If you were to ask a Norwegian speaker to write something in Norwegian, they might ask: which variant? While spoken Norwegian is referred to as one language, there are two separate written forms of Norwegian in use in Norway today – Bokmål and Nynorsk. So how did this come about, and how does it work? As someone who uses both variants of Norwegian, I’ll try to explain.
Some historical background
From 1537 to 1814, Norway was part of Denmark and the official language was Danish. Around the time that union ended, there was a strong desire in Norway to build a unique Norwegian nation and culture – separate from Denmark. A Norwegian language was an important part of this, and a hotly debated topic at the time.
There were two main approaches when it came to creating a Norwegian language: gradually “Norwegifying” Danish, or creating a new language from scratch. Bokmål came from the first faction and Nynorsk from the second, and they were both put into and are still in use.
Both variants of the language are taught in schools, and if you write to a Norwegian civil servant in your preferred variant of Norwegian, they have to send you a written reply in the same variant.
Who speaks Bokmål and who speaks Nynorsk?
No one speaks Nynorsk or Bokmål – they are written standards and don’t apply to spoken language, which is a separate topic. As for writing in Bokmål and Nynorsk, everyone is free to choose their preferred form. All Norwegian municipalities also choose an official language form for use by the local government (except in the letter scenario mentioned above). This means that the form of Norwegian you use is in part geographically determined.
Bokmål means “book language”, suggesting that Bokmål was created from the language already used in books. Bokmål was based on and is heavily influenced by Danish. It is the most common form of written Norwegian, especially in the east and in larger cities around the country. About 85 per cent of Norwegians use Bokmål as their primary language form.
Nynorsk means “new Norwegian”, highlighting that it was created from scratch as an alternative to Danish. Only 10–15 per cent of the Norwegian population use Nynorsk as their primary language form and it is more common in Western Norway and in rural areas.
How was Nynorsk born?
Nynorsk was created by Ivar Aasen, a Norwegian philologist, lexicographer, playwright and poet in the 1800s. He wanted to create a language that was closer to the rural people’s speech and which was derived from the much older Norwegian dialects in use before Norway became Denmark–Norway in the 16th century.
Ivar Aasen spent years travelling Norway and cataloguing the diverse dialects he came across. He based the new written language on the common ground between the different dialects.
Since then, Nynorsk has faced many changes and is now quite different from what Ivar Aasen originally created, but his work is still the backbone of this form of Norwegian.
How is Nynorsk used in Norway today?
Today, Bokmål is much more widely used than Nynorsk, even in traditional Nynorsk municipalities. Whether both forms should be taught in schools is still up for debate, and probably will be for some time.
That said, Nynorsk still has its fans. It is used by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), who have committed to providing a portion of their content in Nynorsk, as well as some Norwegian newspapers. There is also a Norwegian publishing house, Samlaget, dedicated to publishing books in Nynorsk.
What does the future hold for Bokmål and Nynorsk?
I’m from the municipality of Kristiansand, which is officially Bokmål country, but my mum is a Nynorsk fan who read me poetry by Nynorsk poet Jakob Sande when I was far too young to understand it. This indoctrination clearly worked, because today I use, read and translate into both forms.
While there will probably always be some disagreement about how and where to use Bokmål and Nynorsk, the two language forms really highlight the amazing diversity of the Norwegian language and serve as a reminder of its long and complicated history.
In a time when many languages are at risk of disappearing, I think it’s lovely that not only one but two forms of Norwegian are still alive and in use, and that the state, organisations and dedicated individuals are striving to keep it that way.