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The “hja!” Sound Explained

Hja Norwegian

Shit Norwegians Say #3

Part of our series on how to learn Norwegian.

After the first two posts in my Shit Norwegians Say series (“there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes” and “we are are born with skis on our feet“) spread around the internet like wildfire, I racked my brains to think of a follow-up.

Thanks then to an unnamed person at DIGS, my co-working space in Trondheim, for reminding me of this classic – “hja!”

This is an interesting one because it's neither a word nor an expression. It's merely a sound.

As it's not really a word it's difficult to explain how to make it. Try to pronounce “hya” as you take a sharp intake of breath and you're half way there! When I first encountered “hja!” I nearly jumped out of my skin, thinking this lovely Norwegian lady was about to keel over, or I'd just insulted her dying mother. It really throws you off mid-conversation.

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The rule of hja: You must only make this sound when someone is speaking to you, preferably engaged in a lengthy detailed discussion.

What makes the sound especially irritating is this. In English, such a sound means “Stop talking now, I have something important to say!” or “Stop talking, I'm about to faint!”, whereas in Norwegian it means, “Oh do carry on, I'm really enjoying this conversation!”

It's especially concerning when explaining a medical condition to your doctor…

The word that's not a word is so amusing to foreigners, it's even responsible for the name of an expat blog in Oslo – hja.no.

After more than three years living in Norway, I've finally adjusted to the sound to the point where I don't notice it anymore. In fact, I've even caught myself doing it from time to time. Talk about assimilation.

So, over to you Norwegians: What's up with that!?

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About the Author: David Nikel

Originally from the UK, David now lives in Trondheim and was the original founder of Life in Norway back in 2011. He now works as a freelance writer for technology companies in Scandinavia.

10 Comments

  1. When we were kids my brother and sisters used to hear this sound when my Mom, from Bergen, was in serious conversation with her sister or her mother. We’d mimic it and bust out laughing.

  2. I remember hearing this for the first time when my (now) husband and I were talking on the phone. I was in the States, he was in Norway, and it was amplified over the receiver; I seriously thought I was going to have to call emergency in Norway and I didn’t know how!

    I’ve lived here for over seven years now and, like you, have mostly gotten used to it. But every now and then I’ll be eyeball deep and focused in a project on my laptop in one room and hear my husband on the phone with a colleague in the other; he’ll give that “hja” in the middle of a long silence (while his colleague is talking) and my heart stops for a moment. Is he ok?

    At least now I know to dial 113 if something was really wrong!

  3. Amazing that this has finally been documented. I just spent nearly 4 months living in Oslo and could never figure out why Norwegians did this. At first I thought it was an individual tic, and then someone else would do it, then someone else…..so it’s HJA. Wow.

  4. I’m laughing because being raised a Norsk-Amerikaner, living in the US, i do this always with my mom and with my Norsk family when I’m in Trondheim! I thought it was just our family idiosyncrasy!

  5. They do the same in Iceland… I lived there for a year or so, and noticed that weird sound. When friends or family came over to visit, I explained it to them beforehand, and they would get a good laugh out of it, when they heard it for the first time 🙂

  6. On a recent trip to Norway I heard some people in a public place having a loud conversation when one of them said ‘hja’ in that curious inhaling way. It immediately took me back to my childhood when I remember my Norwegian grandmother saying this! Hadn’t heard it since, but apparently it was buried down deep in permanent memory. But I wonder – Is this something uniquely west Norwegian? (My grandmother was from Bergen.)

  7. Don’t forget “Tja” Which is different for “hja!”. Tja is more guttural and is used particularly when the speaker means “yes, but” or “yeah, I know” or “yes, sort of…” You could say its a hedgeable yes.

  8. I find this very interesting. I am from the West Coast of Scotland and I moved to Aberdeen on the east coast 18 years ago. One of the first and weirdest things I noticed was that many many people say ‘hei’ or ‘haye’ as in the Scots ‘aye’ with the same sharp intake of breath as they say it. And it is used in exactly the same way as people in Norway do. I find that more country people say it than city people. It’s a very bizarre phenomenon, and still after 18 years living here, I find it very odd. I thought there was something wrong with people, and wondered if there was something in the air that made them do this i.e. they were being affected by pollution or such like. Seriously! And when I think about it there are people in the Western Isles that I’ve come across who do the exact same thing. Perhaps a Viking hangover in these areas, albeit a very long one!

  9. I remember the first time I asked a Norwegian friend about her “hja” response, and it was such second nature she was totally unaware of doing it.

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