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Language facts: Languages in Norway

In the kingdom of Norway in 2015, there lived people from over 200 countries, and from 2001, the primary school has had pupils with over 200 different mother tongues.  

The Norwegian national assembly Stortinget passed a resolution in 1885 to give equal status to both Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål as official languages in Norway. The decision made Norway one of the first formally multilingual nations in the world. Stortinget has never since dealt with any proposal to repeal the act. The resolution has led to a linguistically divided Norwegian culture with two mutually comprehensible Norwegian languages. These written cultures have established a solid foundation through writing, institutions and regulations. Therefore, the usage situation for both Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål was characterised by stability in many fields in 2015.

Of the just over 4.2 million inhabitants over 15 years old in 2015, Norwegian Bokmål was the first language for 3.6 million, Norwegian Nynorsk for about 600 000. Four out of ten Nynorsk users were in practical terms bilingual insofar as they used Nynorsk and Bokmål in roughly equal measure. Roughly half of the population lived in language-neutral municipalities, and one in ten lived in Nynorsk municipalities. Immigrants comprised a lesser percentage of the population in Nynorsk municipalities than in the rest of the country.

Reliable figures for the number of users of Sami languages or the Kven language are not available. The North Sami language was in a far stronger position in 2015 than 30 years earlier, while South Sami and Lule Sami were in difficulties. The same applied to the Kven language, which fewer pupils were learning to read and write as the 21st century progressed.  

Where English was being more widely used, it had the most detrimental effect on Norwegian Bokmål, especially in science, business and the entertainment industry. Spoken Bokmål was in addition under pressure from dialects on radio and TV.  Norwegian Nynorsk was facing most pressure from Bokmål in upper secondary school, higher education and in the entertainment industry, but was in general more widely used in the press. Both the government departments and the rest of state administration used more Norwegian Nynorsk in 2015 than ten years earlier.

Norwegian written cultures

Two Norwegian written cultures

The relationship between the two Norwegian languages Nynorsk and Bokmål in various fields can be documented over more than two centuries.

Some of the most important documentation covers a broad cultural field: books published since 1800, newspapers since 1860, hymn books since 1869, a medium of instruction in primary and secondary schools since 1890, a liturgical language in the church since 1892, legislation since 1894, Bible sales since 1899, administrative language in local authorities since 1921, radio broadcasts since 1933, literary prizes since 1934, national conscription since 1947, private usage since 1951, songs in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1960, official documents in the Norwegian parliament since 1961, general elections since 1965, book purchasing scheme for literature since 1965, TV programmes since 1972, theatre performances since 1988, records and CDs since 1981, digital media since 1997, press subsidies since 2000.

Language barometer for Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk

The varying points of departure make it difficult to establish a language barometer for Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål with many variables over a long period of time. A first language barometer in a simple form was published for the first time in Nynorsk faktabok 1998. Three subsequent versions have been published. An updated barometer is presented in the complete edition of Språkfakta 2015 at aasentunet.no.

The most comprehensive language barometer concerns Norwegian Nynorsk written culture, contains 33 variables and covers ten-year intervals since 1900. The documentation is organised under the four fields of public writing, public speaking, private writing and private speech. The figures concern the use of Nynorsk and dialect, but as such also provide a reasonably complete picture of the use of Bokmål. The use of Norwegian Nynorsk was in the range of 3–19 per cent for four variables in 1900, and between 4 and 47 per cent in 2010. The bottom line is that the positions that Norwegian Nynorsk written culture attained towards the end of the 1930s were still roughly the same in the 21st century.

Norwegian Nynorsk was in 2010 a fifteen per cent language.

In other words, roughly 85 per cent of the inhabitants of Norway normally use Norwegian Bokmål. Nevertheless, it is not the case that an eventual decline in the use of Nynorsk automatically results in an increase for Bokmål. The apparently high figure conceals a situation whereby Bokmål is under strong pressure from English, especially in the fields of entertainment, business and academia.

The language barometer for Norway 2015 registers the spread of languages and development in 30 fields. For 25 of these, the development can be measured over time. In 17 fields the situation is stable for Norwegian Nynorsk, for Norwegian Bokmål the situation is stable in 14 fields. In two fields, the use of Nynorsk had declined, for Bokmål this was the case in six fields. Norwegian Bokmål is facing pressure from English and dialects, Norwegian Nynorsk mainly from Bokmål. The pressure from English only to a slight degree affects Norwegian Nynorsk, but if the use of English undermines the use of Bokmål significantly, this will also have consequences for Norwegian Nynorsk.1

With regard to the use of Norwegian Nynorsk, the situation is stable, but challenging. As of and including the year 2000, the use of Nynorsk has been documented in 28 fields (table 3.1.3). In the majority of these the development can be followed from 2000 to 2014. To avoid more or less random deviations and possible source errors, the change has to be of at least two per cent over the last ten years for it to be registered as a change.

In 12 fields the use of Norwegian Nynorsk was unchanged from 2005 to 2014, while the use had declined in 7 fields and increased in five. In 18 of 25 fields the use was either stable or had increased from 2005 to 2014. A rather similar pattern appeared in the case of Norwegian Bokmål: Most things had changed little or not at all.

Using Norwegian Nynorsk has become more widely accepted

One feature of the development is particularly important.

Norwegian Nynorsk is in the majority of the fields used just as much or just as little as earlier, and the use of Nynorsk is more widely accepted. The use of Nynorsk in the 1990s was characterised by stability and growth. The first decade of the 21st century can be summarised by saying that Norwegian Nynorsk has become more widely accepted and its use is stable. The author Kjartan Fløgstad’s comment from the 1980s that Norwegian Nynorsk is a majority language used by a minority, is still valid.2

Measured in absolute numbers, there are far more individual users of Nynorsk today than 50–60 years ago. Measured as a percentage, there are fewer individual Nynorsk users in Norway now.

Both local authorities, schools and the church are institutions that have a stabilising influence on Norwegian language policy. Similar institutions exist also in the world of theatre, newspaper and book publishing. As a rule, the changes take place slowly.

