15 February 2009

Why Norway Has Two Written Languages

In the Middle Ages, Norway had its own written language, Old Norwegian. When Norway came under Danish rule in 1380, a union that lasted until 1814, Old Norwegian was eventually replaced by Danish as the country’s written language and the language of the Church, State, and belles letters [1]. Throughout this period, the Norwegian language in the form of the different dialects remained the spoken language of the common people.

In 1814, Norway got its own constitution and became an independent nation. The question of nationality became prominent in many areas of society. One important issue was the establishment of an official Norwegian language. There was an upper-class spoken language that was actually Danish as pronounced by member of this class in the nation’s capital, whose corresponding written standard was official Danish. For the majority of the people though, and especially in rural areas, different local dialects were spoken which had a lower- social status and no corresponding written form

Two ways of solving the language problem of the new national were proposed. Linguist Knud Knudsen used the upper-class spoken language and the written Danish as points of departure to create a national language. This was the foundation of riksmål, since 1929 called bokmål, which is today the majority written language, used by over 80% of Norwegians. Ivar Aasen’s landsmål, since 1929 called nynorsk, is used less than 20% of Norwegians. There have since been several reforms pertaining to both standards. Today’s language situation with two different versions of Norwegian, is thus a result of our history. (Editor, Johan Fr. Heyerdal.)

[1] Belles-letters are essays, particularly of literary and artistic criticism, written and read primarily for their aesthetic effect.

Source: The Norseman, Special Issue No.4/5 September 1996, Vol.36, p.9.

Luci Baker Johnson

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