Bokmål and Nynorsk—the fight for and about Norwegian

Published on 2 October 2020 at 13:53

What should the Norwegian language be like? How should it be written? Norway has a long history of heated conflict related to its language. In this article, you can learn more about this—about the history and about the present situation.  You will also find examples that clearly show the differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk.

Why does Norway have two written languages?

Norway is in a very unique situation with regards to its languages. There are of course other countries with a language conflict, just think about countries like Belgium, Finland, Switzerland or Canada. They all have more than one official language. Nevertheless, in these countries, they use languages that are mutually unintelligible. Looking to Norway, you will find a situation that is rather different. In Norway, the two official languages are very similar to each other, so similar that they can both be called Norwegian.

In order to understand this situation, you will need to know some Norwegian history. For around 400 years (roughly speaking) Norway was ruled by Denmark. Danish became the written language. Still, most people spoke their own local dialect. The union with Denmark lasted until 1814. In the same year, on the 17th of May, Norway got its own constitution. However, it did not become fully independent; instead it entered into a new union with Sweden. Fortunately, Norway managed to keep its own constitution and its own parliament.  Some of the most heated discussions in that period related to the language.

Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are not very different from each other. Most of the vocabulary is more or less the same, but Danish has a very different pronunciation. Anyway, in Norway many people longed for their own distinct national language. Two different paths were chosen, each with its own adherents.

The origins of Bokmål and Nynorsk

The first spelling reform came in the 1860s. Then, the principle of phonetic spelling of words of foreign origin was introduced. This principle is still valid in Norwegian. Good examples are sjåfør (driver), stasjon and sjokolade, but also English words like tøff (tough) and kul (cool).  

This spelling reform was just the beginning. Many people wanted a language that was genuinely Norwegian, and clearly distinct from Danish. The most important advocate for further reform was Knud Knudsen. He wanted to develop a national language based on how the upper class spoke. The spoken language among the elite had strong similarities to Danish, but with a distinctly Norwegian pronunciation. They also used words and expressions that were to be found in Norway rather than in Denmark.

By modifying the existing written language, Danish could become Norwegian. This is also what happened. Bokmål was created by gradually introducing and implementing elements of the spoken language. Until around 1900, that meant the spoken language of the elite. However, later spelling reforms went further. In the 20th century, many elements from the dialects were also introduced into the written language. 

The other approach was far more radical; to establish a completely new written language based on the Norwegian dialects. This was the project of Ivar Aasen. He carried out research on the spoken language in large parts of Norway. He created a new language based on what he considered to be existing common traits of the dialects. In order to do so, he also made comparisons with Old Norse, the Norwegian language of the Middle Ages. Ivar Aasen called the new language Landsmål, meaning that it should be a language for the entire country. Later this developed into what is now Nynorsk (actually meaning new Norwegian).

But the names tell us little about the languages themselves. As a matter of fact, Bokmål literally means “Book Language”. A misleading name according to many, since many books are also written in Nynorsk

Around 1900, the language situation that we know today was established. For more than 100 years, there have been two official ways of writing Norwegian. However, a lot has changed as well—Bokmål and Nynorsk have come closer to each other. For a couple of generations, people were used to continuous changes in the way Norwegian was written. Dictionaries and school-books were updated now and then.

The underlying idea was that one day, a mixture of Bokmål and Nynorsk should become the one and only written language. But that never happened; too many people protested. So Norway still has two official languages. Hence, it also has two official names, as you can see on these postage stamps from the 1990s.

Norge Noreg Norway

One language, but two ways of writing it

But what is actually the official language of Norway? Well, there is only one—Norwegian. Bokmål and Nynorsk are just two different ways of writing it, two different standards. Bokmål is quite similar to the way people speak in the Oslo region. Nynorsk, on the other hand, usually only appears in writing. People who use Nynorsk in general speak in their own dialect. But they may speak a dialect that is close to the way they write.

The two national TV stations, NRK and TV2, are instructed by law to use both official standards of Norwegian. You will often hear Nynorsk spoken when watching or listening to the news.  Still, more often you will hear Bokmål. That is also the standard that is used by the vast majority of Norwegians. But people talk the way they want. Dialects are widely used in Norway, basically in all situations. Also at school, Bokmål and Nynorsk are only considered to be written languages. School children are never instructed to speak any of them, unless they read aloud from a textbook.

At school, both Bokmål and Nynorsk are taught all over the country. But during the early years, children learn to read and write either Bokmål or Nynorsk. Which one they learn depends on the area in which they live. From the age of 13–14, they learn how to write the other language as well.

The status of Nynorsk is officially equal, but it’s used mainly in rural regions—especially in Western Norway. In those areas, children learn to read and write Nynorsk at school and the local councils use Nynorsk in official documents.

However, Bokmål is dominant in the most populous areas of Norway. In those areas, Bokmål is generally considered to be the normal way of writing Norwegian. Like in other countries, the largest cities dominate the economic and cultural life.

Therefore we see that the major newspapers are written in Bokmål. Companies operating nationwide, always use Bokmål on websites and in publicity. Bokmål is the standard that you will encounter if you log into your online bank, or if you leaf through the IKEA catalogue. Bokmål is accepted in all kinds of situations. For Nynorsk, that’s far less the case.

Some users of Bokmål even openly say that they don’t like Nynorsk. They don’t want to read it and they don’t want to hear it. Users of Nynorsk cannot allow themselves to show the same kind of arrogance. Wherever you live in Norway, you will in fact encounter the dominant standard, Bokmål, on a daily basis.  

