The Norwegian language conflict (målstriden, språkstriden or sprogstriden) is an ongoing controversy within Norwegian culture and politics related to spoken and written versions of the Norwegian language. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Danish was the standard written language of Norway due to Danish rule. As a result, the development of modern written Norwegian has been subject to controversy related to nationalism, rural versus urban, Norway’s literary history, dialect versus standard language, spelling reform, and orthography.
In the United Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway (1536–1814), the official language was Danish. The urban Norwegian upper class spoke Dano-Norwegian, a form of Danish with Norwegian pronunciation and other minor local differences. After the two countries separated in 1814, Dano-Norwegian remained the official language of Norway and evolved gradually to incorporate Norwegian forms. In the early 20th century, a more activist approach to written Norwegian was adopted in public policy, leading to reforms to reflect Norwegian urban and rural vernacular. Initially, the Norwegian successor to Dano-Norwegian was known as riksmål, but since 1929, this official written standard has been known as Bokmål. Later attempts to bring it closer to and eventually merge it with the other Norwegian written standard, Nynorsk, constructed on the basis of Norwegian dialects, have failed due to widespread resistance.
The Norwegian language is a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Norway, where it is an official language. As established by law and governmental policy, there are two official forms of written Norwegian—Bokmål (literally „book language“) and Nynorsk (literally „new Norwegian“). There is no officially sanctioned spoken standard of Norwegian, but according to some, there is a de facto spoken standard of Bokmål called Standard Østnorsk (Standard East Norwegian). Historically, Bokmål is a Norwegianized variety of Danish, while Nynorsk is a language form based on Norwegian dialects and puristic opposition to Danish.
The now abandoned official policy to merge Bokmål and Nynorsk into one common language called Samnorsk through a series of spelling reforms has created a wide spectrum of varieties of both Bokmål and Nynorsk. The unofficial form known as Riksmål is considered more conservative than Bokmål, and the unofficial Høgnorsk is not affected by the Samnorsk policy, unlike Nynorsk. Norwegians are educated in both their own language form (hovedmål/hovudmål) and their secondary language form (sidemål); with the primary focus being on their own language form. Danish and Norwegian Bokmål are very similar languages. Most speakers of the three Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish) can read each other’s languages without great difficulty. The primary obstacles to mutual comprehension are differences in pronunciation. Spoken dialects vary throughout Scandinavia, but are broadly mutually intelligible throughout all three countries, including across national borders.
The earliest examples of non-Danish, Norwegian writing are from the 12th century, with Konungs skuggsjá being the prime example. The language in use at this time is known as Old Norse, and was widely used in writing in Norway and Iceland. The languages of Sweden and Denmark at this time were not very different from that of Norway, and are often also called Old Norse. Although some regional variations are apparent in written documents from this time, it is hard to know precisely the divisions between spoken dialects. This interim Norwegian is known as middle Norwegian (mellomnorsk).
With the Black Death in 1349, Norway’s economy and political independence collapsed, and the country came under Danish rule. The Norwegian language also underwent rather significant changes, shedding complex grammatical forms and adopting a new vocabulary.
The Norwegian written language at this time gradually fell into disuse and was eventually abandoned altogether in favor of written Danish, the culminating event being the translation in 1604 of Magnus the Lawmender’s code into Danish. The last example found of an original Middle Norwegian document is from 1583.
Norwegian dialects, however, lived on and evolved within the general population as vernacular speech, even as the educated classes gradually adopted a Dano-Norwegian koiné in speech. Paradoxically, the Norwegian-born writer Ludvig Holberg became one of the leading exponents of standard written Danish, even as he retained a few distinctly Norwegian forms in his own writing.
In fact, Norwegian writers—even those who were purists of the Danish language—never fully relinquished their native vocabulary and usage in their writing. Examples include Petter Dass, Johan Nordahl Brun, Jens Zetlitz, and Christian Tullin. Although Danish was the official language of the realm, Norwegian writers experienced a disparity between the languages they spoke and wrote.
In 1814, Norway separated from Denmark and adopted its own constitution. It was forced into a new, but weaker, union with Sweden, and the situation evolved into what follows:
The dissolution of Denmark–Norway occurred in the era of the emerging European nation states. In accordance with the principles of romantic nationalism, legitimacy was given to the young and still-forming nation of Norway by way of its history and culture, including the Norwegian language. Norwegian writers gradually adopted distinctly Norwegian vocabulary in their work. Henrik Wergeland may have been the first to do so; but it was the collected folk tales by Jørgen Moe and Peter Christen Asbjørnsen that created a distinct Norwegian written style. This created some opposition from the conservatives, most notably from the poet Johan Sebastian Welhaven. The influential playwright Henrik Ibsen was inspired by the nationalistic movement, but in his later writings he wrote mostly in standard Danish, probably out of concern for his Danish audience.
