The Nynorsk Language of Norway

Lars Sigurdsson VikørArticle by: Lars Sigurdsson Vikør
Professor of Scandinavian linguistics at the University of Oslo, Norway, Oct 2002

What is Nynorsk?

Lars Sigurdsson VikørArticle by: Lars Sigurdsson Vikør
Professor of Scandinavian linguistics at the University of Oslo, Norway, Oct 2002

What is Nynorsk?

Nynorsk is a standard written variety of the Norwegian language. The word itself means simply "New Norwegian" or "Modern Norwegian". It is based on the Norwegian dialects, codified in writing in its earliest form by the linguist and poet Ivar Aasen in the nineteenth century, and has been formally acknowledged as an official written language in Norway since 1885 on a par with the traditional standard language, originally Danish, later evolving into "Norwegian Bokmål". Between Bokmål and Nynorsk, there has been peaceful coexistence, but also protracted competition and (verbal) struggle throughout the past century.

This article gives the basics about Nynorsk and the Norwegian language situation as seen from the Nynorsk viewpoint.

Historical background

The Norwegian language belongs to the Germanic language family, which is customarily divided into West Germanic (English, German, Dutch, Frisian etc.), and North Germanic (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Faroese). Norwegian is closely related to Swedish and Danish, making mutual intelligibility between these languages possible.

During medieval times, Norway was an independent kingdom where Old Norse was spoken in different dialects, and also used as an official written language besides Latin. But from 1380 on, Norway shared its king with Denmark, and gradually became subordinate under the latter country. Therefore, Danish replaced Old Norse as standard written language during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In speech, the Norwegian dialects were carried on in an unbroken tradition, but their grammars were simplified from the Old Norse very elaborated inflection system to the modern simple structure with few inflections.

Ivar Aasen

Ivar Aasen (1813- 1896)

In 1814, Norway was separated from Denmark. After an abortive attempt to make the country independent, it was joined with Sweden in a union, but kept a fairly large degree of internal self-rule, with its own parliament, government, and judiciary system, among other things. The elite of the country now wrote Danish and spoke a modified version of this language, on a Norwegian phonetic base. The Swedes never tried to introduce Swedish, so that Danish continued to reign unabated.

The rise of nationalism and national romanticism, which originated in Germany and penetrated many countries including Norway at this time, created dissatisfaction in influential circles with the fact that there was no separate Norwegian language, except in the dialects where many Old Norse features had survived so that they were set clearly apart from Danish. National romanticism was a movement for cultural nation building in Norway, which included an important activity for the collection and publication of folklore (fairy tales, local legends, ballads, folk music of various kinds), Old Norse texts (often Icelandic in origin), medieval history and archaeology etc. The study and "disclosure" of the Norwegian dialects was a part of this. It was done by Ivar Aasen (1813-96), the son of a farmer in Western Norway, who more or less on his own had studied several languages including Old Norse, comparative linguistics, and his own dialect, of which he made a grammatical and lexicographic description. By the Royal Society of Sciences, a private institution seated in Trondheim, he got a scholarship to travel around in the country collecting data about the dialects; a project which lasted more than four years, and in 1848 he published a comparative grammar of the dialects which showed that they could be described as an autonomous entity, Norwegian, on a par with Swedish and Danish. A comprehensive dictionary was published two years later.

On the basis of his data, Aasen codified a written language that could be viewed as a "proto-variety" of the dialects; i.e. he compared the dialects with each other and with Old Norse, and tried to find the point where they had split from each other. By reconstructing the common forms that he felt lay beneath the factual and very varied speech forms, he thought that he had found the common basis for a Norwegian standard language. In 1853, he published a book with texts in different dialects and in his proposed standard, which he called "Landsmål", the language of the country ("the country" meaning Norway, although it was often interpreted with its second meaning, "the countryside"). He continued his work, however, and only with a big normative grammar of 1864 and a very comprehensive normative dictionary of 1873 did he regard his standard as definitive.

Aasen also published poetry in his language, which we call Nynorsk although this name was officially adopted only in 1929. Other writers followed suit, and the language was soon used in various genres, both poetry, fictional prose, non-fiction, journalism, school books, and drama. The form given to it by Aasen was by many felt as somewhat archaic, but users from different parts of the country made it more flexible by introducing forms from their regional dialects.

