When I moved from New York City to Arctic Norway, I didn’t speak any Norwegian. I didn’t have any Norwegian ancestry or relatives. Essentially, I didn’t have any reason to be there. I’d received a writing grant and decided to travel as far north as possible, hunker down, and write something about the edge of the earth. I hadn’t really thought it through. The landscape and language I discovered when I arrived felt profoundly foreign: I’d never seen such massive, spiky mountains, or the letters å, æ, and ø.
Most Norwegians speak fluent English, but I found that English failed to describe this part of the world. The Scandinavian mood could only be expressed and understood in a native tongue. There was a reason that English had simply stolen the word fjord—there was no American name for that eerie, turquoise water. I took up learning Norwegian not so much out of necessity as out of admiration. I loved my new faraway home, and wanted to learn how to talk about it in its own words. These are ten of the words that have most stuck with me, and show up in my daily thoughts, even now that I’m back in Brooklyn.
My #1 favorite. It means “I say yes, even though you say no.” It looks like it should be pronounced “Joe,” but it’s actually pronounced “you.” Jo is the perfect ending to any argument. It’s like answering a “nuh-uh” with a “yuh-huh,” or a “no way” with a “yes way,” but “jo” is far more compact and powerful. Jo can also mean “after all,” or “in the end.” For example, “Denne iskrem er jo virkelig deilig.” “This ice cream is, after all, truly delicious.” I love how simple, hopeful, and confident this word is, whether it’s said in a moment of anger or delight.
The Norwegian version of “love.” Why use four letters when you can use nine letters and an “æ”? It’s pronounced “shar-lee-het.” The most accurate English translation would be “dearness”—Norwegians also begin letters with “Kjære,” for “Dear.” “Dearness” feels like one of the warmest and most affectionate definitions of our relatively cold four-letter word. It takes longer to write, and to say, but maybe because of that, it means more. Nordic culture is famously private about emotions, and this obstacle-course of a word ensures that it never slips out by accident.
Literally means “self-following,” used as, “For sure!” or “Of course!” I like the idea that when we are certain about something, we are following our true selves.
This incredible prefix supersizes anything: kjempefint (super-good), kjempesulten (super-hungry), kjempenysgjerrig (super-curious). Don’t let the “kj” trip you up: it’s pronounced “shem-puh.”
Glory, a sense of gloriousness. This word is absolutely necessary when it comes to describing Norway’s natural beauty: it combines our adjectives “unbelievable,” “mighty,” and “majestic” into one awe-struck noun.