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Useful Notes / Norwegian Language
aka: Norwegian Language Struggle

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The Norwegian Language Struggle is a concept seemingly very particular to the Norwegian nation, although "language struggles" elsewhere are to be found, like the Gaelic question in Ireland, or the struggle for minority languages in suppressed cultures all over the world. Although the Norwegian situation is less violent than most (South Africa being one of the most aggravating examples of this), it came to blows at some points, and at least one prime minister had to resign over the issue (in 1913).

Historical background

Although the Scandinavian languages all developed from original Norse, the languages of course developed after different lines. Thus, the Swedish and Danish languages followed the strain called East Nordic, while Iceland and Faroe Islands followed the West Nordic strain. Norway ended up caught almost in between the two, for historical reasons, with a broad variety of dialects. The eastern came to follow the East Nordic pattern, while the western came to follow the West Nordic one. So far so good. But then realpolitik entered the mix.

Through the middle ages, the three countries all had their specific written languages. The differences began to emerge some time during the 1200s, and became more apparent during the next century. The Norse language had a full case system, personal conjugation of verbs and three genders. While the Norwegians and Swedes were slow to change, Danish collapsed more rapidly, and the patterns were most simplified there. Though the three nations went into political union from 1397, they all had their own mode of writing and expression. The Norwegian mode was apparently in use up to about 1530. After this point, all written texts in Norway were written in Danish. More or less. The Diplomatarium Norvegicum, a valuable source of written diplomas from this period, shows that certain norse idioms were in use up to 1550 at least. Futhermore, diplomas written in reclusive areas like Telemark leaned far more on the norse modes than similar letters written from the chapter of Oslo. Differences in written style are prominent in diplomas written in the same year, pinning the fact that dialectal modes influenced the writing in different areas, and the route leading to differences in modern Norwegian language were already present.

The Game Changer was the Reformation in 1536, cemented by the establisment of absolutism in 1660. From this point on, Danish was mandatory for every official, and all other writing modes were suppressed. The age of absolutism also saw press control, surveillance, and a vertical system of government. This lasted all the way up to 1814, and the Norwegian Stockholm Syndrome and Cultural Cringe originated in this period. If the language modes had been unruly during the early union time, Norway got her cultural ass kicked good and proper for the next 150 years, and any form of written Norwegian was almost wiped out. This implied: Forceful re-writing of geographical names, personal names, surnames and family names, confusing scholars and historians later on, because the traditional naming might vary wildly from the recorded documents. To make things worse: because of the Cultural Cringe, many Norwegians actually prefer the written naming as normal, despite of the linguistic differences (one case in point is the farm "Dybsjord", which means "a field in a cliff". In the local tradition, the name of the farm is "gjuvsjord". Guess which version the family in question prefer...).

On the subject of printing and books, Norwegian society was effectively starved out, with no actual means to independent publishing at all. All publishing was centralized to Denmark, and even there, royal officials censored everything. Thus, a Norwegian literature in print was almost non-existent for hundreds of years, and whatever came into print had to be approved by local officials. No wonder that Norwegian modes of writing suffered greatly in the period.

This, of course, happened because the Danish king saw the opportunity to make it absolutely crystal clear who was master and who was not. Danish merchants and civil servants were assigned to Norway, and all written material officially was taken down in Danish. All the while, Norwegians continued to speak as they had done all the time, a little differently, although some of them understood the opportunities following a change of language mode: It could actually give them promotions...

So, the union times continued for another century, with priests speaking and writing one way, and people speaking in another. Some time before the end of the eighteenth century, scholars were aware of this, and some of them, with rural background, started to write poems in their native tongues. And as the nineteenth century emerged, Norway suddenly found itself outside Danish control, and in a shaky union with Sweden, while they could argue with a fresh constitution, written in Danish.

The age of romantic nationalism and beyond

Henrik Wergeland was one of the first to actually press the matter in a speech held in 1835. He had been raised in a rural area, and discovered quickly that the mode of speech differed from the written one. So, he argued for a larger use of Norwegian words over Danish ones, and meant this would ease communication at home. Danish was difficult for the farmers, something that has been an issue at Eidsvold in 1814, where a large ham farmer from the south west had to force the more learned men to translate their speech patterns for him. For others, Wergeland`s proposal was rude and absurd. And the struggle was just beginning.

