Norwegian Language Blog

The Two Flavours of Norwegian Posted by on Jan 20, 2013 in Language

As some of you may know, there are two kinds of Norwegian: bokmål and nynorsk. (Okay, I’ve promised you this post for a while now!) There’s no need to worry – these are just two different ways of writing the same language. I mean, even English-speakers can’t agree on whether the mix of black and white should be written grey or gray! 🙂

In 95 % of the cases, the Norwegian you’re going to encounter, will be bokmål. (That’s also the language you’ll learn through Transparent’s courses.) It might, however, be nice to know something about nynorsk as well.

In 1814, Norway got its first constitution and dropped out of a political union with Denmark, where it had been for 4 centuries (only to enter a new union with Sweden). During the years with the Danes, Danish had become the official written language in Norway. City people, particularly of the upper classes, spoke a kind of ”Norwegianized Danish”. People in the countryside kept on speaking dialects that were less influenced by Danish, and a little bit more similar to the gammelnorsk (Old Norwegian) of the Viking Age.

Now, what to do? Some people, notably Knud Knudsen (1812-1895) proposed keeping the Danish written language, while slowly reforming it and making it more ”Norwegian”. This proposal is the origin of modern bokmål, which literally means ”book language”. Today, it is distinctly Norwegian, but still has a lot in common with Danish. The phrase ”I have a boat” is Jeg har en båd in Danish, but Jeg har en båt in bokmål Norwegian.

Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) dreamt of a ”less Danish” and more ”authentic Norwegian” language. For decades, he travelled the Norwegian countryside, gathering information about Norwegian dialects. He eventually launched an entirely new written language, based on rural dialects. His proposal went on to become modern nynorsk, which means ”new Norwegian” (as a continuation of the Vikings’ Old Norwegian). If you’re used to bokmål, nynorsk may seem a bit more Icelandic or even German. ”I have a boat” is Eg har ein båt in nynorsk.

Today, about 13 % of all Norwegians use nynorsk in their everyday lives. Nynorsk has its stronghold in Western Norway, while the Oslo area is almost 100 % ”bokmål”. Both languages are official, and every Norwegian schoolchild has to learn ’em both. (A lot of parents and children complain about this!)

Please note that bokmål and nynorsk are written languages. Most Norwegians are proud dialect-speakers, even in settings where Englishmen or Germans would switch to a ”standard language”. Just turn on Norwegian tv, and you’ll hear! 😉

Some decades ago writing something in nynorsk was almost a political statement. There was a ”language war” going on that would leave foreigners baffled. Nowadays, it is more of a personal choice. Some people choose to write in nynorsk because they find it closer to their own dialect. Other people pick it up because they think it is somehow more beautiful or ”poetic” than the majority language.

Next week, I’ll be sharing some easy phrases with you, in both ”flavours” of Norwegian.

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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.


  1. Heather:

    In UK english the colour is grey. As far as I can ascertain gray is US English. However, it is apparent that many countries have started adopting US English, because of the internet, rather than International or British English, which is why there is confusion.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Heather Okay, thank you for the explanation! 🙂
      I found a way to remember it: ”Grey” has the E of England. ”Gray” has the A of America!

      I guess some people would disagree with you about what kind of English is ”international”. For example, in China and Japan, American English is taught. (Or so I’ve heard…)