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Norwegian Bokmål (English)

Norwegian Bokmål, which was created by way of the spelling reforms in 1907, 1917 and 1938, is among the youngest written languages in Europe.

Norwegian version

Language family

Norwegian Bokmål is a Nordic/Scandinavian (or North Germanic) language. Nordic/ Scandinavian is a branch of Germanic, which again is a branch of the Indo-European language family. Scandinavian has a West Scandinavian and an East Scandinavian branch. Icelandic, Faroese, the now extinct language Norn (which was spoken in the Shetlands, Orkneys, Hebrides and on parts of the Scottish mainland) and Norwegian Nynorsk (and the traditional Norwegian dialects) are West Scandinavian languages, while Swedish and Danish are East Scandinavian. Norwegian Bokmål lies in the borderland between West and East Scandinavian; moderate Bokmål is East Scandinavian with some loanwords from Norwegian dialects, while radical Bokmål has a number of West Scandinavian characteristics.

Norwegian Nynorsk, Norwegian Bokmål, Swedish and Danish comprise a Scandinavian dialect continuum, that is a language area in which the spoken forms merge together without definable boundaries and in general are mutually intelligible. They are often referred to as Scandinavian or Mainland Scandinavian languages, as opposed to the Insular Scandinavian languages Faroese and Icelandic.

Language history

During the Kalmar Union (1389/1397 – 1521) between Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Denmark was the dominating power, and Danish ousted Norwegian as the written language. The position of Danish became even stronger after the Reformation in 1536, when Norway came under the rule of Denmark, and a Danish bible, Christian III’s Bible, dating from 1550, was adopted in Norway.

In the 18th century the use of the Danish spoken language also increased in Norway, due to the fact that Norwegians in the upper classes began to speak Danish, imitating the pattern of the spoken language of the social upper classes in Copenhagen. This Norwegian variety or accent of spoken Danish was called “educated daily speech” until the early 20th century. This spoken variety was basically Danish, and similar to the Danish spoken on the Faroe Islands and in Iceland. There were some Norwegian features in the pronunciation, as for example when b, d, g were pronounced /p t k/ in words like løbe /²løːpe/ ('laupe', 'run'), Sæbe /²seːpe/ ('soap'), lede /²leːte/ ('search'), fed /¹feːt/ ('fat'), bleg /¹bleːk/ ('pale') and syg /¹syːk/ in accordance with the pattern in Norwegian. In other words /b d ɡ/ were retained, as in Skib /¹ʃiːb/ ('ship'), haabe /²hoːbe/ ('hope'), yde /²yːde/ ('yield'), Skud /¹skʉd/ ('shot'), Sprog /¹spɾoːɡ/ ('language'), Smag /¹smaːɡ/ ('taste') and meget /²meːɡet/ ('much').

In many places «the educated everyday speech» is called «pent/refined» language, in contrast to the Norwegina vernacular (the traditional dialects), which are referred to as «broad». There are individual «refined» pronunciation varieties (i.e. accents) in the major cities – for example in Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim and «educated Eastern Norwegian» / «standard Eastern Norwegian» / «urban Eastern Norwegian» in Oslo.

In 1907 a planned language policy was introduced in which rigsmaalet – the Danish written language – was reformed in accordance with the pattern of  «the educated everyday speech» or «the everyday speech of educated people» – an idea that not least educationalist and grammarian Knud Knudsen (1812–1895) was spokesman for in the book Den landsgyldige norske Uttale (1876) (The nationally valid Norwegian pronunciation). Spelling forms such as riksmaal ('riksmål'), løpe ('springe/run'), lete ('leite/search') and blek ('bleik/pale') entered the written language instead of rigsmaal, løbe, lede and bleg – while skib ('skip/ship'), skud ('skot/shot') and sprog ('språk/language') were retained for the time being.

