A Tale of Two Tongues:
Language and Lexicography in Norway
Language is a subject which nobody
can feel indifferent to, because of its subjective and personal
character as a part of human nature. In Norway, which has two
different and officially equal written standards of Norwegian
- bokmål and nynorsk - every person has to make their choice
between the two, and at the same time get to know the other standard
as well. This linguistic struggle reflects different approaches
to history, nationalism, democracy, etc. Ruth Vatvedt Fjeld
and Olaf Almenningen, both from the University of Oslo,
try to analyze here their own language situation from different
points of view: one as a user of the majority standard, bokmål,
and the other as a user of the minority standard, nynorsk.
The Norwegian language background
The current language situation in
Norway is the result of our national history as a colony or province
of Denmark (1450-1814), and then dependent on the Swedish king
as a part of the common union with Sweden (1814-1905). However,
in 1814 Norway set up her own constitution, and therefore in
many ways we can say that modern Norwegian history starts here.
This concerns the language issue as well, as Danish came to be
the one and only officially written language in the Norwegian
regions during the long Danish rule from 1450 to 1814, while
the former Middle Ages Norwegian language (Old Norse) faded away
more or less from 1350 onwards. These language roots survived
in the following centuries first and foremost in the form of
rural dialects throughout the countryside. In the almost 200
years since 1814, we have tried to solve the difficult language
problems (at least we like to consider them difficult ourselves!)
caused by our history; and in this effort mainly two strategies
From 1814 to 1890 the dominant Danish language, gradually with
more Norwegian elements in it as time went on, was the only official
alternative in schools and in society as a whole. It was a more
than obvious task, then, to try to "Norwegianize" this
tongue by reforming its main spelling, regulate the morphology
in a homebound direction, and absorb a typical Norwegian vocabulary
and leave out the Danish words and expressions. The leader of
this reform-strategy was Knud Knudsen (1812-1895), a headmaster
and teacher of Norwegian. He leaned very much on the ortophonic
theories in his Norwegian language teaching, and strongly asserted
that the difference between spoken and written forms should be
as small as possible. Knudsen claimed that his reformed future
Norwegian language should be based mainly on the spoken language
of the educated classes. This reformed language standard later
got its official name "bokmål" (which, among
other things, indicates that it is the most common written standard
The other strategy was one of a more revolutionary character;
namely, to form or restore a completely new Norwegian written
language based on modern dialects, whose roots could be traced
back to the Old Norse. In fact, the "original" Norwegian
language had survived as rural (and, to a certain extent, urban)
dialects throughout the colonial period from 1450 onwards.
This more revolutionary solution became the task of Ivar Aasen
(1813-1896), a self-taught language genius from Sunnmøre
in northwestern Norway. His strategy required a broad political
and cultural movement in order to succeed, as its final goal
was to replace the then-dominant Danish language completely.
Aasen himself was humble and catious in launching the "new"
Norwegian language (called "nynorsk" in Norwegian),
and asserted that the most important thing was for his language
to exist as an alternative to the main Dano-Norwegian written
In 1885 the Norwegian national assembly (Stortinget) decided
that both standards were to be considered equal, as regards official
rights, and that both were to be taught in schools and used in
education. As a result of this parliamentary decision, from 1892
local school authorities could choose whether to use the nynorsk
or the bokmål standard in primary schools. From 1902 all
teachers had to learn to write and teach both standards, and
some of this system was implemented also in college from 1907
onwards. In the years after 1905, when Norway finally broke out
of the Swedish union, the nynorsk standard gradually extended
its role as the written language in the local government. The
history of nynorsk as an officially used written language is
therefore not older than 100-150 years. In 1930 the Stortinget
had to pass an act which regulated the use of both standards
in official documents, such as stamps, passport, money, laws
and information from the state and its institutions.
