Norwegian Language Blog

Is Norwegian the new Chinese? Posted by on Feb 20, 2013 in Uncategorized

”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: mannlysbil (man, light, car). Words of two syllables that originally had only 1, are also pronounced like that: mannenlysetbilen (the man, the light, the car)…

• Tonelag 2: Words of 2 syllables have tonelag 2, which in Oslo is a ”rising” tone: jenteløpetusen (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! 😉

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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.


  1. scharon de almeida adamson:

    Now I understand what’s missing from my efforts in speaking Norwegian 🙂

  2. Marianne:

    haha, I loved that last one. I’m norwegian with a country dialect(huge a-endings). And even I wouldn’t understand someone from bergen, neither from trøndelag, just because of that little thing. 😉

  3. k Bjorn:

    Now I understand why it sounded like my father was ‘singing’ grace at Thanksgiving! Sadly, that’s all the Norwegian I ever heard him speak.

  4. Ruby:

    Well. It seems those in Norther Minnesota also have singing when they speak. I have been told that many times. And Norwrgian tonal patterns sound “normal” to me. It does not seem to me to be singing.