By 1866, the Dane Andreas Listov found it necessary to publish a book of about 3,000 terms that needed translation from Norwegian to Danish. Though most of these terms were probably taken straight from Aasmund Olavsson Vinje’s travel accounts, the publication reflected a widespread recognition that much written Norwegian no longer was pure Danish.
By the mid-18th century, two Norwegian linguistic pioneers had started the work that would influence the linguistic situation to this day. Ivar Aasen, autodidact, polyglot, and the founder of modern Norwegian linguistics, started studying first his own dialect from Sunnmørelandsmål. His work was based on two important principles, in morphology he chose forms which he regarded as common denominators from which contemporary varieties could be inferred, in lexicography he applied puristic principles and excluded words of Danish or Middle Low German descent when at least some dialects had preserved synonyms inherited from Old Norse. In 1885, landsmål was adopted as an official written language alongside the Norwegian version of Danish.
, and then the structure of Norwegian dialects in general. He was one of the first to describe the evolution from Old Norse to Modern Norwegian. From this he moved to advocate and design a distinctly Norwegian written language he termed
Knud Knudsen, a teacher, worked instead to adapt the orthography more closely to the spoken Dano-Norwegian koiné known as „cultivated daily speech“ (dannet dagligtale). He argued that the cultivated daily speech was the best basis for a distinct Norwegian written language, because the educated classes did not belong to any specific region, they were numerous, and possessed cultural influence. Knudsen was also influenced by and a proponent of the common Dano-Norwegian movement for phonemic orthography. The written form of Norwegian based on his work eventually became known as riksmål, a term introduced by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson in 1899.
As a result of Knudsen’s work, the Parliament of Norway passed the first orthographical reforms in 1862, most of which also had its proponents in Denmark. Though modest in comparison to subsequent reforms, it nevertheless marked a legislative step toward a distinct written standard for Norway. Silent e‘s were eliminated from written Norwegian (faa rather than faae), double vowels were no longer used to denote long vowels, k replaced the use of c, q, and ch in most words, and ph was eliminated in favor of f.
Such orthographic reforms continued in subsequent years, but in 1892 the Norwegian department of education approved the first set of optional forms in the publication of Nordahl Rolfsens Reader for the Primary School (Læsebog for Folkeskolen). Also, in 1892, national legislation let each local school board the right to decide whether to teach its children in riksmål or landsmål.
In 1907, linguistic reforms were extended to include not just orthography but also grammar. The characteristic Norwegian „hard“ consonants (p, t, k) replaced Danish „soft“ consonants (b, d, g) in writing; consonants were doubled to denote short vowels; words that in Norwegian were monosyllabic were spelled that way; and conjugations related to neutrum were adapted to common Norwegian usage in cultivated daily speech.
In 1913 Olaf Bull’s crime novel Mit navn er Knoph (My name is Knoph) became the first piece of Norwegian literature to be translated from Riksmål into Danish for Danish readers, thereby underlining the fact that Riksmål was by now a separate language.
In 1906, prominent writers of landsmål formed an association to promote their version of written Norwegian, calling themselves Noregs Mållag; a year later, the corresponding organization to promote riksmål was founded, naming itself Riksmålsforbundet. The formation of these organizations coincided with the rule that all incoming university students – those who passed examen artium – had to demonstrate mastery of both for admission to university programs. They had to write a second additional essay in the Norwegian language that was not their primary language.
In 1911, the writer Gabriel Scott’s comedic play Tower of Babel had its premiere in Oslo. It is about a small town in eastern Norway that is overtaken by proponents of landsmål who take to executing all those who resist their language. The play culminates in the landsmål proponents killing each other over what to call their country: Noregr, Thule, Ultima, Ny-Norig, or Nyrig. The last line is spoken by a country peasant who, seeing the carnage, says: „Good thing I didn’t take part in this!“
There was at least one brawl in the audience during the play’s run, and the stage was set for a linguistic schism that would characterize Norwegian politics to this day.
To confuse matters further, Eivind Berggrav, Halvdan Koht, and Didrik Arup Seip formed a third organization called Østlandsk reisning that sought to increase the representation, as it were, of Eastern Norwegian dialects in landsmål, since they felt Aasen’s language as overly influenced by the dialects of Western Norway.
