Considering that I’ve spent about a year in Norway, many people have asked me if I’ve learned Norwegian. Unfortunately the answer is no, although I can navigate the grocery store quite well and say things like hello, thank you, and have a nice day. I have to admit that my greatest struggle with the language has been pronunciation. Even properly pronouncing the name of my upper secondary school, Byåsen, has been a bit of a struggle. Now I would argue that half of my trouble stems from the fact that there is no standard form of spoken Norwegian. But before I can address spoken Norwegian, it’s necessary to spend some time talking about written Norwegian.
Written Norwegian breaks down into two official norms, Bokmål and Nynorsk. The reason for the two written languages can be traced back to the 19th century. Norway was a part of Denmark from 1397 to 1814, and their union meant that the Norwegian elite spoke and wrote in Danish (albeit with a Norwegian accent), while the lower classes, or the other 95% of the population, communicated in dialects that had sprung up under Danish rule.
However, this all changed when in 1814 Norway was given to Sweden. Part of the agreement stated that Norway would only enter the union as an equal partner. In other words, Sweden and Norway would be two equal and independent countries ruled by one king. This newfound independence ended up having a huge impact on the language because the Norwegians had to decide if they were going to:
- Stick with Danish
- Create a written language based on Norwegian dialects
- Create a more Norwegian version of Danish
While the first option was rejected, the other two were put in motion.
The second option was undertaken by Ivar Aasen, a linguist and poet. After studying different dialects in the western and central parts of southern Norway, he developed what later came to be known as Nynorsk, or “New Norwegian.” It later included dialects from Eastern Norway, but to this day has never gained much popularity with Norwegians. Only about 10-15% of the population uses Nynorsk. In fact, Nynorsk is one of the required classes that my students constantly complain about.
Bokmål, on the other hand, was the answer to the third option. It was developed by Knud Knudsen, and although it originally corresponded to the informal language used by the upper classes, it later came to include the language of the lower classes. Today approximately 85–90% of Norwegians write in Bokmål.
As you can see from the numbers, most people use Bokmål in their writing. I’ve been told that using Bokmål tends to show an affinity for urban culture, while using Nynorsk tends to display conservative and nationalistic tendencies. In order to keep things somewhat balanced and to protect Nynorsk, the government has passed laws requiring the use of Nynorsk. For example, 25% of national broadcasting has to be done in Nynorsk.
As for spoken Norwegian, due to the way the written languages were created, each dialect will either relate to Nynorsk or Bokmål. Because dialect is the spoken language, there is no standard spoken Norwegian per se, although foreigners tend to be taught spoken Bokmål, which is close to the Oslo accent. To give you an idea of how accent is (still) debated in Norway, one of my co-teachers told me that back in the day there were riots over how to properly pronounce the name of my city, Trondheim, and that people will still occasionally squabble over it now. My students have even quibbled with their teachers about writing in Bokmål instead of in dialect (in other words the students want the teacher to write out how the Trondheim dialect sounds).* Alix was even told off by some of her colleagues when she said she was trying to learn Norwegian pronunciation by listening to the way the bus stops are pronounced on the automated bus system–apparently the voice over for the public transportation system has an Oslo accent, something that caused an uproar in Trondheim when it was first implemented.
But it’s not all about accent. Each dialect tends to have something unique about it, whether it is certain turns of phrase or even the number of swear words used (I’m told that Northern Norwegians have a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush). As you can see, it all gets a bit complicated quite quickly. And although I didn’t manage to master Norwegian in my brief time here, I have to admit that I appreciate the depth of thought that Norwegians have devoted to language.
*Students are taught in either Bokmål or Nynorsk in primary school and are then taught the other language in secondary school.