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Language facts: Three stories about language

Three stories that attempt to summaries some of the findings in «Language facts 2015» («Språkfakta 2015»).

When the world changed its opinion

The world has changed its opinion about language. Not everyone, and certainly not a majority, but enough to lead to a change in language policy since the 1990s. In Europe, it is easy to explain this change of attitude with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is more difficult to find an explanation as to why the authorities in many countries in other parts of the world have rejected the old European doctrine of one nation – one language.

Institutional arrangements

It has become important to protect language diversity and protect the history of one’s own languages. This is done by way of international declarations, major projects like the European Day of Languages on 26 September and by building new institutions. Across the world, there are as many as 80 language museums. Having been founded in 1898, The Ivar Aasen Centre for Language and Written Culture is the oldest of these, but well over half of them have been established after 1990.

In 1992 the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Norway was the first country to ratify the convention, for the Sami, Kven and Romani languages. So far, 25 countries have ratified the charter for a total of 93 languages that are used by over 200 national minorities or language groups.

Four years later, 140 representatives for organisations and research environments adopted the so-called Barcelona declaration regarding the language rights of users of regional and minority languages. And in 2011, PEN International’s General Assembly approved the ten-point Girona Manifesto designed to protect linguistic diversity around the world.

Widespread languages and vital languages

How many languages exist was a question that had barely been asked before the 20th century, and for a long time the estimates were very uncertain. If we assume that there are about one thousand languages, we are probably not far from the truth, wrote a prominent Norwegian language researcher in the respected encyclopaedia Familieboken in 1940. It turned out that he was way off target.

When the world was to be rebuilt after the Second World War, it was estimated that there were at least 3000 languages. In the 1970s, we had firm knowledge of the existence of 5600 languages. The latest unequivocal answer in 2015 was that 7102 languages have been documented as being in everyday use. They were, of course, there in the 1930s too, but the majority were known only to the users themselves, often without them having any clear idea that their language was so very different from all the others.

Just a few languages are really large. 23 different languages are the first languages of six out of ten inhabitants the world over. The vast majority of languages are used by just a few people. There are considerable differences between how strong and socially vital the various languages are.  In 2015, the American Summer Institute of Linguistics reckoned something over 100 languages to be the most vital. Norwegian – both Bokmål and Nynorsk – were among those languages. Compared to world languages like English, Norway is a tiny language community. Compared to the linguistic everyday life of the majority of people in the world, the two Norwegian languages are among the most vital.


This position is the result of the modernisation of society that has defined Norway for more than a century. Laws and regulations have been approved, and institutions and funding schemes have been established that all serve to promote the use of Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål. That is why the situation when it comes to the use of both Nynorsk and Bokmål is characterised by stability in many fields. Norway has become a language community that usually only exists in people’s dreams.

Establishing a written language and literacy is the critical point in the world at large. In 2015, we have firm knowledge of 3600 written languages. The Bible or parts of it have so far been translated into 2900 languages, and thanks to Wikipedia, eight out of ten inhabitants on Earth have lexical knowledge in their first languages. However, far from all of these have access to the Internet yet.  

After 5000 years with written language, the vast majority of people on Earth can read and write. Figures from UNESCO indicate, nevertheless, that close on a billion people remain illiterate. Only every tenth language can be considered as belonging to well-developed written cultures. These languages, on the other hand, are used by eight out of ten inhabitants in the world. Roughly 2400 languages may be in difficulties or dying out. They are used by just over one percent of the globe’s inhabitants.

With its 155 million first language users, Russian is the largest language in Europe. The next largest is German with well over 85 million users. In Språkfakta 2015 a European language barometer has been published for the first time. It shows that on average the largest language in each country is used by nine out of ten of its inhabitants. Language diversity is greater in the east than in the west, and greater in the south than in the north.

The culture industry’s role

In the face of competition from the culture industry, both declarations and action plans and museums fall short. The Eurovision Song Contest has become one of the greatest song competitions in the world. Starting with the initial event in 1956, French enjoyed a dominant role for a long time as the most widely used language for songs in the final. The greatest language diversity was apparent in the 1990s. Back then, it was still the case that participating countries had to sing in their official language, and the many new participants from the former Eastern Europe showed what traditions they had to offer.