In 1917, the Norwegian parliament passed the first major standard for both Norwegian languages. The standard for riksmål was for the most part a continuation of the 1907 reforms and added some optional forms that were closer to Norwegian dialects, but those for landsmål sought to reduce forms that were considered idiosyncratic for Western Norway.
As it turned out, the reforms within riksmål themselves caused controversy – between those who held that the written language should closely approximate the formal language of the educated elite on the one hand, and those who held that it should reflect the quotidian language of commoners on the other. A distinction was made between „conservative“ and „radical“ riksmål. This added a further political dimension to the debate that opened for a possible convergence between more liberal forms of landsmål and radical forms of riksmål. This was to form the basis for the notion of samnorsk, a synthesis – yet to be realized – of the two main streams of written Norwegian.
By 1921, school districts had made their choice in the growing controversy: 2,000 taught landsmål as the primary written language; 2,550 the radical form of riksmål, and 1,450 conservative riksmål. In 1920, national authorities decided that the issue of language should be put to voters in local referendums, which brought the dispute to a local level where it was no less contentious. In Eidsvoll, for example, a local banker (Gudbrand Bræk, the father of Ola Skjåk Bræk) was threatened with being run out of town over his support for samnorsk.
Already in the late 19th century, place-names in Norway started changing, ideally to reflect what they were called by their residents. In 1917, 188 municipalities were renamed; all counties were given new names in 1918; and several of the largest cities were renamed in the 1920s; notably Kristiania became Oslo, Fredrikshald became Halden, for example. Some of these changes were less popular. For example, some residents of Sandviken were none too pleased about the „radical“ change to Sandvika, nor were many in nearby Fornebo willing to accept Fornebu. The greatest controversy erupted over the city of Trondheim, which had until then been known as Trondhjem, but in the Viking era had been called Nidaros. After the authorities had decided – without consulting the population – that the city should be renamed Nidaros, a compromise was eventually reached, with Trondheim.
In 1911, the Kristiansund school board circulated among its teachers a document that required that their oral instruction had to be in the same language as the district’s written language, in this case riksmål. A teacher, Knut Grimstad, refused to accept this on the grounds that neither the school district nor the Norwegian national authorities had the right to impose a version of a spoken language as instruction. He found support in the 1878 resolution that required that all students – „as much as possible“ – should receive instruction in a language close to their native tongue. This was subsequently clarified to mean that they were supposed to be taught in „the Norwegian language,“ a phrase also open to interpretation.
Grimstad was forced to apologize for the form of his protest, but the issue nevertheless came up in parliament in 1912. This became one of the first political challenges for the new Konow cabinet, falling under the auspices of Edvard Appoloniussen Liljedahl, the minister of churches and education. Liljedahl was a respected and dyed-in-the-wool member of the landsmål camp, having actually addressed the parliament in his native dialect from Sogn. For his rebuke of Grimstad’s position, he was vilified by his own.
Trying to find a compromise, his department confirmed the principle of teaching in the „local common spoken language“ while also requires that they be „taught in the language decided for their written work.“ This now attracted the ire of the riksmål camp.
Parliament and the department hoped that this clarification would put the issue to rest; but in 1923, the school board in Bergen decided that the spoken language in all its schools would be riksmål. Olav Andreas Eftestøl, the school director for this region – there were seven such appointees for the entire country of Norway – took this decision to the department in 1924, and another parliamentary debate ensued. Eftestøl’s view was endorsed, and this put an end to the discussion about spoken language in schools; although it took longer before native speakers of Sami and Kven got the same rights; and the issue has re-emerged recently with respect to immigrant children’s native language.
The ascent of the Norwegian Labour Party turned out to be decisive in passing the 1917 reforms, and one Labour politician – the illustrious Halvdan Koht – was in the early 1920s asked to develop the party’s political platform for the Norwegian language.
Koht was for some years both the chairman of Noregs mållag and Østlandsk reisning and immersed on the issue of language. He published his findings in 1921, and framed them in a decidedly political context.
His view, which was to gain currency among his fellow Labourites, was that the urban working class and rural farming class had a convergence of interests in language, giving rise to the emergent „people’s language“ (folkemålet). He wrote that „The struggle for the people’s language is the cultural side of the labor movement.“ This notion of convergence led the Labour Party to embrace the ideal of a synthesis of the two main languages into one language, built on the spoken forms of the „common person“, or samnorsk.
