Ord for Ord.

I’ve finally reached January 9 as I work through the stack of old issues of the TLS, and the Freelance column by Lydia Davis (probably subscribers-only) was obvious LH material:

These days, I begin my morning happily absorbed in reading a book that would have seemed highly unlikely to me a year ago: it is in Norwegian, a language I did not know before, and was described by some irritated critics in Norway, when it appeared last year, as “tedious” and “unreadable”, though it also received much admiring praise. Dag Solstad’s “novel”, Det Uoppløselige Episke Element i Telemark i Perioden 1691–1896 (428 pages), is entirely factual. Its storyline consists for the most part of detailed accounts of the births, marriages, deaths, and property transactions of his ancestors in Telemark, with little incident, almost no real drama, much authorial speculation, and the occasional memorable character, such as the pipe-smoking widow Torhild, the spendthrift Margit, and the power-hungry Halvor Steinulvson Borgja (b. 1625). […]

Then, last spring, I was describing to [Davis’s Norwegian translator, Johanne Fronth-Nygren] my difficulties with a project of my own involving several generations of my ancestors, one that promised to be long, complex and confusing. She recommended a new book she admired by Dag Solstad (pronounced “Soolstad”), now in his early seventies and considered by many to be Norway’s pre-eminent contemporary novelist. I had already dipped into the two paperbacks of his which I had in English translation. Johanne told me this new one was unusual, and quite controversial: how could it be called a novel? She said that although I would not be able to read it, I could at least look through it and get an idea of what he was doing.

I sent for the book. […] I was also frustrated: this was a book I wanted to read, and it did not exist in English. So, seeing no alternative, I tried the first sentence: “Les langsomt, ord for ord, hvis man vil forstå hva jeg sier”. With the help of German cognates (lesen and langsam), I understood the first two words right away: “Read slowly”. Although it took me a few minutes to realize that ord had nothing to do with “order” or the German Ort, but meant “word”, I then found I could decipher most of the rest: “Read slowly, word for word, hvis one will understand [G. verstehen] hva jeg sier”. I thought jeg could mean “I” (Fr. je, Dutch jij, etc). The whole turned out to be a surprisingly apt directive: “Read slowly, word for word, if you want to understand what I am saying”. I made up my mind that I would simply keep reading; even if at first I understood almost nothing, I thought, I would in time understand more and more, and perhaps actually learn to read Norwegian.

And that is what has happened. I do read slowly, though no longer always one word at a time. I often reread at least part of a sentence. I don’t use a dictionary, attempting to figure out the words from their contexts with the help of cognates, though that can lead me astray. Norwegian ferd has nothing to do with German Pferd, horse – which in Norwegian is hest; giftet seg means “got married”, though gift by itself does, like the German Gift, mean “poison”. I write down each new word I figure out. Many sentences I can now read without stumbling; more and more rarely do I find myself in a thicket of incomprehensible language. By now I am within eighty pages of the end. […]

Adding to the suspense, in my case, is of course the adventure of learning the language as I go along, seeing more and more mysterious words become familiar. In the beginning, as I made my way into this partly incomprehensible Telemark of the 1600s and 1700s, I felt, pleasantly, all the farther away from home in both time and culture for not knowing half of what I was reading. Now that the mists are clearing, each page offers another reward: not only the unfolding story, but also a linguistic revelation – not only about Norwegian, but also about the roots it shares with English. When I learn svar, I glimpse the source of our “answer”. I knew “neighbour” was related to “nigh”; now that I know the Norwegian bor means “dwell”, I see “neighbour” for what it is: one who lives nearby. The English words become strange again.

It reminded me strongly of the opening of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (see this post, and if you haven’t read it, go read it); my one cavil: I don’t believe the “I don’t use a dictionary” part. I can believe she avoids using a dictionary as much as possible, but there are words you simply can’t get from context, and it seems to me it would just be too frustrating to move on leaving some crucial word a mental blank.

Update. It turns out people do learn by reading foreign texts without using a dictionary (see comments below); once again, I’ve overgeneralized from my own experience.


  1. I can believe she avoids using a dictionary as much as possible, but there are words you simply can’t get from context, and it seems to me it would just be too frustrating to move on leaving some crucial word a mental blank.