At the same time, other scholars tried to revive the Norse language, and argued that a "true Norwegian language" had to be built on Norse roots. They went pretty far in their endeavour, but the solution came from another place: A self learned scholar from western Norway had put together a grammar for his particular dialect, and by 1853, he came up with a whole dictionary for the "Norwegian language", containing words from all over the country. From this, he developed a full "country language", as opposed to the Danish sounding "state language". And from now on, the struggle escalated. By 1858, the papers were full of debates on the matter, and this man, Ivar Aasen, defended his prospect, and gained followers, writers from rural areas who saw the opportunity to use a language written closer to their own. A new literature emerged, and Aasen kept on walking the country and editing his grammars as far as he could manage it. He died in 1896, and by now, the matter had become of political significance.

The two modes

Some meant, like Aasen, that the solution was to ditch Danish completely in favor of the rural mode. Others, led by the headmaster Knud Knudsen, tried to soften the Danish mode by replacing sounds and some of the more grave grammatical differences. This mode developed into the "book language" of today. The conservative elite, sitting at the universities, and also in high positions, saw with unkind eyes on the linguistic developments, and held back. When the political parties arose, the rural language fighters went to the left, while most of the others went to the right. The Leftists went to elections with a change of language on their bills, and the righters saw with a little fear on a possible alliance with the emerging working class. An offer was made, and by 1906, half of the schools and churches began using the rural mode. The leftists decided not to ally themselves with the Labor party. The most serious political consequence of this came in the spring of 1912, when the prime minister Konow had to resign his post because he had held a speech in the Youth Organization for the "country language", showing endorsement for the language cause. The Right wing immediately withdrew their support for the government, and resignation was the only option.

By 1913, the literary movement had grown, and now the Theatre question was burning hot. A "Norwegian" theatre was established in Oslo, having their first performance in the fall of that year. Tense riots broke out, inside the theatre and out in the streets of the capital. For days. But the Theatre remained, and established themselves for posterity. Although their performance of Peer Gynt in 1947 sparked new riots and more public debate.

Dignified and "Danified"'

In Norway, a speech pattern that in some ways resembled the Danish was considered "dignified". This came in use in the upper classes, mostly by merchants and officials, priests and lawmen. In time, this "educated" class, who actually ruled the country, had the power of definition in the question of language as well. "Dignified" in Norway is often translated as "Danified", even today, although Norwegians are not consciously aware of it. For the dignified group, it was a challenge to even see a dialectal phrase in writing or print. Even after 1960, it apparently was a problem for some, as history tells of a man assigned to state the time on national radio. The Norwegian Broadcasting Company had a rather "radical" approach to language, and the man was asked to use the "informal" language, meaning a use of the definite article -a at the end of a feminine noun. He refused, and found a loophole by just stating what the right time was instead of declining the word "clock" in what he considered the wrong way.

The common language in the eastern parts of Norway was considered rude by the better off people, and some of them actually tried to pay off kids to speak more "proper". Some speech patterns and certain consonant sounds are generic for Norway, among them the retroflex L, used in this way in every eastern dialect from Trøndelag and down to the southern coast. This sound is not present in many European languages. Seen from a "dignified" point of view, this sound is considered "rude", and it had to be polished off the speech pattern. This happened many places in those years.

Postwar difficulties and the Labor politics

The Labour Party was the sole ruler of Norway for eighteen years from 1945 to 1963. They also had the reins before the war, and in 1929 they officially renamed the former "state language" and "country language" to their present names of Bokmål ("book language") and Nynorsk ("new Norwegian"). In 1938, they came up with a rather radical "language reform", pushing the "city mode" far to the left, and into a more "low caste" territory. This reform was not taken lightly by the old elite, who stubbornly rejected it. During the war, all those questions were ignored, but surfaced again during The '50s, when parents, mostly from Oslo, campaigned for a more "pure" written mode, and official school books were corrected by parents who saw this reform as base and uncouth. This campaign actually went as far as Book Burning to underline their disgust.

At the same time, the more conservative strain of authors and poets broke off from the Norwegian author assembly to form their own organization. Thus, the Norwegian fifties were a long fight for the "right" way to decline nouns of the female gender. Come 1960, the government abandoned this, and the two modes of Norwegian had to find other ways to live their separate lives. Officially, the language struggle was declared dead, and the government would not spend another penny on the subject. But then again, not quite dead after all.

