The Norwegian language - Norway Language history

Two languages are spoken in Norway, Norwegian and Sami. Norwegian is spoken and written throughout the country, while Sami is most common in the far north where the Lapps traditionally live. Norwegian has two official written forms, “Nynorsk” (New-Norwegian) and “Bokmål” (Dano-Norwegian). When Norwegians speak, they use their dialect.

Simple, eh? Not really, as you soon will discover. Language is a major part of a Norwegian’s identity, and hence emotions have played (and still play) an important role in the lingustic debate in Norway, a debate that has been going on in almost 200 years now.

The Norwegian Alphabet

The Norwegian Alphabet
The Norwegian alphabet has 29 letters, 3 more than the English.
These three characters are Æ (æ), Ø (ø) and Å (å) and they come in that order right after Z in the alphabet. They are pronounced as the vowels in "sad", "bird" and "four". Computer keyboards sold in Norway have three more keys than standard English keyboards, one extra key for each extra letter.

The alphabet used in Norway today is the Latin alphabet which came to Norway approximately 1000 years ago, brought by Catholic missionaries.

Some 500 years before that, in the pre-Nordic times, the Scandinavian people used the alphabet of runes. (See also: Brief history of the Norwegian language)

Dano-Norwegian and New-Norwegian

Dano-Norwegian and New-Norwegian were both developed throughout the 19th century after the nation had gained its independence from Denmark. However, they did not get their current names, “bokmål” and “nynorsk” until 1929.

New-Norwegian has alwayd been the lesser used written form. It had its all time high in 1944 when 34% of the school districts used it as their main written language.

To ensure that New-Norwegian is not undermined, the government has come up with a list of regulations:

  • All school books printed in Norway must be published in both languages.
  • At least 25% of the programs shown on the broadcasting channel NRK must be in New-Norwegian. This includes subtitling of movies, narrators, radio reporters etc.
  • At least 25% of all the official documents must be written in New-Norwegian.
  • All persons working in official positions must have command of both languages. A person who sends a letter to, say, the muncipality, is entitled to get a reply in the same language that his letter was written in.

There are specicial interest organizations for New-Norwegian and Dano-Norwegian that make sure these regulations are being with-held.

One single man created New-Norwegian. His name was Ivar Aasen and he was a farmer’s son with a genius mind for languages. He traveled around in most of the southern parts of Norway and listened to people speak. Through his thorough research he found grammatical patterns in the dialects which he used when he created New-Norwegian.
Ivar Aasen
Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) by Johan Nordhagen, 1896
Dano-Norwegian came from, as the name suggest, Danish. The Danish language was the written language of Norway for centuries.

The upper class, which was used to writing Danish, gave their support to the Dano-Norwegian language, looked down at New-Norwegian claiming it was a peasant’s language making a mockery of “fine Norwegian”.

Those pro New- Norwegian and against Dano-Norwegian argumented that the language wasn’t “Norwegian enough”.

In 1885 the two languages were made equal, both would be official written forms of Norwegian.

During the beginning of the 20th century spelling reforms made the two languages more alike, and many words were accepted in both languages. A special arrangement was made: Some words could be spelt in several different ways (sola or solen). One way of spelling was made compulsory for schools to teach and school book writers to use, and the other, a so-called bracket form, was allowed for everyone else to use as they wised. The students could freely choose the way of spelling that was closer to their dialect. Though the spelling and the words have changed a bit, this is still the reality in Norwegian schools today.

All reforms must be approved of by the parliament. From two days in 1917, when the debate in the parliament was particularly heated, there is a 125 pages report.

A radical reform was put forward in 1938. In 1940, when the second world war reached Norway, the debate naturally stopped. The Nazi government launched their own spelling reform which all the newspapers had to use. The schools partially sabotaged the reform.

One result of the war was that the citizens united a bit more and finally agreed that both versions were just as “Norwegian” as the other. (during the war all the illegal papers had been printed in Dano-Norwegian). In the early 1950s efforts were made to make one written language.

These linguistic apporachments came to a sudden holt in 1952. That year many schools started using text books made after the radical spelling reform of ‘38. A lot of parents thought the reform ruined the language, and formed a protest. The parental protest began in the Oslo area and then spread to the rest of the country. Those who protested were mainly users of Dano-Norwegian. Close to 100,000 persons signed a petition against the ‘38-reform that year.The parents went further in their protest the year after: they corrected all their children’s school books to the previous spelling standard.


As said at the very beginning of this article, when Norwegians talk, they use their dialects. Dialects are used in school (by teachers and students), on TV, on the radio.

To show how the dialects can vary, here are some ways to say “I” in Norwegian dialects (the Norwegian spelling has been kept): “Jeg” (standard Dano-Norwegian), “Eg” (standard New-Norwegian), “Je”, “I”, “Æ” and “E”. That’s six different ways of just saying “I”!

Some dialects are closer to the written language than others. Norwegians normally don’t have a problem understanding each others dialect, however, certain unusal dialect words can sometimes be troublesome.

The dialects developed around 1000 A.D. due to the natural isolation of people. Valleys, mountains, and fiords along with very bad communications isolated the Norwegians. A very trained ear can hear almost exactly where in Norway a Norwegian is from by listening to his dialect.

When children move from one district to one with another dialect, they tend to quickly change to the dialect of their new hometown. Grown-ups won’t change in that way, but children are conscious not to stand out. The adults who move from the countryside to the city will often hear their new city friends saying “Talk some more, it’s so fun listening to your dialect.”

Some dialects are instantly connected to certain traits and charcters. This can have a connection to the 1960s when dialects were used in plays to make fun of others.

Sociolects are not the same as dialects. While dialects are the way of speaking within a geographical area, sociolects are the way the manner of speaking varies within the social groups. There’s not so much difference in the sociolects in Norway today as there was 100-200 years ago. The difference between people has decreased, and at the same time the number of persons with degrees from colleges and universities has increased.

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