The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #8 March / April 2014
Language Conflicts
Bokmål vs. Nynorsk
March / April 2014 | 

The language conflict of Norway is a rather odd one. Other conflicts usually arise because of two different spoken languages. In this case, the spoken language is agreed upon, what we call "Norwegian", although you will still have local dialects, like most major languages. The conflict is actually between the two written forms of the language: Bokmål and Nynorsk.

Norway has both Bokmål and Nynorsk as "official" languages, with both being used by the government, schools, and the media. Those only slightly familiar with Norwegian might not even know there is a struggle. My own books on Norwegian don't explain which version they are using to represent the spoken tongue. Unless otherwise noted, it should probably be assumed Bokmål is being used.


To understand how this conflict arose, and how two written languages could exist for one language (and we are speaking about two different written languages, not merely using two different alphabets), we must look a few hundred years into history. During the Middle Ages, Old Norse was the language of Norway, and it had a rich literary tradition. During the 14th century, however, there were several demographic and political changes, and Norway was united with Denmark in 1380. As a result, Danish became the written language of Norway, while the people continued to speak their various Norwegian dialects. Written Old Norse became abandoned.

After over 400 year of Danish rule, Norway finally seceded from Denmark in 1814. Danish remained the written language, however, since they had no other. Because Norway was now its own nation again, there was a feeling that it also needed a written language that was its own. To help with this, the linguist Ivar Aasen conducted extensive research for five decades into the spoken Norwegian language. He gathered material from the different dialects and made a comparison of their linguistic structures. From this, he created a new language for written Norwegian, which was called Landsmål, or "National Language".

However, others were working to revise their current written Danish language by incorporating words that were more descriptive of Norwegian scenery and folk life. They modified the spelling and grammar to better fit as well, and this new written language was adopted by the Norwegian parliament as Riksmål, or "Standard Language" in 1899.


Now Norway had two different written languages to work with, neither one being strictly "original", since both were adaptations and the original had been abandoned over 500 years ago. In 1929, Riksmål was officially renamed Bokmål (literally "Book language"), and Landsmål to Nynorsk (literally "New Norwegian"). The names "Dano-Norwegian" and "Norwegian" lost by a single vote in parliament, and any reference, even today, to "Danish" is very unpopular among Bokmål/Riksmål users.

Through reforms in 1917, 1938, and 1949, both Bokmål and Nynorsk were made closer as a result of a state policy to merge them into a single language, called Samnorsk (Common Norwegian). However, this resulted in massive protests, and was basically dropped after 1960, and was officially abandoned in 2002. Users of both written languages resented the efforts to dilute the distinctness of "their" written language.

Now, if you have managed to keep up with all this so far, you have done well. But it is about to get even more confusing.

Meeting of the Noregs Mållag, the main organisation for Norwegian Nynorsk

During the reforms to bring Nynorsk and Bokmål closer, others opposed the changes and decided to maintain the originals. One group kept the name Riksmål as their own unofficial form of Norwegian, and ignored the spelling and grammar changes of the Samnorsk movement. Riksmål and conservative forms of Bokmål have been the standard written language of Norway for most of the 20th century. Large newspapers, encyclopedias, and a significant proportion of the population of Oslo, along with surrounding urban areas and much of the literary tradition use them. After the reforms of 1981 and 2003, the official Bokmål can be adapted to be almost identical with modern Riksmål. Today, the differences between Riksmål and Bokmål are minimal.

There were also opponents to reforming Nynorsk. An unofficial form of Nynorsk exists, called Høgnorsk, which discards the post-1917 reforms and is closer to Ivar Aasen's original Landsmål. It is not, however, in widespread usage.


Each form has its own supporters. The Noregs Mållag is a major promoter of Nynorsk, with over 10,300 members, while the Norwegian Academy handles Bokmål. So how come neither one has managed to become dominant? In general, despite efforts to keep both languages as "official", Bokmål is by far the more common. The main reason why Bokmål hasn't managed to become the norm for all Norwegians is due to the Nynorsk language and the popular organizations fighting for it. There is a level of national pride that wants to embrace a written language that wasn't forced upon the population. So why hasn't Nynorsk become more dominant? Because it is the newer language, which is being pushed to replace one that has been basically in place for centuries. No living citizen of Norway actually experienced the "true" written Norwegian.

Documents open to the public can be published in either language and are sometimes written in both. Each municipality is free to elect to name Nynorsk, Bokmål, or both as its working language. Even private authors are free to write and publish in whichever form they prefer.

Primary schools may teach in Bokmål or Nynorsk as the major language, but according to the statistics I have found, approximately 85% of the pupils in primary and lower secondary schools in Norway receive education in Bokmål, while about 15% receive education in Nynorsk. From the ninth grade on, pupils are required to learn both.

A Norwegian troll. “Troll” is one Norwegian word that has made it into English.

Although educated in both Bokmål and Nynorsk, around 86-90% of all Norwegians use Bokmål as their daily written language, while only 10%-12% use Nynorsk as theirs, even though most of the spoken dialects resemble Nynorsk more closely than Bokmål. More broadly speaking, Bokmål and Riksmål are more commonly used in urban and suburban areas while Nynorsk in rural areas, particularly in Western Norway. However, I am sure that others may dispute these statistics, and I personally have no method of verifying them. I learned long ago that "statistics" are not accepted as "facts", and are often debated.


Mainly, the differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk are in the key words of their vocabularies. In general, a Bokmål word normally closer to Danish while the same word in Nynorsk is closer to Swedish. We can look at these simple phrases, written in English, Bokmål and Nynorsk:

What’s your name? - Hva heter du? - Kva heiter du?
Are you coming? - Kommer du? - Kjem du?
I love you. - Jeg elsker deg. - Eg elskar deg.

The name of the country of Norway is spelled Norge in Bokmål and Noreg in Nynorsk. When shopping, you will probably find milk packaged as either melk (Bokmål) or mjølk (Nynorsk).

As a further comparison, here is the Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in English, Bokmål and Nynorsk.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Verdemserkæringen om mennesker ettighetene
Artikkel 1.

Alle mennesker er fød frie og med samme menneskeverd og menneskerettigheter. De er utstyrt med fornuft og samvittighet og bør handle mot hverandre i brorskapets ånd.

Den internasjonale frasegna om mennesker ettane
Artikkel 1.

Alle menneske er fødde til fridom og med same menneskeverd og menneskerettar. Dei har fåt fornuft og samvit og skal leve med kvarandre som brør.

While this conflict is a difficult one to untangle, since neither written language has a true claim to being "authentic", it doesn't appear that Norway will be torn apart over this. Still, it remains an interesting process to watch, and we welcome others comments and updates on this issue. PT

Language Conflicts: Bokmål vs. Nynorsk
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Zakuragi: map of the official language forms of Norwegian
noregsmallag: Landsmøtet var i Teatersalen til Bondeungdomslaget i Oslo.
Petey: Water pier (title); Troll; Houses on water
• "Norwegian language" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
• "Nynorsk vs. Bokmål: agreeing to disagree" M. Michael Brady. <>
• "BOKMÅL vs NYNORSK" Skjold Lodge - Sons of Norway <>
• "Norwegian" By Irene Thompson, updated 2013 by Scott Coble <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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