    I read English exactly like this in my adolescence, though certainly, English was native to me, which I’m sure made a difference. I suppose for something like these texts where relatively little unexpected happens it’s more tolerable not to totally get what’s going on.

  2. Stefan Holm says

    Although it took me a few minutes to realize that ord had nothing to do with “order” or the German Ort, but meant “word”.

    A linguist might know that loss of initial ‘w’ and ‘j’ (in English spelt ‘’y’) in front of ‘’u’ and ‘o’ is typical for Scandinavian. Like this:

    Wolf > ulv, worm > orm (‘snake’ in Swedish), wool > ull, word > ord, work > orka (verb meaning to ‘manage physically to do do something), whore > hora, whole > hel, wound > ond (‘adjective: painful’), Wodan > Oden (wednesday > onsdag), young > ung, yoke > ok.

    Another clue to Scandinavian is the correspondance ea – ö (or ‘ø’, the mathematical symbol for diameter, as the Norwegians and the Danes insist to write it):

    Bean > böna, bread > bröd, breast > bröst, bleed > blöda, ceal > köl, cheap > köpa (= buy), dead > död, deaf > döv, deem > döma (=judge), dream > dröm, ear > öra, eye > öga, east > öst, feed > föda, feel > føle (Danish), geats > götar, green > grön, hear > höra, hen > höna, leap > löpa (= run), leaf > löv, leek > lök (=onion), (re)lease > lösa, mead > mjöd, meet > möta, neat (cattle) > nöt, need (noun) > nöd, red > röd, seek > söka, sea > sjö, smear > smörja, stream > ström, sweet > söt.

    In proto-Germanic this wovel was ‘au’ (as in modern Icelandic and to and fro in modern German). A third clue is English ‘o’ > Scandinavian ‘e’, ‘ä’ (or in Norwegian dialects ‘ei’) :

    Alone > allena, bone > ben, broad > bred, doug > deg, drove > drev, oak > ek, oath > ed, one > en, own (adj.) > egen, own (verb) > äga, foul > fel (=error), goat > get, whole > hel, holy > helig, home > hem, hot > het, loaf > lev, more > mer, most > mest, no > nej, nose > näsa, older > äldre, oldest > äldst, poke > peka (=point), rope > rep, rode > red, shone > sken, stone > sten, soul > själ, token > tecken, who(m) > vem, wood > ved, work > verk (noun), world > värld, worse > värre, worst > värst, worth > värd, your (plural) > er (with loss of initial ‘y’).

    Proto-Germanic was ‘ei’, preserved in Icelandic and to high extent in Norwegian and in (high) German – pronounced though as ‘ai’.

    So there ought to be some shortcuts for native speakers of English to approach Scandinavian.

  3. The English for köl is not ceal (which does not exist) but keel, a borrowing from Old Norse. Also, you are abusing the sacred sign >, which means “is derived from” rather than “is cognate to”.

  4. Then there’s the fun case of Anglo-Saxon-derived shirt and Norse-derived skirt.

  5. Also, whole and whore didn’t have any initial /w/ to lose.

  6. They do say that Norwegian is the easiest living language for native English speakers to learn (modulo opportunities for practice, etc.)

    I wonder how she would have done without the knowledge of German.

    (Also this is kind of like starting to read novels in Japanese, except instead of words and meanings it’s kanji and readings.)

  7. Ken Miner says

    Scandinavian syntax is very like English syntax. I would love to see the Norwegian version of “Bring the book I sent you down for back up.”

  8. per incuriam says

    I thought jeg could mean “I” (Fr. je, Dutch jij, etc)

    Cute, except jij means “you”.

    It is said that both Joyce and Wittgenstein learned Norwegian so as to read Ibsen in the original. Dictionaries may have been used.

  9. Jeffry House says

    Dette gir Meg fordoeyelsesvannskeligeter.

  10. Davis’s labour with Solstad, writer to/from writer, has at least one precedent in Elio Vittorini’s teaching himself English by going through Robinson Crusoe word by word. He used a dictionary, of course. He didn’t have Davis’s advantage of knowing a reasonably close relative of the original language; on the other hand, he’d virtually memorised a condensation of the book for children that he’d read as a young boy, and so could progress through the full English text making well-informed guesses.

