On the Norwegian language

Svein Magne SirnesNews of Norway, January 18, 2001

Two Approaches

Svein Magne SirnesNews of Norway, January 18, 2001

Two Approaches

Like the other Scandinavian languages, Norwegian is derived from an ancient common Scandinavian language that can be traced through runic inscriptions to the third century AD. The Latin alphabet, replacing runic signs, was introduced with Christianity, and a distinct Norwegian language evolved in the eleventh century. During the subsequent centuries, the Norwegian language was influenced by Danish, Low German, and Swedish.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Denmark was the strongest political and economic power in the North. From about 1400 to 1520, the Danish rulers attempted to unite Norway, Sweden, and Denmark into the Kalmar Union, governed from Copenhagen. Naturally enough, Danish came to play an important role as the administrative language in the realm.

Around 1525 Danish had completely replaced Norwegian as the language of Norway. When Latin lost ground as an ecclesiastical language following the Lutheran Reformation in 1536, Danish took its place. The Danish Bible of Christian III was introduced in Norway, too, but no Norwegian translation was made until modern times.

Danish was in fact the only written language employed in Norway until the second half of the nineteenth century. However, Norwegian dialects were used in speech, and in the cities, a Danish-based spoken variety gradually arose, especially for formal use.

After the secession of Norway from Denmark in 1814, this situation continued, but it was felt as extremely problematic. Europe, including Scandinavia, was now entering the Romantic Age, and one of the new insights was the existence of a close connection between a nation and its language.

As a result of this, the plan to create a separate Norwegian language was born.

Between 1830 and 1860, two approaches emerged.

One came from the self-taught linguist Ivar Aasen (1813–96). A farmer’s son from West Norway, Aasen had learned the classical languages Latin and Greek and the major languages of Western Europe. After extensive research he was able to present a comparative study of the Norwegian dialects. Based on this material, Ivar Aasen developed a standard written norm for modern Norwegian. This became the basis of Nynorsk (or Landsmaal, its original name).

The other approach was to make use of Danish as a basis and Norwegianize it according to the norms of urban upper-class speech. One of the most important proponents of this view was Knud Knudsen (1812–95), an upper secondary school teacher in Christiania (or Oslo). The variety resulting from it was the basis of modern Bokmål (until 1929 called Riksmål; in English Dano-Norwegian).

In its core, the Norwegian language struggle can be seen as a competition between these two policies and the two language varieties— Nynorsk and Bokmål—resulting from them.

In 1885, the Storting gave Nynorsk formal acknowledgement and equal status with Dano-Norwegian. This was an important victory for Nynorsk. Seven years later it was possible to choose Nynorsk as a language of instruction in grade schools.

By 1920, Nynorsk had been introduced as the dominant language of instruction throughout West Norway and in parts of East Norway. Many authors opted for New Norwegian, and the language made major gains the entire period from 1900, reaching a peak in 1944.

The cities and towns, however, along with the southeastern part of the country, remained nearly 100 percent Bokmål territory.

Although Nynorsk experienced a rapid expansion, Bokmål remained the written language for the majority of Norwegians.

From the percentages claimed by the respective languages today, it is clear that Bokmål dominates, as it has always done. Bokmål is the language of the major newspapers and magazines and prevails in business, industry, and advertising.


Around 1900, some thought that the differences between the two varieties of Norwegian—Nynorsk (or New Norwegian) and Bokmål (Dano-Norwegian)—were relatively small and that the gap could be "bridged."

The idea of gradually converging them and finally establishing Samnorsk (or Pan-Norwegian) arose. This view had already been voiced in the 1880’s, but it was now reintroduced and supported by Venstre (the Liberal party) and Arbeiderpartiet (the Labor party).

In 1917 and 1938, two very ambitious spelling reforms aimed at bringing New Norwegian and Dano-Norwegian closer together were issued after several years of debate.

After the Second World War there was a reaction against this policy, especially on the Bokmål side. A protest movement was organized, and parents began to change the unconventional spellings in their children’s textbooks into "forbidden" traditional forms. The bitter struggle concerning Samnorsk continued in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the same time, Nynorsk experienced a setback as an instructional language in many districts.

The pressure from supporters of traditional spelling among users of Bokmål led to the reintroduction of many of these forms in 1959 and 1981. Gradually the official policy of amalgamation was given up.

Traditional Bokmål has since been the dominant language, and there can be no doubt that this is the Norwegian language of the future.

In 1944, 34 percent of all school children listed Nynorsk as their primary language. Currently the percentage is 17. This decline has not only been a blow to Nynorsk—it has also meant that political parties no longer need to be concerned with Nynorsk pressure groups. Urbanization and industrialization of the country have also weakened the position of Nynorsk.