Having already changed the names of the languages: riksmål became bokmål and landsmål nynorsk by parliamentary resolution of 1929, the Labour party made Koht their thought leaders and spokesperson on these issues, formalizing his views into their platform.
The 1938 reforms, proposed under the first durable Labour cabinet of Johan Nygaardsvold, represented a radical departure from previous reforms.
The reforms clearly aspired to bring the two languages closer together and predictably angered advocates in each camp. In particular, the proponents of riksmål felt the reforms were a frontal assault on their written language and sensibilities, since many elements of their previous norm – dannet dagligtale – were deprecated. But also purists in the landsmål camp were unhappy, feeling that the reforms gutted their language.
The occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1945 took the language issue off the national political scene. The Quisling government rescinded the 1938 reforms and made some changes of its own, but as with virtually everything Quisling did, this was rendered null and void by the post-war Norwegian government.
As it turned out, the war set the nynorsk movement back substantially. The momentum gained by the Labour party’s activism for nynorsk was lost during the war, and Noreg mållag’s entire archive was lost in 1944. An opinion poll in 1946 showed that 79% of all Norwegians favored the formation of samnorsk, setting further back the cause of the purists who favored the traditional landsmål forms.
On the other side of the issue, the poet Arnulf Øverland galvanized Riksmålsforbundet in opposition not to nynorsk, which he respected, but against the radical bokmål recommended by the 1938 reforms. Their efforts were particularly noted in Oslo, where the school board had decided to make radical forms of bokmål the norm in 1939 („Oslo-vedtaket“). In 1951, concerned parents primarily from the affluent western neighborhoods of Oslo organized the „parents‘ campaign against samnorsk“ (foreldreaksjonen mot samnorsk), which in 1953 included „correcting“ textbooks.
In 1952, Øverland and Riksmålsforbundet published the so-called „blue list“ that recommended more conservative orthography and forms than most of the 1938 reforms. This book established for the first time a real alternative standard in riksmål to legislated bokmål. It set the standard for two of the capital’s main daily newspapers, Aftenposten and Morgenbladet. It also contributed to the reversal of the „Oslo decision“ in 1954.
In 1951, the Norwegian parliament established by law Norsk språknemnd, which later was renamed Norsk språkråd (Norwegian Language Council). Riksmålsforeningen disagreed with the premises of the council’s mandate, namely that Norwegian was to be built on the basis of the „people’s language.“ The council was convened with 30 representatives, 15 from each of the main languages. However, most of them supported samnorsk.
In 1952, a minor reform passed with little fanfare and controversy: in spoken official Norwegian, numbers over 20 were to be articulated with the tens first, e.g., „twenty-one“ as is the Swedish and English practice rather than „one-and-twenty,“ the previous practice also found in Danish and German.
Arnulf Øverland, who had so successfully energized the riksmål movement after the war, did not see nynorsk as the nemesis of his cause. Rather, he appealed to the nynorsk movement to join forces against the common enemy he found in samnorsk. By several accounts, however, much of the activism within the riksmål camp was directed against all „radical“ tendencies, including nynorsk.
The use of bokmål and nynorsk in the government-controlled Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) came under a particular scrutiny. As a government agency (and monopoly) that has traditionally been strongly associated with the Nynorsk-supporting Norwegian Labour Party, NRK was required to include both languages in its broadcasts. According to their own measurements, well over 80% was in bokmål and less than 20% nynorsk. Still, the riksmål advocates were outraged, since they noted that some of the most popular programs (such as the 7 pm news) were broadcast in nynorsk, and the bokmål was too radical in following the 1938 norms.
This came to a head in the case of Sigurd Smebye, a meteorologist who insisted on using highly conservative riksmål terms in reporting the weather. This ended up on the parliamentary floor, where the minister had to assure the public that anyone was entitled to use his/her own dialect on the air. However, Smebye was effectively disallowed from performing on television and ended up suing and prevailing over NRK in a supreme court case.
At the same time, one of the announcers for children’s radio shows complained that her texts had been corrected from riksmål to 1938-bokmål, e.g., from Dukken lå i sengen sin på gulvet to Dokka lå i senga si på golvet. With the 1959 reforms, the issue seems to have been resolved – everyone in NRK could use their own natural spoken language.
