What is so special about Norway?
Norway is in a unique situation with regards to its languages. There are of course other countries with a language conflict, just think about countries like Belgium, Finland, Switzerland or Canada. Nevertheless, in these countries, they use languages that are mutually unintelligible. Looking to Norway, you will find a situation that is rather different. In Norway, the two official languages are very similar to each other, so similar that they can both be called Norwegian.
In order to understand this situation, you will need to know some Norwegian history. For around 400 years (roughly speaking) Norway was ruled by Denmark and Danish became the written language. Still, most people spoke their own local dialect. The union with Denmark lasted until 1814. In the same year, on the 17th of May, the new Norwegian Constitution came into force. However, the country did not become fully independent; instead it entered into a new union with Sweden. Fortunately, Norway managed to keep its own constitution and its own parliament. Some of the most heated discussions in that period related to the language.
Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are not very different from each other. Most of the vocabulary is more or less the same, but Danish has a very different pronunciation. Nevertheless, in Norway many people longed for their own distinct national language. Two different paths were chosen, each with its own adherents.
The Norwegian language conflict
The first spelling reform came in the 1860s, when the principle of phonetic spelling of foreign words was introduced. This principle is still valid, and according to the modern Norwegian spelling rules, you have to write sjåfør (driver), stasjon, sjokolade, tøff (tough) and kul (cool).
This spelling reform was just the beginning. Many people wanted a language that was genuinely Norwegian, and clearly distinct from Danish. An important advocate for this was Knud Knudsen, who found that further reform needed to be based on the spoken language of the upper class. The way they spoke had strong similarities to Danish, but with a distinctly Norwegian pronunciation. They also used many words and expressions that were common in Norway rather than in Denmark.
The existing written language was gradually modified. Initially, elements of the spoken language of the elite were introduced and implemented. However, later spelling reforms went further. In the 20th century, many elements from the dialects were also introduced into the written language. This is how Bokmål was created.
The other approach was far more radical; to establish a completely new written language based on the Norwegian dialects. This was the project of Ivar Aasen, who carried out research on the spoken language in large parts of Norway. He invented a new written language that was based on what he considered to be existing common traits of the dialects. In order to do so, he also made comparisons with Old Norse, the Norwegian language of the Middle Ages. Ivar Aasen called the new language “Landsmål”, meaning that it should be a language for the entire country. Later, the name was changed to “Nynorsk”, meaning “New Norwegian”. Bokmål means “book language”, but none of these names need to be interpreted in any specific way.
Around 1900, the language situation that we know today was established. For more than 100 years, there have been two official written languages in Norway. However, a lot has changed as well — Bokmål and Nynorsk have come closer to each other. For a couple of generations, people were used to continuous changes to how Norwegian was written. Dictionaries and school-books were updated now and then.
The underlying idea was that one day, a mixture of Bokmål and Nynorsk should become the one and only written language. But that never happened; too many people protested. From the 1920s and onwards, people who refused to accept the spelling reforms of Bokmål organized themselves in the Riksmål Society. At the other end of the spectrum, adherents of the traditional way of writing Nynorsk also protested against any further reform. Many positions in between existed as well and for a while, quite a few people simply wrote the way that suited them best.
For much of the 20th century, Norway had a heated language conflict. This conflict is far less intense today, but it is still present. The country still has two official languages, and even two official names: Norge in Bokmål and Noreg in Nynorsk.
One language, but two ways of writing it
But what is actually the official language of Norway? Well, there is only one — Norwegian. Bokmål and Nynorsk are just two different ways of writing it, two different standards. Bokmål is quite similar to the way people speak in the Oslo region. Nynorsk, on the other hand, usually only appears in writing. People who write Nynorsk in general speak in their own dialect. But they may speak a dialect that is close to the way they write.
The two national TV stations, NRK and TV2, are instructed by law to use both official standards of Norwegian. You will often hear Nynorsk spoken when watching or listening to the news, although Bokmål is more used in the media. That is also the standard that is used by the vast majority of Norwegians. However, dialects are widely spoken in all situations. Also at school, Bokmål and Nynorsk are only considered to be written languages. School children are never instructed to speak any of them, unless they read aloud from a textbook.
At school, both Bokmål and Nynorsk are taught all over the country. But during the early years, children learn to read and write either Bokmål or Nynorsk. Which one they learn depends on the area in which they live. From the age of 13–14, they also learn how to write the other language.
The status of Nynorsk is officially equal, but it is used mainly in rural regions — especially in Western Norway. In those areas, children learn to read and write Nynorsk at school and the local councils use Nynorsk in official documents.
However, Bokmål is dominant in the most populous areas of Norway, and it is often considered to be the “normal” way to write Norwegian. Like in other countries, the largest cities dominate the economic and cultural life.