Measured both in the number of school catchment areas, parishes and local councils that use Norwegian Nynorsk as their working language, there are more than 25 per cent who use Nynorsk. Fewer local authorities than earlier have Nynorsk pupils in their schools, fewer pupils in compulsory education and fewer conscripts use Nynorsk.

Norwegian Nynorsk is in little use on the Internet and even less in academia, but not much less than earlier. There is more Nynorsk in the mass media than at any time earlier in this century. The differences between the various mass media are very clear. More Norwegian Nynorsk is used in newspapers than in books, on radio and TV. Every fourth newspaper is edited in Nynorsk, every tenth book is written in Nynorsk.

The individual users represent a smaller percentage of all the inhabitants today than a few decades ago, but the use of Norwegian Nynorsk has increased on the radio and in books published and has become firmly established on TV.

Norwegian Nynorsk is in use in many places around the country, on a daily basis, in virtually every county.

Geography and demography


Per 1st January 2015, Norway had a population of just over 5.1 million.3 A living language is one used by people, not by percentages. The Norwegian Nynorsk written culture is one of the 100 most vital in the world. The user base is strongly institutionalised, but with roughly 600 000 users privately on a daily basis – and in addition the many Norwegian Bokmål users who daily or almost every day use the language in their work – Norwegian Nynorsk is a lesser used language in Norway and a large language in a global perspective.

Norway was in 2015 divided into 19 county authorities and 428 local authorities or municipalities. Since 1930, each local authority has had the right to determine whether the state authorities shall use Norwegian Nynorsk or Norwegian Bokmål in their everyday contact with the municipality, and vice versa, or whether the local authority shall be linguistically neutral. This is referred to as public service language, and in the case of the vast majority of municipalities, it corresponds with the administrative language that the local authorities themselves use.

Almost 2.4 million people lived in the linguistically neutral municipalities in 2015, as against 1.9 million in Bokmål municipalities and just over 0.5 million in Nynorsk municipalities. In other words, half of all Norwegians lived in a linguistically neutral municipality. Since 1970, the population in the Nynorsk municipalities comprised 10–11 per cent.

The linguistic variation in Norway is extremely large. Typical of the situation is that Norwegian language users are part of an alternating majority and minority, depending on where they at different times live and work. Norwegian Bokmål is the most widely used all over the country, but the Norwegian Nynorsk users are to be found in large numbers in western Norway, in the inland areas of southern Norway and in the valleys in the eastern and western areas of eastern Norway. In Trøndelag and northern Norway, the Sami language has achieved a stronger formal status in a number of places.  

In 1971, half of all the pupils in western Norway used Norwegian Nynorsk in primary and secondary school. In 2015, the corresponding figure was four out of ten.

Among adults there are two extremes. One of them is western Norway, where 21 per cent of everyone over the age of 15 were Nynorsk users in 2005, and 13 per cent switched between Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål. In practical terms that meant that one in three of the population in western Norway was bilingually Norwegian. The other extreme was the Oslo region, where 96 per cent used Norwegian Bokmål.  


Since 1965, Norway has received immigrants from over 200 countries and independent regions. In 2015, immigrants were estimated to number roughly 800 000 people. That means that at that time Norway had more immigrants than users of Norwegian Nynorsk, even though there were Nynorsk users among the immigrants.

The immigrants brought with them a variety of mother tongues, and the majority settled in eastern Norway. Thus, eastern Norway, western Norway and northern Norway each has its own separate language profile. Due to increased immigration in recent years, the local authorities with Norwegian Nynorsk as their public service language have also developed greater cultural diversity. The very small increase in population that can be registered in these municipalities is due to immigration (table 3.2.4). This can lead to more immigrants becoming Norwegian Nynorsk users. As in 2001, the immigrants comprised a smaller percentage of the population in Nynorsk municipalities in 2015 than in the rest of the country.

Distribution of Norwegian Nynorsk

Norwegian Nynorsk users are to be found in every county, probably also in every municipality. One in three Nynorsk users does not live in western Norway, but it is there that they in many places represent a dominant majority. The Church of Norway helps to maintain a certain level of usage of Norwegian Nynorsk also in Trøndelag, and in eastern Norway a larger number of local newspapers are published in Nynorsk now than around the year 1900.

For a long time, it has been common to speak of Norwegian Nynorsk core areas. This term has rarely been defined, but it has always referred to geographical areas. The expression can be understood in two ways.

One meaning is that it is a case of areas in which Norwegian Nynorsk has a strong dominance in the sense that at least 50 per cent of the population are in one way or the other Nynorsk users, and that this dominance has existed for a long period of time. As such, it is possible to say that Nynorsk core areas are fiefdoms, counties or regions in which at least half of the pupils in primary and secondary school have been users of Norwegian Nynorsk.

The other sense is that we are talking about areas in which Norwegian Nynorsk relatively speaking is much more widely used than elsewhere in the country. In that case it would be sufficient to assume that at least 25 per cent of the population use Norwegian Nynorsk.

The fact that the new written language was adopted by large groups was decisive for the breakthrough of the Norwegian Nynorsk written culture. Since 1892, it has been up to the local congregations and school catchment areas to decide whether Nynorsk was to be the liturgical language in church and the medium of instruction in schools. Just twenty years later, Norwegian Nynorsk pupils comprised a majority in both the counties of Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane. In a short time, the counties of Rogaland, Agder and Telemark followed suit. Ever since then, this regional centre of influence and force has been there.

Even though there are now Nynorsk pupils in 39 per cent of all local authorities and the Norwegian Nynorsk written culture is more widely used in the national media than earlier in the 1900s, much of the everyday use of Norwegian Nynorsk is concentrated in the four counties of western Norway from Rogaland in the south to Møre og Romsdal in the north.

The most ground has been lost in the counties of Aust-Agder and Nord-Trøndelag, and in northern Norway the Nynorsk written culture was just a brief interlude in the years around the second world war. At the same time there are clear signs that the eastern Norwegian counties of Oppland and Telemark were more important to Norwegian Nynorsk written culture in the 1990s than they were prior to the German occupation.

