Tones in Norwegian: why they are problematic for L2 learners

The critical reader may have noticed that I have, up until now, avoided comments on one distinct phonological feature of Norwegian, namely tone: “a word-accent; a rising, falling, or compound inflexion, by which words otherwise of the same sound are distinguished, as in ancient Greek, modern Chinese, and other languages” (OED Online 2014: “tone, n.”). I have been learning Norwegian for several years now, but I never managed to grasp the distribution of tones until several weeks ago. One can imagine that this is dissatisfying, since (as the quote above shows) tones serve to distinguish between meanings. In other words, they are extremely crucial. Sure, I have tried to memorise written explanations and I have listened to audio. However, for someone whose mothertongue lacks tonal contrasts, these attempts may not be enough. Here, I propose that there are two main reasons why L1 speakers of non-tone languages may struggle with tones in Norwegian.
The first reason is that it is unclear whether there is a fixed tonal distribution for Bokmål, which is the artificial standard variety that L2 learners are usually taught. I have not come across any comments on tone in the course books I’ve used, even though phonology was not ignored. There were extensive sections on pronunciation. These only discussed phonemes and allophones, however, and not word or phrase melody (Ellingsen and Mac Donald 2014; Manne and Nilsen 2003). A search of the internet did not provide concrete explanations for Bokmål either. There are some websites which claim that there is one tonal contrast in Norwegian: low-high is accent 1 and high-low-high is accent 2 (see, for example Dillon [2008]). I suspect that these claims mean that these melodies are what people expect to hear in Bokmål, but the sources do not state whether this is the case or whether the writers are merely describing the most common dialect.
In short: someone who is learning Bokmål may not be confronted with tones until he bravely decides to start speaking with actual Norwegians. No-one speaks Bokmål, and almost every dialect has tones. It seems rather strange that an officially recognised variety of a tone language would have a fixed pronunciation with respect to phonemes, but no fixed tones. I am curious to see whether this is actually the case or whether the abovementioned melodies of accent 1 and 2 are, indeed, those used in Bokmål. Comments are very welcome!

The second issue is that many learners may not be aware of the fact that Norwegian as a whole does not have a single rule for the distributions of tones. Consequently, one reason why tone disritribution seems undecipherable could be that learners unconsciously listen to output from different varieties and therefore mix things up. Linguists usually distinguish between two varieties when it comes to Norwegian tone:

  1. West Norwegian
  2. East Norwegian

These varieties display completely different tonal melodies, which I will describe here. In general, Norwegian has two tone melodies, which are called accent 1 and accent 2 (Kristoffersen 2007:  95). In West Norwegian varieties, accent 1 consists of two tones: a high tone followed by a low tone. In phonological descriptions, this melody is represented by HL (H = high, L = low). Accent 2 is made up of three tones: LHL (Riad 2006: 44).
The two tone melodies of East Norwegian are the complete opposites of those found in West Norwegian. Accent 1 is LH and accent 2 is HLH (Kristoffersen 2007: 99). Due to this contrast, a learner will not be able to make sense of Norwegian tone distribution if he mixes up the varieties while listening to audio. It is crucial to know beforehand that Norwegian has two main varieties, which have very different tone melodies. Before attempting to tackle pronunciation, therefore, a learner should either have a clear idea of the tones used in Bokmål or decide whether he wants to learn West or East Norwegian.

In conclusion: I have argued that L2 learners are confronted with two problems when it comes to learning about Norwegian tone melodies. The first is that tones are completely ignored in much course material. There are a few descriptions of “Norwegian tone” on the internet, but it is unclear whether these describe Bokmål tone melodies or just the most commonly found ones. Consequently, many learners may find it difficult to see which melodies to use when speaking Bokmål. Some may even be unaware of the fact that Norwegian has tonal contrasts.
The second problem is that learners may fail to distinguish between West and East Norwegian. Hence, difficulties could arise due to the fact that they mix up these varieties when listening to audio. Taking these problems into account, I propose that course material could be improved in two ways:

  1. They should specify whether Bokmål has a fixed tone distribution and, if so, what this distribution is.
  2. They should mention that Norwegian cannot be analysed as a whole when it comes to tones. Learners should be made aware of the fact that West Norwegian tone melodies differ from those found in East Norwegian.


  • Dillon, C.J. (2008). Norwegian Tones. UCL Wiki. London: University College London. Accessed on 20 September 2014.
  • Ellingsen, E. and K. Mac Donald (2014). Stein på stein Tekstbok: Norsk og samfunnskunnskap for voksne innvandrere. Cappelen Damm.
  • Kristoffersen, G. (2007). Dialect variation in East Norwegian tone. Tones and Tunes. Ed. T. Riad and C. Gussenhoven. Vol. 1. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 91-112.
  • Manne, G.K. and G. Nilsen (2003). Ny i Norge. Forlaget Fag Og Kulter.
  • OED Online (2014). “tone, n.”. OED. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Accessed on 19 September 2014.
  • Riad, T. (2006). Scandinavian accent typology. Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 59(1), 36–55.

One thought on “Tones in Norwegian: why they are problematic for L2 learners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s