Part of the challenge in learning a new language is communicating with someone using a very limited vocabulary. Many times when I’m trying to convey a point, I’ve had to switch over and use an English word in the middle of a Norwegian sentence because I didn’t know the Norwegian equivalent. Sometimes the English word does sound a little bit like the Norwegian word, so there’s no harm in trying. Sometimes though, I mix up my words and use the wrong Norwegian word without even knowing I misspoke.
The first time I did this was when we had my husband’s three elderly aunts over for dinner. We had a wonderful time and I was so proud I could finally communicate a little with them in Norwegian, since by then I’d been attending Norwegian class for several weeks. But the problem came when we were saying our goodbyes. What I meant to say was, “You are always welcome back here anytime.” But the Norwegian words for “always” and “never” sound a little too much alike, and I used the wrong one. The look on their faces told me immediately that I’d messed up. Fortunately, my husband caught my error and corrected it on the spot, otherwise the evening might not have ended so well.
Another time I was in an antique store and I asked the elderly woman working there if she bartered, as I thought the prices seemed a bit high. She answered back that she didn’t speak English. I thought that was an odd response since I had asked her the question in Norwegian, so I asked her again and she answered the same way. When we left the store, I told my husband what happened. He asked me what I said to her so I repeated my Norwegian phrase for “Do you barter?” It was then I found out I’d used the wrong vowel in the word, so instead of asking, “Do you barter?” I actually asked her, “Do you talk?” One tiny little vowel makes all the difference.
I’m in good company though, because there is one famous Norwegian guy that the whole country laughs about for this very reason. He’s a professional racecar driver and he’s not very good at English, but like me, he tries. He’s often interviewed by English speaking media and when he doesn’t know the correct English word for something he just throws in the Norwegian equivalent. It works sometimes, and sometimes it’s a disaster.
His most classic and much repeated faux-pa came the day he was talking about a particular race and the interviewer asked him something about his “speed,” which actually is the word “fart” in Norwegian. The racecar driver meant to answer, “It’s not the speed that will kill you, it’s the crash,” but that’s not exactly what he said because he didn’t know all the right words. The Norwegian word for “crash” is “smelle” so what he actually said was, “It’s not the fart that will kill you, it’s the smell.” That story has lingered for years.