Thursday, August 14, 2008
View from Ekeberg toward Grefsen, in Oslo.
A week or so ago I wrote a fairly detailed post on why Persian / Farsi is actually much easier to learn than you think, in that it has a much simpler grammar than languages most people learn in school, and only the writing system gives the impression that it's somehow about as difficult as Arabic, which is more difficult for the average speaker than Persian by leaps and bounds.
Persian is easy in terms of grammar, most Western European languages have the advantage of common vocabulary and recognition. Norwegian happens to have both of these, and in this post I'm going to show why Norwegian is the easiest language for your average English speaker to learn.
Two notes before I begin: It's true that creole languages like Tok Pisin and Bislama are probably easier, but I've excluded them because not only are they still undergoing some changes as they switch from a language used by the majority as a second tongue to one used by more as a first tongue, and also (no disrespect to them, I think they're great as languages) because they are really only useful in a very limited part of the world. The Bislama Wikipedia for example at present has only a total of 112 pages, and I made a few of those. For similar reasons I'm going to rule Scots out as well, in addition to the fact that there's still a debate as to whether it's a language or a dialect. In my opinion a language is an independent language if 1) There are grammatical rules of right and wrong (i.e. you can't just make it up as you go along), and 2) It's not immediately understandable to users of the most related language (i.e. English). That's a different subject, however.
Secondly, I'm also obviously excluding constructed languages: Ido, Occidental, Lingua Franca Nova, Esperanto, Interlingua, Novial, all those. They were made to be easy to learn which obviously skews things in their favour.
North Germanic languages
Now, to Norwegian. First a short introduction. Norwegian (here I'm talking about bokmål, the most often-used variety of Norwegian) is a language spoken by about 5 million people in Norway, and is extremely similar to the languages Swedish and Danish. Its written form is more similar to Danish, but in pronunciation it's more similar to Swedish than Danish. From the Norwegian I've studied as well I have an easier time reading Danish but can't understand it at all, and Swedish is easier to listen to. The three languages are so similar that they are often regarded as a dialect continuum, that is, if there happened to be a single country in place of the three we have today there would probably only exist regional dialects, not thought of as languages. The total population of these languages is about 20 million. Swedish is also an official language in Finland, though certainly not used by the majority.
Lastly, Icelandic is also related to these three, but far more distantly, and it has a much more complex grammar, being more conservative in that it has maintained much the same form over the past nine centuries or so. That's why Icelandic people can still read the old Norse sagas. See the page linguistic purism in Iceland for more information on how this works. Luckily Norwegian does help in understanding Icelandic, certainly more than other languages you could choose to learn (except Faroese, but that's only spoken by 70,000 or so), so Norwegian is a good language to start from if you have a personal interest in them.
Now to why Norwegian is so easy to learn:
1) Norwegian is a Germanic language.
Being a Germanic language, you will notice a lot of cognates right at the start. Here's the front of the Norwegian Wikipedia:
Velkommen til Wikipedia!
Wikipedia er en encyklopedi på over 200 språk, som skrives av frivillige bidragsytere fra hele verden.
- velkommen - welcome
- til - to (think 'till')
- encyklopedi - encyclopedia
- over - over
- språk - language (think 'speak')
- skrive - write (skrives means 'is written', think 'scribe')
- av - of
- frivillige - volunteer (think 'free-willing'
- fra - from
- verden - the world (verden - world)
So that's a big advantage right there. But German and Dutch have the same thing, right? Yes, and moreso with Dutch than German (eten is eat where it's essen in German, water is water, German is Wasser, etc. etc.). You can bring up example after example of cognates in both Norwegian and Dutch and point out places where one has an English cognate and the other doesn't, but suffice to say they're both about equal here. So let's look at why Norwegian is easier to learn even than Dutch:
2) Norwegian has a much easier grammar than other Germanic languages.
Scandinavian verbs have some of the easiest conjugation you can find in Europe. Present tense is made by adding an -r to the verb, regardless of who's doing it. That gives us:
ha - to have
jeg har - I have
du har - you have
han har - he has
vi har - we have
and so on with the rest.
