Desbladet reports on how a perfectly good Norwegian counting system was hopelessly confused by bureaucrats to the point that “45 years after the reform we have two ways of pronouncing such numbers in Norwegian, and we never know for sure which one will be used.”


  1. The Scandinavians, as I understand, have five very closely related standard languages for only about 20 million people. (No, I’m not counting Finnish — Norway has two standard languages and as I understand neither one is quite the demotic). Seems terribly fussy and stubborn, but then some of us here (not naming any names) want as many languages as possible in the world.

  2. I’m astonished that they felt the need to “fix” their numbers in the first place. It’s really not that much of an obstacle to say numbers with the last digit before the tens, at least it works well enough for me (and anyone I know) in German, though I have to admit that I prefer phone numbers to be said one digit at a time.

  3. Five closely related languages? Svenska, dansk, bokmål, nynorsk, and… what?

  4. Faroese, Norn, Icelandic, or Jamska? I don’t know.

  5. I assumed Icelandic. (I have to admit I’d never heard of Jamska; now I know it’s the dialect of Jämtland, which I’d also never heard of.)

  6. Quote from the article: “Especially in non-formal everyday speech the “old” pronunciation is frequently used, both by old and young people.”
    In my experience, it’s the complete opposite – the “new” pronunciation is most used, especially by youths.
    I have a tendency of rambling, but I hope I’m excused this time – this is, after all, a blog about language, so it is relevant…sort of. Anyway, just to give more examples of the various pronounciations:
    20/24: tjue/tjuefire (“new”) – tyve/fir-og-tyve (“old”)
    30/33: tretti/trettitre – tredve/tre-og-tredve
    40/45: førti/førtifire – førr/fem-og-førr
    Other decals (I don’t know whether that’s the appropriate word, but I can’t find my dictionary – it’ll do) are similar in the old and new way, so eg. 67 is sekstisyv (-sju) in the “new” way and syv(sju-)-og-seksti in the “old” way.
    There was an incident, in the 50’s I think, when the company who directed phone calls (what do you call them in English again…switch board operators? In Norwegian, they are called sentralborddamer, or switch board ladies; kind of interesting) were instructed by the Storting (or should that be Stortinget, as it is in Norwegian? There was an excellent blog on this; I’ll have to look it up. Anyway, that’s the Norwegian parliament) to use this “new” method, but they were also told to use another version for saying 20 – toti, which matches the other words’ structure of first saying which number (to) that needs to be multiplicated with ten (ti) to get it. 22 would thus be totito, which of course sounds utterly ridiculous. I can’t quite remember how this revolution failed, but so it did, and that’s the essential thing, is it not?
    Regarding the number of languages; Nordisk Råd, or The Nordic Counsil, released a pamphlet in 1986 titled “Att förstå varandra i Norden” (“To understand eachother in the Nordic”), which summed up the language distribution like this (I’ve included the contemporary numbers in paranthesis):
    Danish: 5 million (5,5 million)
    Finnish: 4,5 million and 250 000 in Sweden (6 million)
    Faroese: 43 000 (80 000)
    Greenlandic: 43 000 (50 000)
    Icelandic: 230 000 (300 000)
    Norwegian: 4 million (4,6 million)
    Sami: 30 000 in Norway, Sweden and Finland (20 000)
    Swedish: 8 million and 300 000 in Finland (9,3 million)
    To sum it up: 8 languages, divided on 25,8 million people.
    I’m not sure which languages zizka were referring to; Norwegian nynorsk, Norwegian bokmål, Swedish and Danish are pretty sure, but I don’t know which is the last “very closely related” language. It could be Icelandic, but Iceland isn’t a Scandinavian country (though a lot of foreigners have problems with defining Scandinavia), and Icelandic doesn’t have a Scandinavian mutual comprehensibility (I, and a fair share of Scandinavians I guess, could understand an Icelandic text, but not verbal communication).
    He is wrong with counting nynorsk and bokmål as two languages when we’re talking about verbal communication – both are written languages, and you can’t speak either.
    For what it’s worth, there’s a good article (in Norwegian nynorsk) about mutual Nordic comprehension here:

  7. Thanks, and if all your ramblings are that informative, you’re welcome to ramble here any time!

  8. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think the only survival of totito was the way we Danes were taught to write numbers on cheques and postal remittances (postgiroindbetalingskort), in the spirit of Nordic rapprochement I think, disregarding the fact that the Swedes and Norwegians were having nothing of it.

