Why Are There Two Distinct Ways of Writing Norwegian?
The Curious Case of Nynorsk vs. Bokmål
Tror du det kommer til å bli regnvær i dag?
That’s how to write “Do you think there will be rain today” in Norwegian. Or you could write it this way:
Trur du det kjem til å verte regnvêr i dag?
Norwegian is a single language which can be written according to two almost identical, yet distinctly different systems: Bokmål and Nynorsk.
Nearly all of Norway’s five million inhabitants speak Norwegian as their first language, and out of those, almost 90 percent use the Bokmål, or “book tongue,” writing standard. But Nynorsk, meaning “new Norwegian,” has equal standing under the law, and a great deal of effort is made to ensure it is represented in all walks of life. Every child is taught both standards in school and expected to write both fluently.
It’s nearly impossible to explain the logic of this dual writing standard to someone who grew up speaking a world language. We’re not just talking about a few points of difference here, like between UK and US English. Instead, what we have is a relatively small potatoes language with two distinct writing standards, each with their own dictionaries and grammars, that take years to learn. At the same time, they’re similar enough for all Norwegians to instinctively understand at least to some extent. And yet, neither of these standards completely represents the way anyone in the country actually speaks.
So why is a little country working so hard to maintain two writing standards? With the increasing onslaught of English, wouldn’t its resources be better use to protect and strengthen the standing of the Norwegian language against the influx of foreign words? I grew up in Norway but have been living in Britain for 18 years, and the increased presence of English in daily speech between my visits has been staggering. At the same time, learning foreign languages has never been more important—possibly even more important than expending resources on maintaining these divergent writing standards. For a country with a long history of global influence that exceeds what its size may suggest, teaching English to fluency remains vital for Norway to participate in the wider world.
But Norway is a country that likes to do things in its own way. Annerledeslandet—the Country of Otherness—is made up of tall mountains, narrow valleys, and deep fjords. It has fostered a stubborn people who are not about to change their ways just because globalism may deem it more practical to do so. “We’re from a country of otherness that no gentlemen have quite managed to get to grips with,” the Rolf Jacobsen poem goes. “We don’t bow down as deeply as our neighbors do, as [the terrain] is far too steep around here.”
For the defenders of the lesser-used writing standard Nynorsk, maintaining both styles is a matter of fostering understanding and honoring history. The Norwegian language stems from Old Norse, a proud literary tradition that was interrupted by the Black Death plague of 1350. Severely weakened, Norway was integrated into Sweden and later Denmark, and did not become an independent nation again until 1814. In the meantime, Norway’s official writing language had become Danish. But people never stopped speaking their old dialects, which eventually became very different from the country’s official written language. It was for this reason that the 19th-century linguist Ivar Aasen decided to create Nynorsk, based on the way people actually spoke up and down Norway. Aasen reasoned that an independent country required its own language.
Bokmål, on the other hand, is the heir to the Danish writing language, which evolved to better approximate the speech of Norway’s educated elites. But while Nynorsk was the people’s tongue, Bokmål ended up dominating anyway, as the leading choice of people in cities, writers, and the media.
As a child I first learned to write Bokmål, which, as it is for most Norwegians, was the standard of record where I grew up. But my spoken dialect was far closer to Nynorsk. Tru du de kjæm te å bli regnåt i dag? Still, from an early age I’d internalized the assumption that to speak “properly” was to speak according to the rules of Bokmål—it was the language of books and TV. As I learned to write, I accepted that there was a significant gap between my own words, and the ones used for reading and writing.
I started studying Nynorsk in middle school, which is when all children begin studying their second writing standard—whichever they haven’t already learned. I took to Nynorsk pretty easily, as I was bookish and enjoyed languages; I was also studying English and German at the time, and I soon added French. A few years later I even changed my writing standard of record at school—all Norwegian students are registered with one of the official writing standards, which is the one they are expected to use in their general work. I enjoyed the added challenge of Nynorsk’s more complex grammar structure; it reminded me of my own obscure dialect in ways that felt validating. Most of all, I enjoyed the standard for its linguistic puzzles.
But my experience is far from representative of what it’s like for kids when they have to learn to write Norwegian in two different ways. For most, it’s a lot of work for seemingly very little gain, especially as most students are also learning English and possibly another foreign language at the same time. The majority of Norwegians agree that it’s not worth teaching children two writing styles—achieving reading comprehension of the second one should be enough, with further study left to the linguistics buffs.
Still, no one is talking about getting rid of Nynorsk entirely; and if you live in Western Norway, it’s the majority style. While the idea of teaching just one writing standard circulates in the media every few years, it’s always kicked back because it would probably be the nail in the coffin for Nynorsk. So students reluctantly continue sitting double exams every year, and the Norwegian Language Council requires 25 percent of all government documents to be in Nynorsk, although diversity compliance is poor. The idea of Samnorsk—a common Norwegian—is intriguing: that we could merge these two styles together and create something that represents everyone. It’s a nice notion, but at the rate that Nynorsk is dwindling from use, the problem may well solve itself soon enough.
Whether or not they’re useful, languages are heavy with sentimental value. Nynorsk is an effort to keep history alive. Its creation is a beautiful story, and it represents something proud: when choosing which words to include, Ivar Aasen deliberately leaned on the dialects with the closest resemblance to Old Norse, the language the Vikings used to record the myths of Odin and Thor. Nynorsk is also a testament to Norway’s unusually diverse dialects, which vary not just in terms of accent and vocabulary, but also in grammar and syntax. This is the rich linguistic legacy that motivates the guardians of the Norwegian language to expend resources on preserving the minority writing standard.
After leaving Norway almost 20 years ago, I never used Nynorsk again. As charming as the experience of learning it was, it was also a lot of work, and I no longer remember how to write it. As English became my primary language, the finer points of my quirky mother tongue started to feel irrelevant. English is a far simpler language at its fundamentals, but it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic and the challenge of learning it to a native level has been thrilling—and thoroughly useful as it’s the key to the world.
When linguist Sylfest Lomheim suggested back in 2000 that the Norwegian language had a century left before dwindling into obscurity, he was considered a doomsday sayer, but others have since joined in the warning that Norwegian could end up a curiosity. The history of Norway’s two writing standards should remain part of standard education, but maybe the most important question will how to make sure we continue to write in Norwegian at all.