Tower of Babel, Norwegian Style

Bergen, Norway - 

When we landed in Norway, I began to notice an interesting pattern of interaction between me and the locals. For an example, let's look at how I ask for a table in a restaurant.

Hostess (presumably speaking Norwegian): Mxlkrmf tfiu?
Tony: Hi; we'd like a table.
Hostess: Blw dcij vcdhuhy for two?
Tony: Yeah; for two, please.
Hostess: Trsdj swofiu jasj ic kiscijds dij?
Tony: Sorry? I'm afraid I don't understand much Norwegian.
Hostess: Oh, you're speaking English!

This pattern of interaction is repeated wherever we go – restaurants, hotels, train stations, and shops. Since we got to Scandinavia, people have been addressing us in the language because we could both pass as Nordic (and Anthony's heritage is Norwegian). Only in Norway, however, do people continue to speak to us in Norwegian once we've answered in English. After some people-watching, I think I've identified the root cause: Norwegians can't understand each other most of the time!

In the US, each state is populated by people of different immigrant stock. Plunk some Englishmen down in Boston and some Scotsmen in Memphis; let them assimilate a common language and set of cultural values, and wind the clock forward 200 years. Ship one of their ancestors from Mass Ave to the Appalachians (or vice-versa) on a vacation. How well does our tourist get along with the locals? He can make himself understood, but only after a lot of funny looks and false starts. In the past two centuries, geography has diversified American English into a tower of Babel consisting of maybe 20 dialects. Class differences contribute to this hodge-podge, but the primary influences are geography and time.

How does this effect play itself out in Norway, a country that is a bit smaller than California? I'd expect that Norwegians have something like a common dialect, especially since they largely have a common heritage - for the past 1,000 years, they've been variously Norwegians or Danes or Swedes depending on the king of the day, but they've been here all that time. It should follow that they can understand each other, right?

Norway is a country of craggy valleys, fractal fjords, and most of all, harsh winters. The Norwegian winter stretches on for nine months of the year, and it is not something to be trifled with. Snow fills the mountain passes; the fjords freeze over; visibility drops to nearly 0, even in coastal cities that are blessed with relatively mild weather. Before the invention of steam power, farmsteads sitting five miles apart in separate valleys could easily go for a decade without talking to one another.

Where America has her vast plains and her patchwork heritage, Norway has its majestic mountains and inclement weather. In either case, the land conspires to drive the people apart over time; they come to identify with the land more than the nation. This is why, like our confused selves, Norwegians often have a hard time understanding one another. When we Americans march into a restaurant speaking English, the Norwegians' immediate reaction is to try and parse it as a strange, mutant dialect of Norwegian – which in some ways, it is!

The Babel effect is not limited to Norway; it happens to us everywhere we go in Scandinavia. Two days ago I was waiting on a train platform in Copenhagen when a young woman turned to me and said "Soi cdhoasoiu oiu dj xoi next train?" (That is to say, she said something in Danish and I could pick out the bit about "next train.")

"Sorry," I said, "I don't speak any Danish. But the next train arrives at 8:23 and it's continuing from here to Gothenberg and then Helsingor. Does that help?"

She looked queerly at me, grinned mysteriously, and said "Yes, thanks. You never know; perhaps you understand more Danish than you think."

I have yet to find a discourse strategy for signalling that I'm going to speak English. I'd feel lame walking around eternally asking "do you speak English?" because this would insult the locals - everyone speaks excellent English. "Hi," "hey" and "hello" are all out, since they're all valid Scandinavian greetings. Soon I'll begin experimenting with "good morning" and so forth, but I'm afraid that these too will be too close to Norwegian for comfort. As a last resort, I'm thinking of waving a tiny American flag before I begin every sentence. That oughta make a point; I'm just not sure I like the point it makes!