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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.