From the year 1997, freedom of choice was introduced, and that was the end of the diversity. In just a few years, most contestants chose to sing in English. It has such a dominant position now that in the entire period from 1956–2015, over half the songs have been sung in English. In the Norwegian competition there was never very much Norwegian Nynorsk or dialect to be heard, and now hardly anyone sang in Norwegian Bokmål any more either.  

At the same time as the European Union established quite generous financial aid schemes to encourage translation between languages in Europe, the alliance of public service broadcasters and other media organisations were determinedly heading in the opposite direction.

In Norway, it is almost an old adage to say that freedom of choice does not promote language diversity. Users of Norwegian Nynorsk, the Sami and Kven languages are only too well aware of that. Now the rest of Europe is reminded of the fact every spring.

Nevertheless, more and more people are now emphasising the cultural, psychological and democratic value of linguistic diversity. It is just a case of putting words into action before anyone changes their mind.  

Norwegian Bokmål under pressure

Norwegians find themselves in an alternating linguistic majority and minority. Both in their attitude to language and in their practical use of it, Norwegians are in the process of making Norway a nation that linguistically is split three ways: Norwegian Bokmål in the east and south, Norwegian Nynorsk in the west, dialects and indigenous languages in the north.  

Pressure from English and dialects

Norwegian Bokmål is the most widely used language in Norway and has been ever since Nynorsk and Bokmål were granted equal status as Norwegian languages in 1885. Now Norwegian Bokmål is under pressure from two sides, from both English and dialects.

Increased use of English in the 21st century weakened Bokmål in a number of important fields, while the use of Nynorsk has been relatively stable, and there were more people with other languages than Norwegian as their first language. The major linguistic change in Norway in the last 50 years is that dialect is now used in virtually all areas of society and in particular in private writing. Both these changes have reduced the use of Norwegian Bokmål in important fields.

Roughly 600 000 people use Norwegian Nynorsk on a daily basis. Four out of ten of these Nynorsk users are in reality bilingual in the sense that they are just as happy using Bokmål as Nynorsk. The percentage of Norwegian Nynorsk users over the age of 15 has remained stable since the 1990s, but more of them now often write in dialect.

Differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk users

There are clear social differences between users of Bokmål and Nynorsk. Rather more women than men use Norwegian Nynorsk privately, and the users of Nynorsk comprise a greater part of the older age groups than the younger ones. The better educated a person is, the more likely it is, on the other hand, that that person uses Norwegian Bokmål. High income, an urban address and a paper-pushing profession are clear indications of Norwegian Bokmål users.

The fact that Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk have different positions in Norway is related to social differences, and the fact that the language of the social elite is Norwegian Bokmål.

The users of Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk are far from being equally tolerant on language issues. One language survey after the other reveals that a large number of Norwegian Bokmål users would prefer not to, or would absolutely not, read texts in Norwegian Nynorsk. Young Bokmål users in particular read very little Norwegian Nynorsk, whereas young Nynorsk users read a great deal of Bokmål, in fact often more Bokmål than Nynorsk. The user of Norwegian Nynorsk is positive to both languages and actually has a certain critical distance to his or her own language.

The average user of Norwegian Bokmål has an uncritical distance to the other Norwegian language.

Critical domains: academia and business life

In universities and university colleges, the number of Norwegian Nynorsk users have always been far fewer than the number of Norwegian Bokmål users. Nationwide the percentage of Norwegian Nynorsk users in academia can be counted on one hand. However, since the population has increased and many more people than earlier now take higher education, this means that in absolute figures there are many more users of Norwegian Nynorsk now than 50 years ago.

The same is the case for Norwegian Bokmål, in absolute numbers. Since the turn of the century, many more have written their master theses in Bokmål than in the previous decades. In percentages, however, the numbers of Bokmål users are falling fast because English is taking over. In the 1980s, one in ten students wrote their thesis in English. Now almost four out of ten do so.

The use of Norwegian and English in business life has a great influence on the general situation for these languages in Norway. Several studies indicate that company managers actually have a greater belief in Norwegian than their customers do, while the customers are more positive to the use of English in advertising than the managers.

English offers high status, but not necessarily greater credibility. In particular, those with little education have a tendency to relate status to the English language. In 2010, both six out of ten business leaders and a similar number of customers agreed that Norwegian should be used in all advertising and marketing in Norway.