  11. Let’s also not forget that Tarzan taught himself English from books despite not knowing any human language.

  12. And great many speakers of any language wouldn’t be tempted, at first, to think that Telemark is a region (rather than a ski technique named after it)?

  13. I don’t believe the “I don’t use a dictionary” part.

    When I was maybe 12, I read “Stranger in a Strange Land” without a dictionary, because I couldn’t be bothered to stop reading. (I did have about 3 years of school English under my belt, but no vocabulary). I had the pleasure of reading it three or four times in immediate succession, more and more bits making sense each time.

    Bring the book I sent you down for back up in Danish (probably not much of a difference): Tag bogen med op som jeg sendte dig ned efter. Or ?Tag bogen jeg sendte dig ned efter med op — but it feels clumsy, light particles really do want the spot right after the direct object.

  14. Trond Engen says

    The possibilities are legion.
    Ta med (den) boka jeg sendte deg ned etter opp (hit) igjen.
    Ta (den) boka jeg sendte deg ned etter med opp (hit) igjen.

    But more probably with topicalization for clarity:
    Den boka jeg sendte deg ned etter, [pause for confirmation] ta den med opp hit igjen.

    (The idea of bringing something back up that you didn’t bring down in the first place is another matter.)

  15. George Gibbard says

    Stefan Holm, not all of your examples of English ea = Swedish ö = Proto-Germanic *au belong. At least the following are actually umlaut of Proto-Germanic *oː: bleed : blöda, deem : döma, feed : föda, feel : føle, green : grön, meet : möta, sweet : söt. Mead : mjöd is PIE *medhu. Release is < Old French relaissier < Latin relaxare. Smear is from OE smerian apparently with a short vowel.

    And under Germanic *ai, English foul ‘error’ is from the adjective foul, OE fūl; nose is OE nosu; wood is OE wudu, and for the rest weorc, weorold, wyrsa, wyrsta, weorþ, ēower.

  16. “The English words become strange again.”

    This is the best bit, to me. I know the feeling, although I haven’t yet tried to read a whole book in Polish, Czech or Serbo-Croat, in the same way.

  17. Ken Miner says

    (The idea of bringing something back up that you didn’t bring down in the first place is another matter.)

    Trond (takk for oversettelsen) Yes, quite so. I don’t think our linguists have ever faced this: “He went there and came back again” doesn’t mean he came back a second time. The only reason our languages don’t drive us crazy is that we’re already crazy from other causes.

  18. Lord AJP Monboddo says

    Next to Latin, I believe written Norwegian & Danish must be the most useful languages for anyone interested in English (personally I find Swedish less help, but that may be just my problem). Yesterday, I saw that prate was a common English word in the seventeenth century. It meant to talk or chat presumably – that’s its current meaning in Norwegian where it’s not necessarily derisive, unlike “prattle” in current English. I read it in a quotation of the eccentric and wonderful protofeminist, philosopher and protector of animals (I advise anyone who doesn’t know of her to do some googling) Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle:

    “For my mother cared not so much for our dancing and fiddling, singing and prating of several languages, as that we should be bred virtuously, modestly, civilly, honourably, and on honest principles”

    The lyrics, said to be by Thomas Wharton, of Lilliburlero also contain the word prate. I wonder why it died out in English.

    (I’m sorry if I’ve screwed up any of the html links.)

  19. When I was maybe 12, I read “Stranger in a Strange Land” without a dictionary, because I couldn’t be bothered to stop reading.

    Huh. OK, maybe I’ve just been too quick to resort to dictionaries!

    I wonder why it died out in English.

    It hasn’t died out, it’s just become less common. OED cites:

    1993 M. Clynes Poisoned Chalice (BNC) 4, I sat in my pew and heard him prate on for at least an hour and a half.
    2005 London Free Press (Ont.) (Nexis) 20 Mar. a17 Naysayers, meanwhile, continue prating that the science of global warming is unsound.

    (I’ve used it myself, but I realize that hardly counts. I use all sorts of oddities.)

  20. They do say that Norwegian is the easiest living language for native English speakers to learn (modulo opportunities for practice, etc.)

