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Encyclopedia > Norwegian (language)
Norwegian (norsk)
Spoken in: Norway
Total speakers: 5 million
Ranking: Not in top 100

  North Germanic (from Old Norse)
   East (Continental) Nordic
    Bokmål and Riksmål
   West (Insular) Nordic

Official status
Official language of: Norway (Bokmål and Nynorsk)
Regulated by: Bokmål and Nynorsk: Norsk språkråd
(Norwegian Language Council)

Riksmål: Norwegian Academy

Language codes
ISO 639-1 no (Norwegian)
nb (Bokmål)
nn (Nynorsk)
ISO 639-2(B) nor (Norwegian)
nob (Bokmål)
nno (Nynorsk)
SIL NRR (Bokmål)
NRN (Nynorsk)

Norwegian is a Germanic language spoken in Norway. Norwegian is closely related to, and generally mutually intelligible with Swedish and Danish. Together with these two languages, Norwegian belongs to the Northern, or Scandinavian group of the Germanic languages. Proficient speakers of any of the three languages can understand the others.

Owing to Norway's mountainous geography, there is considerable diversity in vocabulary, grammar, and syntax among Norwegian dialects. For centuries, Norway's written language was closely related to Danish. As a result, the development of written Norwegian has been subject to strong controversy related to nationalism, rural versus urban discourse, and Norway's literary history.

As established by law and governmental policy, there are currently two official forms of written Norwegian — Bokmål (literally "book language") and Nynorsk (literally "new Norwegian"). The Norwegian Language Council recommends the terms Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk in English, but others may prefer using different terms. This question is subject to much controversy. Though not reflective of the political landscape in general, written Norwegian is often described as a spectrum ranging from the conservative to the radical. The current forms of Bokmål and Nynorsk are considered moderate forms of conservative and radical versions of written Norwegian, respectively.

The unofficial but widely used written form known as Riksmål (Traditional Standard Norwegian) is considered more conservative than Bokmål, and the unofficial Høgnorsk more radical than Nynorsk. Although Norwegians are educated in both Bokmål and Nynorsk, around 86-90% use Bokmål or Riksmål as their daily written language, and 10%-12% use Nynorsk or Høgnorsk as theirs. This even though most of the spoken dialects resemble Nynorsk more closely than Bokmål. Broadly speaking, Bokmål and Riksmål are more commonly seen in urban and suburban areas; Nynorsk in rural areas, particularly in Western Norway. The Norwegian broadcasting corporation (NRK) broadcasts in both Bokmål and Nynorsk, and all governmental agencies are required to support both written languages. Bokmål or Riksmål are used in 92 % of all written publications, Nynorsk in 8 % (2000).

In spite of concern that Norwegian dialects would eventually give way to a common spoken Norwegian language close to Bokmål, dialects find significant support in local environments, popular opinion, and public policy.



The Norwegian alphabet consists of 29 letters, the first 26 of which are the same as the Latin alphabet used in English. The three last letters are Æ, Ø and Å. In addition to the 29 official letters, there are several diacritical signs in use (somewhat more in Nynorsk than Bokmål): à é è ê ó ò ô. The diacritical signs are not compulsory, but may in a few cases distinguish between different meanings of the word, e.g.: for (for/to), fór (went), fòr (furrow) and fôr (fodder).

Roots of the language

The languages now spoken in Scandinavia developed from the Old Norse language, which did not differ greatly between what are now Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish areas. In fact, Viking traders spread the language across Europe and into Russia, making Old Norse one of the most widespread languages for a time. According to tradition, King Harald Fairhair united Norway in 872. Around this time, a simple runic alphabet was used. According to writings found on stone tablets from this period of history, the language showed remarkably little deviation between different regions. Runes had been in limited use since at least the 3rd century. Around 1030, Christianity came to Norway, bringing with it the Latin alphabet. Norwegian manuscripts in the new alphabet began to appear about a century later. The Norwegian language began to deviate from its neighbors around this time as well.