Opinions, elections and practice

The Norwegian question

Norway is a language community with many linguistic differences, both in writing and speech. Many Norwegians have now accepted Norwegian Nynorsk, very many believe that the dialects are not used too much, but just as many have no wish to see any more permanent minority languages. Those with low incomes are more positive to both Nynorsk, dialects and new permanent minority languages than those who are high earners. Those who earn least and most are the ones who are most positive to more English in Norway

Many Norwegian Nynorsk users still have a poor self-image linguistically. In general, Nynorsk pupils prefer to read Norwegian Bokmål over Norwegian Nynorsk. Every third Nynorsk user will probably switch to Bokmål before they are twenty years old.

Major language issues are facing decision time. The point of departure is good, for almost half of voters claim that they are interested in the language issue in general. Norwegian Nynorsk continues to enjoy a strong standing among voters who support the parties occupying the political centre ground.

Interest in what the survey calls the language issue is considerable among voters, and that has been the case for many decades. In recent decades, well over 10 per cent have responded very interested, and well over 30 per cent claim to be rather interested. This means that half of all Norwegians are rather interested or very interested in the language issue, an interest that was clearly much greater in 2013 than it was in 1969. This provides an interesting foundation for the change in attitudes to language policy that has characterised both Norway and other countries in recent decades.

Local referendums

Local referendums are a vital element in Norwegian local democracy, both in principle and in practice. Since 1892, it has been a point of law that the medium of instruction in schools and the liturgical language in church is to be determined by local communities. Many thousand referendums have been carried out since then. Between 1970 and 2014 alone, over 1.5 million individuals cast their votes at 727 local referendums on a variety of issues.A slight majority of those with the right to vote actually took part.

44 per cent of the said referendums concerned the medium of instruction in school. From 1965 until the end of 2014, 393 referendums had been held on this topic. A total of 75 000 individuals expressed their opinion in these votes.

After 1945 there have been few referendums on the liturgical language used in church. Between 1892 and 1954, however, more than 1300 referendums were held on this issue. As a rule they produced a clear majority in favour of Norwegian Nynorsk. The same applies in schools: Norwegian Nynorsk has been voted in with a clear majority and out again with the slightest of margins, and these margins have become smaller over the years. In the years 1965–1969, 66 per cent voted for Norwegian Bokmål in school, as against 53 per cent between 2010–2014. The changes in the patterns of settlement have nevertheless had a greater influence on the use of Norwegian Nynorsk than the referendums.

The Norwegian parliament Stortinget in 1885 granted equal status to the two Norwegian languages that today are known as Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål. Since then, no proposal has ever been put forward to repeal this decision, which thus remains one of few resolutions from the 19th century that still apply. However, the question of continued equality of status still splits Norway in two. In 2013, 48 per cent agreed entirely or partly that Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål should still retain equal status, and 45 per cent disagreed. Support was greatest in western Norway, where four out of ten agreed entirely, and opposition was greatest in northern Norway, where four out of ten disagreed entirely.

Individual usage of Nynorsk and Bokmål

The language differences in Norway are on the increase. Norwegian Bokmål dominates the situation, Norwegian Nynorsk usage is reasonably stable, and there are gradually more and more inhabitants with other languages than Norwegian as their first languages.

It is an estimate to say that about 600 000 of Norway’s population use Norwegian Nynorsk for private purposes. That figure has been constant for many years on the basis of an assessment that the Nynorsk percentage has declined slightly, but the population has grown. As many as 40 per cent of the Norwegian Nynorsk users are in reality bilingual, in the sense that they are just as likely to use Bokmål as Nynorsk.

The number of Norwegian Nynorsk users has remained constant since the 1990s. They live all over Norway, but western Norway has increased its percentage share. 

Written use of Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål for private purposes has been registered using questionnaires from as far back as 1951. That year, 75 per cent used Bokmål, and in 2013 the figure was 73 per cent. In the meantime, the language diversity had increased due to the fact that from the end of the 20th century far more used a combination of Norwegian Nynorsk, dialect and Norwegian Bokmål. Thus in 2013 about 13 per cent could be assumed to be Nynorsk users, as compared with 25 per cent in 1951.

Since 1995, the same question about which language Norwegians prefer to use for private purposes has been asked at regular intervals. The use of Norwegian Nynorsk was weak, but clearly on the increase. In 2014, 15 per cent replied that they chose to write Nynorsk or both languages for private use, as against 14 per cent in 2005 and 12 per cent in 1995.

There is a slight tendency that more women than men use Norwegian Nynorsk for private purposes, and that Nynorsk users represent a larger share of the older age groups than the younger. This means that the language distance is increasing between the younger and older generations. The better educated a person is, the more likely that person is to use Norwegian Bokmål. There are also more Bokmål users among people with a high income than among those with a lower income. Norwegian Nynorsk users will usually be found living in rural areas, in villages and small rural towns, but they live in every county in the country and also in all types of urban areas.

The fact that Bokmål and Nynorsk occupy different positions in Norway has then to do with social differences.

In the Norwegian national assembly Stortinget, the members of parliament themselves decided as long ago as 1913 that they are to be quoted in Norwegian Nynorsk or Norwegian Bokmål in the official verbatim report of proceedings. At that time, seven per cent of representatives used Nynorsk. After peaking at 25 per cent in the 1950s, the corresponding figure for 2015 was 11 per cent.

When the armed forces in 1947 began to document the language of choice of their conscripts, 23 per cent used Norwegian Nynorsk. That figure fell to 14 per cent in 1960 and 9 per cent in 1970, the level at which it has been since.  

Very few Norwegians switch from Norwegian Bokmål to Norwegian Nynorsk in school or in private use as adults. On the other hand, many switch the other way. By combining figures from school and enrolment prior to national service, it is possible to establish the size of this linguistic leakage from the Norwegian Nynorsk written culture. Measured at intervals of five years, the language change has varied from as high as 70 per cent at its most in the 1950s to 24 per cent in the 1990s.