    I usually hear people say either Scots, Afrikaans or Frisian is the easiest for English speakers. Not everyone considers Scots to be a language, of course.

  21. AJP Monboddo says

    Language, do you use it negatively, like prattle, or positively, like chat, or either, depending on the context, as in Norwegian?

  22. Oh, negatively; I don’t think it’s ever been used otherwise in English. The OED definition: “To talk or chatter; to speak foolishly, boastfully, or at great length, esp. to little purpose; to prattle.”

  23. I would say it’s always negative, meaning either foolish or boring/overlong talk, or both.

  24. per incuriam says

    prate was a common English word in the seventeenth century. It meant to talk or chat presumably – that’s its current meaning in Norwegian where it’s not necessarily derisive

    In Dutch praten is the standard word for talk, without connotation.

  25. OK, maybe I’ve just been too quick to resort to dictionaries!

    As a teenager I had a pen-pal in Sweden who got me onto a mailing list for a free Chrysler-Sweden consumer-oriented periodical. I can’t say that I understood it well, but I managed to eke out the drift of its articles. My modest, though real knowledge of Yiddish probably helped, as did my strong general knowledge of matters automotive. I didn’t even possess a Swedish-English dictionary.

  26. Trond Engen says

    His name isn’t pronounced “Soolstad”, by the way, unless you’re reading it carefully to help someone guess the spelling. And the spelling isn’t a problem. The final d is mute. The l can be realized in various ways according to dialect, register etc., from the plain, soft l-sound (“Soolstah”, or “Soolstar” to a non-rhotic), over “thick l” (roughly “Soorstah” to an American ear), to being merged with s in an sh-sound (“Sooshtah”). And always in the second tone…

  27. J. W. Brewer says

    Old Norse was by a significant margin the easiest language I ever formally studied. But like Davis I had previously studied German, so . . . OTOH the few times I have tried to puzzle out short patches of written Dutch, which I’ve never tried to learn in an organized/systematic way, I have probably done better. But that’s by thinking of Dutch as if it were comically (but systematically, in a patterned way that can be recognized) misspelled German, not by approaching it as vaguely English-like while also using German for triangulation.

  28. Trond Engen says

    Thank you for making me remember The Last Samurai. I just downloaded it to my Kindle, getting ready for a long flight in a few days. (It’s to Japan, so I don’t dare carrying the paper version. I fear I’d look silly to those who know and get silly questions from those who don’t.)

  29. Excellent! I just hope the Kindle version properly presents all the formatting and foreign tongues.

  30. Trond Engen says

    Oh, right, I forgot about that. I’ll just have to see.

  31. Please give us a report!

  32. Trond Engen says

    I’ll do, but it may take its time. If I don’t finish it on the plane out, it may have to wait until the return flight. And if I’m not going off line for the whole stay, I’ll probably have very little time for socializing leisurely on the Internet.

  33. Trond Engen says

    I read two chapters on the first leg of my way out, as soon as I’d finished the evening meal over Russia. The opening sucked me in immediately, but I got sleepy when we met the night over Kazakhstan and didn’t pick up my Kindle again before after breakfast over Burma. But I’m sad to say there’s no Hiragana or Greek letters or monosyllabaric Tamil so far, and none of what I believe is clever layout discerning the concert of voices (or conflicting thoughts), which makes for a slow read.

  34. learned Norwegian so as to read Ibsen in the original.

    I’d thought it was Danish he had written in.

    I was greatly surprised that it is cognate with бредить:


    Afaik, prata is the usual counterpart of the more formal tala in Swedish:
    Pratar du svenska? ‘Do you speak Swedish?’

  35. David Marjanović says

    Amazing how casually the entry for prate sets up a PIE word with *b-. But the rest works out fine (*brod-nó- > *pratta-). Can we set up a borrowing scenario that lets us get around the *b? Pre-Baltic into Pre-Proto-Germanic?

  36. Lars Mathiesen says

    Ibsen / Danish — when Ibsen wrote, Norway was in personal union with Sweden but the written standard language was still virtually identical to the Danish one. So whether he wrote in Norwegian or Danish is a matter of viewpoint.

    Anyway, learning modern (book) Norwegian is probably just as useful for reading mid-19th century prose as learning modern Danish would be. Possibly more. Trond knows more.

