norwegian = really old english

posted in: words 2

I learned from my first Norwegian teacher that the English and Norwegian languages used to be very much the same, but then went divergent ways over the centuries. Today I found on my bookshelf (it must be G’s) a book called The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson–and while skimming through it I found an interesting passage, at least for English-speaking Norwegian learners. The author writes about where English words come from, and how their meanings could change over time:

Sometimes an old meaning is preserved in a phrase or expression. Neck was once widely used to describe a parcel of land, but that meaning has died out except in the expression “neck of the woods.” Tell once meant to count. This meaning died out but is preserved in the expression bank teller and in the term for people who count votes. When this happens, the word is called a fossil.

*ahem* the Norwegian word for count is teller.

Occasionally, because the sense of the word has changed, fossil expressions are misleading. Consider the oft-quoted statement “the exception proves the rule.” Most people take this to mean that the exception confirms the rule, though when you ask them to explain the logic in that statement, they usually cannot. After all, how can an exception prove a rule? It can’t. The answer is that an earlier meaning of prove was to test (a meaning preserved in proving ground) and with that meaning the statement suddenly becomes sensible–the exception that tests the rule. A similar misapprehension is often attached to the statement “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

(er… the Norwegian word for test is prøve.)

Sometimes words change by becoming more specific. Starve originally meant to die before it took on the more particular sense of to die by hunger. A deer was once any animal (it still is in the German tier) and meat was any food (the sense is preserved in “meat and drink” and in the English food mincemeat, which contains various fruits but no meat in the sense that we now use it).

  • animal = dyr
  • food = mat
  • food & drink = mat & drikke

Okay, yes, Norwegian in that sense is very similar to English–but believe me, from hearing it you would never think so. There are some particular similarities, however, and other than the new tech-related words that all languages have adopted (like “internet”), these tend to be really old-fashioned words:

  • plyndre: plunder (as in, “vikings steal and plunder”)
  • ha behov for: to have a need for, to behove (old English: “it behoves me to speak frankly with you”)
  • et kloster: a cloister (where monks live)
  • en fiende: a fiend (enemy)
  • farvel: farewell

So you can imagine that learning Norwegian is like learning the lines of a Shakespearean play: Farewell viking! You have plundered our cloister enough! It behoves me to cast you out now, fiend!

Or something like that.

2 Responses

  1. Jay

    That book sounds awesome. His ‘Short History of Nearly Everything’ blew me away with his ability to congeal a (literal) universe of facts and stories into highly entertaining reading.

    I had a similar experience as I tried to fumble my way towards speaking Dutch while in Amsterdam — the realization of both the common ancestral roots and the fact that these languages still use grammatical structures that we only recognize as funky Olde Talke. So cool.

    I wonder whether some British turns of phrase that I rarely hear Canadians make (like “could have done”, or “do you want to come with?”, or “weasel dances and variations on same”) also derive from closer proximity to old English.

    Keep on keeping on 🙂


    • xanawu

      I just got this book in the mail yesterday, and lo, on the cover is a testimonial by Bill Bryson! (‘I can’t remember the last time I read a book that was more fascinating and useful and enjoyable’)

      I think dutch is the closest language to norwegian, at least from continental Europe. It would be really interesting to compare the two, because I presume Dutch is similar to German grammatically (ie, with cases?)–and yet Norwegian has *really* simple grammar (um, conjugations of verbs are exactly the same no matter which personal pronoun is used). I think you’d dig it! When were you in Amsterdam?

      How about this for funny British expressions: ‘pants’ can be used as a mild expletive…