Viking explorers had begun to settle Iceland in the 9th century, carrying with them the Old Norse language. Over time, Old Norse developed into "Western" and "Eastern" variants. Western Norse covered Iceland and Norway, while Eastern Norse developed in Denmark and Sweden. The languages of Iceland and Norway remained very similar until about the year 1300, when they became what are now known as Old Icelandic and Old Norse. In 1397, Norway entered a personal union with Denmark, which came to be the dominating part, and Danish was eventually used as Norway's written language. Danish, a language since mediaeval times mostly influenced by Low Saxon, came to be the primary language of the Norwegian elite, although adoption was slower among the commoners. The union lasted more than 400 years, until 1814 when Norway became independent of Denmark, but was forced to enter a personal union with Sweden. Norwegians began to push for true independence by embracing democracy and attempting to enforce the constitutional declaration of being a sovereign state. Part of this nationalist movement was directed to the development of an independent Norwegian language. Two major paths were available: modify the elite's Danish, or attempt to undo centuries of foreign rule and work with the commoners' Norwegian. Both approaches were attempted.

Bokmål, Riksmål, Nynorsk and Høgnorsk


In the 1840s, many writers began to "Norwegianize" Danish by incorporating words that were descriptive of Norwegian scenery and folk life. Spelling and grammar were also modified. This was adopted by the Norwegian parliament as Riksmål, or "Standard Language" in 1899.

However, a nationalistic movement strove for the development of a new written Norwegian. Ivar Aasen, a self-taught linguist, began his work to create a new Norwegian language at the age of 22. He travelled around the country, comparing the dialects in different regions, and examined the development of Icelandic, which had largely escaped the influences Norwegian had come under. He called his work, which was published in several books from 1848 to 1873, Landsmål, or "National Language".

After the personal union with Sweden was dissolved, both languages were developed further. Riksmål was in 1929 officially renamed to Bokmål (literally "Book language"), and Landsmål to Nynorsk (literally "New Norwegian") — the names Dano-Norwegian and Norwegian lost in parliament with one single vote, as the Danish label was (and still is) very unpopular among Bokmål/Riksmål users.

Bokmål and Nynorsk were made closer by reforms in 1917, 1938 and 1959. This was a result of a state policy to merge Nynorsk and Bokmål into one language, called Samnorsk (Common Norwegian). This resulted in massive protests, and the policy had little influence after 1960, and was officially abandoned in 2002. Users of either written language resented the efforts to dilute the distinctness of their written language in general and spelling in particular. Over the years, the standards for Bokmål have increasingly accomodated Riksmål forms. As a result, some people prefer to follow a more traditional way of spelling of Nynorsk, called Høgnorsk.

Modern Norwegian

Bokmål and Nynorsk

Like other European countries, Norway has an official "advisory board" - Norsk språkråd - that determines acceptable spelling, grammar, and vocabulary for the Norwegian language. The board's work has been subject to considerable controversy through the years, and much work lies ahead.

Two official written forms of the Norwegian language are still in use. Bokmål and the unofficial form Riksmål (see below) are used by the majority (86-90 %), while Nynorsk is used by a minority (10-12 %) [1] (http://www.sprakrad.no/norw1.htm). Nynorsk has its strongholds in Western Norway and the inland valleys. In national broadcasting all scripted material is spoken in either Bokmål or Nynorsk, while interviews, talks etc. may be spoken in the dialect of the person speaking.

Both Nynorsk and Bokmål have a great variety of optional forms. The Bokmål that uses the forms that are close to Riksmål is called moderate or conservative, depending on one's viewpoint, while the Bokmål that uses the forms that are close to Nynorsk is called radical. Nynorsk has forms that are close to the original Landsmål and forms that are close to Bokmål.

Riksmål and Høgnorsk

Opponents of the spelling reforms aimed at bringing Bokmål closer to Nynorsk have retained the name Riksmål as their own unofficial form of Norwegian and employ spelling and grammar that predate the Samnorsk movement. Riksmål and conservative versions of Bokmål have been the de facto standard written language of Norway for most of the 20th century, being used by large newspapers, encyclopedias, and a significant proportion of the population of Oslo, surrounding areas, and other urban areas, as well as much of the literary tradition. Since the reforms of 1981 and 2003 (the latter decided by the Norwegian Language Council, but not yet approved by the Ministry), the official Bokmål can be adapted to be almost identical with modern Riksmål.

There is also an unofficial form of Nynorsk, called Høgnorsk, discarding the post-1917 reforms, and thus close to Ivar Aasen's original Landsmål.

Spoken dialects

Main article: Norwegian dialects

There is general agreement that a wide range of differences makes it difficult to estimate the number of different Norwegian dialects. Variations in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation cut across geographical boundaries and can create a distinct dialect at the level of farm clusters. Dialects are in some cases so dissimilar as to be unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners. Many linguists note a trend toward regionalization of dialects that diminishes the differences at such local levels; but there is renewed interest in preserving distinct dialects.