  37. Sometimes, especially when dreaming or at the site of battles, it’s hard to know who’s using what language. Finnegans Wake 15.28-16.9 (repunctuated a bit for legibility):

    In the name of Anem this carl on the kopje in pelted thongs a parth a lone who the joebiggar be he? Forshapen his pigmaid hoagshead, shroonk his plodsfoot. He hath locktoes, this shortshins, and, Obeold that’s pectoral, his mammamuscles most mousterious. It is slaking nuncheon out of some thing’s brain pan. Me seemeth a dragon man.

    He is almonthst on the kiep fief by here, is Comestipple Sacksoun, be it junipery or febrewery, marracks or alebrill or the ramping riots of pouriose and froriose.

    What a quhare soort of a mahan. It is evident the michindaddy. Lets we overstep his fire defences and these kraals of slitsucked marrogbones. (Cave!) He can prapsposterus the pillory way to Hirculos pillar.

    —Come on, fool porterfull, hosiered women blown monk sewer? Scuse us, chorley guy! You tollerday donsk?


    —You tolkatiff scowegian?


    —You spigotty anglease?


    —You phonio saxo?


    — Clear all so! ‘Tis a Jute. Let us swop hats and excheck a few strong verbs weak oach eather yapyazzard abast the blooty creeks.

    The usual notes:

    “In the name of Anem”: Irish ainm ‘name’ certainly, which then leads to Nom d’un nom!

    “a parth a lone”: Not likely Parthalón/Parthalán himself, but one of his people, the last survivor of the second group to settle in Ireland (per The Book of Invasions) after the antediluvian “people of Ceasair” were all drowned save Fintán, who became a salmon and later a bird.

    “joebiggar”: Joseph Biggar, an associate of Parnell’s, who was hunchbacked.

    “mousterian”: The older name for the Middle Palaeolithic toolkit, associated with Neanderthals, after Moustère in France (the first but not the last French reference). Thus we see that the Parthalonians were Neanderthals, which aligns with “joebiggar” (on the view of them current in Joyce’s time).

    “almonthst […], be it junipery or febrewery, marracks or alebrill or the ramping riots of pouriose and froriose.” Four English months and two French Republican ones, mixed with drinking.

    “Comestipple”: Constable/comestible.

    “Come on, fool porterfull, hosiered women blown monk sewer?” A French greeting to a blond man, a phrase frequently repeated in various languages throughout the Wake.

    “oach eather”: Fictional ablaut variant of “each other”.

  38. Trond Engen says

    Ibsen wrote at a time when the norvagization of Dano-Norwegian had hardly got started. As I’ve claimed before, the Norwegian declaration of independence was mostly (or also) an attempt by the danophile ruling class and the Danish Crown Prince slash Governor of Norway to cheat Sweden out of its reimbursement for Finland. When this failed (though not completely) and Norway entered a personal union with Sweden, insistence on a pure Dano-Norwegian language became a marker of patriotism, and introducing Eastern Norwegian features became suspect and was condemned as crypto-suecophilia. It took the threat from Ivar Aasen and his thoroughly un-Swedish Landsmaal to finally make nativization of Rigsmaal acceptable. Ibsen’s contemporary and rival Bjørnson was at the forefront of this movement.

    Anyway, contemporary Norwegian Bokmål and Danish are probably about equally good guides to Ibsen’s Dano-Norwegian. The archaic spellings and grammar may be more in line with Danish, his vocabulary is probably more Norwegian.

  39. Trond Engen says

    I’m pretty sure that the NGmc forms of prate are from Dutch/Low German. That might make a path through (Pre-)Celtic more likely.

    (Bokmålsordboka | Nynorskordboka, which usually is reliable on loanwords, says nothing, but my print edition of Kunnskapsforlagets Norsk ordbok does, and Samlagets Norrøn ordbok doesn’t know the word.)

  40. Lars Mathiesen says

    ODS concurs — prate is very oldfashioned in Danish, though.

  41. Google tells me that John Godfrey Saxe’s “prate about an elephant/ Not one of them has seen!” has been quoted four times in Languagehat comments—thrice by me and once by John Cowan.

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