From 1900 onwards the central school authorities tried to diminish
the language gap between nynorsk and bokmål to make the
difference between them as small as possible. These efforts included
both spelling and morphology in words that were common in both
standards. The Stortinget thus passed language planning acts
for both standards in 1917, 1938 and 1959, also trying to include
Norwegian dialects into both, hoping that the two standards would
gradually grow into one common written Norwegian language. This
ambition was not always approved by the majority of the population,
especially not among the dominant conservative groups of the
bokmål users. Nowadays the main view among politicians,
teachers and writers as regards the existence of two standards
is one of mutual acceptance.
The current language situation in Norway is roughly as follows:
15% of the pupils in primary schools have nynorsk as their first
choice, and the rest have bokmål. In addition, pupils from
the ages of 15 to 19 have to learn to write the standard different
to their own. Thus, all pupils eventualy learn to read and write
both language standards. As a whole, the total "nynorsk
population" today amounts to about 600,000, whereas the
rest - about 3.5 million - stick to bokmål as their first
choice. In local government, 117 municipalities have in 2002
chosen nynorsk, and about 180 bokmål, whereas 150 haven't
made any definite choice (these are mostly bokmål users,
though). The nynorsk regions are mostly scarcely populated rural
areas in the western parts of the country and in the eastern
valleys, whereas the cities and urban areas mostly stick to bokmål.
The nynorsk written standard has to be considered a minority
language in Norway today - although it is the majority as far
as spoken language is concerned - representing the rural and
most of the urban dialects. It has its strongholds in literature,
theatre, broadcasting and art, whereas bokmål dominates
the press, main publishing houses and magazines, and other important
fields of society such as economy, industry and modern communication.
Current situation and lexicographic overview
Ruth Vatvedt Fjeld
Bokmål and nynorsk are two
varieties of the same language. since Norway is a geographically
large country, it has many oral dialects too. In the new Norwegian
state established in 1814 (or 1905, when it became independent
from Sweden), it was a strong wish for the new nation to have
its own national language. By and by it was launched as a principle
that every person should have the right to choose her or his
own written variant, as close to the oral dialect as possible,
and this is still an important credo in Norwegian language planning.
As a result, the two written standards favor dialects from either
Eastern or Western Norway. The Eastern dialects are closest to
bokmål, which geographically as well as demographically
covers the main parts of the country, while nynorsk is a Western
standard, above all reflecting Aasen's own dialect from Sunnmøre,
in northwestern Norway.
The wish behind inventing a modern Norwegian language, and keeping
the written standards as close to the oral language as possible,
was to satisfy political and democratic goals. The standards
are designed to give most Norwegians the options needed to express
their real mother tongue in an acceptable written form. This
has made the language situation complicated, and in both standards
of modern Norwegian a large variety of inflectional paradigms
is allowed, with minute differences.
Although the goals are well motivated, the system offers several
pedagogical problems. As all inhabitants are obliged to learn
both official standards, this language policy has been in the
background of a long quarrel between the language users. Since
the government in 1885 stated as an undisputable principle that
the two standards were to be considered as equal in every respect,
and therefore should be allowed in all kinds of private and official
writings, the cause of most disagreements have been about when
the minority standard nynorsk ought to be used. Many complaints
were made about poor availability of textbooks and public information
on both standards. The Nynorsk Movement (målrørsla)
is an active and dedicated organisation claiming that they were
neglected and oppressed. In 1981 a new Legal Act was issued,
restating the principle from 1885 with additional provisions
regulating in minute detail when information should be given
in both standards, when only one standard was required, and which
standard had to be chosen.
This legislation was all based on the wish to safeguard the right
of the weaker part, the minority, in the name of democratic language
planning. The unalterable principle of closeness between spoken
and written languages as decisive for good language usage made
it necessary to accept the overwhelming diversity. It is therefore
noteworthy what one of the most eager present-day actors for
nynorsk in language planning writes:
Through its literary tradition, containing folk literature as
well as belles lettres, it has a register of expressions - and
indeed a particular expressiveness - which is not matched by
bokmål; many bokmål users support ynorsk for this
reason. (Vikør 2001)
The quotation shows that some users of nynorsk do not see their
written standard just as a technical variety, but closely attach
to it other values of political and personal kind, and that democratic
thoughts are overruled by dedication to their own standard.
