«Kunnskap for framtida»
Volda University College

From Old Norse to Middle Norwegian


Norwegian forms, together with Icelandic and Faroese, the western division of the Scandinavian group of languages, collectively the northern branch of  Germanic. Norwegian is spoken by some 4.2 million inhabitants of Norway, and by Norwegian emigrants and guest-workers abroad, now principally in Sweden, Denmark and the USA. There are two written forms, Nynorsk and Bokmål (see below), before 1929 known respectively as Landsmål and Riksmål.

From Old Norse to Middle Norwegian

The transition from Old Norse to Middle Norwegian is generally dated to c.1350, and from Middle Norwegian to Modern Norwegian to c.1536. Both dates are of immediate political rather than linguistic significance, and represent stages in the decline of Norwegian as a medium of written communication. Nevertheless the transition from Old Norse to Middle Norwegian in the spoken language was marked. In Old Norse stressed syllables could be either long or short: in Middle Norwegian they became invariably long. Significant dialectal differences arose from whether the vowel or following consonant was lengthened. In addition to the complex inflections of Old Norse were greatly simplified in Middle Norwegian, even in conservative dialects in the interior of the country. The loss of many inflections resulted in a more fixed syntax. The subjunctive was largely lost.

Decline of the written language

The economic base of medieval aristocratic society in Norway was terminally weakened by the end of the 13th c., and from 1319 the country found itself as the minor partner in a series of political unions with Sweden, Denmark, or both. The political centre of the country moved outside its borders, and from 1389 there was no longer a Norwegian Chancery in Oslo. None the less Norwegian was used in correspondence from the monarch and Chancery in Copenhagen to Norwegians until 1450. From 1478 all such correspondence was conducted in Danish. Norwegian survived at lower levels of secular administration until c.1500. One factor in its relative longevity was the protracted use of the laws written down in Old Norse during the reign of Håkon V (1299 – 1319). Norwegian vanished from use in the Catholic Church only in 1510; in that year the last Norwegian-born archbishop died. Letters in something recognizable as Norwegian from peasants survive from some time into the16th c. By far the greatest part of the extant material in Middle Norwegian has been published in the series Diplomatarium Norwegicum.
 Norwegian society, already in decline before 1350, was dealt a fatal blow by the Black Death, in which a third of the population perished, large areas of the country were abandoned and the vernacular literate learning of the priesthood was largely lost. Given the enduring strength of the Old Norse literary tradition in the 13th c., the extreme paucity of original literature in Norwegian in the 14th is remarkable. The increasingly dialectal nature of writing in the 14th and 15th centuries is evidence of the gradual breakdown of the written tradition, of central authority generally, and bears witness to extensive foreign influence. From the 14th c. foreign trade was controlled by the Low German speakers of the Hanseatic League, and what was left of the Norwegian aristocracy became increasingly intermarried with Swedes. In the 15th c. royal policy deliberately transplanted Danes and north Germans to administer Norway. Cultural and translation loans and Low German affixes rapidly became established in Middle Norwegian writing, which was soon replaced by often heavily Germanized Danish. Much of this Low German/Danish material entered the dialects, particularly those of the towns and of the areas facing Denmark or otherwise in particularly close trading relations with Hanseatic and urban settlements. Isolated inner fjord and mountain areas, on the other and, preserved more of the lexical material and morphological structure of Norwegian. The consequences for Norwegian of borrowing from Low German have been profound, comparable in scale and effect to the impact of Norman French on English.


As a literary medium Norwegian is some significance, although the three best known literary Norwegians all wrote essentially in Danish: Holberg (1684-1754), Ibsen (1828-1906) and Hamsun (1859-1952). The lyrical tradition has always been particularly strong in Nynorsk; Olav H. Hauge (1908-94) was a major 20th-c. European poet, although little known abroad. Nynorsk derives a particular lyrical expressiveness from its concreteness, from the unsullied lexical resources of the dialects, and from is easy accommodation of the rhythms of speech. Nynorsk has no strong dramatic tradition, although paradoxically the best equipped, newest, largest and most innovative theatre in Oslo stages works exclusively in Nynorsk. There have been few great epic writers in Nynorsk: exceptions were Olav Duun (1876-1939) and Kristoffer Uppdal (1878 – 1961). As befits its function as a perpetual alternative, Nynorsk has more often been the medium of the picaresque (Kjartan Fløgstad (1944-)), the early Edward Hoem (1950-) and the critical. The dramatic tradition in Bokmål has never recaptured the grandeurs of Ibsen. Neither are there many significant poets writing in Bokmål; exceptions are Jan Erik Vold (1939-) and Rolf Jacobsen (1907-94). Bokmål has had an impressively strong prose tradition, from the early feminist novels of Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) to the Socialist Realism and Post-Realism of Dag Solstad (1941-).


