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 most of the other European languages. Mandarin is well-known for its four tones which alter the meanings of all their words, but did you know that the Norwegian language also has tones? Not four, like in Mandarin; only two, and they only occur in the stressed syllable of words with at least two syllables. Monosyllabic words do not have tonemes.

The tonemes of Norwegian are much more vague and less accessible to a foreigner than those of Mandarin. In the teaching of Mandarin, and other tonal languages, the tones are explained, because the students are expected to master them. And when the Mandarin language is transliterated with Latin characters (Romanization), the tones are indicated. As Norwegian only has two tonemes, which in most cases are not crucial in order to understand a sentence (if you say the wrong toneme of a word, the sentence will usually help the listener understand what you are trying to say), and most Norwegians are not even aware of the existence of tonemes, they are simply not taught.

Another difficult aspect of tonemes for a student of Norwegian is the fact that Norwegian has no official phonology. That is also why pronunciation is not indicated 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 of the far North of Norway do not distinguish between the tonemes. Yet the other dialects do, and if you want to sound like a native, and you do not plan on living in the far North, you should learn the tonemes.

The best way to learn to distinguish between the tonemes is to have a native Norwegian repeat some minimal pairs for you. Examples of minimal pairs 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 only occurs in loan words, and 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 the same way as /j/ (/g/ is silent), 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.