Education and research

Linguistic diversity has increased greatly in Norway in recent decades. Norwegian Nynorsk pupils attend schools in four out ten municipalities. In the academic year 2014/15, 12 per cent of pupils had Nynorsk as their chosen first written language, as against 15 per cent in the year 2000. The Norwegian Nynorsk language never held a stronger position than in 1945 – when one in three pupils used Nynorsk.

Greatest changes in academia

Over the years there has always been a lower percentage of pupils in upper secondary school who have used Norwegian Nynorsk than in primary and lower secondary school. Some data are lacking, but at its peak, in 1940, 11 per cent of pupils in upper secondary school used Nynorsk. Since 2010, the corresponding figure has been close on 7 per cent. Every year, roughly 3200 Nynorsk pupils and 46 000 Bokmål pupils took the exam in university-preparatory subjects or supplementary studies qualifying for higher education.

One of the big language changes in Norway in recent decades can be found at MA and PhD levels in higher education. From the 1970s on towards the turn of the century, Norwegian Bokmål was the clearly dominant language used in theses, and in 1996, three out of every four candidates wrote their theses in Norwegian Bokmål. In a short space of time this figure was reduced to six out of ten in 2011. Throughout this whole period the use of English increased steadily, from 7 per cent in 1971 to 37 per cent in 2011. Norwegian Nynorsk has never been used by very many in academia, and the situation was stable – three per cent in 1971, two per cent in 2011.

Public administration and business life

Public administration

Language regulations and practice in public administration have a lot to say for general language use in Norway. It means a great deal for the development of terminology that both Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål are widely used, and used well, in public administration.

Local government administration

During the 1900s, Norway was divided into 747 local authorities or municipalities at most. In the 1960s, many municipalities were amalgamated to form larger units. Later, a number of individual cases of amalgamation have taken place, with the result that 466 local authorities in 1966 had become 428 in 2015.

Prior to the many amalgamations in the 1960s, the Norwegian Nynorsk municipalities comprised at their most 39 per cent of all local authorities – both the linguistically neutral and the Norwegian Bokmål authorities were fewer in number. After 1970, this situation stabilised to leave just over 20 per cent of authorities as Nynorsk municipalities. In 2015, there were 113 Nynorsk authorities, or 26 per cent of the total, as against 157 neutral (36 per cent) and 158 Bokmål authorities (38 per cent).

There were Norwegian Nynorsk municipalities in 12 counties in 1965 and in 9 in 2015. In the course of these decades, western Norway achieved a gradually more dominant position. 46 of 85 Nynorsk local authorities were situated in western Norway in 1965, and in 2015, 89 of 113 Nynorsk municipalities were to be found in that region.  

After the reorganisation of local government in the period 1964–1977, county authorities were given new and extended responsibilities. In a language context, it is the division between the numbers of Nynorsk and Bokmål municipalities that determines whether a county administration is to have Norwegian Nynorsk or Norwegian Bokmål as its public service language in its dealings with the state authorities. The linguistically neutral municipalities are not considered.

The vast majority of county administrations are language-neutral. Three county administrations have Nynorsk as their public service language in 2015, as compared to two in 1979, and two had Bokmål, as against three in 1979.

State administration

The use of Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål in the state administration is regulated by law. The Norwegian parliament Stortinget passed a law concerning the use of language in public services the first time in 1930 and then a new law in 1980. The rules concerning public service language are an integral part of this law. Other important elements are that public administration shall use at least 25 per cent of each language in documents and information aimed at the general public, and that forms that are to be filled in by the general public must be available in both Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål.

In practice, the state administration does not carry out the instructions from the Stortinget in the law regarding language use in public services. Most departments and bodies limit themselves to a linguistic minimum strategy. Nevertheless, the state administration used considerably more Norwegian Nynorsk as the 21st century progressed than it did in previous decades.

In the year 2000, 22 per cent of the parliamentary documents were in Norwegian Nynorsk, as opposed to 3 per cent in 1961. Ever since the year 2000, language usage has been documented by the number of pages rather than the number of documents. In 2014, on this basis 28 per cent of the total amount of text in the parliamentary documents were in Norwegian Nynorsk, as compared with 13 per cent in 2000. This is the best annual result for Nynorsk that has been registered in this field.

A greater number of the laws that were passed after the turn of the century were in Nynorsk than had been the case earlier. In 1940, five per cent of the laws were formulated in Norwegian Nynorsk, while in 2012, the Nynorsk language was used in as much as 30 per cent of the laws passed that year.

Business life

Business life is one of the areas of society we know least about when it comes to the use of Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål.

There exist two surveys on language in advertising – one at a regional level over a longer period of time, and one at national level as a picture of the times.

Advertisers in newspapers in the county of Sogn og Fjordane have used steadily more Norwegian Nynorsk in the period from 1948 to 2012. Across these decades, the percentage share of Nynorsk has increased from 38 to 71. The changes were greatest in real estate and the textile industry.

The use of Norwegian and English in business has a great deal to say for the general position of these languages in Norway. In spring 2015, Norwegian advertisers used far more Norwegian Bokmål than English on TV, in newspapers and magazines, while overseas advertisers used much more English. In the sample there was little advertising in dialect and virtually nothing at all in Norwegian Nynorsk.

The practice of Norwegian advertisers that is documented here corresponds well with the opinion of Norwegian business managers regarding English in advertising. They have a greater belief in Norwegian than their customers have, and the customers are more positive to the use of English in advertising than are the business executives.

This was at least the trend in a survey from 2008–2010. English has higher status, but not necessarily greater credibility. Especially among those with a poor education, there is a tendency to associate English with status. The business managers are uncertain with regard to their language strategies for the future. Greater language diversity in society also affects business life. This can be the most important reason why Norwegian Nynorsk is gradually being used more widely in advertising.

