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The Third Gender Posted by on Aug 1, 2012 in Grammar, Language

No, this isn’t about LGTB people in Norway, but about an aspect of Norwegian grammar that ocassionally creates confusion, even among Norwegians: the feminine gender.

Norwegian comes in thousands of dialect shades, so in order to write it, two orthographies or “written languages” have evolved: nynorsk (which will be the topic of a future blog post) and bokmål. Bokmål Norwegian is the kind of Norwegian that is written and read by most people in the Oslo area, and is, accordingly, also the language of most courses, including those of Transparent Language.

The first varieties of bokmål were based on Danish (Denmark-Norway was a single country for some 400 years, until Norway broke loose to form a new union with Sweden in 1814). In Danish, there are only two grammatical genders: et barn – barnet (a child, the child) is neuter, while en mand – manden (a man, the man) and en kvinde – kvinden (a woman, the woman) both are “common gender”. So, classic bokmål behaves in the same way, distinguishing between two genders only: et barn – barnet; en mann – mannen, en kvinne – kvinnen.

In the spoken dialects, however, only the Bergen dialect used a “Danish” system of two genders. All the other dialects had three genders, just like German: nøytrum (neuter) — as in et barn – barnet; hankjønn (masculine) — as in en mann – mannen; and hunkjønn (feminine), as in ei kvinne – kvinna.

In the long run, the written language couldn’t resist the feminine forms, so in a modern bokmål text you’ll find lots of words ending in -a (feminine “the”): boka (the book), sola (the sun), jenta (the girl), hytta (the cabin). Ei (feminine “a”) is rarer, though, as it is felt to be more colloquial (like writing “ain’t” rather than “isn’t” in English). So you might find en bok or ei bok, en sol or ei sol, en jente or ei jente, en hytte or ei hytte.

I told you, this confuses Norwegians too! Some years ago a tabloid carried the headline: Hytta er min!
This means “The cabin is mine!”, but grammatically it is a mixture of masculine and feminine forms. It should’ve been either Hytta er mi! or Hytten er min! The journalist must have thought that “hytten” sounded too formal and old-fashioned, while “mi“, on the other hand, sounded too dialectal and colloquial…

Help me, which form should I choose?

My piece of advice to new learners: always note the gender of a word! Then stick to en and -en until you get a better grip of the language and can feel when ei and -a would be appropriate.

A few words always take the -a ending, so when you want to talk about “the girl”, you must say jenta!

Jenten” sounds really out-of-place, and everyone will think you come from Bergen! 🙂

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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.


Comments:

  1. LGB:

    Funny 🙂 “everyone will think you come from Bergen” – I would love to know Norwegian at a level that other Norwegians think I am from Bergen 🙂 🙂

  2. Siske:

    I have read many times but briefly, that if I use -en ending for the feminine nouns it is OK and not a mistake and now I know why :). Very useful thread for me. Thank you for the short history 🙂

  3. Erick:

    As a bergenser, I would say that it would be highly more beneficial for an american to learn bergensk as opposed to østlandsk/standard østnorsk. The general phonology we find in bergensk would be easier to pronounce for the average american compared to standard østnorsk.

    – Erick

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Erick Hei Erick,

      I guess you have a point. Unfortunately, nearly all the study material – including our courses here at Transparent – is in østnorsk. :-/
      Hm. Seems like an idea for a new kind of course… ”Bergensk – the gateway to Norwegian.” 🙂

      – Bjørn

  4. Erick:

    Haha! That could be an idea, but it seems like you guys have good thing going on, no need for change 🙂

    – Erick

  5. Jakob:

    I’ve already learned Swedish and have even lived in Göteborg for a year, so now that I’m learning Norwegian it’s not that much of a problem for me. This third gender, however, is pretty tricky since I’m inclined to only use the -en bestämd form with everything that’s not neutrum (or nøytrum, as you Norwegians call it). =D It’s nice that I now have a good excuse for making this mistake. I’ll just say I learned Norwegian from someone from Bergen. =D

  6. Maureen Millward:

    I speak Norwegian to intermediate level. I just started with a new teacher and a new book which uses the feminine form. I am not used to it. The “Teach Yourself Norwegian” book only uses two genders (en, et) and so does the old version of “Ny i Norge”. My first teacher was from Bergen too, so my new teacher has told me to stick with speaking that way. I am too used to it to change now. I didn’t even realise it was only Bergen people that spoke like that until my new tutor told me. So far I have only been to Oslo and Tromso so I will need to plan a trip to Bergen now!

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Maureen Millward @Maureen

      Great to hear a bit about your learning experiences. Yes, the feminine form is a problem for many, especially as there is a lot of variation. I mean, some persons might switch from ”hytten” to ”hytta” in the same sentence! 🙂

      Good luck with your studies!

  7. John Carringer:

    I have just finished (for the second time) an on-line Norwegian class from NTNU in Trondheim, wherein the three gender form is used rigorously. All my other text books use only two.

  8. Camille:

    This article contains a lot of wrong notions.

    First of all, there is no such thing as “classical bokmål”. If by classical you mean conservative and outdated, sure. Literally no one today writes Norwegian using only two gender (actually, knowing how to use the feminine shows a greater knowledge of the language). The most famous example of this is “øy” conjugated into “øya” and the article even lists another example “jenta” which are used even in the most conservative text.

    The feminine gender is actually becoming more and more prevalent in written bokmål compared to a few years ago, and while you could technically get away with only using masculine and neuter, it’s more of a shortcut than anything. Saying that “ei” etc. is more colloquial is wrong, and this notion of inferiority is steadily but surely dissapearing, hence the increase in a-endings. Especially in oral østnorsk you will more than likely find more a-endings (among the younger generations) than -en and -et. “Ei” is 100% correct language, moreso than using en or et in regards to feminine nouns. Comparing it to the slang-ish “ain’t” is an insult to the Norwegian language, really. Ei, mi and -a are all pure and correct Norwegian words.

    If you do say “hytta”, but do not use the correct agreement (ei hytte, hytta mi), you’re essentially not writing consistently. So even though it is free of choice, using ei and mi in agreement with feminine conjugation patterns is, in fact, the correct way to write and speak. The two-gender Norwegian is an artifical construct, Bergen excempted, and should (even though it is) not be considered proper Norwegian.

    If you want to truly master the language then learning the feminine is a must.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Camille @Camille. Thank you for your feedback – I hope the blog post did not upset you? I certainly never intended to say that ”ei” is not 100% official. Yes, using only ”en” is a shortcut that some foreign learners use in the process of learning Norwegian. If an American tourist, for example, says ”en jente”, I’m quite sure most Norwegians would understand her. That is the whole point. Of course, if the goal is to learn fluent Norwegian, then you’re right that the feminine gender is compulsory. Sometimes on this blog, I have to write things in a simple way so that people who don’t know anything about the political situation of the Norwegian language can understand them. Riksmål does exist – that was what was meant by ”classical Bokmål”. PS Sorry you saw the comparison with ”ain’t” as offensive. I just wanted to highlight the difference between ”old-fashioned and formal” and ”modern and everyday-ish”. *ei* is 100 % good Norwegian – and I also think ”ain’t” is 100 % good English.