Past tense is generally formed by putting a -te on the end of the stem, like the -(e)d in English (walk, walked)....but Verbix does a much better job at showing how verb conjugation works. Take a look at this page for the verb argumentere (to argue):
Present (I, you, he argues)
Future (will argue)
jeg vil argumentere
du vil argumentere
han vil argumentere
vi vil argumentere
dere vil argumentere
de vil argumentere
Present Perfect (have argued)
jeg har argumentert
du har argumentert
han har argumentert
vi har argumentert
dere har argumentert
de har argumentert
Past Perfect (had argued)
jeg hadde argumentert
du hadde argumentert
han hadde argumentert
vi hadde argumentert
dere hadde argumentert
de hadde argumentert
Future Perfect (will have argued)
jeg vil ha argumentert
du vil ha argumentert
han vil ha argumentert
vi vil ha argumentert
dere vil ha argumentert
de vil ha argumentert
Conditional Present (would argue)
jeg ville argumentere
du ville argumentere
han ville argumentere
vi ville argumentere
dere ville argumentere
de ville argumentere
Conditional Perfect (would have argued)
jeg ville ha argumentert
du ville ha argumentert
han ville ha argumentert
vi ville ha argumentert
dere ville ha argumentert
de ville ha argumentert
Now that is easy for an English speaker, so much so that it almost feels like you're cheating somehow when learning verbs. Let's compare the same thing in Dutch:
(it's a bit unfair because Dutch doesn't use a similar word for argue, but the conjugation alone shows it to be that much more complex)
Edit: People have been pointing out that Dutch does use the verb argumenteren. I'll leave the below as is though because it's merely to show how conjugation works.
Present (I argue)
skip ahead to the present perfect where things get even more different with the ge- prefix:
ik heb geredetwist
jij hebt geredetwist
hij heeft geredetwist
wij hebben geredetwist
jullie hebben geredetwist
zij hebben geredetwist
and last the conditional perfect:
Conditional Perfect (would have argued)
ik zou geredetwist hebben
jij zou geredetwist hebben
hij zou geredetwist hebben
wij zouden geredetwist hebben
jullie zouden geredetwist hebben
zij zouden geredetwist hebben
Now we are starting to see some of the differences in word order as well. English used to have this ge- prefix, as you can see in Beowulf:
Hwearf þā hrædlīce, • þǣr Hrōðgār sæt,(Seamus Heaney's version in case you're curious)
eald and unhār • mid his eorla gedriht;
ēode ellen‐rōf, • þæt hē for eaxlum gestōd
Deniga frēan, • cūðe hē duguðe þēaw.
With that he turned to where Hrothgar sat,
an old man among retainers;
the valliant follower stood four-square
in front of his king: he knew the courtesies.
English doesn't look like that anymore though, so the ge- prefix is now foreign to the English student of Dutch and German.
Now that we've touched on word order, let's take a closer look:
3) Norwegian word order is different from other Germanic languages, and much closer to English.
You can see how Norwegian word order is more similar to English than Dutch and German in verb conjugations here:
English "I can speak German" becomes "Jeg kan snakke tysk" in Norwegian, with the same word order as English. In German however, this is "Ich kann Deutsch sprechen", or "I can German speak".
English "I haven't eaten today" becomes "Jeg har ikke spist i dag" in Norwegian (ikke = not, i dag = today), with the same word order as English. In German this is "Ich habe heute nicht gegessen.", or "I have today not eaten".
It gets even worse in longer sentences such as the following from the German Wikipedia on the war in South Ossetia right now:
Russische Truppen sind in Südossetien eingerückt, um die georgische Offensive zur Eroberung der Hauptstadt Zchinwali zu stoppen.
"Russian troops are enlisted in South Ossetia to stop the Georgian offensive to capture the capital Tskhinvali", but the word order here has now become quite different, literally "Russian troops are in South Ossetia enlisted, for the Georgian offensive to recapture the capital Tskhinvali to stop".
A similar sentence in the Norwegian Wikipedia only shows one difference in word order from English:
Samtidig fortsatte Russland å benekte at deres hensikt var å okkupere Georgia.