In the spelling reform of 1917 a number of Norwegian words and declension forms were introduced as optional alternatives in what from that point became known as riksmål (spelt with å instead of aa), for example botn, fjøl, fjør, gammal, gras, hage, hås, jamn, mjøl, mjølk, mye, sju, snø, vatn, veke and hossen, in addition to the traditional Danish main forms bunn, fjel, fjær, gammel, gress, have, hes, jevn, mel, melk, meget, syv, sne, vann, uke and hvorledes/hvordan. Many of the Norwegian forms became main forms in 1938, when a series of Danish forms were removed. But in general Norwegian forms have only become established if they are used in «educated everyday speech», like ku, sau, furu og dere, compared to Danish ko, får, fyr and I/eder.

The new written language changed its name from riksmål to bokmål in 1929. After that year the word riksmål continued to exist as the name of a more traditional, unofficial variety of Norwegian Bokmål, but after the spelling reform in 2005 the distinction between the written language Norwegian Bokmål and unofficial «riksmål» virtually ceased to exist.

Etymology

The definite noun plural form barna (the children) is conspicuous for its ending ‑a, which elsewhere in traditional Norwegian Bokmål can only be found in bena/beina (the legs). Barna and beina are used in the most recent Bible translation (The Norwegian Bible Society) into Norwegian Bokmål from 2011, while all other neuter nouns end in ‑ene in the definite plural form, as in husene (the houses) and fjellene (the mountains), corresponding to the Danish husene and fjeldene. In Norwegian Nynorsk and also the traditional Oslo dialect these words have the ending ‑a: husa and fjella.

The forms barna and bena were borrowed from Swedish into the Dano-Norwegian spoken language in the capital at the end of the 19th century, while in the Norwegian vernacular in the capital (East End dialect) the forms are båna and beina. The normal standard Swedish forms are barnen and benen, while earlier the forms barnena and benena were common in the spoken dialect in Stockholm, and these forms were contracted first to barn'na and ben'na and then to barna and bena. We find these forms in the writing of the Swedish poet and troubador Carl Michael Bellman (1740–1795), for example in «Fredmans epistel n:o 44», from 1790, which begins: «Movitz helt allena / På Tre Liljor satt en gång; / Harpan mellan bena / Glimmar bred och lång; ...»

Orthography in Norwegian Bokmål

As mentioned above in the paragraph «Language history», Riksmål/ Norwegian Bokmål has been through a lengthy language planning process. The most important changes were introduced in 1907, 1917, 1938, 1959, 1981 and 2005. Put very briefly, the reforms in 1907 were an adaptation to «educated everyday speech», while the reforms in 1917 and 1938 intriduced many elements from Norwegian vernacular. The reforms in 1959, 1981 and 2005 represented a reversal of the Norwegianization process. Certain Norwegian dating from 1917 and 1938 were removed, and some Danish forms that disappeared in 1938, were reintroduced.

The tables below illustrate how the nouns sten/stein, gade/gate, bro/bru, gulv/golv, sprog/språk and øie/øye and the verbs raadne/raatne/råtne, træffe/treffe and bide/bite were declined in Danish before 1907 and after the spelling rules introduced in 1907, 1917, 1938 and 2005 for riksmaal/riksmål/bokmål. Nouns with a capital letter initially were permitted in Norway from 1877, but not until 1948 in Denmark, and are included in the tables.

The spelling reform of 1917 introduced a distinction between main forms and optional forms. The latter are marked in parentheses in the table below. The main forms were to be used in textbooks, but pupils were also allowed to use the optional forms in their own written work. The system of optional forms was abolished in 2005. 

Bokmål_table-Norwegian-Bokmål-orthography-(rettskrivinga).jpg?w=600


After 1917 it has been possible to write Norwegian Bokmål in two fairly different ways. The two variants are known as moderate bokmål (with as many Danish forms as possible) and radical bokmål (with as many Norwegian forms as possible). Today the moderate variant is dominant in books, the press, broadcasting and the private business sector. Among those fiction writers who write a Norwegian Bokmål with strongly radical elements is Per Petterson (b. 1952). His international breakthrough came with the publication of the novel Ut og stjæle hester (2003) (Out Stealing Horses).

