Norwegian Language Blog

Norwegian Oops! moments Posted by on Jul 31, 2013 in Language, Traditions


Don’t you fall into a Norwegian pit! The Fantahålå pit at Lysefjord. (Photo by Guillaume Baviere at Flickr.)

When I was a kid, I once went with my mother into a public library in Norway to look for cartoons and children’s books. The old lady at the counter seemed really friendly, so I said out aloud, so everyone in the library could hear it: “She looks rar!” In my native language, Danish, that’s a nice thing to say, ’cause rar simply means “friendly” or “nice”. In Norwegian, however, the same word means odd, strange, peculiar… I don’t remember the looks of the people around me, but the librarian simply burst out laughing. As it turned out, she was Danish too…

When it comes to language-learning, children have a huge advantage: They learn really fast! So, soon after this episode, my Norwegian skills reached the near-native level, and I didn’t make any further language mistakes that are worth sharing with you! (At least so I like to think! 😉  )

Nevertheless, I’ve heard a lot of both non-Norwegians and Norwegians (!) making fun, little mistakes while speaking the “no-frills” Norwegian language, so I thought I’d highlight a few pitfalls of which to be aware (and as you know, the pits are very deep in Norway!):

Making the right distinctions between vowels

Many foreigners have a hard time hearing the difference between the Norwegian U (as in ute, outside) and Y (as in yte, contribute) sounds. As a consequence, they tend to compensate by pronouncing the Norwegian U as a Spanish or German U (English “oo”). To confuse things further, this pronunciation sounds more or less like a Norwegian O (as in the name Olav! 🙂  )
So, without getting too phonetic here, make sure you clearly distinguish between du (you) and do (toilet), toll (customs) and tull (b*sh*t!)

Don’t mess with the kj– sound!

The sound written as “kj” (or “k” in front of “i” and “y”) should sound like the “h-” part of huge (in British English). So, the name Kjell should sound like “Hyell“. However, many people (including a “shuge” number of Norwegians!), pronounce the sound like English sh!

Take care with words like Kjellskjell (seashell), kjele (kettle) – skjele (to squint)… And never complain that something’s skjedelig when it’s just plain kjedelig (boring). It makes you sound a bit … well, like a teenager that uses the wrong pronunciation mostly to make other people feel upset!

Remember to say takk!

There’s a myth that Norwegians are rude, since there’s no word for “please” in the language. Nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, I think Norwegians are some of the most polite people on earth, saying takk (thanks!) or tusen takk (1000 thanks!) every time they have the chance to do it.
If you want to avoid embarrassing situations, it’s a good idea to remember to say takk whenever somebody helps you. When you’ve eaten with Norwegians, you should always say takk for maten! (thank you for the meal!) before leaving the company at the table. (Unless you’re the cook, of course!)

Have you ever made an embarrassing mistake while talking to Norwegians? Please share in the comments section. Norwegian isn’t always as straightforward as it looks, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of! 🙂

Tags: , , ,
Keep learning Norwegian with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

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. Keri:

    When I was an exchange student in Norway I sang in a choir. One song had the words “hellig ånd” (holy ghost/spirit) in it. The girl sitting next to me nicely pointed out to me that I was singing “hellig and” by mistake — holy duck. Oops!

  2. Dee:

    Actually the Kj sound in a lot of Norway is pronounced like Ch as in checkers in English.

  3. Silentulf:

    What Dee said!

  4. Flor:

    I clearly have serious problems with the “kj” sound cause every single time I say “kjæresten min” I get a “hva?’ or “hvem?” question with a weird face. I can’t seam to get it right!!!

  5. Kjalvalr:

    For me, the kj Sound has always been like french J or that zh Sound in English, even though they never use that actual Diphthong. For skj, it’s like sh if a, o, u comes after, but sch for i and e.

  6. Maggie:

    I have a friend from the north of Norway, Kjetil, and he pronounces the Kj like a ch also!

    I definitely find the kj pronunciation confusing since I’ve seen it said (in different places) that it should be pronounced like a sh, a ch, and more like the h- in huge! I don’t know if the differences are because of the different dialects?

  7. Silentulf:

    KJ is always pronounced like CH in “checkers, chess, churn.”
    However – many youngsters pronounce is like SH in “shame, shampoo, ship.” The latter is utterly and completely wrong and make them sound like fools, talking about “sjøpe sjylling og gå på sjino” ( Kjøpe kylling og gå på kino ).
    The equivalent in English would be “shess” for “chess” and “shursch” for “church”. Silly, eh?

  8. Lisa-Marie:

    There is no way that KJ sounds like the ch in checkers. You DEFINITELY do not know how to pronounce the word kjedelig or the name Kjetil. You must be American.
    Silentulf is 100% correct.

  9. Amy:

    After like 2 weeks in Norway I thought it would be fun to try to speak. I told my mother in law that we had coffee at Jordbær Pikkene instead of Jordbær Pikene.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Amy @Amy – Oops… I can’t even imagine the reaction! 🙂

  10. Maya:

    Haha, my American ex-boyfriend had a hard time telling the difference between the u and the o. He quite frequently asked if the toilet could kiss him 🙂 it was kind of cute. A Japanese exchange student at my school also wanted to try the Norwegian variant of a hot dog, pølse i lompe (sausage in a potato “pancake”). Being Japanese he managed to switch the L for an R… And basically asked for a sausage up his butt. The look on the shop keeper’s face as he tried not to laugh was epic n_n

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Maya @Maya – great stories, thanks! 🙂

  11. Kyle:

    When I was first learning Norwegian I spoke to my mother in law on the phone, we were on the way to dinner. What I meant to say was we’re looking forward to having a good time with you guys, vi skal kose oss. Instead I said, I’m looking forward to cuddling with you, jeg skal kose med dere…

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Kyle @Kyle
      Another great Oops moment! Takk! 🙂

  12. Misty Kjell:

    The fact that as an American I can’t properly pronounce my own name (slightly embarrassing). I have children and now grandchildren named Kjell and we still debate the proper pronunciation.
    My grandpa was born in Bergen. Wish he was here to straighten us all out. Any advice?