Norwegian expression of the day: Å snakke rett fra leveren

This expression leads you to the core of an important Norwegian cultural ambivalence.

Norwegian expression of the day: Å snakke rett fra leveren

What does it mean?

In its most literal sense å snakke rett fra leveren means 'to speak directly from the liver’.

It's an expression to say that someone is speaking truthfully, without sugar-coating. Another way Norwegians say this is å si noe rett ut, 'to say something plainly'.

According to the Norwegian language guardian Språkrådetå snakke rett fra leveren is an old expression, dating back to a time when the liver was thought to be the magical place in the body where thoughts and feelings (like courage) originated. 

Fun-fact: the famous Norwegian Henrik Ibsen used the expression in his 1874 book De unges forbund – The Young People’s League. 

Why is å snakke rett fra leveren so Norwegian?

Well it isn't, really. When Norwegians say they are going to snakke rett fra leveren, they're branding this like the ultimate act of frankness. You say it with pride: Nå skal jeg snakke rett fra leveren! – I’m going to say it as it is!

In 1966, the Norwegian state channel NRK even made a TV series called Rett fra leveren (still available online), which they branded as an attempt to “giving a voice to the so-called 'grassroots'.”

Over the course of 12 episodes, 12 different people get to “say what they really mean about a topic of their own choosing.” 

But anyone who has lived in Norway for a while knows that this kind of frankness is a rarity. Norwegians actually very rarely say things 'as they are', especially if the 'thing' is unpleasant to say.

When confronted with a situation where something uncomfortable needs to be said to another person – like for instance that they have smudged some havregrøt (oatmeal) on their face during breakfast, or that they have been doing a less-than-average job on something work-related – Norwegians find it hard.

Usually, the Norwegian will choose to not snakke rett fra leveren, politely avoid the topic and stare at their phone instead.

READ ALSO: Do Swedes really need help being friendly?

So there is definitely a Norwegian ambivalence related to å snakke rett fra leveren. This is well illustrated in this Q&A exchange from 2005:

Borghild: Jeg er kjent for a som det så fint heter. Liker du folk som snakker rett fra levra eller syns du vi er litt for ærlige? 

– I'm known to do what is called saying it like it is. Do you like people who say it like it is, or do you reckon we're being a bit too honest? 

Several people responded to Borghild, but the perhaps most apt answer was this:

Jeg er for å si det en mener, men av og til lønner det seg til å tie stille også. Klarer man det er alt bra, men må en alltid si sin mening, da har en et stort problem.

– I support saying it like it is, but sometimes it's better to be quiet. If there's a balance, that's good. But if you always need to say what you really think, there's something very wrong with you.

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Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

There are about ten Sámi languages alive today, spoken across the northern parts of Scandinavia and eastern Russia. But they are among the many Indigenous languages around the world that are at risk of disappearing. 

Ten essential Sámi words that you might not have heard before

You might have heard that there are over 200 words for snow in Sámi languages, which is unsurprising, given the climate of the Sámi homeland in Northern Europe. But there’s a lot more to the languages than snow. 

The Swedish Sámi parliament website says that “language is the bearer of cultural heritage and reflects our people’s common view of life and values. Language transfers knowledge about nature and the world.”

But Sámi language fluency has been declining rapidly for decades. Pite Sámi is critically endangered, with fewer than 50 living speakers, all in Sweden. Today, Northern Sámi is the most widely spoken. 

Due to assimilation policies in all the countries the Sámi found themselves in, older generations of Sámi people were not allowed to speak their own language in school, meaning some languages have already been lost. 

The Local spoke to speakers and researchers of the languages to find out some of the most unique and beautiful words still in use.

1. Sápmi  

Sápmi is the Northern Sámi word for the traditional dwelling place of the Sámi people, which encompasses the northern parts of Scandinavia and the Kola peninsula of Russia. Since the 20th century, national borders and state policies have divided Sápmi and the people who call it home. 

Location of Sápmi in Europe

A map of where Sápmi in northern Europe. Map: Wikipedia

Elle Rávdná Näkkäläjärvi is part of the Sámiskeveivisere, Sámi Pathfinders, a group of young Sámi people who visit high schools and teach students about Sámi culture. She says Sápmi itself is one of her favourite words. 

“The word means a Sápmi without borders, it means relatives, sisters and brothers, and community,” she says. 

2. Eadni 

Eadni means ‘mother’ in Northern Sámi.

“It’s one of the first words that children learn,” says Berit Anne Bals Baal, a lecturer of linguistics at the National Centre for Sámi Language in Education at the Sámi University College, who chose it as her favourite word.

It has a complex phonology (sound system), and is similar to the Northern Sámi word for Earth, which is eanan

3. Guohtun  

Guohtun is a Northern Sámi word that describes the ideal conditions for reindeer to find lichen to graze under a covering of snow. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s one of those words that resists simple translation.

Lars Miguel Utsi, the Vice President of the Sámi parliament of Sweden, says, “Guohtun is a very complex word. It encompasses geography, plants, lichens, snow, and reindeer. It exemplifies the language and its connection to land and water.”

“It’s a very soothing word because it means that there is food and the reindeer can reach it,” he said. 

4. Giitu  

Giitu means ‘thank you’ in Northern Sámi.

Anyone who knows some Finnish might notice that it sounds quite similar to the Finnish word for ‘thank you’, kiitos. That’s because Sámi languages have more in common with Finnish than with Swedish, Danish or Norwegian, coming from the same language family: Finno-Uralic. 

You can respond to giitu with leage buorre which means ‘you’re welcome.’

5. Čáiddas 

This means snowball. We couldn’t have a list of Sámi words without having something specific to snow, could we? 

6. Vuovdi 

This means forest in Northern Sámi. Vast swathes of Sápmi is covered in forest. Sámi reindeer herders rely on old-growth forests to let their reindeer graze; they eat the kind of lichen that only grows in older forests. 

7. Boazu

Reindeer husbandry is a vital part of Sámi life. Photo: Image Bank Sweden

In all Sámi languages, there are two different words for reindeer. In Northern Sámi there is goddi and boazu.

Boazu means a reindeer who has been tamed and can be milked. Goddi is the word for wilder reindeer.  

Reindeer herding is an important aspect of Sámi culture and a vital source of income for many Sámi people. The Sámi parliament estimates that about 2,500 people are dependent on income from reindeer husbandry. 

8. Bures

An easy one! This is how you say “hello” to another person in Northern Sámi. 

9. Goahte  

Goahte is a type of hut in Lule Sámi. It’s a traditional Sámi home that can be built in several different ways, depending on what material is available, like with wooden panels or a construction of wooden poles covered with peat or cloth.

10. Sámediggi 

This is the Northern Sámi word for the Sámi Parliament. There’s a Sámi parliament in each country that divides Sápmi.

In the Scandinavian countries, it’s essentially a government agency with the aim of representing the Sámi people and increasing opportunities to participate in public debate.