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Learning Norwegian: Bokmål or Nynorsk?

Updated on November 2, 2013
The fight against Nynorsk and Bokmål. The article reveals that Nynorsk is slowly losing ground.
The fight against Nynorsk and Bokmål. The article reveals that Nynorsk is slowly losing ground. | Source

Wait a second? Am I actually saying that Norway is a country which has two official languages, and that a prospective student, tourist or immigrant will have to choose between them, or probably have to learn both, in order to function? And what if I throw into the mix that these are actually only written forms, reflecting only imperfectly the reality of their oral usage?

Brace yourselves...winter is coming. But whether I say 'vinteren kommer' in Bokmål, or its Nynorsk equivalent 'vinteren kjem', the chances are great that I will be understood throughout the country.

Recreating the Norwegian language(s)

This multiplicity stems from the history of the country. Norway has been for a long time under the tutelage of Denmark, and adopted Danish as its official state language (as well as the upper class chosen language), while, in the countryside, på landet, as I say, people kept on using their ancestral dialects, slowly evolving with time, or sustaining the influence of other languages. Hence the German words imported to Bergen by the Hanseatic merchants who established themselves in the city. It was also common to use Norwegian words where no Danish equivalent existed, already giving birth to a Dano-Norwegian hybrid.

After the union with Denmark was dissolved in 1814, linguistic independence was put on the table, but what a puzzle! Should Danish stay in place or should a Norwegian language be created out of the multitude of dialects that existed?
Both solutions were chosen and two written languages were drafted. On the one hand, this peculiar Norwegian form of Danish, Bokmål (or book-speech) - on the other hand, Nynorsk, or new-Norwegian, a written dialect crafted from what were mostly Southern dialects by Ivar Aasen, a linguist who travelled around the country to sample as accurately as he could the actual way in which people speak.

Nowadays, both forms are official, both must be studied at school and government workers must master both. In reality though, dialects are widely spoken, to the detriment of Bokmål, which on the other hand remains the widest spread written form. There are of course quotas to ensure both forms are well represented in education and the media.

In terms of geography, Bokmål is spoken mostly around Oslo, while the rest of Norway speaks Nynorsk dialects. Of course, people move and parents end up not speaking as their children do, and children who move early in life will change their dialects accordingly. My neighbours from Bergen are often asked by their little girl why they do not speak like her. In fact, there is a notion that not two people speak the same!

On my desk today: learning material I used from abroad, and a Nynorsk-Bokmål vocabulary builder
On my desk today: learning material I used from abroad, and a Nynorsk-Bokmål vocabulary builder | Source

Taking a Bokmål or a Nynorsk course?


  • Courses, teaching and learning materials are a tad easier to find, especially from abroad (Internet-based Nynorsk courses or dictionaries are proliferating, though, making access to Nynorsk easier). Though I live in a Nynorsk region, the Norwegian course offered to me by my employer was in Bokmål and allowed me to get very quick access to most children, teenage and then adult books in my local library. As I personally learn vocabulary by reading it in context, this was perfect for me, as I had a wider choice of material at disposition.

  • As far as pronunciation is concerned, the intonation (tonefall) is 'typical' and quite easy to imitate. I speak as a polyglot here: it proved easier to emulate a native speaker by gaining command of that particularly strong singing intonation.

  • Last but not least, Bokmål will also open the doors to understanding written Danish.

  • On the other side, my otherwise perfect teacher was from Volda, teaching a Bokmål course in Førde. The Bokmål spoken in the classroom was artificial, something teachers refer to as "theatrical Bokmål", and we all, teacher and students, let dialect words slip out sometimes.

Ivar Aasen, the writer and linguist who created Nynorsk
Ivar Aasen, the writer and linguist who created Nynorsk | Source


  • The problem with learning Nynorsk is that the difference between this Southern-mix-creation and the actual dialect you can hear around you is enormous. If you try to learn from outside of Norway, you will probably not be able to learn a spoken dialect in a satisfactory way, as you will not get exposure to local oral variations, and you will end up sounding like an actor playing a part in a historical play.

  • This statement is valid for both forms, but especially relevant to Nynorsk: if it is perfectly possible to master both written forms, it will be very difficult to achieve consistency while speaking, and this, in my opinion, will only be achieved by living in Norway for some time.

  • I, for my part, speak a dialect from Sogn og Fjordane, which is a good blending between the two forms, but I write and read mostly in Bokmål, as a force of habit. On the other side, when I watch tv or listen to the radio, I can understand other dialects than my own more easily than a person who learned only Bokmål, and Svorsk (Norwegian as spoken by Swedish workers, like my colleague) is no big deal.

    My problem is once again consistency: I would find it difficult to write in perfect Nynorsk as far as past verbal forms are concerned, for example, as they are similar to Bokmål in the dialect I speak everyday. I will have to learn by heart a whole lot of vocabulary that I might only use once in my life in a letter I would have to write in Nynorsk. So far, I have been concentrating on consistency in order to take the Bergenstest in Bokmål, and have not yet turned to mastering Nynorsk.

As a conclusion, my advice would be to find a course that reflects the actual language that is around you and work your way from there. You should eventually be able to master both to a certain extent. Norwegians have to study both forms at school (with more or less enthusiasm), and the pressure is not on which form you use, but on consistency (though there is some snobbism against Nynorsk amongst younger generations).

It is my experience that it is easier for dialect speakers to understand and use Bokmål, than for Easterners to understand the rest of the country. Trondheim speech has the reputation of being particularly impenetrable.

In the end, when you realise that mastering Norwegian opens the doors to Swedish, Danish, and possibly Icelandic, Norse and Færoese, having to conquer two versions of the same language seems like a rewarding effort, doesn't it?


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