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Norwegian (English)

Are Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål two languages or two forms of the same language? Both linguistically and politically the answers «two languages» and «two varieties» are both possible – but «two varieties» is the official answer.

Norwegian version

Language family

Norwegian is a Nordic/Scandinavian (or North Germanic) language. Nordic / Scandinavian is a branch of the Indo-European language family. We recognise Norwegian words like bror/broder, dotter/datter and namn/navn far outside the bounds of Norway – for example in Persian barādar, doxtar and nām.

It is customary to divide the Nordic/Scandinavian languages into two branches, West Scandinavian and East Scandinavian. Icelandic, Faroese and the now extinct Norn (which was spoken in the Shetlands, Orkneys, Hebrides and on parts of the Scottish mainland) and Norwegian are West Scandinavian languages, while Swedish and Danish are East Scandinavian. Spoken Norwegian can be classified as borderline area between West Scandinavian and East Scandinavian. Written Norwegian Nynorsk is West Scandinavian. Norwegian Bokmål is a borderline case, but the more traditional it is, the more East Scandinavian.

On the basis of which languages are mutually intelligible, modern Scandinavian is also divided into Mainland/Continental Scandinavian (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish) and Insular Scandinavian (Icelandic and Faroese). After Old Norse times, Norwegian has generally followed the same lines of development as Swedish and Danish – both in terms of phonology, grammar and vocabulary.

Language history

Scandinavian split from other Germanic languages in the first centuries after the birth of Christ, and the oldest Scandinavian language period is referred to as Old Scandinavian. Around the year 700, Old Scandinavian divided into Old Norse (Old West Scandinavian) and Old East Scandinavian, but the differences were merely dialectal, and right up until the 14th century all Scandinavian languages were referred to as the ‘Danish tongue’. In the time from the 700s until 1350, when Norse was the language of Norway, a split occurred between Icelandic on the one hand and Faroese and Norwegian on the other. In the Late Middle Ages, from 1350 to 1525, Norwegian split with Faroese. Old East Scandinavian divided into Danish and Swedish during the 1100s.

In the late Middle Ages period the Scandinavian languages were subject to a great deal of influence from Middle Low German, the Hanseatic language, especially in the case of vocabulary. This period coincided with the Kalmar Union (1389/1397 – 1521) when Danish ousted Norwegian as the written language. The position of the Danish written language became even stronger after the Reformation in 1536, when our country came under the rule of Denmark, and a Danish bible, Christian III’s Bible, dating from 1550, was spread across Norway.

The Norwegian language period after 1525 is known as modern Norwegian or Nynorsk, which through the work of Ivar Aasen again became a written language during the 1800s, under the name of Landsmål (spelt Landsmaal at that time) and since 1929 called Nynorsk. Ivar Aasen based the Landsmål on the spoken varieties that it is usual to refer to as Norwegian vernacular, that is the traditional dialects which have their roots in Old Norse. Norwegian vernacular is still the most common type of spoken Norwegian and stands in contrast to the spoken variety of the Dano-Norwegian language tradition – see the following paragraph.

What makes the Norwegian language situation rather complicated is the fact that from the 18th century, Danish became the spoken language of the social upper classes. The ideal was the spoken language of the upper classes in Copnehagen. Danish with a Norwegian accent – or the spoken variety in the Dano-Norwegian language tradition – was up until the early 20th century known as «the educated everyday speech». There are individual «refined» pronunciation varieties (i.e. accents) in the major cities – for example in Bergen, Trondheim and «educated Eastern Norwegian» / «standard Eastern Norwegian» / «urban Eastern Norwegian» in Oslo.

In many places this spoken variety stands in contrast to the vernacular, but the two spoken varieties often merge together through the different social classes. Especially in the urban areas the vernacular has many loanwords from «the educated everyday speech». Danish distinguishes between the verb spise ('provide the body with (necessary) nourishment via the mouth and throat; partake of food') and æde ('partake of food; eat – as of animals') (definitions from Den Danske Ordbog, ordnet.dk), and this distinction has via spise and ete in «the educated everyday speech» entered the vernacular in many Norwegian towns, while the rural dialects to a large degree use ete about both people and animals, as was the case in Old Norse, and as is still the case in other Germanic languages – compare Icelandic and Faroese eta, Swedish äta, German essen, Dutch eten and English eat.