Nynorsk was officially equalized with Danish in 1885 by a parliamentary decision, and in 1892 it became possible to choose it as a language of instruction in primary schools. Through the next thirty years, it expanded rapidly; by the 1920s, it was the dominant language in large parts of rural Norway, particularly, but not exclusively, in the West. In 1902, it was made compulsory in teachers’ education, and in 1907 even in secondary school examinations, beside the other language, Danish (which was Norwegianized by spelling reforms in 1907 and 1917 on the basis of South-eastern speech, creating modern Bokmål). In 1930, it was also decreed that the government should use both languages according to the wishes of the citizens in each case (as stated in an elaborate set of regulations).

The appearance of the language changed in this period. The government tried to bring together and ultimately amalgamate the two varieties through a series of official spelling reforms based on the introduction of Eastern and Northern speech forms in both of them, intended to replace the Western-based forms in Nynorsk and the Danish-based one in Bokmål. But this policy met with great resistance and was gradually abandoned from the sixties on. However, a less Western-based Nynorsk writing standard emerged from this and is now dominant in practical usage. But the official written norm is flexible, so that it is possible to write regionally inspired varieties of Nynorsk, or to approach it towards Bokmål or in the other direction, towards the more traditional Aasen-based form.

In practice, the expansion of Nynorsk was restricted by an important limitation, namely that it never was able to conquer any town or city. Here, Bokmål reigned supreme. Both the strength and the weakness of Nynorsk were connected to the differences and partly antagonisms existing between urban and rural Norway; Nynorsk was a symbol of "ruralness", and profited from the strength of rural values in Norway since the days of national romanticism.

This changed after World War II, however. The industrialization of the country and the development of modern communications and technology favored an increasing urbanization and centralization, which strengthened Bokmål and weakened Nynorsk. Therefore, Nynorsk lost much of its position in the primary school during the fifties and sixties, only stabilizing itself in the seventies in its core area, which we shall describe in the next section. It is assumed – due to a combination of attitude surveys and demographic analyses – that Nynorsk is used by 10 to 15 % of the population today; that gives about half a million users. On the national scale, Nynorsk had been strengthened during the same period, by being allocated a certain position in the state broadcasting, and by the development of strong Nynorsk cultural institutions. Still, a continuous struggle is needed to uphold it outside its geographical stronghold.

Geographical delimitation

Geographically, the Nynorsk stronghold primarily consists of rural Western Norway and adjacent districts (mostly mountain valleys in the center of Southern Norway). The towns are still resistant, but within Western Norway a number of smaller "new" towns based on electro-chemical and electro-metallurgic industry, or societal functions such as regional education or media centers, have sprung up, and here, Nynorsk has acquired a fairly strong position as the common language used in all social functions – thus, there has taken place a partial "urbanization" of the language.

Linguistic delimitation

Linguistically, the relations between Nynorsk and Bokmål are often difficult to understand for foreigners. The similarity is great, partly because of the close proximity of all the Scandinavian languages towards each other, partly because of the official rapprochement policy, but mostly because the continuous use of both languages in the same contexts has made all Norwegians passively acquainted with both, so that the accommodation in natural contact situations has given rise to many intermediate or mixed-up variants – mostly in the direction from Nynorsk towards Bokmål, since Bokmål is the strongest part – but not exclusively. Most Norwegians speak dialects, or modified versions of dialects, with both Bokmål-like and Nynorsk-like elements in them.

The main differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk are in morphology. Most of these differences concern concrete forms, not categories, but some categorical differences exist and are well known as "markers" of the two languages. In the nominal declension, Nynorsk has a three-gender system inherited from Old Norse, while Bokmål has a two-gender system inherited from Danish, where the masculine and the feminine are fused in a "common gender". Since the Nynorsk system on this point is shared by almost all Norwegian dialects, even the southeastern ones laying at the base of modern Bokmål, the latter variety has acquired many feminine forms and seems to remain in a transitional stage between two and three genders. In general, Nynorsk morphology is more complicated than that of Bokmål, but also more regular.