As its first major work, the language council published in 1959 new standards for textbooks. The purpose of a unified standard was to avoid multiple versions of standard books to accommodate „moderate,“ „radical,“ and „conservative“ versions of the languages. The standard was by its nature a continuation of the convergence movement toward the ever-elusive goal of samnorsk. Double consonants to denote short vowels are put in common use; the silent „h“ is eliminated in a number of words; more „radical“ forms in bokmål are made primary; while nynorsk actually offers more choices.
However, it appeared that the 1959 attempt was the last gasp of the samnorsk movement. After this, the Norwegian Labour Party decided to depoliticize language issues by commissioning expert panels on linguistic issues.
In January 1964, a committee was convened by Helge Sivertsen, minister of education, with Professor Hans Vogt as its chair. It was variously known as the „Vogt committee“ or „language peace committee“ (språkfredskomitéen). Its purpose was to defuse the conflict about language in Norway and build an atmosphere of mutual respect.
The committee published its findings in 1966, pointing out that:
These findings were subject to hearings and discussions in coming years in a decidedly more deliberate form than before; and a significant outcome was the Norsk språknemnd became Norsk språkråd, responsible less for prescribing language than for cultivating it. Still, the Vogt committee promoted convergence as a virtue.
The Norwegian countercultural movement and the emergence of the New Left sought to disassociate itself from the conservative establishment in many ways, including language. At the universities, students were encouraged to „speak their dialect, write nynorsk,“ and radical forms of bokmål were adopted by urban left wing socialists.
The first debate about Norwegian EU membership leading to the 1972 referendum gave new meaning to rural culture and dialects. The nynorsk movement gained new momentum, putting rural districts and the dialects more in the center of Norwegian politics.
In 1973, Norsk språkråd instructed teachers to no longer correct students who used conservative riksmål in their writing, provided these forms were used consistently.
The 1973 recommendation by the council was formally approved by parliament in 1981 in what was known as the „liberalization resolution“ (liberaliseringsvedtaket). With the exception of a few „banner words“ (riksmål nu rather than bokmål nå („now“), efter rather than etter („after“), sne rather than snø („snow“), and ironically sprog rather than språk („language“)), traditional riksmål forms were fully accepted in contemporary bokmål, though all the radical forms were retained.
On 13 December 2002 the samnorsk ideal was finally officially abandoned when the Ministry of Culture and Church affairs sent out a press release to that effect. The primary motivation for this change in policy was the emerging recognition that government policy should not prohibit forms that are in active use and had a strong basis in the body of Norwegian literary work.
This was further formalized in the so-called „2005-reforms“ that primarily affected orthography for bokmål. So-called „secondary forms“ (sideformer) were abolished. These forms were variant spellings that would be tolerated by the general public, but disallowed among text book authors and public officials. The 2005 changes now made all allowable forms equal standing. These changes effectively recognize approximately full usage of riksmål forms.
In modern Norway, many of the largest urban centres‘ municipal governments have chosen to declare themselves neutral. However, it can be seen that several large centres have formally adopted the use of Bokmål, and very few larger urban centres use Nynorsk exclusively:
The Samnorsk issue turned out to be fateful for two generations of amateur and professional linguists in Norway and flared up into a divisive political issue from time to time. By letting Bokmål be Bokmål (or Riksmål) and Nynorsk Nynorsk, the Norwegian government allowed each—in principle—to develop on its own.
As Norwegian society has integrated more with the global economy and European cosmopolitanism, the effect on both written and spoken Norwegian is evident. There is a greater prevalence of English loan words in Norwegian, and some view this with great concern.
In 2004, the Norwegian Language Council issued Norwegian orthography for 25 originally English words, suggesting that for example „bacon“ be spelled beiken. This was in keeping with previous practices that made stasjon the Norwegian writing for „station,“ etc., but the so-called „beiken reforms“ fell on hard ground, and beiken was one of the spelling changes that was voted down.
There is also a trend, which has been ongoing since the dissolution of the Dano-Norwegian Union in 1814, to assimilate individual Swedish loan words into Norwegian. Although it lost momentum substantially after the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden in 1905 it has remained an ongoing phenomenon of Norwegian linguistics. Indeed, the prominent Norwegian linguist Finn-Erik Vinje characterizes this influx since the Second World War as a breaking wave.
There is further a concern in some quarters that poor grammar and usage is becoming more commonplace in the written press and broadcast media, and consequently among students and the general population. While the sociolinguistic view that language constantly evolves is duly noted among these critics, there is some call for more vigilance in written language. Broadcast programs such as Typisk Norsk and Språkteigen are intended to raise the general awareness of the Norwegian language; the „language director“ Sylfest Lomheim is working to make language issues more visible.