Norway is home to two official languages – Norwegian and Sami. Norwegian is by far the language spoken by most people.
Like Swedish, Danish and Icelandic, Norwegian is a Germanic language derived from Old Norse. There are, however, two ways of writing Norwegian – bokmål and nynorsk. This division of Norwegian has a historical explanation: Bokmål is based on written Danish, which was the official language of Norway for more than four hundred years (1380–1814). Nynorsk was created in the 1850s, and is a compilation and combination of mostly Western Norwegian regional dialects. If you have a good command of Norwegian you’re not only able to communicate with Norwegians, but also with people in Sweden and Denmark. The languages of the three Scandinavian countries are similar and in most cases you can speak in Norwegian to Danes and Swedes, and also read text written in Swedish and Danish.
Officially, bokmål and nynorsk have been accorded equal status. The languages are not very far apart, but do reflect large regional differences. The majority of the people in Norway are using Bokmål, and it is widely used in Eastern Norway. Nynorsk is used by about 10–15 per cent of the population – mostly on the west coast. Generally, if you understand one of the two languages, you can understand the other fairly easily. However, it should be noted that Bokmål and Nynorsk are not classified as two different languages where you have to learn the other as a foreign language. In short one could say that they are more two different written norms. Thus, text written in Bokmål is perfectly understandable for a person using Nynorsk, and vice versa.
The Sami languages are, on the other hand, completely different from Norwegian. Nevertheless, Northern Sami has been established as an official language equal to Norwegian. It is mostly used by the indigenous Sami people in Troms and Finnmark – two regions in Northern Norway.
The fairly complex language situation in Norway can help explain our quite unique acceptance of dialects. The same word can be pronounced in a hundred different ways across Norway – and still no dialect is considered to have more worth than another.
Very few Norwegians, if anybody, speak the way a text is written, whether it’s in Bokmål or Nynorsk. Instead we make use of our local dialects. For Norwegians the dialect makes up an important part of their identity, and by listening to a person’s dialect we can in most cases determine with good accuracy from which part of the country he or she is from. Beginners to the Norwegian language might find some dialects hard to understand, but Norwegians are understanding and speak closer to the written language if they notice you don’t understand them.
The vast majority of Norwegians speak English in addition to Norwegian – and generally on a very high level. Many university degree programmes and courses are taught in English.
What Language Is Spoken In Norway?
You could say ‘Norwegian,’ but that wouldn’t tell the entire story.
“What language is spoken in Norway?” sounds like a freebie question asked during the warmup round of your local bar’s trivia tournament. But while it wouldn’t be wrong to say “Norwegian” if you had to keep your answer short, there’s a lot more nuance to the linguistic topography of Norway.
Not only does the Norwegian language have a complex history (and two written standards used by contemporary Norwegians), but also it coexists with other indigenous tongues and immigrant languages.
In short, Norway’s official languages include Norwegian — with two written standards that are both officially recognized — as well as Sami, an indigenous language protected by the constitution.
What Language Is Spoken In Norway?
Norwegian is the main official language spoken in Norway, spoken by approximately 95 percent of the population.
Norwegian is a North Germanic tongue that descended from Old Norse, together with Swedish, Icelandic, Danish and Faroese. Though Norwegian developed its own writing system in the 11th century, its literacy rate was diminished by the black plague in the 14th century. Soon after, Norway united with Denmark, elevating the status of the Danish language. In the 1800s, Norway declared its independence again. Due to the long period of Danish rule, there was no written standard for Norwegian at the time, which led to the eventual creation of the two written standards used today.
The written standards are called Nynorsk and Bokmål. Nynorsk (formerly known as Landsmål) is considered the official language of four counties in Western Norway, but its prevalence is in decline. Even though learning to write it is mandatory for schoolchildren, only a small sliver of the population uses it as a primary means of communication. In contrast, 80 to 90 percent of Norway’s population uses Bokmål as its written standard.
Due to the complex nature of Norway’s history, you’ll find that few Norwegians speak the way they write. An abundant mix of spoken dialects exists in Norway.
Sami is a Uralic language spoken by the indigenous Sami people, and there are several varieties of it spoken in Norway, including North Sami, Lule Sami, Pite Sami, Ume Sami and South Sami. Though the Sami languages have official protected status in Norway thanks to the Sami Act and creation of the Sami Parliament in 1989, most Sami people today no longer consider Sami to be their first language.
Immigrant And Minority Languages
Norway is home to immigrant populations of Swedes, Finns, Russians and Romanis (among many others), all of whom speak their mother tongues. Romani, in particular, is a relatively large minority language in Norway, with about 500 speakers of Vlax Romani and 6,000 speakers of Tavringer Romani.
The Norwegian Traveller language, or Rodi, is spoken by the Norwegian Traveller population, a nomadic indigenous minority group (not to be confused with wandering groups with Romani heritage that also exist in Norway). The language is related to Norwegian but has Northern Romani and German Rotwelsch lexical influences.
Kven is a dialect of Finnish spoken by a small population of people in the northeastern part of the country. It’s more similar to Tornedalen Finnish than Standard Finnish, but they’re generally mutually intelligible, minus some differences in vocabulary.
As it’s the most popular foreign language taught in school, nearly 90 percent Norwegians are also fluent in English by the time they’re teenagers. Norway is one of the top five countries in the EF English Proficiency Index.
