Only If You Know a Little Norwegian

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    And I=m not referring to my buddy Halvor, who stands five foot two. No, I am referring to what you will need in order to understand one of the rarest phenomena in the realm covered by the discipline of linguistics B the interlinguistic pun. If we are to create a truly groanworthy pun that spans two (or even more) languages, then we must find suitable words in at least two different dictionaries that will work as homonyms or near-homonyms. Such puns may seem a small curiosity, but I think that they may shed some light on how we use language to construct in our minds an organized description of our world.


    In learning to speak Norwegian a native speaker of English has a special advantage: along with Anglo-Saxon and Eleventh-Century French, Old Norwegian comprises the foundation of Modern English. As Old Norwegian evolved into Modern Norwegian it retained the similarities with English that ease the task of learning the modern version. But those similarities may give the student a subconscious expectation of ease of learning that will come into conflict with the differences between the languages. That conflict comes into special play when we try to learn the pronouns. Of special importance and special difficulty is mastering the proper use of the second person singular pronoun. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it= s a matter of du or deg.

    Language is the tool that we use to transform percepts into concepts. When we confront an expanse of woody-stemmed greenery, only language tells us which individual in that expanse is a tree and which is a bush. Ernst Cassirer (in ALanguage and Myth@) locates the origin of language in the act of noticing, of creating a concept by separating an object or phenomenon from its environment in accordance with its utility to humans. Human utility is a flexible concept that takes us more or less directly to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the theory of linguistic relativity, but now I= m getting ahead of my topic.

    One of the first phenomena that we notice in the world is the existence of three kinds of people: self, others we talk to, and others we talk about. (And, yes, I am aware that ending a sentence with a preposition is supposed to be bad English, but it= s perfectly good Norwegian, which is why it sounds so natural in English). We have three generic names for those people taken one at a time and three more for those people taken more than one at a time B those names are the pronouns. But those six names denote only one aspect of another phenomenon that we notice B people are the subjects of actions and they are the objects of actions. So we need at least six more pronouns.

    In Old English the nominative and accusative forms of the second person singular pronoun are thou (correctly pronounced u and not au) and thee. The corresponding pronouns in Old Norwegian are du and deg (pronounced with a hard gee). Over time English speakers came to replace the singular thou with the plural you (plural pronouns are typically used as a courtesy in European languages) and Norwegian and Danish speakers shifted the pronunciation of deg from dee, short ee, hard gee to dee, ee pronounced as a flat ay, and gee pronounced as a wye-glide. But how did the phrase du or deg (part Norwegian and part English (the Aor@)) become a pun on the homonymous phrase do or die?

    It starts with luck, the good fortune that gives us the two sound-alike phrases. But what gives us the pun is the connection we make between the phrases= meanings.

    On top of its denotation the phrase do or die carries primarily the connotation of desperation. The phrase refers to a goal whose achievement is sufficiently important to warrant risking death. Learning the pronouns of a foreign language certainly does not qualify for such a description. So using homonymy to make a connection with that description raises the anxiety that we feel when we hear of something desperately important and then dissolves it suddenly in the recognition of the absurdity. Using homonymy between the denotations to connect one phrase to the connotation of the other temporarily creates the joke.

    Puns thus work somewhat in the manner of kennings. They are little riddles.


    The story is told of a young woman named Maria who went to visit Norway. She toured the full length and breadth of the country and everywhere she went she met tough, fearless, friendly people. She was deeply impressed with this national character and while meeting friends in a caf in Oslo she commented on it. And she wondered aloud what was it about Norway that shaped this wonderful character. At that moment the other people in the caf stood up and sang:

    AHavet, Maria. Vannet over det vi seiler....@ (The sea, Maria. The water over which we sail....)


    A Norwegian frog croaking horribly: jeg dr, jeg dr, jeg dr (I die, I die, I die).


    A Norwegian clock grateful for being fat: tykk, takk; tykk, takk; tykk, takk (fat, thanks; fat, thanks; fat, thanks).


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