A separate written language in the Dano-Norwegian tradition was developed early in the 20th century through calculated language planning. The Danish written language was revised, using «the educated everyday speech» in the cities as a model. The first step was taken with the spelling reform in 1907, when vaade øine ('wet eyes') became vaate øine. The changes in 1917 to våte øine and in 1938 to våte øyne were merely superficial adjustments of the spelling, on the basis of exactly the same pronunciation. The letter å was borrowed from Swedish in 1917 and the spelling øy was borrowed from Norwegian Nynorsk in 1938. These and similar orthographic changes meant that Norwegian  Bokmål was given a graphic form that was further from Danish, which has also been subject to similar orthographic changes, using since 1948 the spelling våde øjne.

The Danish written language had been since the 19th century referred to as Rigsmaal both in Denmark and Norway. The new written language that was developed from Danish changed its name from riksmål to bokmål in 1929. After 1929 the word riksmål lived on as the name of a more traditional, unoffical variety of Norwegian Bokmål, but after the spelling reforms in 2005 the distinction between the written language Bokmål and the unofficial «riksmålet» were virtually non-existent.

By way of the spelling reforms in 1917 and 1938 many Norwegian words and inflections were introduced into riksmål/bokmål, but they became established only where they were already in general use in the spoken language of the social upper classes in the capital, in words like ku, sau, furu and dere, as opposed to the Danish ko, får, fyr and I/eder. Some Danish forms disappeared after the reform in 1938, but were reintroduced in 1981 and 2005, at the same time as many Norwegian forms were removed.

Also Landsmål/Nynorsk has been through a lengthy language planning process. The most important changes took place in 1901, 1910, 1917, 1938, 1959 and 2012. From vaate augo (augu) in 1901 and 1910 the spelling went to våte augo in 1917 and has been våte augo/auge since 1938.

Etymology – «the Norwegian language»

In the Norwegian Constitution of 4 November 1814 the expression «the Norwegian language» is used four times. Here is an example: «§ 33. All representations of Norwegian affairs, as well as the business that takes place in that connection, are to be written in the Norwegian language.»

The entire constitution was written in Danish – and the language that the constitution calls «the Norwegian language» is actually Danish. The encyclopedia Den Store Danske has in the entry «Norwegian» this comment on § 33 in the constitution: «Here the language in Norway was in fact – in Danish – defined as «the Norwegian language». Later in the century one spoke of Dano-Norwegian, but the language issue did not come into focus during the first decades after 1814.»

On 12 May 1885 the Norwegian national assembly Storting passed the equal status resolution, which placed on an equal footing the two written langages that were in use in our country: «The government is requested to make the necessary arrangements to ensure that the Norwegian language of the people is granted equal status in schools and as an official language with our common written and book language.»

It follows of § 33 in the constitution that «the Norwegian vernacular/language of the people» (det norkse Folkesprog) and «our common written and book language» (vort almindelige Skrift- og Bogsprog) were both considered to be Norwegian languages. When two different written languages were considered to be Norwegian, a special terminology was necessary, which duly appeared a short time after the equal status resolution – compare § 73 in the Act regarding rural primary schools from 1892: «The teaching is to be conducted in the Norwegian language. The local education committee is to decide whether the school’s readers and textbooks are to be written in the Landsmaal or the common Bokmaal, and in which of these languages/varieties the pupils’ written work is to be done.»

Here the word language (Sprog) is used in the expression «the Norwegian language».

Maal on the other hand is used to refer to the written varieties of «the Norwegian language», namely Landsmaal and det almindelige Bogmaal. Soon the term Maal was replaced by Maalform, among others in the Act regarding teacher training colleges and examinations for male and female teachers in the primary school of 18 January 1902, which introduced the requirement of a compulsory secondary language exam. Those who used Landsmaal as their main written variety had det almindelige Bogmaal as their secondary variety, and vice versa.

From 1885 and for a short time early in the 20th century we had a rather special language situation in Norway. The Norwegian language existed in two written varieties, one of which was identical with the official Danish language in Denmark.