"At the same time Russia continued to deny that their intention was to occupy Georgia." The one difference here is that it begins with "At the same time continued Russia..." with the verb switched to the front.
Norwegian word order is slightly different from English, but it's that much closer that the student of Norwegian will be able to get by most of the time without having to think about word order all the time.
There's another language that I haven't yet mentioned here, and that's Afrikaans. Afrikaans is another language that is often claimed to be the easiest language for an English speaker to learn, and having spent some time with it (because I like it quite a bit) I can ascertain that it really is easy. I still have to give the edge to Norwegian though, for a few reasons.
First of all a short introduction to Afrikaans: Afrikaans used to be Dutch, but changed into a language of its own after a lot of isolation and other influences, and is sometimes referred to as a half-creole in the way it simplified so much over a short period of time (kind of like the difference between Old English and Medieval English). It's easier to learn than Dutch because it has no verb conjugation by person, grammatical gender is gone (like in English), the writing system is easier ('my' for me or my and is pronounced like English my, but it's written mij in Dutch), etc.
Here are a few points comparing Afrikaans and Norwegian grammar which should show why Norwegian is easier to learn (once again, ever so slightly as they are both quite easy for anyone that puts in the effort):
- Afrikaans doesn't express the perfect and pluperfect (I had done, she has gone, they have seen, we have drank, etc.) like in other Germanic languages. That means that Ek het gebreek meaning "I broke", could also be translated in English as "I have broken" or "I had broken." This actually makes it an easier language to learn for a lot of non-English speakers, but for those that are used to using it it's easier to express oneself in a language that has it, and if it's easily learned and used (like in Norwegian) then it's easier on the student if it has it. In Norwegian it's jeg brekker, jeg har
brektbrukket, jeg hadde brektbrukket. Norwegian has the edge on this one.
- Norwegian has two genders. Technically it has three, but the male and female are grouped into the 'common' gender, and it's not really necessary to learn anything but the two (common and neuter). My dictionary for example doesn't even list nouns as anything but those two. Luckily the majority of words are of the common gender, meaning the student only has to keep an eye out for neuter gender words. Not too difficult, but since Afrikaans doesn't have gender in the first place it has the edge here.
- Plurals. Norwegian plurals are very regular. Add an -r to the end if it ends in a vowel, add an -er if it ends in a consonant. Problem becomes problemer. Bilde (picture) becomes bilder. Only a very few are irregular here. Afrikaans generally uses an -e, so land becomes lande (lands). Sometimes though it'll use an -s, so artikel becomes artikels. Afrikaans also has a few irregular plurals. Remembering to look out for words with an -s plural is at the same difficulty as remembering to look out for neuter gender nouns in Norwegian, so this point and the one above cancel each other out.
- Word order. Afrikaans also has much the same word order as Dutch and German, so Norwegian is closer to English here.
- Pronunciation. They both are quite easy except for the Afrikaans g, which is that guttural sound you hear in the Scottish loch. It's certainly not impossible but the Afrikaans g is a bit unnerving to the English speaker when you get a few of them in quick succession: From Google you can see an example (ek added by me) Ek het gister terug gegaan London toe, which means I went back to London yesterday, but the part in the middle is pronounced like khister terukh khekhaan, which is a bit hard to get used to. It's a small point though.
- Adjectives. Like in other Germanic (and other Indo-European) languages adjectives change a bit before a noun. Norwegian and Afrikaans are about the same here.
- Verbs. Norwegian has strong verbs, meaning that they are irregular in conjugation, like English sing/sung (not singed), fly/flew (not flied). A lot of these verbs are irregular in the same way English is though, meaning that you will see verbs like se (see) becoming så in the past tense (å sounds similar to English 'aw'), drikke (drink) becomes drakk (drank) in the past tense, gi (give) becomes gav (gave). They're not all like that, but enough that it makes learning them kind of fun, and the others are generally very easy to learn (bli for become for example becomes ble, nice and short). Here's a list of some common Norwegian verbs if you want to take a look yourself.
