I Bet You a Kangaroo… Posted by on Sep 30, 2015 in Archived Posts

A while ago at work, someone described a particularly obscure piece of trivia as “That’s about as useful as knowing the Norwegian word for ‘kangaroo’!” (I love working with language people.)

We all laughed, but after I thought for a minute, I said, “I bet I can guess the Norwegian word for ‘kangaroo’… maybe not the spelling, but at least the sound.” Since I have no known connection to Norway, they looked at me a little funny. (I have no connection to kangaroos, either, unless you count the fact that I once went to Australia.) Nevertheless, I was quite confident with my claim.

Can you guess? The answer tells us something about how languages work, and the key to figuring it out lies in the very way the original comment was phrased, with its implicit assumption that Norwegians don’t discuss kangaroos on a daily basis. That’s a reasonable thing to assume – the animals aren’t native to Norway, or anywhere nearby, and there probably aren’t many, if any, in the country. It’s unlikely, then, that a word for them would have developed out of native Norwegian roots. At the same time, though, the large marsupials have hopped their way into enough hearts to be known worldwide, so they must come up in conversation from time to time, even in the Nordic lands. That, in turn, means that speakers there must have a name for them, one which most likely came into the language along with knowledge of the Australian animals in the seventeenth century. In the time since then, I figured it might have gotten used just often enough to have acquired some minimal adaptations to local language conventions, but probably not enough to have become unrecognizable.

My guess, therefore, was that the Norwegian word for “kangaroo” would be a borrowed word that still sounded very much like “kangaroo” in English, but was probably not spelled exactly the same. We looked it up, and it turns out I nailed it – the Norwegian word for “kangaroo” is, in fact, “kenguru”.

What about you ‑ do you know the word for “kangaroo” in the language you’re learning? If not, what’s the most obscure word you’ve ever looked up just for the fun of it, and did it turn out to be a cognate? And did you know they’ve finally disproven the old legend that “kangaroo” came from an Aboriginal word for “I don’t know”?

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About the Author: janet

Janet has been the technical writer at Transparent Language for almost 20 years now, reflecting a life-long love of languages. She speaks English and Spanish, and has dabbled with others. She also loves to travel, and will never pass up a chance to see new things or put her language knowledge to use.

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