Ivar Aasen – Creator of an Independent Norwegian Language

Ivar Aasen portraitIvar Andreas Aasen (1813 – 1896) was a Norwegian philologist, lexicographer, playwright and poet. He is most known for having created one of Norway’s two official languages, Nynorsk (New Norwegian). This year, we celebrate the bicentennial of his birth.

After 400 years in union with Denmark, the original Norwegian language – Old Norwegian – had evolved into Danish. Ivar Aasen never reconciled with Danish and he decided early to start collecting material to create an independent Norwegian language. He grew up poor in Ørsta, Møre og Romsdal County, and had little schooling. He had, however, learned to read through the Bible and Christian hymns.

In the 1830s, a national discussion unfolded about a Norwegian language reform. Norway was now under Swedish rule, and it would take more than 70 years before Norwegians got their independence.

In 1836 Aasen wrote a plan to develop a separate Norwegian written language that was to replace the Danish language. He thought it was important for the country to have an independent language that was based on dialects. In 1837 he began systematic surveys of dialects from Sunnmøre, and in 1841 he traveled to Bergen with his first overview of “Den søndmørske Dialekt” (Dialects from Sundmøre).

Through acquaintances in the Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskab (Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters) in Trondheim, Aasen received a grant to examine rural dialects. The study should be the basis for “a general and genuine Norwegian written language”.

Between 1842 and 1846, Aasen traveled throughout the country, primarily in western and inner districts of Southern Norway, later in Northern Norway.

During this period, Aasen received unparalleled knowledge of Norwegian dialects and folk culture, and he published several book collections. In 1853, his first proposition for a new written Norwegian language based on dialects was released.

Aasen called the new language “landsmål”, New Norwegian. For him, this was equal to “riksmål” – the norwegianized Danish language spoken in urban areas (later named Bokmål).

Ivar Aasen bokmål vs nynorskAasen had radical opinions in Norwegian language politics, believing that he could restore an independent language through dialects. At that time, the main written language in Norway was Danish while the general population spoke various dialects. The standardization rules of New Norwegian are therefore different from other written languages ​​that are often normalized through a social and economic elite.

In an international perspective, Ivar Aasen’s works have a lot in common with linguistics in other countries. At the same time Aasen developed the New Norwegian language, European linguists laid the foundation for standard norms in Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Ukrainian and Faroese. Aasen thus belong to a generation of European linguists who, through their professional and scientific insight, contributed to build new nations.

Map shows where New Norwegian (blue) is ‘first written language’. The red area illustrates the Bokmål (common Norwegian) zone. People living in the white zones speak dialect, but is thought Bokmål in school. 

Ivar Aasen’s scientific ability is his strong sense of order, coherence and baselines, where his clear and concise definitions have become famous. His reliability and distinctive artistic sense makes him both loved and hated in Norway: Since Nynorsk became introduced in schools it has been one of the hottest language policy discussions in Norway.

On September 23rd 1896, Ivar Aasen died, and was buried at Vår Frelsers gravlund in Oslo. In 2000, a national documentation and activity center for New Norwegian language opened at Aasen’s home farm Hovdebygda. The center has been namedIvar Aasen-tunet.



Text by: Anette Broteng Christiansen, ThorNews

Source: SNL, Wikipedia

Photos from top: Bokselskap, Wikipedia

Categories: Language

2 replies

  1. It never occurred to me that an old language had changed so greatly in “recent” times! This was an interesting post. Thank you I learned something!


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