Sami languages and historical minority languages

General use of the Sami languages

Reliable figures for users of the Sami languages do not exist. In the draft presented to the Nordic Sami Convention in 2005, it was estimated that somewhere between 80 000 and 100 000 Sami people lived in the Nordic region, and that 50 000–60 000 of these lived in Norway.5

An expert group on Sami statistics has since 2007 submitted important studies and asked critical questions in relation to the existing figures. In Samisk språkundersøkelse (Sami language survey) it was estimated in 2012 that there were roughly 30 000 Sami individuals in Norway.6 As far as possible, updated information has been included. There, however, the total number of Sami inhabitants is lower than in the estimate from the survey in 2012.

Sami language users are facing the greatest pressure from Norwegian Bokmål, which has been the situation since an official policy of ‘Norwegianisation’ was introduced in the 1860s. This pressure was reduced by the reforms in Sami language policy in the 1980s and 1990s, but social structures still exist there that represent continuing cultural and thereby linguistic constraints.

Usage in education

No reliable figures exist indicating how many people use one of the Sami languages or the Kven language. The only reliable information concerns pupils in compulsory education. In the Nordic region, most of the Sami people live in Norway, and the northern Sami people dominate the picture. Since 2003, the official statistics have made it possible to sort the pupils on the basis of first language, second language 2 and second language 3. That year, the Sami language was the first language for 55 per cent of pupils studying the Sami language. From autumn 2006 it has also been possible to study the Sami language as second language 2. This has not reduced the numbers of pupils with the Sami language as their first language.

From 2001 to 2012, the number of pupils studying northern Sami at one level or other increased from just over 1600 to just over 1900.  In this period there was also an increase in the numbers of pupils studying the Lule Sami or southern Sami languages, but there were few of them: 98 Lule Sami and 95 southern Sami pupils in 2012. However, there were a lot fewer pupils with the Kven language or Finnish in compulsory education – 600 in 2012 as compared with 1100 in 2001.

Between the years 2000 and 2015, there were pupils with 206 different minority languages in compulsory education in Norway. A far greater number were offered mother tongue teaching in major immigrant languages like Somalian, Arabic and Polish than in the Sami indigenous languages and historically minority languages like the Kven language.

Sami languages in public administration

In the 1980s, Norway took a critical look at its own policy towards the Sami people. This resulted in extended legal rights for the Sami people, the establishment in 1989 of an elected Sami parliament with restricted powers, and from 1990 a number of municipalities have formed a Sami administration region. Five local authorities in 1990 had become ten in 2015, covering a total area of just over 32 000 km2 with a total population of 21 000. This corresponds to ten per cent of mainland Norway.  By 2019, there were 12 such administration regions.

The inhabitants of these municipalities have the right to use the Sami language in all official contexts. Children have the right to teaching in their Sami mother tongue and to be taught in the Sami language in all school subjects. Also, outside this administrative area, the Sami speaking people are entitled to use their language in the contact with public administration at all levels.

The differences within the Sami administrative region have increased over the years. The municipalities that were the last to join are small, the Sami people are few in number and the Sami language is in a weak position.

More information about the Sami languages is included in the chapters “Mass media” and “Arts and culture”.

Mass media

Digital media

Norwegians use the Internet a great deal. 88 per cent of all Norwegians were logged onto the Internet daily in 2014, as compared with 77 per cent in 2010 and 27 per cent in 2000.7 Men used digital media more than women, the younger more than the older – in principle, all Norwegians between the ages of 15 and 44 used the Internet every day, and the use increased in accordance with the level of education. All told, just over 3.1 million or 80 per cent of all inhabitants used Facebook, 1.1 million or 27 per cent used LinkedIn and 850 000 or 21 per cent used Twitter.8

An advantage for Norwegian Nynorsk

The digital media strengthen the position of Norwegian written culture in general by making texts in Norwegian much more easily accessible for very different user groups. For the time being, it does not appear that the Internet has changed the relationship between Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk.

Never before have so many texts been available in Norwegian, either in Bokmål or Nynorsk. This has probably more to say for the use of Norwegian Nynorsk, even though no more than 5 per cent of the online documents with Norwegian texts were in Nynorsk in 2015. Here the various search engines quoted different figures, but about 95 per cent Bokmål and 5 per cent Nynorsk were typical figures from the first count in 1997 and up to 2009.   

If these counts are reasonably accurate, it means that Norwegian Nynorsk is almost as widely used in the newest mass medium, the Internet, as in one of the oldest, the book.

Many large-scale actors

The two standard dictionaries Nynorskordboka and Bokmålsordboka were published in 1985 and have been available in digital editions since 1993. User statistics exist from the turn of the century. In the five-year period 2000–2004 there were 16.7 million searches, and in the period 2010–2014 an enormous 311.7 million. That corresponds to 171 000 searches every day all through the year. Six out of ten searches concerned Norwegian Bokmål, four out of ten Norwegian Nynorsk.

551 000 encyclopaedia articles were available online in Norwegian Nynorsk or Norwegian Bokmål in 2015. 25 per cent of these were in Nynorsk, as against 20 per cent ten years earlier. The documentation relates to Wikipedia and Allkunne – Norwegian Encyclopedia. Store norske leksikon (Great Norwegian Encyclopedia) had some articles in Norwegian Nynorsk, but does not keep statistics on the basis of language.

Norwegian Nynorsk is increasingly used on the Internet by a number of major actors, such as Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK and the state administration. Both of the latter two are bound by the requirement of at least 25 per cent in each of the Norwegian languages. The actual results are some way from this stipulation, but NRK was nearer than the state administration: 16 per cent at NRK.no and 15 per cent on state websites in 2013.  

From 1996, Norwegian newspapers began to develop what later became their own online newspapers, which in 2015 were as a rule very different from the printed versions. After 2005, the use of online increased dramatically. This changed the online newspapers, due to the fact that the number of clicks became an important premise for editorial priorities on the Internet. The paper versions also changed their editorial profiles.

Radio and television

The Internet has changed our media habits, but TV and radio remain widely used mass media in Norway. 64 per cent of all Norwegians listened to the radio daily in 2014, and 74 per cent watched TV. In the year 2000, the corresponding percentages were 82 and 57.9 In both media, dialects have taken over more of the airtime during the last couple of decades and achieved much higher status. This means that the public hear less standard Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål on radio and TV.