But the disagreement between nynorsk and bokmål is not
the whole picture of the Norwegian language situation. As a consequence
of our political history and the Norwegian legislation, at least
25 % of the programmes have to be in nynorsk in the public broadcasting,
and all public information has to be printed in both standards.
Each public office has to respond in the standard that was used
to approach it, which means that all officials must be able to
write both standards. This is expensive for a small linguistic
society, and official language planning has therefore tried to
implement one common Norwegian standard, the so-called samnorsk
(common Norwegian) standard. Up till 1972 this was the explicit
aim among leading linguists and language planners in Norway.
In 1938, a big step was taken to turn this plan into reality,
with a new spelling standard for both bokmål and nynorsk.
The main goal was to create a common standard built on the vernaculars
in both western and eastern Norway, quite a radical political
undertaking for that time.
Unfortunately, World War II came short after, and language politics
were for 5 long years given little attention. Besides, the Quisling-regime
launched its own language planning of a national-romantic kind,
which gave no support to the samnorsk solution. After 1945, the
1938-standard was implemented in schoolbooks and all public information.
But the linguistic climate has considerably altered since 1938,
and the bourgeoisie in particular did not accept these radical
forms, which reflected the language of the working class rather
than the heritage from the historical Danish-speaking upper class.
A culturally conservative movement, Riksmålsforbundet and
Det Norske Akademi for Sprog og Litteratur (The Norwegian Academy
of Language and Literature) are two private organisations that
established an elitist private norm, closer to the Danish written
standard, disallowing many forms normally spoken by modern Norwegians.
Consequently, now there are at least three or four standards
of written Norwegian - nynorsk, bokmål, samnorsk and riksmål
- each representing different ideologies and goals in language
The most important difference between the two official standards
(bokmål and nynorsk) is of lexical, and even more of morphological
nature. Hence the lexicographical situation in Norway is odd.
Because of the instability of the norms, the Norwegian Language
Council is allowed to change the orthography quite often. In
earlier years, this occured twice a year, but since 1991 such
change may take place every four years. This has made the Norwegians
extremely tolerant to orthographic changes. In addition, each
norm has several optional variant forms, and school children
are allowed to choose freely among the variants, which is a great
challenge to the teachers.
It is no wonder, then, that orthographic word lists are a big
issue in Norwegian lexicography, presenting the variety of the
standards, with new editions appearing very often. Each standard
has several lists on the market, and publishers have a good income
from such word lists. However, this word list industry has led
to a neglect of other kinds of lexicographical works, with very
few dictionaries being published. The most comprehensive is Norsk
Riksmålsordbok (1937-1957, with supplements 1995),
documenting the unofficial riksmålsstandard. A desk dictionary
of the same kind, Riksmålsordboken, appeared in
1977. As late as in 1986, the first two standard dictionaries
for the official varieties of bokmål and nynorsk were presented,
Bokmålsordboka and Nynorskordboka.
As the riksmål variety was going to be documented in Norsk
Riksmålsordbok, a great effort was taken in 1930 to
launch the project Norsk Ordbok, which was to document
the nynorsk standard and the rural dialects in one dictionary.
The first volume was published in 1950, and the edition has now
reached the letter H. Recently the project received fresh and
generous funding so it can be completed by 2014, the bicentennial
of the new Norwegian state founded in 1814.
There has been one attempt to include the two standards bokmål
and nynorsk in one word list, Norsk ordbok (1966) by Dag
Gundersen, inspired by Einar Haugen's bilingual Norwegian-English
Dictionary (1965). Lemmas acceptable only in bokmål
were marked with a special tag, and nynorsk lemmas with another
tag. Lemmas without tags were accepted in both standards. This
dictionary showed well how much the two standards have in common,
and maybe made it too clear that the quarrel between the two
parties could have been solved given some efforts and cooperation.
