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Norwegian Nynorsk (English)

The Norwegian Nynorsk written language is based on the Norwegian vernacular, that is, the traditional Norwegian dialects, as opposed to Norwegian Bokmål, which has its roots in the Dano-Norwegian language tradition. The majority of Norwegian speakers use a language system and vocabulary that is closer to Norwegian Nynorsk than to Norwegian Bokmål. 

Norwegian version

Language family

Norwegian Nynorsk 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. It is customary to divide the Nordic/Scandinavian languages into two branches, West Scandinavian and East Scandinavian. Icelandic, Faroese, 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. Norwegian Bokmål lies in the borderland between western and eastern 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

Old Scandinavian originated when Scandinavian split from other Germanic languages during the first centuries after the birth of Christ. Around the year 700, Old Scandinavian divided into Old Norse (Old West Scandinavian) and Old East Scandinavian, but the differences were fairly small, and all Scandinavian languages were for a long time referred to as the ‘Danish tongue’. From the 700s until 1350 Norse was the language of Norway, from the 800s also in the Faroes and Iceland. During the 11th century a split occurred between Faroese and Norwegian on the one hand and Icelandic on the other.

In the late Middle Ages, from 1350 to 1525, when Faroese and Norwegian went their separate ways, Scandinavian adopted a large number of loanwords from Middle Low German, the Hanseatic language. The Low German loanwords – for example nouns like arbeid and vilkår, and verbs like skildre, bruke, føle, nytte, prate and snakke – displaced old Scandinavian words and made it more difficult for Danes, Swedes and Norwegians to understand Faroese and Icelandic, and vice versa. This period coincided with the Kalmar Union (1389/1397 – 1521) between Denmark, Sweden and Norway, with Denmark playing the dominant role. This meant that 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 spread across Norway.

The Norwegian language period after 1525 is known as modern Norwegian or Nynorsk. Through the work of Ivar Aasen, Norwegian again became a written language during the 1800s, under the name of Landsmaal (that is, a language for the whole country), from 1917 spelt Landsmål, and since 1929 called Nynorsk (as opposed to Old Norse). You can find more information about the work of Ivar Aasen in a separate article.

In a resolution adopted by the Norwegian national assembly Stortinget on 12 May 1885, the Landsmål - «the language of the Norwegian people» - was granted equal status with Danish – «our common written and bookly language», and in 1892 a law was passed allowing the use of the Landsmål in schools.

Word history

If we exclude Scandinavian words that were borrowed into English during Vking times and the Middle Ages, it is the Norwegian word ski that has travelled furthest across the world, admittedly with the English pronunciation /ˈskiː/ – compare Bulgarian ski (ски), Greek ski (σκι), Hindi skī (स्की), Japanese sukī (スキー), Korean seuki (스키), Castilian and Catalan esquí and Portuguese esqui.

Another winter sports word, slalåm (from sla, 'that which slopes' and låm, 'ski track'), has travlled almost as far, compare Japanese surarōmu (スラローム) and Armenian slalom (սլալոմ). It has also been borrowed by languages that have their own word for ‘ski’ – for example Russian has the word lyži (лыжи) for 'ski', but 'slalåm' is called slalom (слалом). Finnish has suksi (plural sukset) 'ski' and pujottelu ('slalåm'), but also uses  slalom.

The typical Norwegian topographical feature fjord is also world famous under its Norwegian name – Compare Albanian fjord, Castilian and Basque fiordo, Catalan fiord, Russian fjord (фьорд), Greek fiórð (φιόρδ), Turkish fiyort, Armenian fjord (ֆյորդ), Indonesian fyord, Korean pioreu (피오르) and Malaysian phjorɖ (ഫ്യോർഡ്).

Norwegian Nynorsk orthography

Norwegian Landsmål/Nynorsk has been subject to a lengthy language planning process. The most important changes took place in 1901, 1910, 1917, 1938, 1959 and 2012. Using the pattern arm/the arm/arms/the arms, the table below shows how the nouns Arm/arm, Gjest/gjest, Skaal/skaal/skål, Reim/reim, Visa/visa/vise, Hus/hus and Auga/auga/auge were inflected according to Norsk Grammatik (Norwegian Grammar) (1864) compiled by Ivar Aasen and according to the spelling reforms adopted in 1901, 1917, 1938 and 2012. Prior to 1901, those who wrote Landsmål mainly adhered to Ivar Aasen’s rules, with a certain degree of individual variation. The spelling reform of 1901 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. The system of optional forms was abolished in 2012, when what was in many ways a stricter set of norms was introduced. 

