old country itself, mostly descendants of immigrants arriving around the latter half of the 19th century. These people speak a Norwegian heritage language, which has branched off and now lives its own life.
Being influenced by English, today’s Lingua Franca, is not exclusively a Norwegian problem. And it’s not like no one is trying to stem the tide: this is the remit of the Language Council of Norway, a state-funded organisation. I call Nina Teigland, head of Language in Higher Education and the Private Sector, who tells me she doesn’t think the Norwegian language is under threat by the introduction of the occasional foreign word. “The point at which this becomes a problem is when an entire language area starts to drift towards English. The domains most exposed are finance, technology and cutting edge research.” Teigland points out that only a third of today’s Norwegian language stems from the original Norse: the rest has been influenced, primarily by Low German.
One of the tasks of the Language Council is to come up with replacement words. Teigland laughs when I ask how this works: is there a crack team sitting in a small room throwing rhymes and puns around? The process is actually pretty organic: the Language Council keeps an eye out for replacement words emerging among industry professionals or in the media, and promotes the best ones. Take the Norwegian for “tablet computer:” “nettbrett,” literally, “web tray.” People have embraced this new term, rendering it it a hit—but not every suggestion sticks. Teigland says the trick is to get in early and introduce local alternatives before the English has become ingrained. The new word can’t be too long-winded, but it also should be self-explanatory. Then, to ensure it spreads, you have to get influencers to use it.
“Our priority is to ensure Norwegian remains a full-coverage language that you can use in every walk of life,” says Teigland. This means making sure there’s Norwegian film, literature, and computer games; essentially local options for people who want them. “If there are no Norwegian alternatives, or if an entire domain starts becoming English-only, we’d no longer have a full-coverage language. That’s when we’d sound the alarm.”
I vividly remember my first English lesson at age 10, before which time I didn’t speak a word of the language. Page one of my textbook: “I am Jill. I am Bill. Hi Jill! Hi Bill! Hello everybody.” Five new words to memorize, with thousands to follow. Back then I didn’t quite understand why I was so hellbent on learning this new thing. All I knew was that my gut feeling was overwhelming: this is important! The world is so much bigger than Norway, a small country of five million people, and English is such a big part of it.
For me, my mother tongue will always exist as an artifact from 1999, the year I moved away. New English words will continue creeping into the Norwegian language, and I’ll probably never stop feeling rattled when I hear one for the first time. “I think the trick is to find a balance,” says Nina Teigland. “To be able to have two thoughts, or two languages, in your head at the same time.” I’ve been working on this since I was ten years old. Any day now.