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.
A Norwegian summertime essential: utepils means “a beer that you drink outdoors.” Why don’t we have this in English? Drinking a beer outside in the sun or on the grass is a completely different experience than drinking in the dank back room of a bar. Next time you’re at the beach, sip your utepils and say, “Skål!” (Cheers!).
Another genius Norwegian culinary invention: pålegg is the umbrella-word for “everything-you-can-put-on-a-slice-of-bread.” The closest word we have is “spread,” but that’s limited to soft toppings like tapenade and jelly. Pålegg covers everything from tomatoes to meat to hard cheese, plus speads and jellies, and it’s a staple of every Norwegian household. You can’t have your loaf of whole grain brød without plenty of pålegg to dress it up.
You’ve heard of the many Eskimo words for snow; here’s the Norsk. Sludd is a Norwegian term for “wet snow.” Our “slush” describes snow that’s accumulated and begun to melt, but sludd describes slimy flakes as they’re falling through the sky, as they’re sticking to your face.
After a long day of wet snow, you want to come home to your cozy cabin. Kos can be a noun (coziness), a verb (to cozy up to someone), or an adjective (koselig, pronounced “koo-sheh-lee”). Norwegians take coziness extremely seriously. This is perhaps my favorite aspect of Nordic culture. In the Far North, the winters are cold, the nights are long, and the darkness is deep, so Norwegians understand the importance of feeling comfortable at home when the world outside is unwelcoming. Their houses and apartments are not only famously stylish, they’re also havens of relaxation. Kos can be added to the end of just about any word to create a whole new kind of coziness: fredagskos is Friday-coziness, or tacokos is the singular coziness of eating tacos.
- Uff da
Finally, the ultimate Norwegian-ism: uff da, the Nordic “oy vey.” It came over to America with the 19th-century Norwegian immigration wave and English hasn’t found any way to replace it. Spilled your utepils? Uff da. Unrequited kjærlighet? Kjempe–uff da. Ending a hard day with a good heartfelt uff da will make you feel better you in a way no English phrase can.
Rebecca’s debut novel THE SUNLIT NIGHT, about love and goats on an island in the Norwegian Sea, was published worldwide this June. Her bilingual book of English-Norwegian poetry, LOFOTEN, came out in 2012. She recently wrote about how much she loves Norwegian brown cheese for the New Yorker website. She lives in Brooklyn and listens to Ciara. Follow her on Twitter @beckydinerstein and at her website, www.rebeccadinerstein.com.