Using the pattern arm/the arm/arms/the arms, the table in this picture shows how the nouns Arm/arm, Gjest/gjest, Skaal/skaal/skål, Reim/reim, Visa/visa/vise, Hus/hus and Auga/auga/auge were inflected according to Norsk Grammatik (Norwegian Grammar) (1864) compiled by Ivar Aasen and according to the spelling reforms adopted in 1901, 1917, 1938 and 2012.


There is a certain degree of disagreement among Norwegian Nynorsk users with regard to the revisions, and in the same way as a number of Norwegian Bokmål users for some time used an unofficial norm they called Riksmål, there are also unofficial Norwegian Nynorsk norms. One such example is Nynorsk ordliste. Tradisjonell og einskapleg norm (Oslo 2017), edited by Arvid Langeland. There is also a High Norwegian language movement, which in general keeps to the 1917 norms.

Language system

Agreement in noun phrases

A characteristic feature of Norwegian is the way agreement (the distinction between the indefinite and definite form) is expressed in a noun phrase. Look first at the English noun phrases an old car (‘ein gamal bil’) and the old car (‘den gamle bilen’), where only the articles an and the show whether the phrase is indefinite or definite.

In the corresponding Danish phrases en gammel bil and den gamle bilen the agreement is expressed both by the articles and the adjectives. In Norwegian we indicate three times that the phrase is indefinite or definite: ein gamal bil vs den gamle bilen. There is agreement with respect to gender and number as well as definiteness. Here Norwegian is similar to Swedish and Faroese, where the phrase is respectively en gammal bil / den gamla bilen and ein gamal bilur / tann gamli bilurin. Icelandic has a different solution – the adjective and noun display agreement, but there are no articles: gamall bíll / gamli bíllinn.

If we wish to add the possessive pronoun min (my), in Norwegian, it is placed after den gamle bilen, so the phrase becomes den gamle bilen min (literally the old car my). In Danish the definite article den is omitted, and min is placed initially: min gamle bil. Swedish also deviates from Norwegian here and follows the same pattern as Danish: min gamla bil. Faroese, on the other hand, is similar to Norwegian: tann gamli bilurin hjá mær, literally ‘den gamle bilen hos meg’ (the old car with me). Icelandic also places the possessive pronoun after a normal noun phrase, and without the article: gamli bíllinn minn.

Three genders as opposed to two

The Norwegian Nynorsk written language and radical Bokmål have three grammatical genders – masculine, feminine and neuter – and distinguish themselves from moderate Bokmål and written Swedish and Danish, which have only two grammatical genders – common and neuter – as illustrated in the table below, where BokmålR and BokmålM stand for radical and moderate Bokmål respectively: 

The Norwegian Nynorsk written language and radical Bokmål have three grammatical genders – masculine, feminine and neuter – and distinguish themselves from moderate Bokmål and written Swedish and Danish, which have only two grammatical genders – common and neuter – as illustrated in the table in this picture, where BokmålR and BokmålM stand for radical and moderate Bokmål respectively.


The number of grammatical genders, however, does not represent a clear distinction between the Continental/mainland Scandinavian languages. Traditional Swedish dialects normally use three genders, and the dialects of the majority of the Danish islands and the eastern parts of Jutland have had three genders in modern times. A number of Norwegian urban dialects are moving towards a system of two genders.

Norwegian Nynorsk, Norwegian Bokmål, Swedish and Danish

Below is the Norwegian Nynorsk (N) sentence «Ho trudde at den feitaste av tjuvane sparka hol i døra» (She thought that the fattest of the burglars kicked a hole in the door) written in bold and compared with Swedish (S), the Landsmål (L) of Ivar Aasen without capital letters for the nouns, Norwegian Bokmål (B) and Danish (D). There is one form in each cell, and many cells cover several languages. Grey cells indicate forms that correspond to official Norwegian Nynorsk. Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål appear on separate rows. In row N the forms correspond to those permitted according to the 2012 spelling reform. In row B the most commonly used Norwegian Bokmål forms are given. Rows NT and BR show respectively «traditional Norwegian Nynorsk» (forms permitted before 2012) and «radical Norwegian Bokmål» (still permitted).

In the table in this picture is the Norwegian Nynorsk (N) sentence «Ho trudde at den feitaste av tjuvane sparka hol i døra» (She thought that the fattest of the burglars kicked a hole in the door) written in bold and compared with Swedish (S), the Landsmål (L) of Ivar Aasen without capital letters for the nouns, Norwegian Bokmål (B) and Danish (D). There is one form in each cell, and many cells cover several languages. Grey cells indicate forms that correspond to official Norwegian Nynorsk. Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål appear on separate rows. In row N the forms correspond to those permitted according to the 2012 spelling reform. In row B the most commonly used Norwegian Bokmål forms are given. Rows NT and BR show respectively «traditional Norwegian Nynorsk» (forms permitted before 2012) and «radical Norwegian Bokmål» (still permitted).