The right wing parties got the upper hand in the elections of 1981, and they started to slowly turn the written modes of Bokmål back to before 1938 before long. Meanwhile, the citizens to the west of the capital fought a long fight for the obliteration of the letter "A" from the area of Majorstua. When they finally succeeded, and the official name was pronounced "Majorstuen", they toasted in champagne. Meanwhile, the push for fewer schools actually educating the rural mode went on. Even today, people strive to change the ending vowel of street names, because they can`t stand the thought of writing the letter A at the end of some words.

The rural mode was the language of commoners, farmers and workers. It was interpreted that way, and the elite saw it as such. The common policy has been to suppress it, often by economical means, and thus the support has dwindled over the years. But the hard core is staunch, defending it as a language for newspapers, literature and art. Strong cultural personalities have exasperated themselves on this matter on both sides, and politicians have broken their teeth on it. Up to this very day, the inflection of nouns and verbs are the most favorite Norwegian subject, besides the subject of weather.


Over the last twenty years or so, a shift has been seen in the modes of language. After the emergence of cell phones and paging, people tend to use their dialectal modes more than before, something that also surfaces on Facebook and Twitter. Because of this, scholars on both sides of the language barrier are taken by surprise, and try to adapt. Not long ago, the greatest local newspaper in the county of Østfold printed a newspaper written solely in the local dialect, and sold more that day than ever. People loved it. Meanwhile, old grumblers who almost hated this particular dialect started to grumble even louder.

At the same time, the use of English, and the knowledge of it, increases in Norway, and it affects the speech patterns, as well as the way people think. So, the old language barriers are torn down, and the learned ones from both sides of the barrier go into enemy mine territory, defending Norwegian against English as far as they can go, while they also try to cope with the spreading use of local dialects. So, if Norwegian written modes were messy before, they now seem to enter a complete chaos.

Grammar: What it is all about

There are two differences: Pronunciation of certain words, and difference in spelling. To give examples of the word difference:

  • Milk in English, Milch in German. In Bokmål and Danish, it is written Mælk, but in Nynorsk and Swedish it is written Mjølk/Mjölk (which sounds the same). On the grammar side, "The milk" will be "Melken" in conservative Bokmål, "Melka" in the more radical form, and "Mjølka" in Nynorsk. If you dare to write "Mjölken", you are probably Swedish.

  • Living Room: Bokmål has Stue, while Nynorsk has Stove. The conservatives use stuen with a definite article while everybody else probably would say stua. "Nynorsk" variety is stova. Then, a number of dialects use "Stugu" or something like that, to complicate things even more. Hence the problem with the area of Majorstua, where the definite article -a was and is considered rude. Hence also a number of riots for the sake of a vowel.

  • Boy: Bokmål will decline Gutt, gutten, gutter, guttene, while the form "gutta" (the boys) is used informally over most of the urban areas of the east. Dialecal form are "Guttane", while Nynorsk uses Gut, guten, gutar, gutane.

  • The verbs come in different forms.

    • Dance goes Danse, danser (present tense), danset (past tense) when in moderate Bokmål, while radicals may use Danse, danser, dansa (past tense). Nynorsk goes danse, dansar, dansa.

Gender differences

In Bokmål, the feminine gender is optional, and quite a few feminine nouns almost always get masculine declension. In Nynorsk, the feminine gender is mandatory. This is mainly a problem for Bokmål users, as they have to write many feminine forms they're not used to. For most nouns that are feminine in Nynorsk, feminine declension is also usable in Bokmål, even when it's not commonly written. For many Bokmål-using Norwegians, this isn't so bad because their spoken dialect often uses the feminine gender even when they don't write it. Thus the dialect becomes a useful resource. However, if your dialect is for instance the Bergen dialect, which never uses the feminine gender, you're pretty much out of luck and have to either re-learn the grammatical genders, or look them up every time.

Pronoun Trouble

For non-neuter nouns in the singular, Bokmål, like Danish and Swedish, has three pronouns: one for masculine persons, one for feminine persons and one for "common" non-persons. Nynorsk uses the same masculine and feminine pronouns for everything. To Bokmål users, that looks like writing "he" or "she" about a non-person (and having to make sure they use the right grammatical gender, lest they use the wrong pronoun). Nynorsk users get another pronoun they have to remember to use. Nynorsk's system does exist in many Norwegian dialects, but even to people used to hearing such dialects, it may look odd in writing.

