Norwegian Language Through History

The Norwegian language today has evolved from one common Scandinavian language called Urnordisk (Ancient Norse). Up until the Viking Age, the language gradually changed and created a distinction between Western (Norse) and Eastern (Swedish and Danish) language groups.

Old Norwegian (ca. 700-ca.1350)
In the Viking Era, the Norse language was used both in Norway and in Norwegian settlements, particularly Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Most of the Norse literature was written in Iceland, in a form called Old Icelandic. Old Norwegian was a Norwegian language which had evolved from different dialects. There are several written sources from the period, such as ‘King’s Mirror’ (ca. 1250), and many formal and private letters dated back from the 13th century. (Photo show extract from ‘King’s Mirror’)

Middle Norwegian (ca. 1350-ca.1525)
The etymology concludes that the Old Norwegian period lasted until the latter half of the 1300’s. At this time Sweden and Denmark got a dominant position within the Nordic countries. The Old Norwegian language became diluted, and the new grammatical system was less demanding. This form was called ‘Middle Norwegian’. From 1536, and during the union with Denmark, Danish was the sole written language in Norway.

Danish (ca. 1500-ca. 1850)
In the beginning, the Danish language was considered both inconsistent and fluctuating, but eventually developed a more permanent shape. In 1550, the Bible was translated into Danish, and through the religious texts Norwegians learned to read. In the 1600’s, a Danish upper class language developed, with Norwegian pronunciations that varied between the regions.

In 1814, Norway was separated from Denmark and entered a less strict union with Sweden. Danish remained as the main written language in Norway. In addition, the Norwegian Constitution was written in Danish. Around 1830 a national discussion about whether Norway should have its own language started. The sympathizers would eventually split into two different directions.

One direction was to norwegianize the written Danish language. The founder was Knud Knudsen (1812-1895). He wanted, among other, ‘hard consonants’ in the Norwegian words such as bage > bake, gabe > gape, lede > lete. In 1887, the government decided that the reading pronunciation in schools should be phonetically Norwegian, and in 1893, Norwegian spellings were accepted in textbooks. The language was called riksmål, but renamed in 1929 into bokmål.

The other group wanted to establish an independent Norwegian written language, founded on the many Norwegian dialects. This group was led by Ivar Aasen (1813-1896). Between 1842 and 1846, he conducted a thorough examination of the various Norwegian dialects, and established the basis for an independent written language called landsmål. In 1885, landsmål was officially recognised as having equal status with Danish, and in 1892 it was approved as a teaching language. In 1929, it was officially named nynorsk (New-Norwegian).

Today, bokmål is the main written language in Norway, while the spoken language is dominated by dialects in the different regions. Nynorsk is used by 10-15% of the population, primarily located on the West Coast.

• The first Norwegian dictionary is considered Jens Bjelke’s Termini legales norvegici from 1634
• There have been five official language reforms in the 20th century – 1907, 1917, 1938, 1959 and 1981
• From 1917, foreign words with –tion ending was changed into -sjon in both bokmål and nynorsk: Nation> Nasjon
• In 1970, the Parliament decided that at least 25% of the transmissions in the Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) should be in nynorsk

City names

• Bergen: From Old Norwegian Bergvin / Bjørgvin, probably (grazing) meadow between the mountains
• Drøbak: From Old Norwegian Drjugbakki, ‘the steep hill’
• Porsgrunn: From the Pors plant (Myrica gale) and Old Norwegian grunnr or grund – flat ground, grass field
• Steinkjer: From ‘stone dam’ or ‘use of stone’ and (kjer = kar = beholder (container))

Text by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews

Source: The Norwegian Language Council

Photos from top: Wikipedia, Vederfølner, Christines Blogg

Categories: Language

2 replies

  1. I’d like to clarify one of your statements. You wrote, “In 1885, landsmål was equated with Danish”, which I at first took to mean “In 1885, landsmål was regarded as being the same language as Danish”. But this could not be correct if landsmål (later termed nynorsk, as you mentioned) is based on the regional dialects of Norway and bokmål is principally based on Danish.

    Essentially, in this context ‘equated with’ is ambiguous. I infer that you did not mean “In 1885, landsmål was regarded as being the same language as Danish”, but “In 1885, landsmål was officially recognised as having equal status with Danish”.

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