Tonemes – or why Norwegians sound like they are singing

If you have listened to someone speak Norwegian, you might have thought that it sounds like they are singing. The same is true for the closely related language Swedish, but not for other European languages. Chinese is known for its four tones which alter the meaning of a word, but did you know that Norwegian also has tones? Not four, like in Chinese; only two, and they only occur in the stressed syllable of words with at least two syllables. Monosyllable words do not have tonemes.

I would say that the tonemes of Norwegian are much more vague and less accesible to a foreigner than those of Chinese. In the teaching of Chinese, there is a lot of explanation of the tones, that the students are expected to master, and when writing Chinese with Latin characters, the tones are indicated. As Norwegian only has two tonemes, and in most cases they are not important for the lexical meaning of the word (if you say the wrong toneme, the sentence will usually help the listener understand what you are trying to say), and most Norwegians are not even aware of the tonemes (as they are so natural to us), they are simply not taught. Another difficult aspect about the tonemes is that Norwegian has no official phonology. That is also why you never find pronunciation in a Norwegian dictionary. The reason is that there are so many dialects, and we do not want to discriminate between the dialects. To further complicate the issue, a few dialects do not distinguish between the tonemes, notably the dialects of the far North of Norway, but the rest of them do.

The best way to learn to hear and to differentiate the tones is to have a native Norwegian repeat some of the minimal pairs to you. Examples include «bønder» (farmers) vs. «bønner» (beans), «cider» (cider) vs. «sider» (pages/sides). Don’t worry about the difference in spelling, «bønder» and «bønner» are pronounced exactly the same (<nd> is in most cases pronounced the same way as <nn>), except for the melody, and the same is true for «cider» and «sider». In fact, the letter <c> only occurs in loan words, in which it is either pronounced as /s/ or /k/, depending on the word and the rules of the language from which the word originated.

Two words my students often ask me about are «jenta» (the girl) and «gjenta» (repeat). <gj> is pronounced /j/, but the melody is different. Thus, if you say either one of those words to a Norwegian, they will instinctively know which word you say by listening to the tone.

Audio files will be added!


2 thoughts on “Tonemes – or why Norwegians sound like they are singing

  1. Great post! Can you make a video or sound recording about tonem 1 and 2? I find it really hard to distinguish between them, and there aren’t that many good resources on the web.

    Thanks so much!

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