One thing which sets the Norwegian language apart from many other languages is dialect. Norwegians often ask me if we have dialects in English, to which I say no (this might be linguistically incorrect). I say this because English dialects are defined more by accents with the odd regional word or expression thrown in. In Australia however, I seldom can tell where a person comes from based on how their voice sounds.
What I find fascinating with Norway is that you can usually tell where a person is from based on their dialect. This means that Norwegians rarely ask the question ‘where are you from?’ when speaking to each other, unless that person speaks with a mix of dialects. Dialect mix can arise from, among many other things, moving around a lot as a kid, or having parents who come from different parts of the country.
So what is a dialect? Some linguists argue that the distinction between a dialect and a language is vague, but if we consider Norway when defining the term, then a dialect is:
1) Not standardised or controlled;
2) Not governed;
3) Never used in formal or standard writing.
Based on these points, Norway by definition has two official languages. Bokmål (‘book language’) is used by more than 80% of Norwegians, and Nynorsk (‘new Norwegian’) represents a historical kind of Norwegian. The latter contains words which have a stronger affiliation to Norway than to neighbouring countries (such as Denmark). Both languages are used in newspapers, road signs, books and paperwork.
Why mention this? Most foreigners learn Bokmål when taking Norwegian classes. The problem is that no Norwegian really speaks Bokmål, but rather a dialect containing words from Bokmål, Nynorsk or something different altogether. The closest dialect to Bokmål is the Oslo dialect, but even this can have variations.
Variations can occur as a result of pronunciation, spelling, gender or even word order. Two Norwegian towns lying on either side of a mountain will most likely have different dialects. This means that learning how to speak and listen to Norwegian is often one of the biggest challenges foreigners face.
I learnt Bokmål when I first took up Norwegian; so I understand dialects from Oslo or from the East the best. I can also follow certain dialects from the North because the pronunciation there is similar to how words in English are sounded. Western dialects I tend to struggle with, such as those from Bergen and Stavanger, but understanding spoken Norwegian ultimately depends on how fast or clearly a person speaks. I struggle understanding people from Oslo if they speak too fast, or slow speaking Westerners if mumble too much.
Is this the end of the world? Of course not! It just means that you should be aware of how diverse spoken Norwegian can be, and that that dialect can vary from person to person. If speaking Norwegian with your friends, ask them to speak more slowly and hopefully over time, you’ll start getting a good idea as to what they’re saying!