All the major newspapers are written in Bokmål. Companies operating nationwide always use Bokmål on websites and in publicity. Bokmål is the standard that you will encounter if you log into your online bank, or if you leaf through the IKEA catalogue. Bokmål is generally accepted in most situations. For Nynorsk, that is far less the case.
Some users of Bokmål even openly say that they don’t like Nynorsk. They don’t want to read it, and they don’t want to hear it. Users of Nynorsk cannot allow themselves to show the same kind of arrogance. Wherever you live in Norway, you will in fact encounter the dominant standard, Bokmål, on a daily basis.
Statistics tell us that the percentage of people writing Nynorsk is falling. Many people switch to Bokmål when relocating to another area of the country. There are far less cases of people going the other way, switching to Nynorsk. But are we now in the situation where the language of Ivar Aasen is dying? Certainly not. Nynorsk has a large number of proud daily users, and you will encounter it in newspapers, in literature, and in music.
Music in Nynorsk
Norwegian music appears in many different forms, and different kinds of Norwegian are used in the lyrics. Bokmål is often used for the lyrics of Norwegian music, but many artists also sing in dialect. However, some musicians, like Ingebjørg Bratland, use standard Nynorsk. Here, she is singing “Fordi eg elskar deg “, which means “because I love you”.
Ingebjørg Bratland comes from Upper Telemark, an area that is well known for its music tradition, and that has fostered many talented musicians. Another singer from the same area is Odd Nordstoga.
It is sometimes claimed that Nynorsk is exceptionally well suited for music and poetry. You may understand better when listeing to the following old tune. Here we see Lars Klevstrand when he was still a young man singing “Vi skal ikkje sova bort sumarnatta”. The English translation is “You should not sleep away the summer night”, which refers to the fact that it hardly gets dark at all at night during summer in Norway.
Comparing Bokmål and Nynorsk
Now we will compare the two written standards, and the comparison begins already in this photo. The first sentence means “I write Nynorsk”, while the second means “I write Bokmål”. As mentioned above, we talk about written standards, and not so much spoken languages. People in large areas of Norway prefer to speak their local dialect instead.
Bokmål and Nynorsk are perfectly mutually intelligible – if you know one of them, you should be able to understand the other. The differences are found in the details — in many details. As a result of the different spelling reforms in the 20th century, there is also much freedom of choice, within both written languages. However, some possibilities are generally more used and more accepted than others.
The creator of Nynorsk – Ivar Aasen – wanted to avoid words of foreign origin, whenever possible. When studying the dialects, and comparing them with old Norse, he found that he could avoid many words that he found to be more Danish. When looking for alternatives, he looked for words with a purely Norwegian appearance, with a basis in the dialects. However, in modern times, more foreign words have been accepted in Nynorsk. Nowadays, you could say that most words look more or less the same, or at least, they have the same root, as you can see in the table below. The presentation below is based on what is commonly most used and accepted in each of the two standards.
There are also some differences in grammar. Nynorsk has three genders, like most Norwegian dialects. In Bokmål, the gender system is more confusing. You can stick strictly to a system of three genders like in Nynorsk, but you can also choose to use only two genders, like in Danish. Different solutions in-between are also possible. It is all a matter of style and personal preferences.
The conjugation of Norwegian verbs is easier than in most other European languages. In Bokmål, you will usually just add an r to the infinitive to create the present tense of a regular verb. In Nynorsk, you need to be more aware about categories and irregular verbs. However, these differences are of little or no importance to the mutual understanding – it is all Norwegian!
Which Norwegian language should I learn?
As a teacher of Norwegian, I often hear the question “What should I learn – Bokmål or Nynorsk?” In the majority of cases, the answer is Bokmål. Far less courses are offered in Nynorsk, and fewer textbooks are available.
Bokmål is the standard that most people use in all the major cities. Even in the areas where Nynorsk is widely used, you will be doing fine just writing Bokmål. Most foreign speakers easily manage to get used to the differences between them.
A larger challenge for non-native speakers is probably the extensive use of dialects in Norway. If you move to a place where a dialect is spoken, you need to learn to understand it. This may be frustrating, but my experience is that non-native speakers manage to get used to all these regional accents.
This article was meant as an introduction, and there are quite a few aspects that I did not cover. If you want to learn more, you can find more information about the Norwegian language conflict on Wikipedia and elsewhere online. You will also find other articles about Norwegian language and society on this blog.
Note: Just to be clear: In this blog post, I have explained the language situation at the national level. I have not discussed the situation of Sami or other minority languages.
Interested in learning more? I am a native-speaking teacher who offers private lessons in Bokmål at norwegian.online. You will find further information about my courses on this website.