Statistics tell us that the percentage of people writing Nynorsk is falling. Many people switch to Bokmål when relocating to another area of the country. There are far less cases of people going the other way, switching to Nynorsk. But are we now in the situation where the language of Ivar Aasen is dying? Certainly not. You will often encounter Nynorsk in literature, as well as in many local newspapers. It has a large number of proud daily users.

Nynorsk norsk Norwegian

How do Bokmål and Nynorsk differ from each other?

On the photo it says Eg snakkar Nynorsk (I speak Nynorsk). But as I have already explained, Nynorsk is predominantly a spoken language. By the way, a person who writes (and speaks) Bokmål can say: Jeg snakker Bokmål (with -er at the end instead of -ar).

But then comes the question: what is actually the difference between the two standards of Norwegian? Actually, not that much after all. The differences are found in the details, but in many details. If you know Bokmål, you should be able to understand Nynorsk, and vice versa. As I have already mentioned, the official policy for much of the 20th century was to make one written language out of the two official standards. The different spelling reforms in the 20th century have affected both Bokmål and Nynorsk.  

As a result, there is a lot to choose from. There are different ways of writing Bokmål, and different ways of writing Nynorsk. Not surprisingly, this freedom of choice has also led to people getting confused. In recent years, though, the official policy has been to move towards a clearer standard for both written languages. But still today, the Norwegian language gives you a lot of choice in the way of writing, even after you have chosen whether you want to write Bokmål or Nynorsk.

In the following, I will try to make it simple. Therefore, I will concentrate on the most common and generally accepted way of writing respectively Bokmål and Nynorsk. I will also concentrate on just a few examples, and these are examples that clearly show the differences. Under every table you also find a sound file for the pronunciation.

Differences in grammar

Norwegian verbs do not have conjugation of person or number. In English there are different verb forms for I am and you are. In Norwegian, the verbs only change in the different tenses (like present tense, past tense etc).

Still, you have to learn the system. And it’s not done the same way in Bokmål and Nynorsk. This can most clearly be seen for strong verbs. In Bokmål, you just add an r to the infinitive to create the present tense. In Nynorsk, you get a shorter version of the same verb instead.

Bokmål Nynorsk English
kommer kjem come/comes
ligger ligg lies/lie (on the floor)
holder held keeps/keep
bryter bryt breaks/break

When learning Norwegian, you need to learn the gender system as well. Danish has two genders, but Ivar Aasen introduced a system with three, based on what he could find in the dialects. The system of three genders is still present in Nynorsk.

In Bokmål, you have much more choice. You can stick strictly to a system of three genders like in Nynorsk, but you can also choose to use only two genders. Different solutions in between are also possible. It’s all a matter of style and personal preferences.

Differences in vocabulary

There are quite a few cases of words that are written (and pronounced) slightly differently. This often relates to diphthongs (gliding vowels); they are more often present in Nynorsk than in Bokmål:

Bokmål Nynorsk English
øst aust east
høst haust autumn, fall
skrev skreiv wrote
mer meir more

In Bokmål, many words are written with hv at the beginning. In those cases, the h is silent. In Nynorsk, you get kv instead (and the k is pronounced):

Bokmål Nynorsk English
hva kva what
hvem kven who
hvit kvit white
hval kval whale

One of Ivar Aasen’s ideas was to avoid words of foreign origin, if possible. When studying the dialects, and comparing them with old Norse, he found that he could avoid many words that he found to be more Danish than Norwegian. When looking for alternatives, he looked for words with a purely Norwegian appearance. This difference is still to be seen:

Bokmål Nynorsk English
hjemme heime at home
midlertidig mellombels temporary
kjærlighet kjærleik love
Norge Noreg Norway

As you can see, there are some clear differences. But in modern times, Nynorsk has also accepted many words that used to be banned in the past. And as already mentioned: the users of the two different standards can understand each other perfectly well.

Should I learn Bokmål or Nynorsk?

A common question is this: “If I want to study Norwegian, should I learn Bokmål or Nynorsk?”, The answer is probably Bokmål. In a normal language course, that is what you will learn. But do you still want to learn Nynorsk? Of course you can. But be aware that there are less courses in Nynorsk, and less textbooks available.

Of course, Nynorsk is useful in certain areas. But in all the major cities, Bokmål is the language that you need to know. And even in the areas where Nynorsk is widely used, you will be doing fine just using Bokmål.

By the way: what did you learn by reading this article? At least, you should be able to recognize the two names of the country. For the rest, hopefully you will not say “I don’t know”. But if you do, this is how you would say it in Norwegian:

Bokmål Jeg vet ikke
Nynorsk Eg veit ikkje
Trøndersk (dialect in Trøndelag) æ veit itj
English (word by word translation) I know not

Speaking dialect means speaking something that is different from both Bokmål and Nynorsk. This article has been about the written language, while people speak the way they want. Outside the Oslo-region, this usually means that they speak dialect. If you learn Norwegian, there is no need to learn to speak any dialect. Still, you need to learn to be able to understand the dialect of the area where you live.

The dialects will be a theme for another article. Other texts about the Norwegian language and society will also appear on this site. And if you want to learn more about the Norwegian language conflict, there is also an informative article to be found on Wikipedia.

PS: Both Bokmål and Nynorsk had another name a hundred years ago. Bokmål was called Riksmål, a name that is still in use. From the 1920s and onwards, many people refused to accept the spelling reforms of Bokmål. They were the adherents of Riksmål – an unofficial standard with its own dictionaries. Nowadays, Riksmål still exists, but mainly as a conservative way of writing Bokmål.

And just to be clear: In this article, I’ve been explaining the language situation at the national level. I have not discussed the situation of Sami or other minority languages.


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