Wednesday, 17 March 2010


It’s a well known fact that Scots, and indeed all English-speaking people, are brought up to say please and thank you at every opportunity. By the time they are adults, this is automatic and more-or-less non-stop. I sometimes wonder if we use ‘politeness’ words as a kind of filler-in, so as not to have to suffer the agony of any embarrassing silences between other words. Brits often take this to an almost ludicrous extent, so that if someone bumps into them in the street causing them to spill their shopping all over the pavement, it is always the ‘bumped-into-person’ who will apologize and possibly even thank the bumper for the experience. However, until I came to Norway I had no idea how engrained this manic politeness is sewn into the very fibre of my being.

So, can you imagine my surprise when I first started to learn Norwegian and discovered there was no word for ‘please’? I couldn’t think how a language could evolve without ‘please’, how on earth the Norwegians had managed to communicate at all, never mind ask for something. (There is the word ‘behage’ which is a verb and so means ‘to please’ it doesn’t do the same job) And didn’t they feel annoyed when everyone was so demanding and direct all the time? How was I going to manage?

If you see a Brit in Norway in a paroxysm of agony at a supermarket checkout, this is the reason...they are wondering how on earth they are going to say ‘please’ when there is no word for it. They are flummoxed. Their internal workings are tied up in knots trying to plan what on earth to say. Assuming one would normally say ‘please’ to the cashier at least seven times, an alternative strategy is required.

The day I came up with my alternative strategy, I was mightily relieved. At last, I could go to the supermarket and not come back in gut-churning confusion. I decided that where there should be a ‘please’ I would just say ‘thank you’ instead. I was thrilled at my brilliance. Norway was my oyster.

My ingenious strategy worked splendidly for about a year, until I realised I was saying it wrong. Instead of a short, sharp ‘takk’ (which means thank you), I was saying a long-drawn-out, very English-sounding ‘tak’(which means roof).

So, my conversation, for a whole year, ran thus.

‘Hei, hei.’ You have to say this twice. Nobody has ever explained why, so I assume it makes one come across as doubly friendly.

‘How are you today?’

‘Great! Roof,’ I announce with unrivalled conviction.

‘Nice day. Been outside?’

‘Yes, roof. I’ve just been out for a walk.’ I beam heartily.

‘Excellent. Go anywhere nice?’

‘Yeah, roof, down the beach. It was lovely, roof.’

‘Mm, nice. Will you need a bag for your shopping?’

‘No, roof, I’ve brought my enormous set of catering baskets, roof,’ I reply triumphantly.

‘That’s four hundred and fifty two kroner.’

‘Oh, yes, roof,’ I say with lucid comprehension.

‘Do you have two kroner?’

‘Erm, yeah, I do actually. Here you go. Roof,’ I say helpfully.

‘Fantastic. Do you need a receipt?’

‘Yeah, roof, that would be grand. Roof, roof, roof,’ I smile gratefully.

‘Ok, see you soon. Bye.’

‘Bye, and roof,’ I yell with a cheery little wave.

I would just like to point out, the Norwegians are so polite they didn’t mention any of this to me for quite a long time.


  1. While I'll admit it's hardly ever used, I always thought the Norwegian word for 'please' is 'vær så snill' (literally 'be so kind')... have I been telling generations of foreigners the wrong thing in Norwegian class? I'm still enjoying every blog you post - and I have been sharing it with friends back home to give them a better idea of what life is like here. Keep on writing.

  2. Mr K....You are of course right, but perhaps the problem lies in the fact that English-speaking people are not programmed to say a three word phrase instead of this one word, and so they are left speechless and confused. I guess this is part of the joy of learning a language.

  3. 'Vær så snill' as Mr K points out, is the Norwegian expression for please. It is however quite formal. People would generally say " en øl" or "en øl takk" rather than "en øl vær så snill - at the bar when ordering a beer. I haven't heard 'Vær så snill' in 3 years in Norway, though used it when I first came to Norway.

    Thank you - takk - is quite the opposite. With several variations "Mange takk" "Tusen takk" and "Takk skal du har".

    Then there are the very important social thank-you's.

    "Takk for sist" when you meet someone again and are thanking them for the previous meeting. Takk for de Gamle - thanks for the previous year - as a New Year greeting.

    The faux pas lies in forgeting these, not the please!


  4. Not to mention "Takk for maten" which we (should) always say as we leave the dining table (British youngsters seem to be taught to have to ask for permission to leave, while they don't seem to have to be grateful for what they have eaten?)
    N.Scott is also right about the "Vær så snill". Is is usually used in the pleading or commanding sense of the word, as in "pleeaase?" or "PLEASE!", never as a tag-along to already fully functioning sentences.
    When that's said, I am quite astounded that anybody would like to learn this globally rather useless language, so Norwegians are very forgiving and easily impressed - even if it comes out as "roof"!

  5. Oh my gosh...I guess I was "roofing" all along and didn't realize it until now:) Good thing I've moved onto Terima Kasih and tolong!:) I love this blog and it makes me LOL...just learned that didn't mean lots of luck or lots of love...guess you can still teach an old dog new tricks, just takes more patience and time!

  6. Two more thank you's from today's Norwegian lesson:
    "takk og pris" and "takk og lov" Thank God.