NRK – one of the most important actors

In 1970, the Norwegian parliament Stortinget passed a recommendation that at least 25 per cent of the verbal broadcasts from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK ought to be in Norwegian Nynorsk. At that time, about 15 per cent of broadcasts were in Nynorsk, and for the most part in standard Nynorsk, which in 2013 comprised only about seven per cent of NRK’s radio programmes.  

Where there was an increase was in the use of dialects. As early as 1972 there was so much dialect in broadcasting that NRK established a basic rule that half of all dialect use was to be registered as Norwegian Nynorsk and half as Norwegian Bokmål. That rule has been followed ever since.

From 6 per cent in 1972, the use of dialects on NRK radio had increased to 35 per cent in 2013 with a fall to 25 per cent in 2014. What had declined was the use of standard Norwegian Bokmål – from 76 percent in 1972 to 58 per cent in 2013. Then suddenly the use of Bokmål jumped up to 68 per cent in 2014, the highest figure measured since the turn of the century. These figures indicate that those who are responsible for keeping statistics for NRK are not accurate enough when it comes to distinguishing between standard Norwegian Nynorsk, dialects and standard Norwegian Bokmål.

The figures for radio would lead to expect just as sudden a change also for TV broadcasts from 2013 to 2014, but the figures for those two years were virtually identical. Then, as earlier, dialects were used far less on TV than on radio. Two per cent dialect in 1972 had become 13 per cent in 2014. In other words, there was just as much standard Norwegian Nynorsk to be heard on TV after the year 2000 as in previous decades. Also on TV it was the use of standard Norwegian Bokmål that had declined most.   

More Sami languages than Norwegian Nynorsk

Public broadcaster NRK remains the most important producer of language in Norway, but the corporation still does not meet the demand for at least 25 per cent Norwegian Nynorsk that the Norwegian parliament required in 1970. The editorial staff in NRK grew in number after the turn of the century but had fewer Norwegian Nynorsk users in the 2010s than at the end of the 1980s.

The Norwegian language programmes represent between 50 and 60 per cent both on NRK and the commercial channel TV 2, but NRK here is a little below its competitor (table 3.9.3). The rest is mainly in English, but especially NRK devote much more airtime to the Sami languages. This means that NRK now broadcast more hours in the Sami languages than in standard Nynorsk on the radio, but less on TV.

The press

Norway is a country of newspapers. In 2014, a total of 235 newspapers were published. 28 per cent of these were formally edited in Norwegian Nynorsk or in both Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål, 71 per cent in Norwegian Bokmål. Since the early 1900s, the percentage of Bokmål newspapers has declined from 96 to 71.

In addition, there are a number of newspapers that in practice used both languages in their own material, with the Bergen-based Bergens Tidende as the leading exponent. Norwegian Bokmål dominated the large national newspapers, while Norwegian Nynorsk was more widely used in the smaller papers.

Changes in the newspaper market

The number of newspapers has been reasonably stable, but the circulation has fallen. 235 newspapers were printed in 2014 in a combined print run of about 2.2 million copies. Since the top year in 1997 with well over 3 million copies, the figure was reduced by 900 000 copies in quite a short space of time. This development was not the same for all types of newspapers.

The purely Norwegian Nynorsk papers increased their market share from 6.2 per cent in 1997 to 8.1 per cent in 2014, and the papers using both Norwegian languages from 5.0 to 6.4 per cent. The decline was greatest for the purely Norwegian Bokmål papers, yet in 2014 these still represented 85 per cent of the total newspaper circulation.  

Public funding

The Norwegian parliament Stortinget introduced a permanent arrangement for press subsidies in 1969. This press support has been blind to the language issue, but it is the single most important measure for Norwegian written culture. Direct subsidies amounted in 2014 to 336 million kroner, as against 191 million in 2000. In addition, there was indirect financial support in the form of exemption from value added tax, which in 2008 was the equivalent of 2.3 million kroner.10

One of the financial winners in the 2000s were the mixed language newspapers. In 2014, 26 per cent of subsidies went to these publications, as compared with 14 per cent in 2000. The other financial winners were the papers edited in, or that wrote about, the Sami languages. This support totalled 4.4 per cent in 2014, as against 2.8 per cent in 2000.

Stortinget established The Arts Council Norway in 1965, thereby introducing a permanent system of subsidies for book publishing. The sum total of financial support for the publication of newspapers and books in Norwegian increased from 245 million kroner in 2000 to 435 million in 2014. The share of funding granted to Norwegian Nynorsk publications increased from 9.5 to 10.2 per cent in the same period.   

The percentages are small, but the amount of money involved is enormous. Nowhere in the state system of subsidies to the written word are we anywhere near such a huge flow of capital to Norwegian Nynorsk written culture as we are here. It is difficult to underestimate the significance that the book purchasing scheme for new titles has had for the publication and dissemination of new Norwegian Nynorsk fiction, in the same way as the press subsidies have made it possible to publish material of current interest in Norwegian Nynorsk in many parts of the country virtually daily.  


There are many publishers of books in Norway, many more than the regular publishing houses. Annually, about 9500 books are published in Norway. Just over 7000 of these are in Norwegian Bokmål, at least 1600 in English and roughly 650 in Norwegian Nynorsk.

Book market facing pressure from English

From 1800 to 2014, a total of 416 000 books and small pamphlets of 48 pages or more were published in Norway. Of these, 82 per cent were in Bokmål and 7 per cent in Nynorsk. Measured as a percentage, Norwegian Nynorsk books represented the same market share of total publications in Norway in the early 1900s as in the early 2000s.

The greatest change came with the arrival of English, and that had consequences for Norwegian Bokmål. While comprising two per cent of all books published around 1900, books in English represented 17 per cent of all publications in Norway after 2010. In the same period of time, the percentage share of Norwegian Bokmål books fell from 89 to 74 per cent.

