Norway Language – A Small Country with Two Written Languages


Author of the article Norway Language: Professor Eyvind Fjeld Halvorsen.

In many countries in the world, the inhabitants speak and write several different languages. Every now and again, the speakers of the various tongues come into conflict, and when these clashes come to a head, as they often do in our imperfect world, the media end up reporting on them. Very often, both the mass media and the people in countries without language problems have great difficulty understanding why people would argue about something as trivial as language.
It is relatively easy to explain the conflict between Dutch and French in Belgium, or why minorities who speak Basque in Spain, Frisian in the Netherlands or Gaelic in Scotland fight to preserve their special languages. But it is hard for foreigners to comprehend why Norwegians, who 150 years ago did not have a written language of their own and managed quite well with Danish, have, over the past 100 years, developed for good measure two Norwegian tongues. The purpose of this article is to attempt to explain this paradoxical situation.
No language barriers 
Of Norway’s population of a little more than four million, 95 per cent speak Norwegian as their native language. Everyone who speaks Norwegian, whether it be a local dialect or one of the two standard official languages, can be understood by other Norwegians. In Norway – as in other countries – not everyone understands everyone equally well, and in particular people from the capital, Oslo, claim that they have a tough time understanding their countrymen from rural areas, while those from non-urban areas have no problem understanding the language of Osloites. In the areas where Norwegian is spoken, there are no real language barriers. However, the minority Sami language is not related to Norwegian, and it is incomprehensible to Norwegian speakers who have not learned it.
Norway has two official written languages, Bokmål (Dano-Norwegian) and Nynorsk (New Norwegian). They have equal status, i.e. They are both used in public administration, in schools, churches, and on radio and television. Books, magazines and newspapers are published in both languages. The inhabitants of local communities decide themselves which language is to be used as the language of instruction in the school attended by their children. Officially, the teaching language is called the hovedmål (primary language) and the other language the sidemål (secondary language). Students read material written in the secondary language and at the upper secondary level they should demonstrate an ability to write in that language. This is a consequence, among other things, of a requirement of public employees to answer letters in the language preferred by the sender.
During the 1995-96 school year, 398,150 pupils in primary and lower secondary schools listed Bokmål as their main language, while 79,104 listed Nynorsk. The primary language of all cities is Bokmål; the same applies to the relatively thickly populated areas surrounding the Oslo fjord and the lowlands of Eastern Norway. Nynorsk dominates in the communities lining the fjords on the west coast of Norway and in the mountain districts of inland Norway. The rules regarding the selection or possible change of a school’s teaching language are established by law. 

Bokmål dominates 
While the percentage distribution of the two languages in the schools has been fairly stable over the last 15 to 20 years, this does not mean that perfect peace and harmony prevail between the two tongues. From the percentages claimed by the respective languages, it is clear that Bokmål dominates, as it always has done. Bokmål is the language of choice of the major newspapers, the weekly magazines, and paperback novels. Because the cities and most industrial areas use Bokmål to train new employees, the language prevails in business and advertising. Bokmål was developed from the form of Danish that was freely spoken by government officials and by leading social circles in the cities; it therefore had the prestige of being the preferred speech of people with higher education and aspirations. It has the same function as normal speech in other countries, as well as serving as a status symbol. 

Norwegian Language Council
Nynorsk has the upper hand in districts where the population is stable and most speak their traditional local dialect. Normalized Nynorsk is hence usually not the spoken language in the local communities where it is the teaching language and is mainly used in places where the inhabitants hail from different parts of the country.
All of the Nordic countries now have official bodies concerned with the national care of the language. In Norway the entity is called the Norwegian Language Council. It has 38 members, half from each of the two language camps. The Council’s purpose is to foster mutual tolerance and respect among everyone who uses Norwegian in one or another form, and to carry out practical linguistic work – orthography, terminology, consultant work, etc. The rules for handling cases are set up so that questions that mainly concern one language are resolved by the representatives for this language without interference from the other half of the Council.
Historical background 
The peculiarities of the language situation in Norway are the product of Norwegian and Nordic history. The languages of the three main Nordic countries, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, are so similar that the inhabitants basically understand each other and can use their own language when talking to people from the other countries. This is because the language evolved from a common Nordic tongue and that development has mainly followed the same course throughout central Scandinavia. One thousand years ago, when Nordic pioneers settled in Russia and Western Europe, and on the islands in the Atlantic Ocean from the Orkneys and Shetland islands to Greenland, the same common Nordic language was spoken throughout the entire region. The differences in dialects that existed then were insignificant, and were far smaller than the dialectical variations found today in each of the Nordic countries. 