The Languages of Norway
Many languages are used in Norway, and there is more than one flavour of Norwegian. Let’s look at the most common languages of Norway.
This article forms part of our long-running series on how to learn Norwegian.
Learning a language is an important aspect of relocating to any country, but in Norway there are some extra things to consider before diving in.
What languages do Norwegians speak?
As their native language, Norwegians speak Norwegian, and write in one or both of the two principal written forms of the language: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Both of these are taught in schools.
English is taught from around the age of 8 and so most Norwegians are fluent by the time they reach their teenage years.
Many also choose to learn a second foreign language either at school or for fun, with German and Spanish seeming to be the most popular options at the moment. Of course, there are also some minority languages including Sami and Kven that are spoken natively by some select groups.
Now let’s look at the languages of Norway in a little more detail, because if you’re going to be learning Norwegian, it’s important to know the differences.
Before the union with Denmark that saw a version of Danish become commonplace, Old Norwegian was widely spoken. It was a variety of Old Norse similar to Old Icelandic but with strong local variants throughout Norway.
Following the outbreak of the Black Death, the language underwent many changes, most notably a simplification of grammar and a reduction in vowels. The language during this period is now referred to as Middle Norwegian.
When most people refer to the Norwegian of today, what they’re really talking about is Bokmål, or the Book Language. A written language used by 80-90% of Norway’s population and in the vast majority of municipalities, Bokmål has its roots in Danish.
Bokmål was officially adopted more than 100 years ago as an adaptation of written Danish, which was commonly used during and since the long political union with Denmark. The predecessor Riksmål is very similar (the difference is often compared to American v British English) and still used today in some areas as a spelling standard.
I say it’s a written language, because there is no spoken standard of Norwegian, and Norway’s strong regional dialects (such as nordnorsk) can significantly change what you hear when someone is speaking – more so than in many other countries.
That said, most foreigners are taught to speak the Oslo dialect, which is seen by many as an unofficial standard. It’s also sometimes called Eastern Norwegian, or Standard Norwegian.
A more recent development is a spoken form of the language known as kebabnorsk. It’s a fusion of Norwegian and foreign languages, and can be heard on the streets in parts of Oslo.
The other written standard for the language is known as Nynorsk, or new Norwegian. Its history is complex, but despite the name it is meant to better reflect the Old/Middle Norwegian language used before the union with Denmark.
Although used as the primary language is many municipalities and schools, these are largely rural and so only around 12-15% of the population use Nynorsk as their primary form.
However, Nynorsk is a mandatory subject for schoolchildren in Norway, so the understanding of the alternative spellings is high. Nynorsk is also regularly seen on the website of the state broadcaster, NRK, whose journalists are free to use either form.
The Sami language – or more accurately group of languages – is spoken natively by less than 50,000 in Norway, yet it has official minority language status.
Since the Sami Act and the creation of the Sami Parliament in 1989, the language has seen a renewed focus with governmental support and grants available to writers and other creatives actively using the language. Whether this results in increased native use remains to be seen.
One of the issues is that there are ten variants of Sami, some of which are notably different. All of them have one thing in common though. They are wildly different from Norwegian!
Sami has its roots in the Uralic language family (of which Hungarian and Finnish are the best known) so they are impossible for native Scandinavian language speakers to understand.
I don’t know how close Sami is to Finnish, so if there are any Finnish readers out there, please drop me a note and let me know!
But wait, we’re not finished yet!
The Kven language is spoken by the Kven people, a minority group in northern Norway with strong Finnish heritage. The language is said to be spoken by as few as 10,000 people, the majority of which are of retired age, so there is a big risk of it dying out in the coming years.
The language is essentially a strong dialect of Finnish. Two notable features are the high number of Norwegian loan words and the use of Finnish words that are no longer used in Finland. This reminds me of some Norwegian Americans that use phrasing and terms that are no longer used in modern Norway.
The English language in Norway
It would be wrong of me to publish an article about what languages are spoken in Norway without mentioning the obvious elephant in the room: English!
English is taught from the third year of school, which is basically from the age of 8 onwards although some ‘fun’ games involving counting, colours and so on could’ve started a year or two earlier.
Nevertheless, it’s common for kids to already have a decent grasp on the language by the age of 8 because of YouTube, Netflix and the like!
By the time they reach the teenage years, the vast majority of Norwegians are fluent in English, and that ability sustains itself throughout adult life with the exposure to English language culture on TV, film and online.
English is also increasingly becoming the business language of Norway. Of course this isn’t true for all sectors, but in science and engineering, many offices operate on an English-first policy.
What languages of Norway should I learn?
If you are considering relocating to Norway, you do face a choice. Learning Norwegian is an absolute must if you plan to remain in Norway on a long-term basis. To become a citizen or permanent resident, the majority of people will need to pass Norwegian exams in written, listening and oral skills.
The choice between learning bokmål or nynorsk comes down to where you live. For most learners, bokmål is the obvious choice. This is because the vast majority of educational material is available in bokmål.
If you’re moving to Bergen or a rural part of Western Norway, you could consider Nynorsk. However, I still recommend learning bokmål first, then switching to nynorsk when you’ve mastered the basics.
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