The Linguistic Situation in Norway
Reidar Djupedal (1921-1989).Foto: ukjend

The Linguistic Situation in Norway

By Reidar Djupedal

This article was written by the philologist and profossor i Nordic languages and literature, Reidar Djupedal, in 1984. It was published in the Anglo-Norse Review, and as an offprint. Djupedal was considered to be one of the leading experts on Ivar Aasen in his time.


To foreigners the language situation in Norway might seem both confusing and distracting. To Norwegians the language problems are so closely woven into their everyday life that many find the official rules and laws irritating and bothering.

In the first place our language problems are a heritage from the past, and we have to live with them. There is no evidence that coming generations will solve these problems in the near future.

The linguistic tendencies in the country are converging. One might therefore with some reason prophesy that the two official languages of to-day will develop so that in time they may be considered variants of the same language.

But at present we still have two official languages. We have the bokmål or the riksmål on the one hand, and we have the landsmål or the nynorsk on the other. The terms bokmål and nynorsk are the official ones.

These terms are not self-explanatory and may be misunderstood.

The term bokmål indicates that this was a language mainly used in writing, that is to say a language not used as a spoken language. As long as the bokmål was merely the same as the Danish written in Norway, this term might be justified. Later on the term riksmål turned up, [let us say] about 1880-90, and this change in terminology indicates a change in realities as well.

The landsmål was a written language based on the common grammatical system of all Norwegian dialects, established about 1850 by the linguist and writer Ivar Aasen. The term landsmål does not mean a dialect, but indicates that it is a common language for the whole country.

For landsmål the term nynorsk is used as well. This latter word has a double meaning for it also means "new Norwegian", the language of today, as opposed to the language of former times.

Our language problems have to do with past political circumstances, and mainly with the so-called "perpetual union between Denmark and Norway”, as the treaty of 1450 says. This union lasted until 1814. As a consequence of the Napoleonic wars Norway was forced into union with Sweden. This union lasted until 1905.

In this long period the Danish language was introduced in Norway as the official one, used by clergymen, teachers, administrators and lawyers.

In the Middle Ages the Norwegian language was a brilliant instrument for thought and culture. The old sagas are all written in the language which the Norwegian emigrants brought with them to Iceland, where the language is still preserved.

In Norway the critical point was the Reformation. The Reformation reinforced the national language in Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, but not in Norway and the Faroe Islands. In these the Danish language became predominant. Norwegian fell into oblivion as a written and printed language.

But Norwegian still existed as the spoken language, divided into dialects or groups of dialects. It was on all these dialects that the common form of the landsmål was later based, and in time the dialects also gave flesh and blood to the "rattling Danish linguistic bones" in Norway. Cut off from the living Danish of Denmark, the Danish in Norway became a rather anaemic linguistic organism.

In large areas of Europe the development of standardized and comprehensive linguistic norms was a result of the Reformation towards 1550, but it was decisively promoted and stabilized by the new art of printing introduced in the previous century. The printed word was irresistible. Printed books gradually brought the standardized languages out to a growing number of readers.

Luther’s New Testament of 1582 and his Old Testament of 1534 standardized a linguistic norm which proved to be acceptable to all Germans and Austrians. This High German triumph also dealt a mortal blow to Low German as a contemporary written language.

In France King Francis I abolished the use of Latin in the law courts and thus opened the doors for French as the dominant and inclusive language in all functions all over the country.

The introduction of Danish as the official language in Norway is a phenomenon of a similar character. But through the centuries Danish never penetrated the surface of the spoken language, and thus remained all the time a gala dress which did not suit the common people. Their linguistic instrument was Norwegian, in the different dialects it developed from the early Middle Ages onwards.

It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that a linguistic revival took place among many European peoples.

Many submerged dialects and languages came to light as a result of the establishment of what was considered to be an objective and reliable method which enabled philologists and grammarians to bring about new standardized norms for many spoken languages and dialects or groups of dialects.