The business leaders are uncertain about which language strategies to adopt in the future. Greater language diversity in the rest of society also affects business life. That may be the most important reason why Norwegian Nynorsk will gradually be used more widely in advertising.

In the spring of 2015, The Ivar Aasen Centre for Language and Written Culture investigated the use of language in almost 1700 advertisements and commercials on TV, in weekly magazines and periodicals. There it was a question of Norwegian Bokmål and English, but with two quite different tendencies. Overseas advertisers used far more English, and a mix of Bokmål and English, than did Norwegian advertisers, who for their part used very little English and a great deal of Bokmål.

The situation does not look promising, if it is the case that even more overseas owners are on their way into Norwegian business life, while Norwegian authorities have done little legislatively to protect their own languages, compared to the efforts of governments in countries like Lithuania, Poland and France.

Different trends in different mass media

With the arrival of the book, Norwegian Bokmål became the most widely used language in Norway. Well, perhaps it was not quite that simple, but book publishing in Norway has always been characterised by 90 per cent Norwegian Bokmål and 7 per cent Norwegian Nynorsk. But that is now a bygone age. All categories of publishers, including many more than the regular publishing houses, in 2014 published 1600 titles in English. Every seventh book registered in Norway last year was in English. The number of Nynorsk books was stable, and the number of Bokmål books increased, but in percentages, Bokmål books have fallen from 83% in the 1970s to 73% in the 2010s. That is a huge change.

Even greater have been the changes in the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK and most of all on the radio. On both TV and radio, more dialect is spoken during the broadcasts, parallel with the fact that speaking dialect has achieved higher social status. This means that the general public hears less standard speech, and it is standard Bokmål that has shown the greatest decline.

Norwegian Nynorsk has never been widely used by NRK. It was in radio programmes that more dialects were first used, and even today, more dialect can be heard on radio than on TV. The biggest change began in the 1990s. In 1990, Norwegian Bokmål was used in 80% of radio broadcasts and in 77% of TV programmes. In these figures, the use of dialect has been omitted. In 2014, Bokmål was used in 67% of radio programmes and 70% of TV broadcasts.

The greatest worry for most users of Norwegian Bokmål should be the fact that English is steadily gaining ground without the situation being analysed, counter-measures discussed and action plans drawn up. We saw the problem clearly, those of us who worked on the project The National Year of Languages in 2013. Hardly any users of Norwegian Bokmål showed any interest in celebrating or mobilising on behalf of their own language.

It is reminiscent of the situation with regard to the climate changes created by human activity, which far too few took seriously enough soon enough. 

The dialects are conquering Norway

Languages change, and language communities change with them. The greatest linguistic change in Norway during the last 50 years is not the assimilation between the sounds tj- and sj-, but the fact that so many more people than previously now speak their dialect anytime and anywhere.

A nation with great language diversity

The linguistic diversity in Norway has long been great, with the thousand-year-old Sami languages, historical minority languages since the 16th century, spoken languages in an uninterrupted line from the Middle Ages, Norwegian Nynorsk as a written common denominator for many of these dialects and a Norwegian Bokmål that has made the journey from being a Danish colonial language to becoming an integral part of the Norwegian cultural heritage.

The newest feature is the way dialects have taken ever more arenas. This is a development that points in the direction of three linguistic centres of gravity in Norway: dialects and Norwegian Bokmål is the north of the country, Norwegian Nynorsk and dialects in the west, Norwegian Bokmål and dialects in the east.

This language diversity in speech and writing is to some extent generally accepted in 2015, but not everyone accepts the same thing. Many Norwegians have now accepted Nynorsk, but there are plenty who still oppose the situation, very many who do not think that dialects are too widely used, and just as many who do not want any more permanent minority languages. The use of dialect is most widely accepted in the west and north of the country and least in the capital. Equal numbers were in 2013 for and against the continued equal status of Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål, the opposition was greatest in the north.

In 2013, one in three liked the fact that Norway is becoming a more multilingual country, just as many were indifferent and one in three did not like it at all. Those who have low incomes are more positive to both Norwegian Nynorsk, dialects and new permanent minority languages than those who are high earners. Those who earn most and least are most positive towards more English in Norway, men are more negative than women, and users of Nynorsk are more critical than users of Bokmål to the increased use of English.