Writers on parchment and vellum during the Middle Norwegian period used Latin script. This had been introduced from England at some point during the mid-11th c.; the Modern Norwegian alphabet consists of the 26 standard Latin characters with three additions, <æ, ø, å>. There is limited use of diacritics. Runic writing had been practised in Norway from at least the 4th c. AD, and survived as ‘everyman’s alphabet’ (Haugen 1976a: 191) into the Middle Norwegian period. Runic writing survived into the 18th c. in archaic communities such as Oppdal (and the neighbouring region in Sweden), although in general little was produced after the 14th c. A Swedish manual of runology appeared in 1599, after which time runic writing may be the product of indigenous tradition or of book-learning.


Topography and traditionally poor international communications ensured that the dialectal differences which arose during the Old Norse and Middle Norwegian periods grew into modern times. Since the Second World War, increased geographical and social mobility have tended as elsewhere towards the emergence of regional spoken variants and of mixed-dialect speakers. Use of dialect speech is normal and expected in Norway. Periodic attempts in the last century and a half to introduce the notion of a standard spoken language have failed. As early as the 1870s legislation enshrined the right of young schoolchildren to be taught in a spoken form adapted to their own dialect.
 The central dialectal division is between east and west Norwegian. The eastern area covers all of SE and east Norway, the Midland mountain areas to the east of the watershed, and Trøndelag with the northernmost part of west Norway. These three areas supply the three principal subvariants of the dialect. West Norwegian is spoken in all of west Norway west of the watershed and along the south coast to a point about 90 km NW of Kristiansand. The dialects of north Norway also belong to the western group. Each of these two western groups contains three main subvariants. Dialectal differences within each of the two main groups are great, and are readily apprehended by native speakers.
 Norwegian is, apart from Swedish, the only indigenous European tonal language. Phonetically identical words are distinguished semantically by means of accent, called ‘one’ and ‘two’. Accent one (low-high) is historically monosyllabic, accent two (high-low-high) polysyllabic. All Norwegian dialect make the distinction with the exception of an area around Bergen, another in the extreme south of northern Norway and a larger area in the north of Norway. The contours of the accents vary considerably between dialects. In most of Trøndelag a so-called ‘circumflex’ form of accent two has developed in monosyllables which were historically polysyllabic, but were shortened by the loss of final unstressed syllables.

As a written medium Norwegian died out and was replaced by Danish in the Middle Norwegian period. The history of Modern Norwegian writing has two strands: the attempt to resuscitate Norwegian, and the attempt to Norwegianize written Danish.
 The idea that the lost Norwegian written language could somehow be excavated from living peasant speech led to sporadic pre-scientific attempts from the 17th c. onwards to compile glossaries to conservative dialects. National Romanticism, spurred on by Norway’s re-emergence as an administrative entity in 1814 as it was transferred from Denmark to union with Sweden, stimulated debate of the language issue. Three basic positions emerged. One accepted that Norwegian was historically redundant, and sought to cultivate the civilizing graft of linguistic union with Denmark. Alternatively, Norwegian could act as a lexical resource to produce a Dano-Norwegian hybrid for use in Norway. Thirdly, a norm could be created on the basis of one of the more archaic dialects to restore the language to its pristine splendour. Characteristically, none of these solutions addressed itself to the needs of a rapidly expanding and increasingly immiserated peasantry which, since the introduction of obligatory confirmation in 1739, had been forced by the State to literacy in a foreign language, Danish.


