Bokmål – Nynorsk – Sami

Norway has three official written languages: Bokmål (Book language), Nynorsk (New Norwegian) and Sami. The two most widely used are Bokmål and Nynorsk. Bokmål is based on written Danish, which was the official language of Norway for hundreds of years. Nynorsk was created by linguist Ivar Aasen in the 1850s and is a compilation and combination of several (mostly West-Norwegian) regional dialects. The two languages are not very far apart but do reflect major regional differences. Generally, if you understand one of the two languages, you can understand the other fairly easily.

Officially, Bokmål and Nynorsk have equal status in Norway, although Bokmål dominates all sectors of Norwegian society, as 85–90 % of the population write in Bokmål. Nynorsk is used by about 10-15% of the population, mostly on the west coast.

Sami, on the other hand, is a minority language used by the indigenous Sami people. It is the mother tongue of about 20,000 individuals in Norway. Sami is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of languages, and North Sami has been established as an official language equal in status to Norwegian.


Over centuries, local and regional dialects have developed on their own, producing an incredible range of sounds and words which differ radically from one another. The same word can be pronounced in hundreds of different ways across Norway. No dialect is considered to have more worth than another. Most Norwegian dialects – with some notable exceptions - are understandable once you can understand a little Norwegian.


Language history
In 1397, Norway entered a union with Denmark that lasted until 1814. Denmark came to be the dominating power in this union, and Danish therefore became the primary language among the Norwegian elite. The law and the Bible were written in Danish, and all literature, prose and poetry in Norway was written in Danish. This had a crucial effect on the written language.
Early in the 19th century, educated Norwegians wrote Danish, and the elite in towns and cities spoke Danish with a Norwegian accent. Norwegian dialects, though, were spoken by 95% of the population. These dialects had developed during the four hundred years of Danish rule. On May 17, 1814, Norway declared its independence.

Forms of Norwegian

Written Norwegian

As Norway was re-established as an independent nation, the Norwegians could choose to further develop their language in one of three ways:

  1. Keep the Danish language
  2. Develop a new written language based on the Norwegian dialects
  3. Norwegianize the Danish

The first alternative was rejected, while the two others were both set into practice. Ivar Aasen (1813-1896), a linguist and poet with a rural background, developed Landsmål, later labelled Nynorsk – "New Norwegian" which is still in use today. Throughout the next 50 years, this language became widely accepted but did never become the language of the majority.

Knud Knudsen (1812-1895), a grammarian and headmaster, had the goal of altering Danish orthography until it reflected the informal speech of the educated classes in Norway. By means of a spelling reform in 1907, Riksmål was established as a norm. In 1929 this variant was labelled "Bokmål" – "Book language". Throughout the 20th century a succession of spelling reforms led to the inclusion of forms related to the lower urban classes and rural speech in Bokmål.

Even though politicians have tried to fuse the two languages throughout the 20th century, Nynorsk and Bokmål have developed as two parallel written forms of Norwegian.

During their primary educations, students choose either Bokmål or Nynorsk as their primary language form. During their secondary educations, they also study the other language form.


Spoken Norwegian

Today, dialects enjoy significant support at all levels of Norwegian society, from casual speech to teaching, broadcasting and in parliament. Students speak their local dialects freely in school. The Education Act even states that they have the right to do so. Since most Norwegians are exposed to the various forms of Norwegian from childhood on, they generally do not face major problems in understanding different dialects.