The Internet has changed media habits, but TV and radio are still the most widely used mass media in Norway. In both these media, dialects have both captured a greater share of broadcasting in the last two decades and achieved higher status. A consequence is that the public hear less standard Norwegian Nynorsk and standard Norwegian Bokmål on radio and TV, and this has in particular led to a reduction in the use of standard Bokmål. 

Greatest variation in the spoken language

With the exception of constructed languages like Esperanto, all written languages are also spoken languages. Through school, church and NRK broadcasting, Norwegian Nynorsk is also a standard language. In the Nynorsk written culture, both dialects and standard speech are important. Standard Norwegian Nynorsk speech will never achieve a social status similar to that achieved early by Norwegian Bokmål standard speech. The link between the dialects and Norwegian Nynorsk has been both the linguistic foundation and the language policy guideline for the users of Nynorsk.

In practical terms, this manifests itself differently in some fields. On theatre stages there will be a real tension between dialect and Norwegian Nynorsk as spoken languages. On radio and TV, the same tension will be there first and foremost in the way that increased use of dialects may lead to a reduction in the use of standard Nynorsk speech. 

In countries like France and Germany, it is almost unthinkable that pupils speak dialect in class. In Norway, the right of a pupil to use his or her own spoken language or idiolect was established as early as in 1878. In any discussion about language usage, it was always the dialects that won the day.  

Generally speaking, Norwegian radio and TV programmes are linguistically more laid back than just a few decades ago. Standard spoken languages are considered to be more laboured and formal. Dialects have, therefore, to an increasing degree become an alternative to both Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk. In the mass media this has had greater consequences for standard Norwegian Bokmål than for standard Norwegian Nynorsk.

Spoken dialects are used less in Oslo than in the rest of the country. The more programme hosts who are recruited from the Oslo area, where also spoken Norwegian Nynorsk is less common, the more standard Norwegian Bokmål will be heard. To normalise spontaneous speech in interviews is unthinkable in Norway. In a country like France, the situation is quite the opposite. It caused widespread reactions when Miss France in 2011 spoke her Alsatian dialect in the official winner’s interview.

Variations in written practice on the increase

When the language movement initiated the wave of dialects in the 1970s, nobody ever imagined that the dialects could become written languages. The aim then was to legitimise the dialects as spoken varieties anywhere and anytime. These efforts to raise the status of dialects as spoken forms was so successful that far more users began to adopt dialects also in their written activities. This development was reinforced by technical innovations, first and foremost digital media, which for many people eradicated the distinction between what was private and what was public.

What had been a language variant in letters and other private documents became in the 2000s so widely used in certain digital formats that it fast approached a third written language, especially among the younger generation. In general, people in Oslo write least dialect, people living in the west and north of the country write most, and as such Norway is on its way to becoming a language community with three Norwegian written languages – two standard and one non-standard.   

To write informally in dialect can be a bridge to Norwegian Nynorsk, and it may well be that more writing in dialect creates a sort of linguistic resistance. If the process of nurturing dialects becomes accepted and widespread, it can in turn contribute to a normalisation of the use of written dialects. Then the ties with Norwegian Nynorsk can either be strengthened, or they can be severed. The need for a non-standard private language has certainly increased with the arrival of digital media.

Dialects and private languages are two different norm systems, and the increased use of dialect has led several people to advocate dialect normalisation. The first formal initiative was taken by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK. Starting in 2015, NRK has established a regime with its own rules governing the use of dialect. This news was announced by the corporation’s language director, Ragnhild Bjørge, during a debate at the Norwegian Festival of Language and Literature summer 2015. In an attempt like this to preserve the dialects one can imagine that a process of normalisation in the direction of Norwegian Nynorsk would be natural in cases where there is a conflict between Nynorsk and Bokmål in the dialects.

Whoever works in public broadcasting or any other professional mass medium cannot avoid the demand of making themselves understood. Perhaps one might be tempted to claim that people should know better and be better acquainted with their own country, but when NRK asked a representative selection last year, four out of ten partly or completely disagreed about whether all dialects are easy to understand. Nevertheless, nine out of ten believed that it was a good thing that people speak their own dialects.

That is what a dilemma looks like. 

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