Using the pronunciation described in the section «Pronunciation» below, this sentence sounds as follows read aloud in Norwegian Nynorsk: 

/hu 2trʉde ɑt den 2fæitɑste ɑːʋ 2çʉːʋɑne spɑrkɑ 1hɵːl i 1døːrɑ/

There is little difference between this and traditional dialects – as these examples show:

Nissedal          /hu 2trʉde ɑte dæn 2fæitɑste ɑ 2çuːʋɑne spɑrkɑ 1hɵːl i 1dyni/

Sandefjord      /hu 2trʉde ɑte den 2fæitɑste ɑ 2çʉːʋɑne spɑrkɑ 1hoɽ i 1døːrɑ/

Tromsø            /hu 2trʉdʲe ɑte denʲ 2feitɑste ɑ 2çyːʋɑn spɑrkɑ 1hol i 1døːrɑ/

Pronunciation

There are many differences in pronunciation between Norwegian Nynorsk dialects. Here we have a normal system from West Telemark – on the border between Eastern and Western Norway. The system has ten short and ten long vowels:

There are many differences in pronunciation between Norwegian Nynorsk dialects. In the table in this picture we have a normal system from West Telemark – on the border between Eastern and Western Norway. The system has ten short and ten long vowels.


In addition there are a number of diphthongs:  ei /æi/, øy /øy/, au /ɵʉ/, oi /oy/, ai /ɑi/, ui /ʉy, uy/.

The vowels /ɵ  ɵː/ are written o and can be found in words like sove /2sɵːʋe/, kol /1kɵːl/ and golv /1ɡɵlʋ/, while /o  oː/ is spelt å and found in låve /2loːʋe/, kål /1koːl/ and åtte /2ote/. Most dialects have /o  oː/ or /ø  øː/ instead of /ɵ  ɵː/, compare for example sove /2soːʋɑ/, kol /1køːɽ/ and golv /1ɡøɽʋ/ in Oslo or sove /2soːʋe/, kol /1kol/ and golv /1ɡolʋ/ in Kristiansand and Tromsø, among other places.

Many grammars of Norwegian Nynorsk employ a totally different vowel system than the one presented here. In his Nynorsk grammatikk (Oslo 1986) Olav T. Beito indicates the 14 vowels /í  ì  ý  ỳ  ú  ù  é  è  ø  ó  ò  æ  å  a/, which all exist in both short and long versions, but with varying pronunication in different dialects. The vowels with the acute accent (´) are closer than those with the grave accent (`). The long vowels can be illustrated with the following words, in their orthographic forms and with accents on some vowels: bíte (infinitive), bìte (perfect participle), brýte (infinitive), nỳkel (noun), hús (noun), hùg (noun), lét (past tense of late), lèt (present tense of late), søt (adjective), fót (noun), skòt (noun), hær (noun), båt (noun) and dag (noun). This system dates back to Ivar Aasen, who considered including the grave accent in the orthography, but rejected the idea. In Norsk Ordbog (1873) this information nevertheless appears, for example by his writing ii in parenthesis for í and i' in parenthesis for ì.

The consonant system is as follows: 

The table in this picture shows the consonant system.


The language distinguishes between stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables can be accented or unaccented, and there are two different accents, accent 1 and accent 2, which can distinguish words from each other – compare vatnet /1ʋatne/ and vatne /2ʋatne/. In this pronunciation variety accent 1 has a low tone and accent 2 a falling tone.

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

English translation Howard Medland.

More information

Olav T. Beito: Nynorsk grammatikk. Lyd- og ordlære. Oslo 1970 (2. utg. 1986)

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

Marius Hægstad: Norsk maallæra eller grammatik i landsmaalet, 1. utg. Namsos 1879, 8. utg. Bergen 1912

Leiv Heggstad: Norsk grammatik for skule-ungdom. Kristiania 1914

Leiv Heggstad: Norsk grammatikk (større utgåve). Oslo 1931

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

Gustav Indrebø: Norsk målsoga. Bergen 2001

Arvid Langeland (red.): Nynorsk ordliste. Tradisjonell og einskapleg norm. Oslo 2017

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 (red.): 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: 22.10.2018
Sist oppdatert: 08.02.2019