Notable changing of certain words

It is actually here the troubles begin for most of normal Bokmål readers. Over the centuries, a number of words and expressions came in through the Danish vocabulary, often from the area of the Hansa, who spoke plattdütch. Words beginning with syllables like an- be-, or endings like -else or het (from German -Keit), was considered loan words, and was actually replaced with words that were in common use. It is easy to produce a list:

  • Bevis was replaced with the more Norse prov (like the English proof).
  • Kjærlighet was replaced with Kjærleik (Charity).
  • Betydning (from Bedeutung) went to Tyding).
  • Enig (from einig) went to Semje (agreement).
  • Ansøkelse went to søknad (application).
  • Frihet is derived from the German Freiheit. Nynorsk uses Fridom, which actually is closer to the English word Freedom.

And so forth... Some of those words went into common speech, others did not. This part of the struggle is a matter of vocabulary, and is quite literally a battle of words.

Just to make a few samples of differences that seem to be pretty small. But in Norway, this is serious business, and we have people who claim to not understand a text written in one way and not the other. The difference may boil down to a vowel or a difthong, and the struggle goes on.

Use in media.

  • Henrik Wergeland made the first statement on this in 1835, holding a speech called "on the question of renewal of the Norwegian Language".
  • The language-reform movement is parodied in Peer Gynt, whose Dramatis Personae describes one character as a language reformer from the Malabar coast.
  • Author and poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson discussed it, and ended up on an anti farmer statement late in life.
  • Ivar Aasen, poet and scholar, launched the full debate in 1858.

  • Movies made in Nynorsk exist, usually when the author uses the language himself. The most used author is Tarjei Vesaas, from Telemark. He has three books adapted for movies, and he took part in the first ones. Story says he had to struggle pretty hard for getting his way on the language side.

  • During the fifties and sixties, Norwegian movie makers were prone to make movies with commoners and workers as protagonists. In those cases, they uses their dialects, while the antagonists spoke "dignified". This spille over to radicalism, as the same would happen when the producers had a radical point of view. Today, this is mostly abandoned. The Olsen Gang movies in Norwegian use this principle to a T, with the antagonists living outside the law, on the east side of town, and speaks rather broadly, while the police uses the dignified mode.

  • Norwegian movies are more often than not produced with Bokmål as a premise. International dubbing has the same rule. Occasionally, a comical character or a villain may use a dialectal mode. Thus, Sid the giant sloth from the Ice Age franchise was cast as a generic user of the Bergen dialect. The Vikings shown in an Asterix movie spoke straight Nynorsk while the main characters did not. This trick also applies to TV series, where we find a local variety of the American dialectal rule: Every child sounds as if it comes from Oslo, while their parents use dialects.

  • When The Hobbit was to be shown for a Norwegian market, the texting bureau had two translations to choose from, the Bokmål one, and a Nynorsk one. The Movie company actually purchased the rights to both, and abandoned the rural mode completely. Thus, the language struggle spilled over to a decision made far outside Norwegian borders, at the offices of MGM. It raised some debate in Norway. Hilarity ensues when the Nynorsk translator actually is credited at the end of the film, in spite of not having a single word translated in it...

  • Frozen (2013) had the Norwegian version dubbing the entire troll clan in Nynorsk, with their own song to boot (needs a little fixer upper...).

  • On the comic book side, the most known controversy was the Carl Barks story Lost in the Andes, which translated the Corn Pone mode of the Square People into an older variety of Nynorsk. This raised a heated public debate, because some people were offended by it. It calmed down, but the story became especially loved because of this language trait (Rutt Betler, the "fessah" from Alabama was translated as coming from the area of Voss, known for a strong use of the rural language even today). Nynorsk seems to thrive in the Norwegian comic book market, with a lot of users making new material.
    • This fact, and the Frozen incident mentioned above, led to some people honestly asking whether Nynorsk always had to be set aside for the funny characters, the non human sidekicks, the weird ethnic groups, or even the villains. The story, it seems, is not over yet.

  • In the Norwegian translation of The Wee Free Men, the Scottish dialect of the Nac Mac Feegle is turned into them speaking Nynorsk. Which really helps the moments of miscommunication, as it's quite feasible for the Bokmål-speaking Tiffany not to understand all the words used by the Nynorsk-speaking Feegles.

Alternative Title(s): Norweigian Language, Norwegian Language Struggle