Together with writing Norwegian Nynorsk newspapers, it was the setting up of their own publishing houses that became an important part of establishing a Norwegian Nynorsk written culture. Between 1887 and 2014, there have been at least 14 major publishing houses. At the end of 2014, they had published 12 000 titles. Of these publishers, Det Norske Samlaget stood for 72 per cent, but in the first half of the 20th century, several other Nynorsk publishing houses were considerably larger than Samlaget.

Awards and acclaim for books

Sales can be a measure of quality, awards as a rule always are. Since 1934, there have been 49 open literary prizes in Norway that are still awarded. These do not include awards specifically for one particular language. In total, 23 per cent of these awards have gone to Norwegian Nynorsk writers.

Awarded the first time in 1992, the Brageprisen has since become the foremost prize in Norwegian literature. Here 21 of the winners have been Norwegian Nynorsk authors. Before all the awards were charted, there was reason to believe that the Brageprisen distinguished itself in this respect, but it is in fact typical. It cannot be claimed that Norwegian Nynorsk books are better than Norwegian Bokmål books, but proportionately, more of the best Norwegian books are written in Nynorsk than in Bokmål.  

State purchasing scheme for new books

In 1965, the Norwegian parliament Stortinget set up The Arts Council Norway and established the first public purchasing scheme for new titles in Norwegian. Over the years six such agreements have been set up. These are important for both Norwegian languages, but most important for Norwegian Bokmål.

Measured as a percentage, more Norwegian Bokmål books are purchased today than in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, Norwegian Nynorsk books have comprised 15 per cent of all purchased books. Calculated as a percentage, this means there are more Nynorsk books among the award winners than among the books purchased through this scheme, but more purchased books than published books.

Norwegian Bokmål dominates in most subject fields in the book market, but there have for a long time been a great many books published in Nynorsk about language, history and geography. Measured in the number of titles, the Norwegian Nynorsk books maintained their position in the market from 1974 to 2014. In the same period, the number of books in English increased considerably, and the Norwegian Bokmål books had to pay the price for this development.

In natural sciences, books in English have for some time represented a larger share of publications than books in Norwegian Bokmål, and in applied science, English was in the 21st century in the process of taking over the hegemony previously enjoyed by Bokmål books. In this subject field, eight out of ten books were written in Norwegian Bokmål in 1974 and two out of ten in English. 40 years later, five out of ten books were in Norwegian Bokmål and a similar number in English.  

Differing freedom of choice in Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk

So far it has not been possible to draw up statistics for the sale and borrowing of books in Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål. However, virtually the whole range of books on offer in bookshops as of August 2015 can be documented.

The book-buying public could in principle choose among 70 000 titles. Of these, 61 000 could be purchased in Bokmål, 7900 in Nynorsk, 500 in the Sami languages and 200 in a variety of dialects. The selection of books in Norwegian Bokmål is large in every genre and almost all subject fields, while the selection in NorwegianNynorsk books was largest in newly written Norwegian fiction for adults or for children and youth. In both these genres, every fifth book was written in Norwegian Nynorsk. For Norwegian Nynorsk written culture, the most critical point was that the selection of textbooks for higher education was as low as seven per cent of the titles on offer.

Arts and culture

The Church and religion

The Church is the one institution in society that has the clearest practice when it comes to language policy.

The use of Norwegian Nynorsk is in a relatively stronger position in the Church than in other areas of society. Out of a total of almost 1300 parishes in 2015, 385 or 30 per cent used a Norwegian Nynorsk liturgy. This figure includes parishes that use both Norwegian languages. Of these, 93 were situated in other parts of the country than western Norway, mostly in Telemark and in southern Norway. In other words, three out of four parishes were in the west of the country.

It can have been just as important that the Norwegian Nynorsk language was sung in church, from the famous Blix hymns in the 1880s right up until and including the many newly composed hymns in the new hymn book from 2013 that includes hymns in all the languages of Norway. Ever since the first bilingual edition of M.B. Landstad’s Kirkesalmebog (Church Hymn Book) in 1892, at least every fifth hymn in the hymn books for use in church has been in Norwegian Nynorsk, and from 1984 four out of ten.

Annually, the Norwegian Bible Society sells roughly 14 000 bibles – 84 per cent are in Norwegian Bokmål, 16 per cent in Norwegian Nynorsk, a share that has remained unchanged over many decades.

The arts

It has become apparent in practice that language tolerance is far greater in large areas of the arts than elsewhere in society. But it is still not completely free of opposition.

Language conflict on the theatre stages

It was in the theatres that the first language conflict in Norway was fought in the early 1800s: should the actors perform in Danish or in Danish with a Norwegian accent? Film, theatre and songs are three important areas in so robust written cultures as the two Norwegian ones.

In the same way as the Norwegian Nynorsk milieu built up its own newspapers and publishing houses, its own theatre stages were also established. Det Norske Teatret (The Norwegian Theatre) opened in 1913 and existed alone until Komediateatret (the comedy theatre) in Bergen was founded and played most of its repertoire in dialect for several decades from the 1930s. Two regional theatres founded in the 1970s and 1980s, Sogn og Fjordane Teater and Hordaland Teater, were formally committed to using Nynorsk, as was  Opera Nordfjord from 1998.

All in all, these institutions were responsible for over 80 000 performances between 1913 and 2014. Det Norske Teatret performed two thirds of these, but just as the publisher Samlaget was not the largest Norwegian Nynorsk publishing house in the first part of the 1900s, so was Det Norske Teatret smaller than Komediateatret for a period of time.

Language practice in culture institutions in general

The activities of all the Norwegian institutional stages for theatre and opera have been charted since 1988. Every year these institutions offer about 10 000 performances to 1.8 million guests. The Nynorsk stages’ share of these is roughly 1500 performances for 250 000 people. In other words, the Norwegian Nynorsk stages are responsible for 17 per cent of all performances and 16 per cent of the visiting public. This Nynorsk market share is much higher than it is for newspaper circulations and published books.

Norwegian cinema films have, with few exceptions, been in Norwegian (in the early days there were a number of silent movies, but the title cards were in Norwegian). The first Norwegian cinema film had its premiere in 1907, and up until the end of 2014 almost 1000 films had had their premieres.

