Bokmål, nynorsk, and the Norwegian dialects

Understanding the differences, and similarities, between bokmål, nynorsk and all the different dialects of the Norwegian language can be quite a challenge.

Danish and Norwegian are related languages, and Denmark ruled Norway for 500 years. During those years, Danish was the only official language of Norway. It was quite difficult for Norwegian children to learn to read and write in Danish. Not only is the orthography different (due to phonological differences mainly), but the vocabulary is also quite different from that of Norwegian. The grammar is also different from that of most Norwegian dialects. In Norwegian nouns have got three genders, in Danish there are only two genders.

The upper class in Oslo spoke Danish with a Norwegian pronunciation. They wanted to modify the Danish written language to accommodate Norwegian pronunciation and vocabulary, but with no major differences. This came to be known as riksmål, later bokmål. It was still very similar to Danish, and very different to the various Norwegian dialects. For most Norwegians (except for the upper class in Oslo and Bergen), riksmål felt almost as foreign as Danish.

A man named Ivar Aasen traveled through Norway and wrote down the different dialects he encountered. Inspired by all of them, he made landsmål, which is known today as nynorsk. The two written languages, bokmål and nynorsk, gradually became more similar to each other, and the politicians wanted them to merge into one language, known as samnorsk. Yet that never happened, as some preferred to write in nynorsk, and others preferred using bokmål. Both of the written languages are official, and Norwegians often have quite strong opinions about them. Some people identify more with one than with the other, yet both are taught in school.

It is important to be aware of the fact that nobody speaks bokmål or nynorsk, as they are written languages. What could be said to be closest to bokmål is de «standard Eastern Norwegian» as spoken by the majority in Oslo. De facto standard, as there is no standard spoken language in Norway. All dialects are considered equal. Yet on the news of NRK they either have to speak bokmål or nynorsk, although there are certain exemptions. In all other TV programs, everybody speaks their own dialect.

Norwegian dialects vary considerably. Norway is quite a big country with a small population. Tall mountains kept us isolated from each other. This is part of the reason why the dialects are so different to one another. The difference between two Norwegian dialects is often bigger than the difference between «standard» Eastern Norwegian and standard Swedish. Grammar, phonology, vocabulary, expressions etc.

As an example, the pronoun «jeg» can be pronounced, depending on the dialect, as [jæi], [je], [e], [ei], [eg], [i], [æ] or [æg].

The best way to learn a language is to live where it is spoken and use it daily. The same is true when it comes to dialects. The smaller a language is the harder it is to find literature for learning the language. When it comes to Norwegian dialects, which can almost be considered separate languages, it is very difficult to find learning material. Listening to local radio, going to school or finding a job where the dialect is spoken, are all good ways of learning the dialect. If you already know one Norwegian dialect (most foreigners, especially those in Oslo learn «standard» Eastern Norwegian), it is much easier to learn a second one, if you move somewhere else. If someone speaks to you in a dialect you absolutely don’t understand, you can ask them in a polite way to speak more slowly or to «translate» or explain some of the words they use. As we do not have a standard spoken language, and we are very proud of our dialects, that survived despite being frowned upon for hundreds of years, asking someone to speak another dialect can hurt their feelings.

In social media such as Facebook, many Norwegians write in their local dialect, or at least use words from their local dialect. Elsewhere people usually stick to bokmål or nynorsk. If someone writes to you in their local dialect, it is not rude to ask them to write in bokmål or nynorsk in stead, as those are the only two official written standards of Norwegian.

Although our various dialects may cause foreigners some headache, I hope you won’t be too discouraged, and that you try to make an effort to understand. Any attempt to speak a Norwegian dialect will be applauded.

Because bokmål is the most commonly used written language, and standard Eastern Norwegian is the most spoken dialect, most of my blog posts focus on bokmål and standard Eastern Norwegian.