Language system

In order to understand the relationship between Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål it is informative to place it in a wider Scandinavian context, as is done in the table below. Here Bokmål is entered in two columns, bokmålR for radical Bokmål and bokmålM for moderate Bokmål. Radical Bokmål and moderate Bokmål differ from each other in relation to how many elements they have from Norwegian vernacular. The former has many, so that it is more similar to Nynorsk. The latter has relatively few, so that it is closer to Danish. Moderate Bokmål dominates in books, the press and broadcasting, and it is common to publish dictionaries without radical forms. Surveys over many decades have shown that many school pupils and teachers do not even know that the radical forms are permitted. 




























































































Danish is the least conservative of the Scandinavian languages, in that it departs most from Old Norse, and Icelandic is the most conservative. In all the instances where Danish and Icelandic differ in the table above, it is mainly Danish that has changed. We see that moderate Bokmål in the majority of examples is just as little conservative as Danish, while radical Bokmål in a number of instances is almost as conservative as Nynorsk.

In the context of the written language, moderate Bokmål is referred to as more «conservative» than radical Bokmål, because it has retained a number of characteristics from the original Danish language, while radical Bokmål is called just that because it departs more from Danish by having more elements from Norwegian vernacular. In the context of language history the terms «radical» and «conservative» are used here in a misleading manner.

Are Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål one or two languages?

As mentioned above in the section «Etymology – 'the Norwegian language'», it is official Norwegian policy to consider Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål as two language varieties (målformer), that is two varieties of the same Norwegian language. This has been the official language policy from as long ago as the 19th century, when the two official written languages were «the Norwegian vernacular/language of the people» (det norkse Folkesprog) and «our common written and book language» (vort almindelige Skrift- og Bogsprog). This can only be understood as a desire to present «vort almindelige Skrift- og Bogsprog» as a Norwegian language. Up until 1907 «vort almindelige Skrift- og Bogsprog» was Danish. The encyclopedia Den Store Danske writes in the entry «Norwegian» about «... authors like Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Alexander Kielland and Jonas Lie, whose prose was written in riksmål, later to become Norwegian Bokmål. The Norwegian characteristics were few, and the original versions are today easier for Danes to read than for Norwegians.»

To the extent that there was any difference between the Danish written language in Denmark and in Norway, we can characterise the Danish written language as pluricentric – a term that for example is used about the relationship between Spanish (Castilian) in Spain and Latin America, Portuguese in Portugal and Brazil or English in England, Scotland, the USA, Canada, South Africa, India and Australia. No clear criteria exist to decide whether we are dealing with a pluricentric language or whether we have several languages that are closely related. The relationship between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin is relevant to mention in this context. Politically they are considered as four languages, but it would also be possible to talk of one pluricentric language.

Through the spelling reforms in 1907, 1917 and 1938, Norwegian Bokmål was established, as a different written language than official Danish. But is this new written language a variety of Danish with a few loanwords from Norwegian, a variety of Norwegian with several Danish features or a third language, situated somewhere between Danish and Norwegian? Neither Norwegians nor Danes can agree on this question, and there are no simple scientific or linguistic answers either.

No clear lingusitic criteria exist to decide whether two language varieties comprise one or two languages. If the two varieties are not mutually comprehensible, as for example in the case of Greenlandic and Danish or French and Bosnian, they are quite clearly two languages. Languages that so strongly distinguish themselves from one another are known as abstand or distant languages (from the German Abstandssprache). But many languages around the world are not so very diffferent, and belong on dialect continua or chains – a cluster or spread of mutually understandable dialects or varieties that gradually glide from one to the other across a certain geographical area. The Mainland Scandinavian languages represent a dialect continuum, as do the Romance languages from Portugal to Italy, the East Slavic languages, and the German-Dutch language area. Different languages in a dialect continuum are known as ausbau languages (from the German Ausbausprache).

How many languages such continua comprise is governed by historical and political issues. The Norwegian government announced on 26 April 2005 that the Kven language was to be considered a separate language, and not dialect of Finnish. Kven and Finnish are parts of the Baltic-Finnish dialect continuum, which among others also consists of Estian and Meänkieli (Torne Valley dialects in northern Finland). This was a political decision aimed at supporting the Kven minority in Norway, who wanted the Kven language to receive official status as a separate minority language. Kven and Finnish are closely related and mutually comprehensible, but linguistically there is no obejction to regarding them as two languages.