Among Norwegians, it is common to distinguish between those who speak a dialect and those who do not. Although this is a fallacy from a linguistic point of view, it reflects the trend toward a homogenized dialect that closely approximates written Bokmål. In the early 20th century, the term stasjonspråk emerged to describe inhabitants near railway stations who spoke a dialect that sought to approximate Bokmål. Particularly in politically conservative Western suburbs to Oslo, conservative Bokmål is favored as a guide to spoken language.

Current usage

About 85.3 % of the pupils in the primary and lower secondary schools in Norway receive education in Bokmål, while about 14.5 % receive education in Nynorsk. From the eighth grade onwards pupils are required to learn both.

Out of the 434 municipalities in Norway, 162 have declared that they wish to communicate with the central authorities in Bokmål, 116 (representing 12 % of the population) in Nynorsk, while 156 are neutral.

Of 4,549 Norwegian publications in 2000 8 % were in Nynorsk, and 92% in Bokmål/Riksmål. The large national newspapers (Aftenposten, Dagbladet and VG) are published in Bokmål/Riksmål. Some major regional newspapers (including Bergens Tidende and Stavanger Aftenblad), many political journals, and many local newspapers use both Bokmål and Nynorsk.


Below are a few sentences giving an indication of the differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk, compared to the conservative (Danish-near) form Riksmål and to Danish:

  • B=Bokmål
  • R=Riksmål
  • D=Danish
  • N=Nynorsk
  • H=Høgnorsk
  • E=English

B/R/D: Jeg kommer fra Norge
N/H: Eg kjem frå Noreg.
E: I come from Norway.

B/R: Hva heter han?
D: Hvad hedder han?
N/H: Kva heiter han?
E: What is his name?

B/R/D: Dette er en hest.
N/H: Dette er ein hest.
E: This is a horse.

B: Regnbuen har mange farger.
R/D: Regnbuen har mange farver.
N: Regnbogen har mange fargar.
H: Regnbogen hev mange fargar. (Or better: Regnbogen er manglìta).
E: The rainbow has many colours.


The number of grammatical genders in Norwegian is somewhat disputed, but the official view is that Norwegian nouns fall into three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. The inflection of the nouns depends on the gender.

 Bokmål m.: en gutt gutten gutter guttene (a boy) (the boy) (boys) (the boys) f.: en/ei dør døren/døra dører dørene (a door) (the door) (doors) (the doors) n.: et hus huset hus husene/husa (a house) (the house) (houses) (the houses) 

Note that feminine nouns can be inflected like masculine nouns in Bokmål. Riksmål rejects the feminine gender and merges it with the masculine into a common gender (utrum), like in Danish.

 Nynorsk m.: ein gut guten gutar gutane (a boy) (the boy) (boys) (the boys) f.: ei sol sola/soli soler solene (a sun) (the sun) (suns) (the suns) ei kyrkje/kyrkja kyrkja kyrkjer/kyrkjor kyrkjene/kyrkjone (a church) (the church) (churches) (the churches) n.: eit hus huset hus husa/husi (a house) (the house) (houses) (the houses) 

Nynorsk is more consistent in inflection between the genders than Bokmål.


Compound words are written together in Norwegian (see Nominal compositum), which can cause words to become very long, e.g. sannsynlighetsmaksimeringsestimator (maximum likelihood estimator). Another example is the title høyesterettsjustitiarius (originally put together of supreme court and the actual title, justitiarius. However, because of the increasing influence the English language is having on Norwegian, and inadequate computer spell checkers, this is often forgotten, sometimes with humorous results. Instead of writing e.g. lammekoteletter (lamb chops), people make the mistake of writing lamme koteletter (paralyzed, or lame, chops). The original message can even be reversed, as when røykfritt (smoke-free) becomes røyk fritt (smoke freely).

Other examples include:

  • Terrasse dør ("terrace dies") instead of Terrassedør ("terrace door");
  • Tunfisk biter ("Tuna bites", verb) instead of Tunfiskbiter ("Pieces of tuna", noun);
  • Smult ringer ("lard calls", verb) instead of Smultringer ("doughnuts");
  • Tyveri sikret ("Theft guaranteed") instead of Tyverisikret ("Theft-proof").

See also

External links

Wikipedia articles written in this language are located at the
Wikipedia articles written in this language are located at the


  • Einar Haugen, editor (1965, 1967, 1974). Norwegian-English Dictionary. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

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