This came partly as a result of the Romantic movement in literature and culture in general, but in my opinion it came mainly as a consequence of the so-called new "science of language", or the new comparative philology, founded by Jacob Grimm, Franz Bopp, Rasmus Rask and several others.

In my view the general outlook of the Romantic period was too diffuse and inaccurate to account for the stringent methods of these linguists, who should rather be grouped among the scientists of the late eighteenth century.

It is against this background that we may classify Ivar Aasen, who founded the landsmål of Norway. He was also the founder of comparative dialectology, just as Jacob Grimm and his adherents were the founders of comparative linguistics.

Throughout the nineteenth century new written languages were brought to light, spoken languages which had been supressed or neglected for some reason or other. Such languages turned up in Slavonic, Germanic, Gaelic and other areas where relict languages were surrounded by other non-related languages spoken and written by people with overwhelming economic, political and social power.

Among a great many writers and philologists of the time, I may mention as a few typical examples Vuk Karadzic who founded the modern Serbo-Croatian language, Joost Hiddes Halbertsma who founded the West Frisian language of to-day, and Venzel Ulricus Hammershaimb who founded modern Faroese.

These languages were different in character and different in origin, but they were all the result of common tendencies of the time, rooted in Romanticism, resurrected by philologists belonging to the school of comparative linguistics favoured by nationalism, and later strengthened by the advocates of Naturalism and Realism, who taught people to write as they talked.

If we are to try to evaluate the linguistic situation in Norway, let us say about 1850, we might describe the situation in the following way: The official language was Danish. This was the language on the surface. It had incorporated some words, phases and idioms from spoken Norwegian, mainly from the vernacular spoken by the urban upper classes and educated people.

Dialect influence was strongest in the language of poets and other writers who were very often opposed to the strict rules of Danish because they inhibited the more varied and free expression they felt they needed.

The protagonists of Romanticism and later of Naturalism had in practice ceased to look to Denmark as the source of language and culture which Norwegians should admire and imitate. The vast majority of the people, however, spoke a Norwegian dialect. To them Danish was a foreign language, although it had dominated the official side of life as the language of literature and of documents or papers written by educators, clergyman, lawyers and administrators.

At this time no linguistic alternative existed. But now Ivar Aasen had begun to publish his main works, a grammar and a dictionary. These paved the way for an alternative, the landsmål.

The landsmål was created by Ivar Aasen, an outstanding philologist and grammarian and an eminent author. He not only revived the Norwegian language, but he also wrote poems and plays and thus reviewed a national literature and founded a modern Norwegian literature in this vernacular.

From a superficial point of view the Norwegian dialects made a confusing and chaotic impression. People from outside had got the idea that almost every fjord and every valley had its special dialect imcomprehensible to others.

Ivar Aasen discovered the common system beneath the different grammatical forms, and learned that there was more that linked the various dialects than that separated them. The different dialects formed one Norwegian language, which was the landsmål.

As well as his major grammatical works and his poems and plays, Ivar Aasen also dealt with the spelling of place-names, worked for a reform in the choice of Christian names, collected folktales and folklore, wrote a dictionary of synonyms, wrote a history of the Norwegian language and published an encyclopedia (“Heimsyn”). Ivar Aasen is beyond doubt the central figure in the history of the Norwegian language.

After Ivar Aasen came writers and poets, scholars and teachers who made use of the landsmål. Every one of them brought bricks and mortar to the great edifice, and thus developed the spoken language into a modern written language suitable for any and every Norwegian who wanted to avail himself of it.

A disadvantage was that the landsmål only had oral traditions, which gave the language a certain instability in succeeding years. The bokmål had a written tradition in common with the Danish which was not easy to break.

In the second half of the nineteenth century writers, publicists and teachers advocated a spelling reform in Norway to bring the official Danish orthography more into line with general features of the spoken Norwegian language.

The most potent of the factors which contributed to a change in the language situation in Norway in the second half of the nineteenth century was the demand for authenticity and naturalness in expression. The Norwegian language before Naturalism was not the same as in the years after. The Danish hegemony was broken. Authors like Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Jonas Lie, Amalie Skram and later Knut Hamsun all had their personal style and orthography, which led away from the Danish norm.