Language system

A newspaper headline

The sentence below, which says ‘Don’t forget the children of Gaza’, is taken from the front page of Dagsavisen on Monday 28 December 2009, illustrates som of the characteristic features of moderate Norwegian Bokmål:

Glem ikke Gazas barn.           'Ikkje gløym borna i Gaza.'

The verb glemme is originally Danish and has developed from the Middle Danish glømæ ('gløyme/forget'), from the Old Danish gleyma, through a characteristic Danish sound evolution, ø > e before m, which we also see in gjemme ('gøyme/hide'), from Middle Danish gømæ, from the Old Danish geyma. In Norwegian Nynorsk we find the old forms with øy: gløyme/gøyme. Radical Norwegian Bokmål has glømme/gjømme, and Swedish has glömma/gömma.

The adverb ikke (not) also comes from Danish. From Norwegian Nynorsk written language and traditional Norwegian dialects we recognize only forms of the type inkje, ikkje, itte, inte. The form ikke was borrowed in some language varieties at the end of the 19th century and later.

The expression glem ikke (don’t forget) is probably also a Danish feature. Danish and Norwegian tend to place the negative particle in different positions in relation to a verb in the imperative. In Danish it is always placed after the imperative, as in Luk ikke op døren for nogen! (Don’t open the door to anyone!) and Gør det ikke! (Don’t do it!), while in Norwegian it is normal to place it after the imperative while in Norwegian the imperative form ususally follows the negative particle: Ikkje lat opp døra for nokon! and Ikkje gjer det! In Norwegian, placing the negative particle after the imperative is often a literary characteristic, as in Fadervår (The Lord’s Prayer) (Matthew 6, 9–13)– compare la oss ikke komme i fristelse (Norwegian Bokmål) and lat oss ikkje koma i freisting (Norwegian Nynorsk) with led oss ikke ind i fristelse (Danish) (Lead us not into temptation).

The expression Gazas barn, with the genitive-s, also has its origins in Danish. The S‑genitive is rarely used in Norwegian Nynorsk, where the expression would instead be borna/ungane i Gaza.

The plural noun form barn, with the definite form barna, is among the few Swedish loanwords in Norwegian Bokmål, instead of Danish børn, børnene. Compare the paragraph «Etymology» above.

Some comparisons

The table below shows the conjugation of five verbs in Danish (in 19th century spelling, which was the official spelling in Norway up until 1907), in moderate Bokmål (bokmålM), radical Bokmål (bokmålR), traditional Oslo dialect and in Nynorsk. The Oslo vernacular is written using a sort of orthography to make the comparison easier. 

 

GRIPE

infinitive

simple present

simple past

past part.

Danish

gribe

griber

greb

grebet

BokmålM

gripe

griper

grep

grepet

BokmålR

gripe

griper

greip

grepet

Oslo dialect

gripe

griper

greip

gripi

Nynorsk

gripe

grip

greip

gripe

 

SKYTE

infinitive

simple present

simple past

past part.

Danish

skyde

skyder

skjød

skudt

BokmålM

skyte

skyter

skjøt

skutt

BokmålR

skyte

skyter

skøyt

skutt

Oslo dialect

skyte

skyter

skøyt

skyti

Nynorsk

skyte

skyt

skaut

skote

 

LEITE

infinitive

simple present

simple past

past part.

Danish

lede

leder

ledte

ledt

BokmålM

lete

leter

lette

lett

BokmålR

leite

leiter

leita

leita

Oslo dialect

leite

leiter

leita

leita

Nynorsk

leite

leitar

leita

leita

 

TJUKNE

infinitive

simple present

simple past

past part.