Powerful Denmark
The languages underwent great change in the late Middle Ages. Most of the changes began in the country located the farthest south, Denmark, and spread north, like ocean waves. Norway lay farthest from Denmark, and Norwegian therefore retained the characteristics of the common Nordic language the longest.
The Christianization of the Nordic countries in 900-1100 brought with it written language. In Norway the national language was adopted as a written language before 1100, perhaps patterning itself after England in this respect, while Denmark and Sweden used Latin in public discourse in the first years following the coming of Christianity. Danish and Swedish were not brought into use as written languages until the 12- and 1300s, at a time when Denmark in particular had become removed from the common Nordic foundation.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Denmark was the strongest political and economic power in the North. From c. 1400 to c. 1520 the Danish rulers attempted to assemble the three countries into one large Nordic kingdom, the Kalmar Union, governed from Denmark. Naturally enough, Danish came to play a major role as the administrative language in the realm, and from 1500 Danish was the official language in Norway. Around 1520 the Swedes broke definitively out of the Union, while Norway continued to be a part of it until 1814. During this entire time Danish was the written language in Norway.
Detachment from Denmark
The Dano-Norwegian monarchy had been allied with Napoleon since 1807, and in 1814, in the settlement following Napoleon’s defeat, Norway was detached from Denmark and entered into a union with Sweden, which had participated in the coalition against Napoleon. The union with Sweden lasted until 1905. The two kingdoms were governed separately and Danish continued to be the language of public administration in Norway. Government officials, whether they were Norwegian or Danish, had received their education in Denmark. In 1811, a new university was founded in Christiania (Oslo), and those who grew up after 1814 were schooled entirely in Norway.
In the beginning of the 1800s, nearly all Norwegians spoke their own dialect. Officials and the higher echelons in the cities spoke a Norwegian-accented Danish and wrote basically correct Danish, but all people born in Norway were familiar with a special Norwegian vocabulary comprised of distinctive Norwegian words derived from Norwegian working life and nature. Many alternated then as now between dialect and more normalized speech.
Students entering the new university after 1814 embraced the nationalistic ideas that mushroomed all over Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and the romantic trends and interest in Nordic history in contemporary Danish literature. The nationalistic movements gave rise to a powerful desire for self-determination. One manifestation of this was the plan to create a separate Norwegian language. The discussion that ensued was, characteristically enough, more concerned with how to create a Norwegian language than the question of whether it was necessary. Basically, two possibilities were discussed. One was to Norwegianize written Danish by
including Norwegian elements from the spoken language. The other, and more radical approach, was to construct a new written language based on a “good”, i.e. conservative Norwegian dialect.
From Landsmål to Nynorsk
The idea of creating a Nynorsk written language was pursued by language scholar Ivar Aasen (1813-96). A farmer’s son from Western Norway, Aasen had learned the classical languages Greek and Latin and the major languages of Western Europe. In 1842-46 he collected information about Norwegian dialects, publishing in 1848 Det norske Folkesprogs Grammatik (“Grammar of the Norwegian Dialects”) followed by Ordbog over det norske Folkesprog (“Dictionary of the Norwegian Dialects”) in 1850. In 1853, he published a collection of speech samples, Prøver af Landsmaalet i Norge (“Samples of Landsmål in Norway”), in which he included passages with normalized speech. In doing so he had constructed Landsmål, which since 1929 has been officially known as Nynorsk. It was meant as a common denominator or composite of all Norwegian dialects, but Aasen had first and foremost based his work on the spoken language most closely related to the old written Norwegian, i.e. the dialects of the inland fjord communities in Western Norway and the mountain districts of Eastern Norway. He chose etymological spellings, partly because this type of orthography provided written forms of speech that more closely matched the linguistic forms from which the many dialectical variations had evolved, and partly because the words were then given a form closer to the way Icelandic, Danish and Swedish were spelled than a more phonetic spelling would have produced.
Dialect basis
Aasen used his new language to write poems and plays, as did many others. Aasen’s Nynorsk gradually won a substantial number of supporters, particularly among people opposed to the ruling party of government officials who had run the country since 1814. When the opposition won a majority in the Storting (Norway’s national assembly) in 1884, Nynorsk was given co-official status with Bokmål, and starting in 1892, the individual school boards could decide whether Nynorsk or Bokmål was to be the language of instruction in the schools. Several schools chose Aasen’s Nynorsk, and in 1901 an official orthography was drawn up in which a number of the more archaic forms were replaced by spellings with a wider basis in the dialects.
From Danish to Bokmål
The other path in the development of a separate Norwegian language, the Norwegianization approach, presupposed the gradual absorption of Norwegian words and spelling. One of the most important proponents of this approach was Knud Knudsen (1812-1895). Knudsen was an upper secondary school teacher and an enthusiastic supporter of Danish language researcher Rasmus Rask’s desire to create an orthography in which the words were spelled as they were pronounced. In the 1840s, Knudsen began to campaign actively for spelling reform based on this principle. He sought to build his new orthography on Norwegian as it was spoken “by educated speakers”. In other words, he accepted the Norwegian pronunciations of the joint Dano-Norwegian written language as the norm for standard spoken Norwegian. He met considerable resistance and criticism from opponents who did not favor any break with the Danish tradition, and who believed that the absorption of Norwegian words and expressions in a written language that actually was Danish would create a tasteless mixture.
Nordic characteristics
