Norwegian not spoken here

dialect (noun) a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.
accent (noun) 1 a distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, esp. one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class.
(From my Mac’s built-in dictionary.)

My friend Sravana was musing about learning Norwegian. She was poking around LiveMocha and asked which Norwegian I speak: bokmål or nynorsk.

The short answer: Neither.

Here comes the (much) longer answer:

Bokmål and nynorsk are Norway’s two official versions of written Norwegian. Bokmål (literally book language) is derived from Danish and, as its name suggests, was used in official documents, university books, etc. It is the Norwegian you are most likely to see in print and in sub-titles on TV.

Nynorsk (literally new Norwegian) was born in the mid-1800’s fever of national romanticism and a desire to distance oneself from everything Danish. It is the result of gathering words and expressions from local regional dialects in Norway, primarily from the fjords and valleys of western Norway. Wikipedia explains the history of nynorsk well.

Since bokmål and nynorsk are written languages, nobody actually speaks them except for TV and radio announcers. What people do speak are regional dialects.

I speak the dialect of Bergen (“bergensk”), a dialect known for its mix of bokmål and nynorsk words, a heap of uniquely Bergen ones (like saying “boss” rather than the Norwegian “søppel” when referring to garbage), no feminine gender (it’s “sola” everywhere else and “solen” in Bergen, when speaking about the sun, a feminine noun in Norwegian), and a strong gutteral R, unique to Bergen. No sing-songy accent, though; western Norwegian accents have a lilt similar to English. The sing-songers are “back east” and Swedes. In other words, I sound nothing like the king, whose accent is from the posher parts of the Oslo area. Also, there is no king’s Norwegian; the royal family, like all Norwegians, speak whatever is their local dialect. Our crown princess, Mette-Marit, has kept her Kristiansand-accent with its soft guttural R.

Mette-Marit is not an exception. As a rule, people don’t change their dialects when they move. Not any more. People from northern Norway could be bullied and discriminated against in Oslo, so they’d drop their distinctive northern accent and adopt a generic eastern Norwegian mode of speaking. Bullying because of a dialect has happened, but in my lifetime that sort of thing has faded.

Regional dialect shows roots, heritage and identity, and is a source of pride. It may soften with exposure to others or out of necessity, but no one ever really gets rid of their native accent. Norwegians do not have the habit of moderating their accents when encountering outsiders, and there is no standardized spoken Norwegian that everyone can freely use without being called a snob or a fake. This poses huge challenges for a foreigner who has learned only one form of Norwegian and then encounters other dialects (or nynorsk in print). Or for someone from Bergen who encounters someone from Trondheim.

Due to television and radio being based in Oslo, there is an odd phenomenon one can observe with Norwegian children: When playing, they’ll switch to an Oslo accent. I’ve even done that, sing-songing away with my other bergensk-speaking friends.

All of the above is taking place in a country of about 4.7 million people. It is said that every valley and every mountain top has its own dialect; my impression is that that is a conservative estimate. 😉 I said that we don’t bully each other over regional accents, but we do fight over the written versions. Passions are extreme when it comes to which form of written Norwegian to learn.

I write in bokmål, which is standard for Bergen. I do this in spite of having attended a nynorsk school, which was common for the rural area next-door to Bergen. The truth is, I’ve forgotten how to write in nynorsk since my exposure to it is so small. (And, no, I’m not forgetting to capitalize the names of the languages; they aren’t capitalized in Norwegian.)

A nynorsk school means that the main language taught in and with is nynorsk; all school books are printed in that language. Bokmål is then taught as a side language; it’s mandatory. In bokmål schools, the main language is bokmål, with nynorsk on the side. Because of the structure of nynorsk and all its dialect-derived words, it is a hard language to learn for someone who has been exposed mainly to bokmål. This is part of why passions still run high about the two languages.

Me, with my exposure to nynorsk and to regional west coast dialects that sound like nynorsk, I love reading the articles in my local newspaper that are written in that language, and I prefer news announcers who speak nynorsk because it sounds clearer and even more melodic. For this reason, I’ve survived the fact that most episodes of Columbo on Norwegian TV (NRK) have been sub-titled in nynorsk. NRK, as a government-owned broadcaster, is obligated to use nynorsk in 25 % of its programming, including sub-titles.

I know enough about Norway and Norwegians to understand the frustration with nynorsk and yet the desire to hang on to it. Almost 200 years later, the Norwegians are still trying to free themselves from the 400-year reign of the Danes.

By Keera Ann Fox

I am a bi-lingual American who has lived most of my life in Norway.
Jeg er en tospråklig amerikaner som har bodd mesteparten av mitt liv i Norge.

4 replies on “Norwegian not spoken here”

I love learning about Norway from you, Keera – you're a great ambassador for your capitalization of language names – in Japanese all language names are capitalized except for English!I'm not sure what to make of that…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s