In phonology, the languages are almost identical; i.e. both of them can be pronounced with different regional accents and thus have bigger differences internally than in respect to each other. Syntactically, they are also quite similar, although in Nynorsk there is a stronger normative pressure towards a simple "oral-based" syntax, with more parataxis and shorter sentences than in Bokmål, which has bigger differences between various registers in this respect. But here too a rapprochement is taking place more or less spontaneously, caused by the fact that the basic functions of both are the same in the same society, and that all Norwegians have the norms and rules of both languages more or less present in their heads and are influenced by them when they write.

There is a lexical difference which originally was much greater: while Bokmål was Danish-based also in its vocabulary, and lavishly employed loanwords, Nynorsk was puristic and based itself on indigenous words, often taken from the dialects, in other cases invented. But this difference has diminished: Bokmål has accepted many words from the dialects, while Nynorsk has given up its purism in relation to international words of Greco-Latin roots. There is still a puristic reserve towards loanwords from Danish and Low German (a strong source of loans into all Scandinavian languages in the past), in the sense that such words in writing are considered "Bokmål" and consequently "bad" in Nynorsk, although many of them are normal and common in speech. An increasing number of such words have been accepted in standard Nynorsk, too, and many users find it hard to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable words, so that this purism often gives rise to dissent.

Legal position

Nynorsk is by law formally equal with Bokmål. The present Law on Language Use in Public Services dates from 1980, and starts by laying down this principle, which had already been established long before. The law details the duties resting on the governmental services to use the two varieties in relation to the public: letters from private persons are to be answered in the language variety which is used in the letter; forms of different kinds should be issued in both varieties, or some forms should be issued only in Bokmål, others only in Nynorsk. The municipalities may choose one variety as its official one, which the government has to use in its dealings with the municipality concerned; the variety to be used in dealing with bigger units than municipalities (such as provinces) is determined by separate sets of rules based on the number of municipalities within the units which have opted for the one or the other variety. About one fourth of the municipalities have chosen Nynorsk, all of them within the geographic area delimited above. Of the rest, many have chosen Bokmål, while many others are neutral, which normally means that Bokmål is dominant both within the municipalities and in the government’s dealings with them. It should be noted that this language law is frequently broken and Bokmål used where Nynorsk should be employed; this is an endemic problem which it has always required much effort on the part of the Nynorsk organizations to reduce as much as possible.

Position in education

Nynorsk is the first language of about 15% of Norwegian school children, mostly living in its geographical stronghold. For each local school, the instruction language has been decided on either through a local plebiscite, or (before 1915) by a decision of the local school board, or there has never been made a decision, but Bokmål is used in continuation of the former Danish. The rule is that when sufficiently many members of the local constituency demand a change of instruction language, a local plebiscite is held, but the school board decides if a too low percentage of the voters takes part in the plebiscite. If at least ten (pairs of) parents want the other variety for their child, a parallel class using this variety is established. Therefore, many schools use both varieties in practice. This means that Bokmål is used in many Nynorsk schools, but the opposite is also true, and some of the largest towns and cities, including Oslo, have classes of Nynorsk-learning children, albeit few and small.

From their eighth school year on, the children themselves choose as their "main variety" either Bokmål or Nynorsk, but they also have to learn the other as a "secondary variety", and they must write an essay in both of them at the final examination, usually taken at the age of eighteen. Here, therefore, Nynorsk is present all over the country, but mostly as a "secondary variety".

There is a rule that all textbooks for Norwegian schools must be issued both in Bokmål and Nynorsk in order to be authorized for use. This is, after a long struggle from the Nynorsk movement and with substantial state subsidies now implemented for most books in big disciplines, while in small disciplines, it is possible to make one edition with both varieties represented in different parts of the book instead. The situation regarding the new electronic media, however, is quite unregulated.