Knudsen came to wield great influence on the generation of authors who began to write in the 1850s – first and foremost Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson – in his capacity as language advisor at the theatre where their dramas were staged.
The most important difference between Danish and Dano-Norwegian pronunciation was based on the fact that Norwegian (and Swedish) had retained certain Nordic characteristics, whereas Danish had evolved away from this base. For example, a number of Norwegian words had p,t and k sounds where Danish used b, d and g: Norwegian bake, rot and krype compared to Danish bage, rod andkrybe (English bake, root and creep). The written language followed Danish pronunciation, and in these cases Knudsen wanted Norwegian spelling to correspond to the pronunciations which in his time were customary in refined daily conversation, i.e. that the words should be written with p, t and k. As the memory of Norway’s union with Denmark dimmed, the infusion of distinctively Norwegian vocabulary, spellings, and, to a certain extent, syntax, grew stronger and stronger.
The trend towards Norwegianization was most visible in fiction writing: the language of the bureaucrats changed little. But writers were often inconsistent in their use of Norwegian words and spellings, and the written language of many was a fairly unsystematic blend. Advocates of Norwegianization therefore went in for a total reform of the official orthography, which was carried out in 1907 and 1917. With that, a Nynorsk written language was created and the connection with Danish was broken.
Since 1917, essentially the same principles have applied to both Norwegian languages: the spelling of both is etymological and features phonetic forms. The differences in spelling since 1917 are not a reflection of two different writing traditions, but rather real language differences.
Spelling reform advocates like Knudsen believed that the Dano-Norwegian language would continue to change and become more Norwegian until it meshed with Nynorsk to become one common language. During the spelling reform of 1917, the possibility of further development in this direction was opened after a number of distinctively Norwegian forms which at that time were not a part of “refined daily speech” were offered as alternative, elective forms in the spelling rules. However, the elective forms saw little use, and to speed up the process, a new reform spelling reform was carried out in 1938, in which a number of unconventional forms were made compulsory at the same time as many traditional written forms were excluded. To begin with, the protests from conservative speakers were the most vociferous on the Nynorsk side, but after the war the criticism among speakers of Bokmål developed into a storm. A protest movement was organized and parents began to change the unconventional spellings in their children’s textbooks back to the forbidden traditional forms.
Nynorsk made major gains the entire period from c. 1900, reaching a peak in 1944: in that year 34 per cent of all Norwegian children listed Nynorsk as their primary language. But then decline set in, and many of the school districts won over in the latter part of the expansionary period dropped out. Since the 1970s the percentage with Nynorsk as their primary language has hovered between 16 and 17 per cent. Not only has this been a blow to Nynorsk, it also meant that the political parties no longer needed to be so concerned with Nynorsk pressure groups. Urbanization and industrialization of the country also served to weaken the position of Nynorsk, in that it was the strongest in the rural districts dominated by the primary industries. The pressure from supporters of traditional spelling among speakers of Bokmål led to the reintroduction of many of these forms in the spelling adjustments of 1959 and 1981. As a compromise, the traditionalists agreed to allow the untraditional forms to remain in the spelling glossary. Consequently, the present orthography contains numerous alternative spellings, so-called “radical” and “moderate” forms, from which students can pick and choose. It is often hard to tell if it is the student that is doing the selecting, or if it is wise to let them choose, but in the present situation it is often necessary to live with compromise.
“Speak dialect, write Nynorsk”
Traditional Bokmål has dominated the post-war period. In retaliation, a movement sprang up seeking an immediate merger of the two languages. Its advocates were for the most part well educated, often politically radical idealists who were influenced in the 1960s and ’70s by the new views on linguistics advanced by American and British sociologists. The attacks of the pan-Norwegian adherents were mainly focused on Bokmål, which they regard as a upper class dialect, although they also threw barbs at traditional Nynorsk. Their slogan “Speak dialect, write Nynorsk” became a sort of motto for modern proponents of Nynorsk. Because the position of normalized spoken Nynorsk is so weak, there is reason to doubt whether the slogan will prove to be an effective battle cry.
Stable situation
The basis for the slogan is the claim that Nynorsk is the common denominator of all Norwegian dialects. The idea is that if a higher value can be attached to the dialects, people will start to write in Nynorsk. While it is true that the dialects share in common with Nynorsk a more complicated declension system compared to traditional Bokmål, the proponents of pan-Norwegian disregard the fact that the systems of the dialects where Nynorsk has not taken hold are in many cases very different from the system of the Western Norway dialects on which Nynorsk is based.
The present situation is that the relationship between the two official written languages has been stable for several years. Bokmål predominates and exerts pressure on Nynorsk, which is the minority language. The strength of Bokmål is not only that it is the written language of more than 80 per cent of the population, but also that it enjoys strong and expanding usage in daily speech. In addition, it is a fact that it is easier to switch to a less complicated system of inflexion from one that is more complicated, than to do the opposite especially when the less complicated system is omnipresent. This is not to say that Nynorsk will disappear or regress even more. The section of the country where Nynorsk reigns is a large contiguous area, and in this region the pressure from Bokmål is not as strong as it is in less stable environments. But Nynorsk requires, as do other ideologies, a strong commitment. Because it is so easy to switch to Bokmål, a person leaving a traditional bastion of Nynorsk must make a conscious effort to cling to their native tongue in surroundings where most people speak Bokmål.