Languages of Norway

May 26, 2010 by

In addition to Sweden, whose languages have been the subject of the last two postings, I also visited Norway on my recent trip to Europe. So let’s look at some of the languages spoken there. We have already dealt extensively with Saami in yesterday’s posting (the same four Saami languages are spoken in Norway as in Sweden: Lule, Northern, Southern, Pite), so here I will look more closely at Norwegian.

Like Swedish, Norwegian is far from being uniform. There are many local dialects, varying in grammar, vocabulary and/or pronunciation. Some dialects are so localized that they may be spoken at a farm cluster. Although typically dialects create a dialect continuum, some dialects are so dissimilar as to be unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners, even native Norwegian speakers.

Generally speaking, there are five groups of Norwegian local dialects: West and South Norwegian, North Norwegian, East Norwegian, Midland Norwegian and Trøndelag Norwegian. Since we’ve visited Tromso and Trondheim, let me mention a couple of characteristic features of the local dialects in those parts of the country. In Tromso, infinitive ending with -e is used, e.g., å være, å bite, whereas in other dialects, infinitives might end in -a, in the stem consonant or even vary depending on the verb. In areas near Trondheim, dative case is still used (it’s all but disappeared in other dialects of Norwegian).

But curiously, Norwegian splits not only at the level of local dialects but even at the level of the standard as well. Thus, there are two established forms of written Norwegian: Bokmål (literally “book language”) and Nynorsk (literally “new Norwegian”). This split is a result of the development of Norwegian vs. Danish, which was the standard written language of Norway from the 16th to the 19th centuries, when Norway was under the Danish rule. Historically, Bokmål is a Norwegianised variety of Danish, while Nynorsk is a language form based on Norwegian dialects and puristic opposition to Danish. The now abandoned official policy to merge Bokmål and Nynorsk into one common language called Samnorsk through a series of spelling reforms has created a wide spectrum of varieties of both Bokmål and Nynorsk.

Differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk are at the levels of vocabulary and grammar. In particular, Bokmål incorporates Danish vocabulary, as in spise ‘eat’ (cf. eta in Nynorsk), hvorfor ‘why’ (cf. kvifor in Nynorsk), pike ‘girl’ (cf. jente in Nynorsk), hvordan ‘how’ (cf. korleis in Nynorsk).

In the grammar, the two written forms of Norwegian differ as to whether the forms of articles and adjectives are differentiated in masculine and feminine noun phrases: in Bokmål they are not, hence en liten mann ‘a little man’ and en liten kvinne ‘a little woman’; whereas in Nynorsk they are differentiated, as in ein liten mann ‘a little man’ and ei lita kvinne ‘a little woman’. Similarly, masculine and feminine definite plural suffixes are differentiated in Nynorsk (båtane vs. vognene), but not in Bokmål (båtene vs. vognene).

When it comes to spoken language, there is no officially sanctioned standard of spoken Norwegian, and most Norwegians speak their own dialect. Education is conducted in both Bokmål and Nynorsk. Broadly speaking, Nynorsk writing is widespread in Western Norway, though not in major urban areas, and also in the upper parts of mountain valleys in the southern and eastern parts of Norway. It is little used elsewhere, but 30–40 years ago it also had strongholds in many rural parts of Trøndelag (Mid-Norway) and the south part of Northern Norway (Nordland county). Today, not only is nynorsk the official language of 4 of the 19 Norwegian counties (fylker), but also of many municipalities in 5 other counties (see map below). The Norwegian broadcasting corporation (NRK) broadcasts in both Bokmål and Nynorsk, and all governmental agencies are required to support both written languages.

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