Gundersen's dictionary was an initiative approved by all Norwegians
who wanted to unify the two standards into one common but flexible
standard. And it was a pedagogical masterstroke, as pupils could
easily find out how close to their own dialect they could come
without breaking the rules for the standard chosen. Still, it
was no financial success because it was not approved by the authorities
for use in schools, and so it has long been unavailable. Probably
the attitudes by the leading language planners already in the
1960s had been changed from working towards one common Norwegian
standard to strengthening two clearly different official standards.
In June 2002 the government finally stated that the unification
of bokmål and nynorsk in one standard is no longer an official
goal in language planning.
Today it is impossible to know what this language policy will
lead to. It is beyond question that bokmål is the most
used standard, but it is difficult to give exact figures, and
estimates differ from 85 to 92 % of the population. As the standards
are numerous and variable, this is no simple issue, and it is
also a question of how to count. Many nynorsk users change to
bokmål after school, especially well educated young people
moving to the urban parts of the country. There is on the other
hand a continuum of standards ranging from more or less private
ones, from conservative nynorsk close to Aasen's original, via
radical standards close to modern oral variants, all the way
to conservative standards close to the Danish written in the
19th century - the Golden Age in Norwegian literature.
The Norwegian language is fairly young, and therefore has no
long tradition in bilingual lexicography. Danish dictionaries
have fulfilled the needs for translation and L2-learning, though
some of the best among these dictionaries were actually written
by Norwegian lexicographers. In this way also Norwegianisms in
Danish were included, and give us valuable information about
how Danish was practiced by the Norwegians in the last two centuries.
In modern lexicography there are several bilingual dictionaries
between Norwegian and English, German and French. In later days
also Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Vietnamese, Serbo-Croatian
and Persian have been available. Recently the linguistic situation
in Norway has changed radically with new immigrants from East
Asia and elsewhere, which raises the need of several new dictionaries.
There are still a lot of tasks to be solved in Norwegian lexicography,
especially in LSP dictionaries and among the Nordic languages.
And all dictionaries need to have two editions, one for bokmål
and one for nynorsk! Some of the bilingual dictionaries are made
after Haugen's principle of including both standards with special
tags, but this tradition is more seldom followed today.
Norwegian Language Council.
2002. Statement on no longer aiming to unify the two standards:
2001. 'Northern Europe: Language as Prime Markers of Ethnic and
National Identity.' In Language and Nationalism in Europe,
S. Barbour and C. Carmichael (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University
Gundersen, D. 1966. Norsk
ordbok. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
Guttu, T. 1977. Riksmålsordboken.
Haugen, E. 1965. Norwegian-English Dictionary.
Hellevik, A. m.fl. 1966- . Norsk Ordbok.
Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget.
Hovdenak, M. m.fl. 1986. Nynorskordboka.
Oslo: Det Norske Samlaget.
Knudsen, T. og A. Sommerfelt m.fl. 1937-1957. Norsk
Riksmålsordbok. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co.
Landrø, M. I. og B. Wangensteen. 1986. Bokmålsordboka.
Noreng, H. 1995. Norsk riksmålsordbok V-VI.
About the authors
K Dictionaries Ltd
Olaf Amenningen is from Voss in western Norway,
and has been the administrative leader of the 'nynorsk' organization,
Noregs Mållag, from 1976 to 1987. He is a researcher at
the Department of Scandinavian Studies and Comparative Literature,
the Section for Norwegian Lexicography and Dialectology, in the
University of Oslo, and is working at the monolingual dictionary
project, Norsk Ordbok.
Ruth Fjeld is from Aremark in eastern Norway,
and has been teaching Nordic linguistics and lexicography in
the University of Oslo since 1991. She is the leader of the Association
for City Language (Bymålslaget) and a language councillor
of the Norwegian State Broadcasting Corporation, and has edited
dictionaries and written extensively on lexicography and linguistics.
Professor Fjeld organized the first Nordic Conference on Lexicography
in Oslo 1990, which led to the foundation of the Nordic Association
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