Today the relationship between the two official written varieties of Norwegian is stable. Bokmål predominates and exerts pressure on Nynorsk. The strength of Bokmål is overwhelming: It is not only the language of more than 80 percent of Norwegians, but it also enjoys strong and expanding usage in daily speech.

New Norwegian is a written language with a relatively complicated system of inflexion. It is also an artificial language that hardly anyone uses in its spoken form. The slogan among New Norwegian activists is that you should use your local dialect and write New Norwegian, "the common denominator of all dialects." One of the results of this is that many users of New Norwegian write an unsystematic blend of dialects, Nynorsk, and Bokmål. Some say that this weakens their language even more.

Too Many Options

When a Norwegian student starts grade school he or she gets a little book called "ordliste" (or word list). It is not a dictionary in the traditional sense, as it does not contain any definitions; it only shows how words are spelled, plus their conjugations and declensions.

Why is it necessary to give each student such a book? Because Norwegian, both Bokmål (Dano-Norwegian) and Nynorsk (New Norwegian), has a lot of alternative spellings. This is a result of the many spelling reforms both languages have undergone during the last hundred years.

Let’s take an example. The sentence "The woman raised her hand" could be translated "Kvinnen hevet hånden" in good Bokmål. However, you don’t have to write the sentence that way. Bokmål has several alternatives, and they are all equally acceptable:

kvinnen hevet hånden
kvinnen heva hånden
kvinnen hevet hånda
kvinnen heva hånda
kvinnen hevet handa
kvinnen hevde hånda
kvinnen heva handa
kvinna hevet hånden
kvinnen heva hånden
kvinna hevde handa

This makes it difficult for students and teachers alike, let alone the general public. One of the results is lack of consistency and persistent irritation. On page 45 in a book you find alternative 3, on the next page maybe alternative 6, and so on. This, in turn, has far-reaching consequences, of which lack of respect for the linguistic norm is the most dangerous one.

When textbook manuscripts are received in the Norwegian publishing houses, they have to undergo a special language check by the Norwegian Language Council, Norsk språkråd, before being printed. More often than not, publishers have to find linguists who are able to rewrite the manuscripts because of the author’s lack of consistency and unwillingness to follow the norm. This is both time-consuming and expensive.

Members of the Norwegian Language Council have realized the need for fewer alternatives in the spelling of Norwegian, both Bokmål and Nynorsk, and the issue has been given priority. Changes are likely to be made in the near future.


Everyone who opens a Norwegian newspaper today will see a huge amount of English or American words and expressions that are imported into modern Norwegian.

For several years it has been the policy of Norsk språkråd (the Norwegian Language Council) to prevent this development and suggest good Norwegian words instead, for example programvare for software, e-post for e-mail, datamaskin for computer, to mention but a few. However, many Norwegians do not follow the Language Council’s advice and prefer the English words to Norwegian alternatives.

In some cases the English word has kept its original spelling but has acquired a Norwegian pronunciation. An example is the word jazz. Today, no one would pronounce this word like in English.

In other cases, the Language Council has—not always successfully—suggested a Norwegian spelling, like teip for tape, or sørvis for service.

The English impact can also be seen in other ways, of which the use of the apostrophe in modern Norwegian is an example.

The apostrophe is not used in the same way in the two languages. In English, the apostrophe indicates the possessive case of a noun: the boy’s book, the woman’s bag. In Norwegian, the possessive is formed without the apostrophe (unless the noun ends in an ‘s’ or an ‘s’ sound): guttens bok, damens veske. However, a lot of Norwegians incorrectly use the apostrophe like in English and write gutten’s bok, damen’s veske. This is even more common when the noun is a proper noun or an acronym, like in Tor’s gatekjøkken (name of a fast food restaurant) and NATO’s hovedkvarter. There can be no doubt that this is a result of the pressure that the English language exerts on Norwegian.

Let us have a look at another area where the English influence is noticeable.

A compound should always be written as one unit in Norwegian, for example bilforhandler, (car dealer), skoleår (school year). In some cases a hyphen must be used: FN-delegasjon (UN delegation), 50-årsjubileum (50th anniversary). However, the spelling bil forhandler (two separate words) is incorrect. But an increasing number of Norwegians write such compounds as separate units. There are even names of corporations and organizations that have been formed this way: Selvaag Gruppen, Norsk Brannvern Forening.

Not long ago a group of concerned citizens who want to combat this phenomenon formed Astronomer mot orddeling and got their own web site!

