A Short History of the Norwegian Language

Norway is a country of dialects which can initially make it very hard for foreigners settling in the country. There are three official languages in Norway:

•  Norwegian: Bokmål
•  Norwegian: Nynorsk
•  Sami

Whereas Bokmål and Nynorsk have equal status throughout the country, it is not so for Sami which is the official language of the indigenous Sami people. This language only has equal status to the two Norwegian forms in some municipalities.

A Quick Overview of the History of the Norwegian Language

So, why two different written forms of the Norwegian language? We have to go back in time to find the answer. In 1380 Norway entered into a union with Denmark which lasted until 1814. During this period, Danish was introduced as the official written language which meant that written Norwegian gradually ceased to be used.

When the union with Denmark ceased in 1814, Norway entered into a union with Sweden which lasted until 1905. However, there was a short period in 1814, between the two unions, when Norway was independent. The Norwegian independence was short-lived and by the autumn of 1814 the country had entered into a new union with Sweden.

Danish remained as the official written language and the spoken language in the major cities remained similar to Danish. In the country-side, however, people would still speak a wide variety of Norwegian dialects.

The Development of the Modern Norwegian Language

During union-period with Sweden, there was a growing independence movement in Norway and one of the key issues on the agenda was the question of a Norwegian language. There were two main schools of thought: Norwegianise the Danish or create an entirely new Norwegian language based on the spoken dialects. The Norwegians opted for both solutions …

Bokmål (literal translation: language of the books) is by far the biggest written language form in Norway today. It has its roots in Danish but it has been much changed over time and it is now a language in its own right, quite different from Danish.

Nynorsk (literal translation: new Norwegian) is a language “made up” of a collection of Norwegian dialects which were collected by Ivar Aasen (1813-1896). Aasen travelled around most of the country. However, he focused mainly on the western parts as he reckoned these were the areas least “polluted” by the Danish language.

Today, Bokmål and Nynorsk have equal status and all Norwegians have to learn both languages at school.

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