How to speak Norwegian? Nobody really knows.

by Erik Koht

It ain’t broken, but it sure ain’t fixed either.

I always get a rise out of my English spell checker when it notes the word “ain’t” as misspelled. How would it like me to spell it? That’s how you stop dialects from forming. It’s cultural impirealism. Norwegians don’t do that. We love our profusion of dialects, it’s the thing that makes our language special. It’s culture, it’s history, and it’s a source of rejuvenation. No spell checker is up to the job. It’s too bad we don’t always understand what the other guy is saying, but if that’s the price we have to pay for history, culture and a source of rejuvenation, so be it.


I’m a Norwegian. I speak Norwegian fluently. So do about 4.6 million other people here. This leaves some 100 000 people who live in Norway but don’t speak my language on a regular basis: the Sami people and our new countrymen. Many speak Urdu.

Norwegians are confused about their language. There are things they don’t know how to say, so they make it up as they go. Ask them: “What’s ‘whose’ in Norwegian?” See how many answers you get. Norwegian is a language in flux, just like English was being shaped anew back between the time of Geoffery Chaucer and William Shakespeare. I can’t tell you precisely what is happening, it is hard to observe anything you’re a part of. I hear words, sounds, grammar and expressions change. I try to recall: How did we say that when I was a kid? Memory is selective and deceptive.

There are three forces at work: The first one is official policy. Some government agency makes a pronouncement, saying from now on this or that will be taught, and we encourage people to say it THIS way and not THAT way. Usually, this works. We may start by laughing it off, but after a while it seeps in. We have had a lot of spelling changes, and many of them have come from some official body. These norms were put into the two main dialect boxes - one called New Norwegian (“nynorsk”), the other “bokmål”. Roughly these two boxes were based on the language of the countryside and the language of the towns, respectively. Very roughly.

Did you know George Bernhard Shaw, the playwright, tried to reform English spelling? He died a poor and frustrated man.

The second, but maybe the greater force, is the force of the dialects that contribute to our language. After all, Norwegians want to understand each other so we often look for the common denominator. This means stripping away peculiarities and fancy idiomatic expressions that only the locals understand. But speaking the local dialect has a lot of status locally, so nothing is actually being lost. But as the song goes: “People don’t stay in one place anymore”, so people listen and learn and adapt.

The third force is the media - specifically radio and TV. For a long time, dialects spoken on radio - and later TV - were normative. People working there were told how to speak, the purpose was to underpin official language policies and help people understand by limiting, but not abolishing, dialect variations. It’s a great help that all dialects are minorities but each has a strong local base. How did we get into this mess?

Now, if you’ll all go to the map on page 164 please. Oh, you didn’t bring your book today? All right, let me explain. The brown colour means mountains, the green colour means low-lying areas. You don’t see a lot of green except way down south and along the edge of some fjords. Those are the places where people live, between the mountains and the deep blue sea. Once you’re there, you stay there. That’s how it was. For a century or two or even four.


Language theory has it that if a group of people gets split up, their language start diverging right away. In a century you have two dialects, in four, they no longer understand each other. Though the Scandinavian people spoke the same language back in the age of Vikings, the Black Plague of the 12th century put an end to this homogeneity. Those that were left were isolated from each other by topography or distance. Even people that lived as little as 30 miles apart had their own thing going.

Remember Thomas Malthus, the guy who calculated how the world population would explode? (An Essay on the Principle of Population) The year after the publication of his work, 1799, he fled to Norway to get away from all the fuss. He walked from Oslo to Trondheim, several hundred miles. He commented that the road was very nice since it was completely covered by grass. One day before ariving in Trondheim he met a man walking the other way. One man. That’s how little movement there was by land in Norway at that time.

Language theory also says that large groups change their language faster than smaller groups. So these rules of thumb describe how much and how fast dialects change away from the original language. Some would retain grammatical structures, others would strip them away.

In Europe God is important to language development. Scripture influences the language of the pulpit. This is unifying and acts to conserve. Higher academic learning works the same way. Except that Norwegians didn’t have a Bible in Norwegian and had no university of their own until the beginning of the 19th century. By that time it was too late. The Bible and learning did the exact opposite, they wreaked havoc. We got a load of Danish instead. Norwegian and Danish are closely related, so it’s not a given that people knew what was what. The language of the educated, meaning clergy, teachers and doctors, changed fundamentally but did not separate out completely, it still sounded Norwegian thanks to our special Norwegian diction that only the best spies can emmulate.

So this was where we were at the start of the 20th century. A series of divergent dialects plus this mish-mash Danish-Norwegian spoken in Oslo and surrounding areas. The work started to fuse our language into one. The government did some, by putting their authority behind private attempt at fusing some dialects in a kind of dialect Esperanto and at the same time introducing changes into the language of the city folks. A lot was done by good writers, creating literature in a modern Norwegian, the rest was done by just ordinary people, often unthinkingly adapting their language. I am not saying this was happy land. People were enraged. What would you say if familiar scripture was suddenly unfamiliar? You’d be plenty enraged. How about the weather man who was fired for saying “sne” in stead of “snø”. And the new way of counting saying twenty-one in stead of one-and-twenty. Ridiculous. Parents, school days long over, were writing “mig” while their kids were told to write “meg”. Tears and despondency reigned.

Today about 10% of municipalities have the dialect based “nynorsk” as their official language since it is the best approximation of what people locally speak. The rest of us go for “bokmål”, the child of the aforementioned Danish-Norwegian mash. And you know what? it’s a great language! It has nuance, a huge vocabulary stuffed with synonyms. odd historical vestiges and grammatical variations. It’s a quick and modern language. I admit, no-one seems to be able to speak it without some personal twists. No matter. The kids of today just grunt anyway, to they don’t really need any kind of language.


Now someone is going to complain, I didn’t teach you any Norwegian at all. You know I can’t do that. You’d start reading Henrik Ibsen and Jostein Gårder in the original language and ask me about it. Then who’d have a red face? Or start reading Norwegina papers. Then you’d be coming here claiming social benefits and four weeks of paid vacation. Besides, if everyone spoke Norwegian, how would we ever learn English?

Other Essays by Erik Koht

Ye twenty-seventh letter of ye alphabet
Taxes: The Tool
They said it couldn't be done: Making a profit while caring for human rights
A Soldier Died Today
The Fable of Anti-Americanism
Propaganda and Censorship: My Head Belongs to Daddy...
Freedom: a Resource, a Condition, a State of Mind, a Slogan, a Dream
How to Keep Your Honour:
Try Killing Your Daughter and Stealing without Getting Caught

Multilateral Treaties and the Bully State

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