Is Norwegian the new Chinese? Posted by Bjørn A. Bojesen on Feb 20, 2013 in Pronunciation
”I don’t understand a word Norwegian, but I love listening to Norwegians speaking it! It’s so melodic, it sounds like they’re singing!” Sometimes people say things like that. And in a way, they’re right. Did you know Norwegian and Chinese had something in common?
Almost any basic intro to Chinese will mention the word ma. Depending on the way you pronounce the a, we’re told, the word changes its meaning. If you say it while gradually making your voice lighter – an ”upward” or rising ”melody” – it means ”numb”. If you keep a steady high ”melody” all the way through the sound, it rather means ”mother”, etc. According to Wikipedia, Mandarin Chinese has four different ”word melodies”.
Norwegian has only two toner or tonelag (groups of tones, ”melodies”), as they’re called. So, if you’re speaking Mandarin on a daily basis, getting a grip on Norwegian pronunciation should be piece of cake! 🙂 Note that only accented syllables have tonelag (there’s no ”melody” in the first word of det regner, ”it rains”).
The tonelag of Norwegian are:
• Tonelag 1: Words of 1 syllable have tonelag 1, which in standard Oslo dialect is an descending or ”downward” tone: mann, lys, bil (man, light, car). Words of two syllables that originally had only 1, are also pronounced like that: mannen, lyset, bilen (the man, the light, the car)…
• Tonelag 2: Words of 2 syllables have tonelag 2, which in Oslo is a ”rising” tone: jente, løpe, tusen (girl, run, thousand).
Getting the correct Norwegian ”pitch accent”, as linguists call it, is one of the very last things you’ll learn, so don’t worry too much about this now. But at least you should know why the Norwegians are ”singing”! In a handful of cases, changing the tonelag of a word also changes its meaning – just like Chinese:
Tonelag 1 • Tonelag 2
land/et [LANNeh] (the country) • å lande [aw LANNeh] (to land)
and/en [ANNen] (the duck) • en annen (another one)
and the most famous one:
bønder (peasants) • bønner (beans; prayers)
This is really just a nicety of Norwegian pronunciation. Don’t fret if you don’t get it. In 99.9 % of the cases people will understand whether you want to say ”beans” or ”peasants” or ”prayers”!
As a trøst (comfort, solace) I can tell you that some Norwegian dialects – in the Bergen area and in the very north of the country – don’t use different word melodies. So, you can always pretend you come from one of those places! 😉