What about influences the other way? Has English adopted any words of Norwegian origin? Yes, it has. Words like ombudsman, slalom, and ski are all Norwegian (or Scandinavian). As a matter of fact, there are more than 50 words of Norwegian (or Old Norse) origin in the English language. Most of them were introduced by the Vikings from the late eighth century on. First came words pertaining to the sea and battle; later words used in the Scandinavian social and administrative system—for example the word law— entered the English language. Other examples are the verb form are and such widely used words as take, cut, both, ill, and ugly.

The Use of Dialects in Norway

Foreign observers of political life in Norway agree there is hardly any national assembly on the planet whose members speak so many different dialects of the country’s language or languages as is the case with the Norwegian Storting. The same could be said about Norwegian radio and television programs and society in general: A lot of different dialects can be heard in contexts where Germans, Americans, Swedes, and Danes would prefer the standard language.

This is indeed a feature of Norwegian society that is unique. But what is the reason for it?

Some would argue that it is the gap between standard Bokmål (the variant of Norwegian most people use in writing) and the majority of dialects. This is particularly the case with dialects found in West Norway.

Of course there are many Norwegians who prefer the standard norm in formal situations (and elsewhere). However, the pressure to use this norm is much weaker than, for example, in France and Germany. Actually, the opposite is the case: If for some reason you change your language, you risk being called a snob. There is also the possibility that you won’t succeed completely—and you end up using a mixture without any consistency (called "knot" by many Norwegians, and that is a terrible sin). West Norwegians, for example, have a hard time getting rid of words like "ikkje" (English "not") or "eg" (English "I") and replacing them with "jeg" and "ikke."

Are there any problems with the extensive use of dialects among Norwegians? Yes, there are. Foreign learners of Norwegian often have a hard time understanding the language used in radio and television and by people they meet on the street, in schools, and in homes.

Another problem, which is perhaps more serious, is that Norwegians do not develop the same kind of national spoken norm that you have, for example, in France. This, in turn, affects their sense of norm in the written language as well.

But let us not forget the positive sides of this: The various dialects add a colorful touch to spoken Norwegian, and Norwegians are allowed to be themselves and to use the dialect of their local district wherever they are.

Do the various dialects have the same status? Absolutely not. Linguists would, of course, argue that there are no criteria when it comes to evaluating dialects along aesthetic lines. However, certain theories or models have been presented, and several of them indicate that whoever has money, status, and power in society, also decides what is to be looked upon as correct and fine. For that reason, the language spoken by natives of western sections of Oslo (a language that is relatively close to standard Bokmål) has a higher status than, say, the dialects found in outlying areas.

Something interesting happened when Stavanger established itself as Norway’s oil capital in the 1970’s. Gradually, local pop bands and vocalists were able to use the Stavanger dialect and at the same time be popular throughout the country. That would have been unheard of a few years earlier!

"Thirty-four" or "four-and-thirty"?

Imagine that your third-grade son or daughter came home from school in early September, telling you that their English teacher had taught them a new way of counting. Instead of "thirty-four," they were now supposed to say and write "four-and-thirty."

Well, this actually happened in Norway in 1951 (only it was the other way around: they went from "four-and-thirty" to "thirty-four"). In a letter to the country’s schools, the Ministry of Education simply announced that a new way of counting was to be introduced.

All teachers, authors of textbooks, and government officials were supposed to use the new system right away. The same was the case with journalists working for NRK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

Although perceived as more logical (the numbers are spoken in their order of appearance), the new system had no basis in Norwegian dialects. That probably explains why it had a hard time being adopted.

The result: Two systems of counting developed. Today, nearly 50 years later, this is still the situation in Norway. Practically no one is consistent. Most Norwegians use a mixture of both systems.

The drawbacks are obvious: Foreigners trying to learn Norwegian find it very difficult to cope with two systems.

A young linguist, Vibeke Lauritzen, has done extensive research on the topic, and in her dissertation she concludes that the new way of counting has not been the success its proponents had hoped for. Therefore, Norway now has two systems side by side, both used without any consistency. Needless to say, this causes a lot of confusion.

In many ways this experiment shows one aspect of Norwegian society after the Second World War: The Social Democrats believed they were able to change anything, including linguistic habits. History has shown that this was far too optimistic.

What should Norwegians do now? Should they go back to the old system—or should they enforce the new one more strongly? Personally I don’t think it’s possible to revoke the new system now. After all, it is being used by young students and in formal contexts. However, the Norwegian Language Council, Norsk språkråd, should seek to establish a national consensus on the issue and hope that the new system will replace the old, which is still favored by a lot of Norwegians, including businessmen and -women, and the Conservative press.

by guest writer Svein Magne Sirnes, associate professor in language assessment at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California

Source: Norway – the official site in the United States