It took a brilliant peasant autodidact, Ivar Aasen (1813-96), to formulate a written norm based on contemporary peasant speech. This he called ‘Landsmaal’, an ambiguous term which Aasen intended to mean ‘national language’ but which can be wilfully misunderstood as ‘country language’. Aasen saw the language as a necessary precondition for the non-revolutionary emancipation of the mass of the people, but he skilfully exploited National Romantic rhetoric to win bourgeois support for his project, at least in its earlier phases. The foundations of his work are the first (largely descriptive) and second (normative) editions of his Norwegian grammar. (1848,1864) and Norwegian-Danish dictionary (1850, 1873). Aasen published the first book in Landsmål in 1853, Prøver af Landsmaalet I Norge (’Specimens of the Norwegian National Language’). This contained texts in disparate dialect as well as normalized texts, ranging from folk tales and proverbs to translations of Shakespeare and Shiller. Aasen was also active as a dramatist, essayist and poet. A broadly based social movement grew up around Aasen’s norm from 1868, and it was soon adopted by a number of belletristic writers, particularly those with a rural background. Even in its infancy Aasen’s Landsmål was widely modified according to the dialect background of the writer. It was perceived by many as archaic and too closely based on west Norwegian; these valid criticisms can be explained by Aasen’s own background, by the role he gave Old Norse when reconstructing supradialectal forms, and by coincidence. In 1885 Parliament gave Landsmål notionally equal official status with Danish. As during the National Romantic period, Landsmål benefited from its ‘national’ credentials at a moment of crisis and con-comitant bourgeois identity politics. Theoretical equality had far-reaching consequences and underpinned the subsequent introduction of Landsmål into all areas of public life. Orthographical reforms in 1901, 1917 and 1938 and the introduction of a complicated system of optional forms made Landsmål increasingly accessible to inhabitants of east and north Norway, and led, at least temporarily, to an increase in the number of writers of Landsmål (later Nynorsk) there. In 1892 the use of Landsmål as a medium of education in schools was permitted, and in 1906 an organization was established to propagate the use of Landsmål and defend the rights of its adherents. In 1930 a law was passed which gave the individual the right to receive from public authorities correspondence in whichever form of Norwegian s/he had addressed them.


Bokmål (known until 1929 as Riksmål) grew directly out the Danish written tradition. The folk-tale collectors Asbjørnsen and Moe Norwegianized the syntax of written Danish as early as the 1840s. The principal theorist of Riksmål was Knud Knudsen (1812-95), whose orthophonist reforms were based on the Norwegianized phonology of Danish as it was spoken by the bourgeoisie of Kristiania (later Oslo). In 1862 the first minor orthographical reform of Danish in Norway took place, partly as a result of Knudsen's agitation. By 1886 Knudsen was proposing Norwegianisms so radical that even today they would be acceptable in Bokmål. During the later half of the 19th c. most writing in Norway remained resolutely Danish. Social and cultural conservatism were responsible, as was the literary common market with Denmark. All major Norwegian writers published there, and generally sold better there than at home. Pressure to Norwegianize the written language in the spirit (if not the letter) of Knudsen’s proposals came from schools, particularly after the publication of Nordahl Rolfsen’s reader in 1892. This contained Norwegianisms the children were not themselves permitted to use in written work. In 1907 the first substantial orthographical reform of Riksmål took place in an ideological climate fired by Norway’s newly gained independence. The reforms of 1917 and 1938 were both motivated by the aspiration of merging the two written forms of Norwegian. They were set in train by Liberal and Socialist governments respectively, and both explicitly held up Norwegian popular speech as the arbiter of normalization. This caused few problems in Nynorsk, except in relation to marginal traditionalist groups. The 1938 reform of Bokmål, however, caused some upheaval, delayed until the early 1950s by the German occupation and post-war reconstruction period. Major protests, marches, book-burning and campaign to ‘correct’ school textbooks ensued, especially in the more salubrious western suburbs of Oslo; the protesters found the new forms intolerably plebeian. For the first time, historically Danish forms found in bourgeois Norwegian speech were forbidden in children’s school writing. The labour government took fright, and in 1959 a new norm for use in school textbooks was produced for both forms of Norwegian which implicitly abandoned the project of merger.
 Bokmål has, like Nynorsk, a broad pallet of alternative forms. Unlike Nynorsk, Bokmål has a natural geographical and social centre, the middle class of Oslo and SE Norwegian towns. The economic and political influence of this group, and the relative centralization of Norwegian cultural life, produced an ascendant conservative variety of   Bokmål with a relatively stable norm. More popular forms of Bokmål are relegated to imaginative writing. In current terminology, ‘riksmål’ is used to denote the most conservative variety of Bokmål; this contains a number of forms banned from the official orthography between 1938 and 1081.

