Norwegian – Bokmål and Nynorsk


In response to my last post, on Utøya, John Maidment has asked: “How should “Breivik” be pronounced in Norwegian? I keep hearing /ˈbreɪəvɪk/ or sthg similar from Brits on tv.”

I’ve replied briefly on the specific question, but it raises a more general question.

Norwegian has two standard written forms:

Bokmål, or ‘book language’, has developed from the Dano-Norwegian of the pre-independence (at least from Denmark) era up to 1814, when Denmark was ‘punished’ by the Congress of Vienna for supporting Napoleon, and Norway was given to Sweden in recognition of Sweden’s help in the fight against him. Gradually, as a result of several spelling reforms, more and more of the specific Danish features of the written language have been removed.

Nynorsk, ‘new Norwegian’, the other written standard, was developed later in the 19th century by Ivar Aasen, in order to distance Norwegian rather more from Danish, and he took features of traditional Norwegian dialects of the south and west of Norway. It is ironic that some of these features are archaising, and yet the variety is called “new” Norwegian.

Very few people speak either of the varieties, but instead use their local dialect, which may be closer to one or the other of the written standards. There is a lot of literature in both, and broadcasters usually stick to one variety or the other – they are, after all, mostly reading a script.

It sometimes seems to foreigners (i.e. non-Norwegians) that there are almost more spoken dialects of the language than there are Norwegians to speak them, and this in a way makes the language easier to learn – very often the foreign learner simply appears to come from some remote valley whose dialect the listener has never encountered before. Norwegians are also very forgiving of the mistakes that foreigners make. After all, not many visitors to the country bother to learn anything of the language.

More later.

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