    Cheques no longer work in Denmark, and the Giro business was separated from the Royal Post and made into a state owned bank which was promptly sold off and eliminated the service by raising fees by a huge factor.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Ilmarinen (14 years ago): Quote from the article: “Especially in non-formal everyday speech the “old” pronunciation is frequently used, both by old and young people.”
    In my experience, it’s the complete opposite – the “new” pronunciation is most used, especially by youths.

    This is correct, but I’ve come to conclude that it’s an additional register rather than a replacement in progress, and the choice of register is more about environment than cohort. Young people are (ore have recently been) in school, where the “new” counting is enforced. When we finish school and enter into adult society, we gradually fall into the colloquial register in casual speech, even if we keep the habit of counting and doing maths in the new way*. This was true of me a generation ago, and it’s happening to the young engineers in my office today.

    *) I’ve probably told this before, but I may well count tjuefire, tjuefem, tjueseks … sju og tjue sjøsjuke sjukepleiere, dropping out of counting and into regular speech at the final number.

  10. “The Scandinavians, as I understand, have five very closely related standard languages for only about 20 million people.”
    “I assumed Icelandic.”

    According to the Wikipedia Faroese Language article there are “five languages descended from Old West Norse spoken in the Middle Ages, the others being Norwegian, Icelandic, and the extinct Norn and Greenlandic Norse.”

    the Storting (or should that be Stortinget, as it is in Norwegian?)
    ‘The Storting’ – you can’t really skip the English definite article in English – but in fact the only legislatures that aren’t ‘the [Iraqi, Italian, whatever] parliament or assembly’ in English are, I think, the Knesset, the Dáil & the Bundestag. They’re all pretty recent, I don’t know whether that’s a reason they keep their own name.

  11. Don’t forget the Diet of Worms.

  12. “The Senedd” seems to be used some (though maybe mostly for the building), and I gather there was a failed attempt to make it official. Oddly, the official English terminology for the members is changing to “member of the Senedd” even though the official English name of the body will be the Welsh Parliament.

  13. There’s also the Althing.

    The Japanese Diet is an odd one because the unusual term isn’t related to the country’s name for its legislature.

  14. I’ve also seen the Russian parliament being referred to as “the Russian (State) Duma” in English-language sources and also the Polish Sejm being called by its Polish name. The Spanish Cortes is a similar example.

  15. Duma, sure. I’ve never seen Sejm, Senedd or Althing in English (it don’t mean they aren’t there), Cortez occasionally, but who doesn’t love the juxtaposition of Diet and Worms in one formal and dignified name.

  16. The Meiji-era Japanese institution was rendered in English as ‘Imperial Diet’, presumably on the basis that it was still a possible rendering of the German Reichstag which was one of the models.

  17. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Anders Jens-Peter Krone (if that is your real name): Norwegian as a pure descendent of Old West Norse is not really the facts on the ground, is it? Unless you have a very conservative gnome living under a rock in your back garden. zizka said in so many words that they were counting Norway as having two standard languages, so Icelandic, Riksmål, Nynorsk, Danish and Swedish would seem to be it.

    (I was a bit surprised to see that Old Norse is counted as surviving into the middle ages, albeit split into East and West, I thought we were talking about Old Danish and so on from earlier than that).

  18. David Marjanović says

    split into East and West

    Language vs. dialect, lumpers vs. splitters.

  19. Baaad lumpers! Naughty lumpers!

  20. Trond Engen says

    It’s both too early and too late. The Norse (or Scandinavian) dialects had started to diverge, but they weren’t yet evolving independently. That goes both for the East-West split, the ODa-OSw split, and the ONo-OIc split. Both the clear East/West dichotomy and the internal unity of both tomoi are artefacts of geographical location of the main scribal centers. When Medieval Norse finally split, it didn’t follow the defining East-West isoglosses.

  21. Lars Mathiesen says

    In any case, I think that Old Norse as usually represented (the language of the Sagas and so on) mainly reflects an older stage of the western end of the continuum — coastal Norway and Iceland around 1000. By WP, there are only runic sources to the eastern dialects before the landscape laws around 1300 which arguably were no longer Norse but Old Danish/Swedish, that’s probably why I though Old Norse and the Middle Ages were incommensurable.

Speak Your Mind