To some extent the situation seemed to be chaotic, but what these authors had achieved was a necessary cure. Out of this chaos the Norwegian bokmål or riksmål emerged.

Many writers and poets, as well as people who worked on schoolbooks and text-books, claimed that a reform was necessary. In 1893 the first steps were taken. In this year the authorities allowed a text-book editor to introduce the so-called parallel or double forms, i.e. to allow specific Norwegian words and phrases parallel to the official Danish ones.

The opposition was rather strong. Some professors and other learned people tried to build dams against the coming deluge. But in vain.

In 1907 a spelling reform was carried through. The changes were rather few, but it was the principles that were important. The basis for orthographic change in 1907, and for all the spelling reforms to come, was to be the spoken language. Thus some of the most common features of spoken Norwegian were now introduced in writing.

For the landsmål some minor alterations were introduced. In particular some rather archaic features were abolished.

The alterations had originally been undertaken separately for each language, but it was openly said that in the future one should try to reduce unnecessary differences between the two languages in one common operation.

This was the purpose of the next spelling reform of 1918. The basis for the new spelling should be "the genuine spoken language of the people".

This meant that the feminine gender was allowed in bokmål, and a great many words and phrases which had been regarded as vulgar were introduced into the drawing-room.

This change was not approved of by all Norwegians, Newspapers and pamphlets discussed and disputed this controversial question, sometimes with more passion than intelligence, knowledge and wisdom.

The language question had also become a political one. Already in the 1880s, when political parties were first organized in our country, politicians advocated their special views on language.

The Conservatives supported the Danish language as long as possible, and later on a rather traditional bokmål.

The Liberals were in favour of the landsmål and supported and promoted laws and rules which introduced it in schools and public life.

The Labour party was not especially interested in the language question. They used the traditional Danish, and said that it was no matter to them how the word “gryte“ (saucepan) was spelt. The main thing was to have something to put into it.

But the Labour party gradually changed its policy. Leading ideologists maintained that it was a central task for a socialist party to support the language of the people. The party thus chose an intermediate policy, which in practice implied that the party supported the spelling reforms.

One of the slogans maintained that in time all Norwegians should be united in one language, the so-called samnorsk or co-Norwegian. It was also maintamed that it was an expensive luxury for members of one speech community to have to be bilingual, to have to speak and write both bokmål and nynorsk, particularly when the two were so closely related and so very similar in many ways.

In 1938 a new spelling reform was sanctioned by the Norwegian Parliament, strongly opposed by all those who disliked it. It was said that this was not simply orthographic change — it was a linguistic reconstruction.

The idealists had dreamt of a future without language controversies and with only one language. The most idealistic of them said it was better to take one dramatic step now than to trot slowly along, wasting both energy and time.

The opposition however, was underestimated. A wiser posterity will say that the intention was good, but the proposals were divorced from reality and their practical results less than fortunate.

The idea was that in between the two converging outer norms there should be optional alternatives or variants which made mutual contact between landsmål and bokmål. In theory this would mean a common written norm.

To foreigners this will seem rather peculiar. If neither of the languages had a tradition and a literature, it might perhaps have been possible to plan a language.

The linguist and lexicographer Ivar Aasen had done it for the landsmål, others might be successful and do the same. But the situation had altered, and many people disliked the language they found in schoolbooks and readers.

Then World War II came. All national controversies were put aside. The whole people were united in one uncompromising will.

After the war the country went back to the language debate. There were times when it reached a pitch of intensity seldom matched before.

As an attempt to pour oil on the troubled waters the government thought it wise to establish a permanent committee, a kind of academy for language problems, whose main task should be to take care of the languages and at the same time hive off these problems from general political concerns.

In 1952 a permanent official Norwegian Language Committee was set up, and in 1972 it was reorganized. What had been called “Norsk Språknemnd“ was now called “Norsk Språkråd“. The number of members was increased from 30 to 42, representing universities, schools, broadcasting, authors, actors, press and other bodies representing various linguistic interests and organizations.