A similar position exists for Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk. Linguistically it is perfectly possible to regard them as two languages, thus giving us (at least) four Mainland Scandinavian languages – Norwegian Nynorsk, Norwegian Bokmål, Swedish and Danish. But whether one wishes to consider Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål as two languages is a question of politics. Danish and Norwegian Bokmål in a number of respects are closer to each other than are Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk, and therefore it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether or not Norwegian Bokmål and Danish represent one or two languages.


From about 1917 and up until 2004 it was official Norwegian policy to promote the rapprochement between Landsmål/Norwegian Nynorsk and Riksmål/Norwegian Bokmål, with the aim of establishing a common written  norm – often referred to as co-Norwegian (Samnorsk). This policy was based on the linguistic political idea that the two written languages were «variants», and not that they represented two different languages or language traditions. The Norwegian Language Committee (1952-1972) (Norsk Språknemnd) had as its object clause «to promote a rapprochement between the two written variants on the basis of the Norwegian vernacular». Its successor Norsk språkråd (1972–2004) aimed to support development tendencies which in the long term would move the two variants closer to each other. Språkrådet (established in 2005) has no paragraph regarding rapprochement. Opposition towards the co-Norwegian policy among both Norwegian Bokmål supporters and Norwegian Nynorsk enthusiasts cannot be seen as anything other than an expresssion of the view that the two written languages represent two clearly distinct language traditions, with different origins historically, and that the special Norwegian term «variant» is misleading.

A brief look at Scotland

The Norwegian Nynorsk written language is based on the Norwegian vernacular. The written language Riksmål/Bokmål originated by revising the Danish written language in accordance with the Dano-Norwegian spoken norm, and it is difficult to find any parallel to this process elsewhere in the world. The language situation that most closely resembles the position in Norway is to be found in Scotland. The table below shows a comparison of Norwegian and Scottish linguistic situation.



Norwegian Nynorsk


Norwegian Bokmål

Scottish English



Scots is a derivative of the Anglo-Saxon language that has been spoken in Scotland since the 7th century, in the way Norwegian is the traditional spoken norm in Norway. Scots was given a written form in the early 1400s, but the written English language ousted it in connection with the Reformation in the 16th century, when an English Bible was circulated in Scotland.

Scottish English is the Scottish variety of English and can be compared with Norwegian Bokmål in Norway. After the union between Engliand and Scotland in 1707 the English spoken language gradually became more commonplace among the social upper classes in Scotland, a Scottish English spoken variety that differs from the spoken norm of English in England first and foremost in its pronunciation, in addition to having a few Scottish loanwords in its vocabulary.

English is the derivative of the Anglo-Saxon language in England and can be compared to Danish, the traditional language of Denmark.

The language situation in Scotland is similar to that found in Norway in the early 1800s, before Ivar Aasen began his work. The Scots write English and speak Scots and Scottish-English, in the same way Norwegians in the early 1800s spoke Norwegian and Dano-Norwegian. There is no standard Scots written norm. See also the article «Scots».


The pronunciation of Norwegian and Dano-Norwegian is described in greater detail in the articles «Norwegian Nynorsk» and «Norwegian Bokmål».

English translation Howard Medland.

Further information

Eli Bjørhusdal: Mellom nøytralitet og språksikring. Norsk offentleg språkpolitikk 1885–2005. Ph.d.-avhandling, Institutt for lærarutdanning og skoleforsking, Universitetet i Oslo 2014

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

Arne Garborg: Den ny-norske Sprog- og Nationalitetsbevægelse. Et Forsøg paa en omfattende Redegjørelse, formet som polemiske Sendebreve til Modstræverne. Kristiania 1877

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

Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel: Mål og modernisering 1868–1940. (Norsk målreising II). Oslo 2011

Jens Johan Hyvik: Språk og nasjon 1738–1868. (Norsk målreising I). Oslo 2010

Jens Johan Hyvik: Tokulturlæra i norsk historie. Oslo 2016

Gustav Indrebø: Norsk målsoga. Bergen 2001

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

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

Ivar Aasen: Norsk Grammatik. Kristiania 1864

Ivar Aasen: Norsk Ordbog med dansk Forklaring. Kristiania 1873

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, 2nd edn. London 2007

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

Östen Dahl: Språkens enhet och mångfald. Lund 2000

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

M. Paul Lewis (ed.): Ethnologue. Languages of the World, 16th 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