At the universities and regional colleges that have now been established in all the provinces of the country, Nynorsk is mostly tied to individual users. It dominates in its core area, as might be expected: the College of Sogn og Fjordane, the College of Telemark, the College of Møre og Romsdal. At some other institutions, like the University of Bergen, it is relatively extensively used, and also at the other universities, it is granted a certain use. There are smaller academic milieus with a certain concentration of Nynorsk users, especially within the humanities. In the discipline "Scandinavian, particularly Norwegian, language and literature", Nynorsk is of course safeguarded as an important element. The strongest Nynorsk centers in the academic world are the Ivar Aasen Institute at the College of Møre og Romsdal (at Volda, close to Ivar Aasen’s birthplace), and the Nynorsk part of the Section of Norwegian Lexicography and Dialectology at the University of Oslo.

Position in the society generally

In the media, Nynorsk has a strong position primarily in its stronghold area and in certain national institutions. Norway has many regional and local newspapers, including in the Nynorsk area, although most of them are rather small. A national daily in Nynorsk does not exist, although it did during the first third of this century. But there is a weekly, Dag og Tid, an opinion paper covering politics and cultural and social matters. In the majority of Bokmål newspapers, Nynorsk may be used by external writers, seldom by staff members, although some newspapers are more tolerant towards Nynorsk than others. The most widely read national tabloids are restrictive towards Nynorsk, while Western Norwegian papers, particularly the very influential Bergens Tidende, allow a relatively wide range of Nynorsk material, although primarily using Bokmål.

In the broadcasting sphere, Norway in the 1980s moved from a situation with a state monopoly (The Norwegian State Broadcasting or NRK) to a system with several competing private channels and many local radio stations. In the NRK, Bokmål has always been dominant, but Nynorsk and regional dialects have had a relatively secure minority position. The Parliament in 1970 declared that the NRK should strive towards 25% Nynorsk in their verbal transmissions, a goal that has never been reached, but the percentage has vacillated between 10 and 20, usually. The use of dialects has increased markedly since 1970, giving Norway a position as one of the most tolerant countries in this respect, although many people, particularly urban Bokmål speakers, publicly denounce it. Since the mutual intelligibility between different dialects, Bokmål and Nynorsk is generally quite high, such a situation is possible without creating many real problems. The NRK is still the leading broadcasting company in Norway, but the most important private one, TV2, while being reluctant to admit much Nynorsk, does accept dialects freely, too, which is a clear indication that most listeners accept it readily. In local radios, dialects are of course frequently used.

The position of Nynorsk on the stage is strong thanks to the fact that one of the leading theaters in Oslo is founded by the Nynorsk movement and only uses Nynorsk (Det Norske Teatret). It dates from 1913, and is, among other things, one of the most prolific stages in performing musicals in Norway. From the 1970s, many regional theaters have been founded (in addition to some that already existed in the largest cities). Nynorsk is regularly used in some Western Norwegian theaters, and also, but more sporadically, other places. However, most plays are classics, often translated from foreign originals, or adaptations of literary classics. Since the days of Ibsen, Norwegian drama ín general has not been very prolific, but one of the most productive and internationally known dramatists in recent years, Jon Fosse (1959- ), writes in Nynorsk.

On the film screen, Nynorsk is very rarely used, almost only in a few films based on Nynorsk literary classics.

Within the (Lutheran State) church (comprising about 85% of the population), Nynorsk has a secure position in its core area. The main contribution to church life outside this area is the body of hymns in Nynorsk, which are known and sung everywhere. The Bible, of course, exists in both a Bokmål and a Nynorsk version (or more versions, dating from different periods and trying to keep pace with the rapid changes in both varieties).

In most organizations (trade unions, other kinds of interest or idealistic organizations), Bokmål dominates outside the Nynorsk core area, except in the nation-wide organizations which sprang out of the Nynorsk movement and are attached to Nynorsk-based rural culture. The political parties mostly use Bokmål, but Nynorsk in the core area and sometimes in other contexts.

In business life, commercial advertising etc., the forces of the free market tend to favor the largest language variety, allowing the minority to appear only in certain contexts where it is seen as "natural". Nynorsk is not very visible outside its core area in the west.


