Norwegian pronunciation is a tricky beast to master, and not just because it’s riddled with vowel sounds that don’t come naturally to anyone who didn’t grow up speaking a Scandinavian language. It also has two written standards and no spoken standard, which means that the language we think of as “Norwegian” is basically a loose conglomeration of various spoken dialects that are somewhat unified under two written dialects.
Depending on how you learn, this lack of a standard can either be extremely confusing or kind of liberating. You’ll stress less about mispronouncing words because Norwegians are used to hearing words pronounced in different ways. At the same time, you’ll have that added complexity to familiarize yourself with.
Remember that complexity doesn’t mean lawlessness. Certain letters and letter combinations will prove especially challenging for English speakers, regardless of the dialect they’re spoken in. These include intimidating vowels like æ and ø, as well as the silent consonants you’re bound to encounter — for instance, the silent “g” ending in “-lig” and “-ig.”
Don’t be fooled by how simple the following words look; they contain some of the trickiest aspects of Norwegian pronunciation. These are also good examples to start with, because there’s not too much regional variation when it comes to how they sound in various dialects. Follow along with the explanations, then practice by clicking the play button or clicking the link to hear how each word is pronounced by a native speaker.
Norwegian Pronunciation On Hard Mode
1. kino (cinema)
If this looks like a trick, it’s because it is. Though deceptively easy in appearance, kino will trip you up right away because when “k” is followed by the soft vowel “i” or “y,” the consonant becomes soft, too. This sound doesn’t exist in English. It sort of sounds like a “sh” sound, made with the lips pulled wide and the tongue close to the upper palate and teeth, almost touching. The closest approximation might be the “h” in “huge,” but it doesn’t quite describe it perfectly.
2. øl (beer)
Once again, a word that on its face appears simple enough. But in Norwegian pronunciation, “ø” is a tricky vowel to master. On top of that, this letter can have either a short or a long pronunciation. When intoned as a long vowel, it sounds sort of like the “i” in “bird.” In øl, you make a similar sound, but shorter.
3. kjøpe (to buy)
Here’s another instance of the short “ø” sound you made in øl. The “kj” sound is hard to explain, but it sounds a little like a cat’s hiss. This definitely makes for a slightly awkward stumbling block for non-native speakers. But don’t worry! People will understand you even if you make a “sh” sound. This is a hotly discussed language change that’s currently underway. In some parts of Norway (like Bergen), teenagers and young adults are beginning to pronounce “kj” as a “sh” sound.
4. unnskyld (sorry)
Ready for a challenge? First of all, the “u” sound has no equivalent in English. You’ll want to start with a long “e” like in “bee,” and then round your lips as if trying to drink with a straw, without moving your tongue. Next is the “sk.” Since it’s followed by a soft consonant like “y,” it sounds like “sh” in “short.” The “y” also has no English equivalent, but it falls somewhere between the long “e” in “bee” and the “u” sound we made at the beginning. And finally, an easy sound — the “d” at the end is silent. This usually happens if a word ends with “ld,” “nd” or “rd.”
5. er (am, are, is)
Really, another two-letter word? Yes, and it’s a much-used one. Er is the conjugated form of “to be” in the present tense for all genders and numbers. So, if you want to refer to “I,” “she” or “they,” you’ll need to nail this word. The “e” in er is pronounced like the “a” in “back.” Take note, though: that doesn’t mean that the Norwegian “e” is always pronounced like that. This rule applies mainly if the “e” is followed by an “r.”
Tom er en rolig fyr. — Tom is a quiet guy.
6. maur (ant)
One more Norwegian pronunciation challenge — specifically a challenging diphthong — for the road. The “au” sound contains a blend of “ah” (like you’re sticking your tongue out for a doctor) and “u” (like in unnskyld). You’ll probably default to something that sounds like “ow” in the beginning. It takes some practice to get it right, so start by pronouncing it very slowly until it begins to feel more natural.