The rules for Norsk Språkråd are briefly these:

To supervise the orthography in both languages, and propose changes and revised rules for the spelling of words as necessary.

To promote conformity in the terminology of both languages.

To supervise and give advice on style and language in school-books.

To give advice on language problems to all sorts of governing bodies, public institutions, the press and the public.

To cooperate with similar Committees in other Scandinavian countries.

This permanent committee has been working for over 30 years. It has shown good will and energy in carrying out the intentions formulated in the basic rules. The idea behind the committee’s establishment was to reduce the perpetual conflict that had previously existed between the different linguistic groups. Wise women and men should get together to find acceptable solutions to all the difficult problems that might turn up.

On the other hand the mere existence of such a committee called forth an organized opposition to fight against any kind of official regulation of the languages, especially the so-called “fornorsking” — “norwegianising” — of the bokmål.

The first task the committee had to face was to propose a norm for the language used in textbooks, the so-called Læreboknormal. This was both a difficult and a controversial task. The outcome was not accepted without protest. In my opinion the government used the committee as a buffer and a scapegoat.

The result was that the committee had almost at once to take to the trenches to defend their views.

People were critical of the new Læreboknormal, the textbook-norm. When the musical My Fair Lady was translated, the translation made fun of the new prescriptions. Where the author (Lerner) wrote of Eliza’s inarticulate scream Aoooo!:

This is what the British population calls an elementary education, the translation runs as follows:

Her i landet kalles denne talen for den nye læreboknormalen

(In our country this speech is called the new text-book norm).

On the other hand Norsk Språkråd has contributed a great deal to the investigation of the Norwegian language, especially by registering new words and phrases, giving civil servants and public organizations good advice, and improving language and style in school-books.

Words and phrases from abroad have a tendency to overwhelm us daily. The great majority of the public agree with the policy carried out by Norsk Språkråd when the committee is trying to find suitable Norwegian expressions in cases where it seems natural, without being dogmatic in their purism.

Norway is a bilingual country. A certain set of rules and regulations are thus necessary to ensure linguistic stability and to "secure tolerable coexistence among people with different language commitment".

To some extent, these rules are still on paper. But they indicate how representatives of official Norway have to behave in language matters. If you write to a government official, a civil servant or some one else representing the authorities, the answer should come in the same language as the one you used.

In school and church the community may choose the language they prefer. A detailed system of rules and regulations try to “shift sun and wind”, as we say in Norway, and do justice to all.

In school the possibility exists under certain conditions to arrange alternative classes when a minority group demands it.

In secondary schools the pupils themselves choose one language as their main language, and the other as their subsidiary one.

At the universities you are free to choose which language you prefer. But if you want to take an examination in the subject Norwegian, you have to demonstrate your proficiency in both languages. In practice the result is not very brilliant.

Most pupils have chosen bokmål. Bokmål is the predominant language in all functions, especially in most contexts of employment. Landsmål, however, has a strong position in literature, especially in poetry.

The Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation tries to give the landsmål about 25% of the sound programmes. There are various reasons for this low figure, one being that the capital, Oslo, is the dominating centre of attention of the Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation.

On the other hand both radio and television have helped people to understand the minority language, although some listeners express their disapproval of it in the press.

Quality programmes in nynorsk are gradually becoming accepted, often even highly esteemed.

I think also that the more knowledge of landsmål Norwegians acquire through radio and television, the more they will be able to clear up misunderstandings and reduce prejudice. People are used to hearing different languages and dialects, and to-day there are many people who favour their local dialect. This may be observed in all sorts of programmes. Dialects have also a strong position in story-telling and popular songs and ballads.

It might also be observed that broadcasting in general has a tendency to make the official languages more uniform. Sooner or later some of the differences in present-day speech will disappear. You may like this or not.

But as long as we in Norway have dialects rooted in the culture of the people there is no danger that all Norwegians will speak and write one basic Norwegian.

Many frustrated people of to-day try to trace their roots. In Norway they often find them in nynorsk — the new Norwegian language — and the culture which it represents.