Ever since 1967, it has been possible to distinguish the figures for audiences for Norwegian films cinema from the total number of cinema visitors. After a period when the circumstances surrounding Norwegian films were challenging in the 1980s and 1990s, the video era, Norwegian films have increased their market share to 24 per cent of cinema audiences in 2014. 

Music in Norwegian

The use of Norwegian in music has never been documented in official statistics. The closest we can get is how much Norwegian music is played on the most important radio channels, and how much of this is music with lyrics in Norwegian. Both NRK P1, P2 and P3 play year by year as much overseas music as P4 and Radio Norge, i.e. about 60 per cent. Norwegian music with lyrics in Norwegian in 2014 comprised 27 per cent on P1, but just 11 per cent on P3 and 6 per cent on P2.

The language profile for the Eurovision Song Contest has in recent years become very English, and the same thing has happened in the Norwegian national finals. Norwegian Nynorsk and dialect have hardly been used ever since the first final in 1960, and from the end of the 1990s, Norwegian Bokmål was almost totally replaced by English. Between 2000 and 2015, there were 13 songs in the finals in Bokmål, 10 in Nynorsk or dialect and as many as 219 in English. Between 1960 and 1999, there were just 11 songs in English.

Language and culture institutions

Interest organisations for language users

More than 95 per cent of Norwegian Nynorsk users are not organised language enthusiasts. Both the two large interest organisations that work to promote Norwegian language and culture, Noregs Mållag (The Norwegian Language Society) and Noregs Ungdomslag (The Norwegian Youth Association), had far fewer members around 2010 than in their heyday in the early 1900s.

This development is one they have shared with many other voluntary organisations.  Kringkastingsringen, working to promote Norwegian Nynorsk in broadcasting, was an important and active organisation in the 1950s and 1960s, but after the turn of the century, it has ended up on the same level as Norsk Målungdom (The Norwegian Language Youth).

Up until now there has been little information about how many members other language organisations have. In the preparations for the book Språkfakta 2015, we requested this information from the three associations: Landslaget for språklig samling (an organisation working towards one common written Norwegian language), Bokmålsforbundet (the Norwegian Bokmål organization), and Riksmålsforbundet (the Riksmaalsociety ― the Society for the Preservation of Traditional Standard Norwegian). Landslaget for språklig samling has somewhere in excess of 200 members, Bokmålsforbundet 1033, and Riksmålsforbundet 1505 members nationally and 400–500 members locally.

Language in museums

At the end of 2014, there were 66 museums in what is known as the national museum network. This figure includes Nasjonalmuseet for kunst (The National Gallery), but not the university museums. Every fifth museum had Norwegian Nynorsk as administrative language.

Some museums are in practical terms split linguistically insofar as some divisions use Norwegian Nynorsk and others Norwegian Bokmål. In view of all the local history associations and other similar academic environments that use Norwegian Nynorsk, this is perhaps not so unexpected, nor is it in the light of the process that led to the founding of many of these museums.  Museums are probably one of the culture industries that use Norwegian Nynorsk most of all.

6.1 million people visited museums in 2013. 700 000 of these paid visits to museums with a Norwegian Nynorsk profile. That means that they for the most part saw exhibitions with Nynorsk texts and also in other ways were part of a Norwegian Nynorsk environment. This emphasises the impression that these museums are important institutions in the context of the use of the Norwegian Nynorsk language.

20 per cent of the museums then had a Norwegian Nynorsk profile. 11 per cent of all museum guests visited these museums, while 10 per cent of the operating subsidies from the state went to these same museums. This means that many of these museums with a Nynorsk language profile were small institutions.

Norwegian Nynorsk index

Like other culture institutions, the Norwegian Nynorsk organisations and institutions themselves provide a good deal of their income through their own activities. These market revenues are in some cases not sufficient to cover their expenses. State funding or grants have therefore become an indispensable prerequisite.

Under the auspices of the joint body Nynorsk Forum, established in 1997, the Norwegian Nynorsk milieu has since the year 2000 mapped how much financial support the various Nynorsk institutions receive from the state. The sum total is calculated as a percentage of the overall budget of the Ministry of Culture.

This Norwegian Nynorsk index was at its highest in the years 2001, 2002 and 2004 at 3.6 per cent. In 2015, however, these grants comprised just 2.6 per cent of the total subsidies paid out by the Ministry of Culture.


1 Gjert Kristoffersen et al.: Norsk i hundre!, Oslo 2005, p. 43.

2 Kjartan Fløgstad: «Ikkje utanom Aasen, men over den», Syn og Segn 1983.

3 Statistics Norway: «Folkemengde, 1. januar 2015, berekna», ssb.no, retrieved 24.7.2015.

4 Statistics Norway: «Lokale folkeavstemninger, 2014», ssb.no, retrieved 24.7.2015.

Strategiplan for samisk kirkeliv, Oslo 2011, p. 36.

6 Karl Jan Solstad (ed.): Samisk språkundersøkelse 2012, NF-rapport nr. 7/2012, Bodø 2012, p. 31.

7 Odd Frank Vaage: Norsk mediebarometer 2014, Statistiske analyser 143, Statistics Norway, Oslo 2015, table 1

8 Ipsos MMI, interview with 1704 persons in 3rd quarter 2014.

9 Odd Frank Vaage: Norsk mediebarometer 2014, Statistiske analyser 143, Statistics Norway, Oslo 2015, table 1.

10 NOU 2010:14: Lett å komme til orde, vanskelig å bli hørt – en moderne mediestøtte, p. 41.

English translation Howard Medland 

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About the article

Extracts from Ottar Grepstad: Språkfakta 2015. Ørsta 2015. Digital and interactive version by Allkunne 2019. 

The complete edition of Språkfakta 2015 (in Norwegian) with tables is available at aasentunet.no

Sources to Ottar Grepstad: Språkfakta 2015. Ørsta 2015.

Først publisert: 11.12.2019
Sist oppdatert: 24.12.2019