According to Julie

Bilingual infatuation


My Twitter followers want me to define love. Ok, here goes.

Last night, I posted a list of words missing from the English language, and one of them was "forelsket".

I woke up this morning to a list of @mentions on Twitter about the difference between the English "in love" and the Norwegian "forelsket".

Seriously, Twitter? You think I know the answer to that one? Well, I’ll try.

This works in any language

In my head, "forelsket" is how you feel between just having a crush on someone and actually realizing you are in love with them.

I guess if I were to use both my languages to describe how love evolves, it would be something like this: I like someone in general (conveniently, same word in both languages), I have a crush (which at least one friend of mine has directly translated into English as "ha et knus"), I feel "forelsket", I fall in love. This doesn’t necessarily happen in that order, but on a scale of not-serious to very-serious, that’s how it works.

Is forelsket the same as infatuated? Not really. Infatuated implies silliness, irrationality and superficiality. "Forelskelse" is hardly rational, but it’s not as stupid/crazy as infatuation. If I ever describe myself as infatuated, it’s because I know I’m completely stupid and out-of-character, and that this insane crush will blow over any minute. On the other hand, I can be forelsket for a frightening amount of time.

When I listen to friends who only speak English or watch movies in English, and someone says "I think I’m in love", I think: "No dear, you’re forelsket. You just don’t have that word in your vocabulary, poor thing." I guess forelsket is that giddy, excited feeling that’s telling you someone is very interesting. Forelskelse is when you have a theory that you might be able to fall in love with someone, but you just don’t know them well enough to tell yet.

Privately, I think that all the words I know, in English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, French, German, Dutch, Khmer, Thai, Italian, Spanish*, are all one big vocabulary. Sometimes I can use all my words, sometimes only a few, depending on who I’m talking to.

I also appreciate the British verb "fancy" and the American "hooking up" (I interpret it as an intentionally ambivalent way of saying "Something physical happened, but I’m not going to give you any details."). I think the Norwegian "kjæreste" is more serious than the English "boyfriend/girlfriend". Saying "I love you" in English is nowhere near as big a deal as saying it in Norwegian.

Even when no one else agrees with my definitions (or even understands me at all), speaking two languages fluently gives me twice as many ways to think about everything. There are some feelings I can only express in English and some I can only express in Norwegian, but in my own thoughts, I can sort out my emotions using my whole vocabulary.

Related posts: Love in any language and I want to live in English

* I only speak two languages fluently, but I do know words in all of these languages. And the list looked cool.

Image: Premshree Pillai, Creative Commons

9 thoughts on “Bilingual infatuation

  1. Fascinating. I don’t recognize the stages you describe at all, and I’m in my 40s. I have been in love a few times, or maybe I’ve just been “forelsket”, who knows?
    To me, “forelskelse”, “crush” and “falling in love” are synonyms, describing the (usually) transient phenomenon which may or may not be followed by the more lasting “love”.
    But I do agree that the english term “love” is more general than the norwegian “elske”, covering less serious feelings.

  2. I can totally relate to everything you said in this post, and I think the only reason for that, Julie, is that we have the same two languages in which we are fluent. If one grows up without learning and knowing the meanings of the words “forelsket” and “elske”, I think it’s almost impossible to comprehend exactly how they work.

  3. did you know you’re somewhat patronizing when you think?
    referring to: “No dear, you’re forelsket. You just don’t have that word in your vocabulary, poor thing.”

  4. Aina – Yes, I know my thinking is patronizing.

  5. To Alexander: I’m Norwegian, too. Still don’t get it.

  6. Hi. I just found your old blog on espen today while searching for exactly this; the difference between “I love you.”, and “Jeg elsker deg.”

    The thing is, I’m having some trouble. I’m an American, born and raised, and English is my only fluent language. I took twelve years of French, but after I graduated high school in 2008, I’ve never had cause to use that French, and I’ve all but lost it, though I do believe I can save it if I still try. However, that is something I intend to put off for a while, because for many years now, I’ve been nursing a growing interest and love (to an almost embarrassing degree of Norse- and Germanophilia) for, primarily, Scandinavia, its languages, history, everything. I’ve been trying for some time now to teach myself Norwegian, which I want to learn before I move on to the ridiculously long list of languages I plan on tackling eventually, but I live in the Deep South, and I don’t feel like moving to Minnesota and going to a Lutheran school just to learn Norwegian.

    I know this may be out of left field, but is there any advice you could give me about learning the language with no native speakers locally, and with no money to invest in a tutor? I know about a few language forum type websites, but these don’t really feel ‘right’ to me, and I’m honestly a little intimidated at the thought of trying to find Norwegians to entertain at my expense.

    Anyways, anything you could offer would be really appreciated, and I have to say, I’m glad I found your blog. I’m a history/philosophy major (I’m waiting to tackle linguistics until after I get a doctorate, if I can), so I find your perspective fascinating. Thanks!

    • Saabyekee,

      I have a limited experience with learning foreign languages on purpose. I learned both English and Norwegian the way native speakers learn these languages as children, without seeking out tutors or language courses. Like you, my “foreign” language is French, which I started studying with after-school classes taught by French teachers in Norway. Intensive classes with native speakers allowed me to pick up the basics of French fairly quickly (the equivalent of three years of high school classes in just eight weeks or so), and I really recommend learning from native speakers in small groups. If that is impossible, I know there are a variety of language computer programmes and internet-based courses, but I have no experience with them myself.

      If you have the basics of the Norwegian language down, I suggest you improve your vocabulary the way Norwegians learning English do: read newspaper articles and watch television. The following are two major Norwegian online news sources you could start with:

      The Norwegian public television network NRK puts its programming online, but it is only available from Norwegian IP addresses. You could experiment with proxies to trick the system, but you might be better off getting yourself som dvds online. That way, you can add Norwegian subtitles to the Norwegian audio. I find that hearing and seeing the same words at the same time in a foreign language makes it easier to understand them. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck finding Norwegian television shows available via Amazon, but there are movies. Have you seen Max Manus, Elling or Buddy? Those are three fairly recent Norwegian titles that had enough international success to make it to And don’t forget The Troll Hunter, possibly the most Norwegian movie ever, full of cultural references and in-jokes for Norwegians, but hopefully still entertaining for Americans.

      Keep in mind when learning Norwegian that while it is a fairly easy language to master the basics of, it is very difficult to pronounce everything like a native. Part of this difficulty comes from the difference between soft American consonants and harsh Norwegians rrr-sounds – not to mention the notorious “kj”. And part of the problem is the numerous dialects and the fact that we have two official (very similar) written languages, which means that there are seemingly endless variations of pronunciations and possible spellings. Don’t worry, it confuses me too. But if you can live with that, the good news is that Norwegian grammar and standard spelling is far more logical and predictable than English. You can actually sound words out when reading, without encountering trick words like the English “enough”. In fact, one of my American family friends used to read to me in Norwegian, sounding out the words. She had learned the basic pronunciation rules, but she didn’t understand a word she was reading. But I did!

      Ultimately though, nothing beats learning through conversations with real Norwegians. If you can seek them out and convince them not to speak English to you, you will learn to communicate in Norwegian.

    • I put my answer to your question in its own blog post, where I will also collect some additional answers from other readers:

  7. Pingback: How to teach yourself Norwegian « According to Julie

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