- Finally, this has nothing to do with the language itself, but with the countries they are used in. Afrikaans is used primarily in South Africa and Namibia, in South Africa it's one of 11 official languages, and English is an official language there too (and in Namibia as well). That makes it that much harder for the student of Afrikaans to use it even within the country. Norwegians are generally quite good at English as well, but it's not an official language there and since Norwegian is the only official language in Norway at least you know that once you step off the plane at the airport everyone around you is going to be using the language. Norwegian also has a stronger online presence (Wikipedia for example and the volume of news in Norwegian is actually quite large), and the majority of English speakers (United States, England, and English-speaking Canada put together) are geographically closer to Norway.
Lastly, the question remains: why Norwegian and not the two other Scandinavian languages? Swedish is spoken by more people for example. Well, if you have some reason to learn Swedish instead of Norwegian, go for that. They are both quite easy. Swedish has a bit more complexity in the plural and a vowel sound that is quite particular, but in general it is quite easy too. However, Norwegian is often promoted as the best language to go with for those with a general interest in Scandinavia as it is located in the centre of the other languages (not geographically but in terms of intelligibility). A post on this forum gives the following details (I don't know where it is sourced from but it agrees with my personal experience as well):
Fig. A. an understanding of spoken languageIn short, Norwegians have the easiest time understanding other Scandinavian languages and speakers of other Scandinavian languages have the easiest time understanding Norwegian. You'll notice that Swedes have a very hard time understanding spoken Danish.
Norwegians understand 88% of the spoken swedish language
understand 73% of the spoken danish language
Swedes understand 48% of the spoken norwegian language
understand 23% of the spoken danish language
Danes understand 69% of the spoken norwegian language
understand 43% of the spoken swedish language
Fig. B. An understanding of the written language
Norwegians understand 89% of the written swedish language
understand 93% of the written danish language
Swedes understand 86% of the written norwegian language
understand 69% of the written danish language
Danes understand 89% of the written norwegian language
understand 69% of the written swedish language.
The post also gives this simple explanation:
"Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish"
Norwegian + phonology - vocabulary = swedish
Norwegian - phonology + vocabulary = danish
Other aspects that make Norwegian easy to learn
- Forming the passive is simply wonderful. You do it by adding an -s to the verb. Done! Here's an example from Wikipedia: Wikipedia er en encyklopedi som skrives... this means "Wikipedia is an encyclopedia which is written... if you had written som skriver instead it would mean "an encyclopedia which writes".
- Since it's a Germanic language that means you will have a fun time realizing that words that originally don't seem similar to English actually are. One example is the word selvstendighet. Looks like a completely foreign word at first, but each part has an equivalent English word: rewrite it as self-standy-hood and suddenly it looks more familiar. It means independence, which is a state of being able to stand by oneself. Another example is snikskytter. That means assassin, or a 'sneakshooter'. Norwegian is full of these words. It also has words that aren't exact English equivalents, but are similar. I've always thought that a lot of Norwegian words seem like those words you will sometimes wake up with in your head from a dream that seem so real in the dream but then turn out to be words that don't actually exist. A translator for example is an oversetter, to exaggerate is overdrive, to accept is godta (goodtake), abroad (as in another country) is utland, and so on.
- The genetive is easy, as you just add an s like in English. English "flag of India" becomes Indias flagg.
- If you know any Scottish English or Scots, you'll notice some similarities there too. Child is barn (a wee bairn), good is bra (Oor Wullie: "Och aye, that wis a braw meal!"), know is kjenne (I dinna ken that), and more.
- Not related to the language itself, but as of 2008 Google now offers automatic translation into and out of Norwegian. Automatic translation is very good as a language learning tool and can often help you out when stuck with a word or phrasing that you just can't figure out.
- Wikibooks has a tiny bit of information here,
- Here is a Norwegian-English-Spanish online dictionary,
- Norskklassen is quite an active group for learning Norwegian,
- And (this is probably the best link after learning the basics) Klartale.no has news in simple Norwegian, and a podcast of slow spoken Norwegian as well.