Danish

tykne

tykner

tyknede

tyknet

BokmålM

tykne

tykner

tyknet

tyknet

BokmålR

tjukne

tjukner

tjukna

tjukna

Oslo dialect

tjukne

tjukner

tjukna

tjukna

Nynorsk

tjukne

tjuknar

tjukna

tjukna

 

BYGGJE

infinitive

simple present

simple past

past part.

Danish

bygge

bygger

byggede

bygget

BokmålM

bygge

bygger

bygget

bygget

BokmålR

bygge

bygger

bygde

bygd

Oslo dialect

bygge

bygger

bygde

bygd

Nynorsk

bygg(j)e

bygg(j)er

bygde

bygd

 

Pronunciation

In Oslo and other places in Eastern Norway spoken Norwegian Bokmål has the phonemes indicated in the tables below. Phonemes that for some reason are marginal are in parenthesis. The phoneme /ɽ/ has always been considered «vulgar» or «stigmatizing», and many speakers use /l/ or /ɭ/ instead. Between younger speakers /l/ has been replaced by /ɭ/. There is also a tendency to replace /ç/ with /ʂ/.

Vowels

In Oslo and other places in Eastern Norway spoken Norwegian Bokmål has the phonemes for vowels indicated in the table in this picture.


Consonants

In Oslo and other places in Eastern Norway spoken Norwegian Bokmål has the phonemes for consonants indicated in the table in this picture.


As in most other Norwegian spoken dialects, Norwegian Bokmål distinguishes between two tonemes (tones, accents), as we see in the words huset /¹hʉːse/ and huse /²hʉːse/ (house), where the figures indicate that the stressed first syllable uses toneme 1 and toneme 2 respectively.

You can read more about the language situation in Norway in the article «Norwegian».

English translation Howard Medland.

Further information

Knud Brekke: Bidrag til dansk-norskens lydlære. Kristiania 1881

Andreas Drolsum Haraldsrud: Dæt læses mæd Æ. En komparativ undersøkelse av norsk og dansk danna talemål 1750–1850. Masteroppgåve i nordisk språkvitskap. Institutt for lingvistiske og nordiske studium, Universitetet i Oslo 2012

Jan Terje Faarlund, Svein Lie og Kjell Ivar Vannebo: Norsk referansegrammatikk. Oslo 1997

Einar Haugen: Riksspråk og folkemål. Norsk språkpolitikk i det 20. århundre. Oslo 1969

Knud Knudsen: Haandbog i dansk-norsk Sproglære. Kristiania 1856.

Kjersti Wictorsen Kola: Bokmålsbruk – hvorledes/hvordan/åssen og hvorfor? Om bruken av morfologiske og ortografiske varianter i bokmålsnormalen. Masteroppgåve i nordisk, særleg norsk, språkvitskap. Institutt for lingvistiske og nordiske studium, Universitetet i Oslo 2014

Amund B. Larsen: Kristiania bymål. Vulgærsproget med henblik på den utvungne dagligtale. Kristiania 1907

Helge Sandøy og Agnete Nesse (red.): Norsk språkhistorie I–IV. Oslo 2016–2017

Arne Torp og Lars S. Vikør: Hovuddrag av norsk språkhistorie. Oslo 2014

Recommended reading on the languages of the world

Jean Aitchison: The Seeds of Speech. Language Origin and Evolution. Cambridge 2000

Ron Asher & Christopher Moseley (ed.): Atlas of the World's Languages, 2. edn. London 2007

David Crystal: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 2. edn. Cambridge 2007

Östen Dahl: Språkens enhet och mångfald. Lund 2000

Kenneth Katzner: The Languages of the World, 3. edn. London 2002

M. Paul Lewis (ed.): Ethnologue. Languages of the World, 16. edn. Dallas 2009

Anatole V. Lyovin: An Introduction to the Languages of the World. Oxford 1997

Nicholas Ostler: Empires of the Word. A Language History of the World. New York 2006

 

Først publisert: 20.12.2018
Sist oppdatert: 08.02.2019