Literature has been and is still one of the strong domains of Nynorsk. Ivar Aasen was a poet besides being a linguist and language planner, and a number of his poems and songs have been and are still very popular. Many writers of belles-letters followed him, enriching and developing the language by giving it different flavors from various parts of the country, and expanding its register of styles and genres. The two most important and widely known among the first generations were Aasmund Olavsson Vinje (1818-70) and Arne Garborg (1851-1924). They added significantly to the poetic heritage of later Nynorsk users, and they developed a modern Nynorsk style within journalism and essayistics. Since Nynorsk at the outset had threatened to be confined to a "folkloristic" and backwards-looking linguistic culture, Vinje and Garborg had a decisive role in making it an expression of contemporaneous political and social thoughts and polemics, contributing to the radical and democratizing movement of the time. Garborg was also a novelist, writing with insight both on the religiously based rural culture of his native district in Southwestern Norway and the anarchist and nihilistic currents among intellectuals and "bohemians" in the capital.

A rich and prolific literature developed after the turn of the century. We mention a few of the most prominent authors: Olav Duun (1876-1939), whose psychologically penetrating novels set in his native coastal district of North Trøndelag, made him an almost-winner of the Nobel prize in the twenties; Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) who in the fifties and sixties produced novels with a symbolic depth which made him perhaps the most appraised Norwegian author, also internationally, in his generation; Kjartan Fløgstad (1944- ), who renewed Nynorsk literature once more through his burlesque writing inspired by Latin American magical realism, often set in industrial towns of Southwestern Norway or in maritime environments, political, but not in an overt and missionary way; Edvard Hoem (1949- ), writing more explicitly political novels set in rural or small-town Western Norway. These are only a few among many, but since most of them are not translated – particularly not the high-quality poets writing in Nynorsk – it does not make much sense here to enumerate them further. An exception to this, a poet who has been translated into English, is Olav H. Hauge (1908-94), the most celebrated Nynorsk poet of his generation.

This body of literature is an important reason why Nynorsk has been able to maintain itself so well, because it is such an important part of Norwegian literature generally that everybody must be acquainted with it whether they are Bokmål or Nynorsk users themselves (while Nynorsk users must be acquainted with the rich literature in Bokmål as well). These Nynorsk authors have published their works at different publishing houses, but there have always been some publishers who felt a special responsibility towards Nynorsk. Today, much of the Nynorsk literature is concentrated on one publisher, Det Norske Samlaget (Oslo), which was founded in 1868, but only since the 1960s has established itself as the leading Nynorsk publisher.

Nynorsk language resources

For those wanting to learn Nynorsk, there are some resources available, although less than desirable. We mention the chief ones here.


For those already conversant with Norwegian Bokmål, Danish, or Swedish, there are many primers of Nynorsk, mostly written for primary and secondary schools (mostly in Nynorsk, but Nynorsk is to a large extent readable for those knowing any other form of Scandinavian, although a primer is necessary for the finer details and for learning to practice the language actively). There is also an introduction to Nynorsk for second-language learners. In English, the best work is Peter Hallaråker: Norwegian nynorsk. An introduction for foreign students (1985/1998).


Some major grammars are written in Nynorsk (Olav T. Beito: Nynorsk grammatikk (1986), Jan Terje Faarlund: Morfologi. Bøyingssystemet i nynorsk og bokmål (1995), Kjell Venås: Norsk grammatikk. Nynorsk (1990)). The only English-language Nynorsk grammar is Per Moen and Per-Bjørn Pedersen: Norwegian grammar (1983).


Per Moen og Per-Bjørn Pedersen: Engelsk-norsk/norsk-engelsk ordbok (1998) is an updated and modern dictionary both ways for ordinary adult users, students and older pupils. The best Norwegian-English dictionary is Einar Haugen: Norwegian English dictionary (1965), which covers both Bokmål and Nynorsk by marking Nynorsk forms, words and phrases with *, Bokmål ones with +. A smaller dictionary both ways (for primary school) is Jostein Stokkeland: Engelsk-nynorsk, nynorsk-engelsk ordbok (1993). For those already conversant in Nynorsk, the monolingual dictionary Nynorskordboka (3rd ed. 2001) is the "must". Besides, there exist numerous spelling dictionaries for those who already know the language reasonably well, but want to check the spellings of individual words.