Language policy

Today Nynorsk and Bokmål have equal legal status in Norway, at least in theory. Around 25% of Norwegians now living received their primary education in Nynorsk, but the number using it habitually is lower, despite the fact that 70-75% of the population speak dialects more closely represented by Nynorsk than by Bokmål. It is the public sector, where language legislation applies, which ensures the continued use of Nynorsk. In primary schools the voters in each school’s catchment area can decide by referendum what the main form taught in the school will be. Provision exists for parallel classes taught in the other form if a minimum of ten children can be fund for the new class. School language referenda are fiercely fought. At present 17% of children have Nynorsk as their main form, 83% Bokmål; a minority is heavily concentrated in west Norway and in the mountain areas of east Norway which about it. The percentage of children taught in Nynorsk declined from a maximum of 34.1% in 1944 to 16.4% in 1977, but has now increased slightly and stabilized due mainly to parallel classes in towns in west Norway. The first ever Nynorsk class in Oslo started in 1993. Textbooks for upper schools are supposed to be available in either form or, increasingly, are produced in a single edition in both. The principle that all public bodies should be functionally ‘bilingual’ in Norwegian necessitates the teaching of both forms to all children from the age of 15. From the same age pupils choose whether Nynorsk or Bokmål is to be their personal main form.
 Local authorities decide whether they wish to receive correspondence from the central administration in Nynorsk or Bokmål, or to classify themselves as linguistically ‘neutral’. By 1993, 169 authorities had opted for Bokmål, 115 for Nynorsk and 118 were neutral.
 Around a third of all newspapers are registered as using Nynorsk, two-thirds Bokmål. The position of Nynorsk is strongest in the local press in west and central Norway, less so elsewhere.
 Regional newspapers often contain a mixture of Nynorsk and Bokmål, whilst national media are dominated by Bokmål. The State broadcasting organization NRK is bound by Act of Parliament to provide at least 25% of its programming in either form of Norwegian; in fact well over 80% of broadcasts in recent years have been in Bokmål.
The private and commercial sectors are of economy are dominated completely by Bokmål, except for the cooperative movement in west Norway. Language legislation has never applied to the private sector.
Since 1952 an official State body (Norsk språknemnd, from 1972 Norsk språkråd ‘Norwegian Language Council’) has existed to consider and advise on possible orthographical changes, approve school textbooks, consider new terminology, monitor the functioning the linguistic legislation and respond to enquiries from the public. The Council is divided into two sections, one for each form of the language, nominated by a wide range of interested organizations. Whilst the remit of Norsk språknemnd was to bring the two forms closer together, Norsk språkråd has institutionalised the official policy post-1959 of peaceful co-existence between them.

Norwegian outside Norway

In the Middle and Modern Norwegian periods the language has extended little beyond Norway’s borders. The Norwegian colony on the shore of the Kola peninsula in NW Russia was repatriated after 1917, although it is immortalized in the place-name Murmansk (cf. Norwegian nordmann, a Norwegian person). Only in North America did significant Norwegian colonies exist as a result of mass emigration. Only Ireland lost a larger proportion of its population to America than Norway, which over a quarter of a million people left in the century from 1815. Mass emigration persisted until the early 1920s, and temporary migration was common in rural areas until the 1960s. The Norwegian-language press flourished above all in the cities and small towns of the Mid-West and North-West, and still survives residually. In spite of the fact that many emigrants came from areas of Norway where Landsmål had won support, nearly all Norwegian-language publishing in the USA was in Riksmål. As late as 1950 there were purportedly three-quarters of a million Norwegian-speakers in the USA, or about 20% of he world total at the time. This figure, if ever reliable, is now greatly diminished.

Stephen J.Walton