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What foreigners in Norway need to know about Nynorsk?

Nynorsk - Norway's second official written language - is a key part of the country's history and is still the official form of Norwegian in parts of the country. Here's what you need to know.

What foreigners in Norway need to know about Nynorsk?
What foreigners in Norway need to know about Nynorsk?. Photo: Toyni Tobekk / Flickr

Some readers may find it a surprise to learn that the small country of Norway has two official written languages.

Both the Bokmål and Nynorsk variations of Norwegian are viewed as the national written languages of the country.

And while Bokmål may be the more popular of the two, Nynorsk, which translates as “new/modern Norwegian”, is still used by up to 15 percent of the population and is mandatory in schools.

How there came to be two variations of Norwegian in Norway

Norwegian is considered to be a part of the North Germanic languages, which include: Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, and Faroese. All of these languages stem from the same parent language, Old Norse. Old Norse was eventually replaced by Danish (though not in Iceland). 

In the 1530s, Norway was under Danish rule when Protestantism replaced Catholicism. As a result, Danish became even more prominent in Norway as all holy texts were in Danish. 

In 1814, the territory known as Norway was acquired by Sweden but was still allowed to operate as semi-independent. Around this time, many Norwegians found it problematic that Danish was the primary language and began a linguistic reformation pivoting from Danish to Norwegian. 

This transformation took decades. In addition to the reformation, another strategy Norwegians used to create their own language involved the investigation of Old Norse and incorporating it into the modern language.

Both strategies resulted in the birth of the Norwegian language. However, the outcome was two different variations of Norwegian. Bokmål or “Book Language” (derived from Danish), and Nynorsk or “New Norwegian” (derived from the regional dialects of Norway).

How similar is Nynorsk to Bokmål

Depending on where you settle in Norway, you may be offered Norwegian courses either in Bokmål or Nynorsk. Even though the languages are similar, do not switch between the two while learning the language, as it could make learning the grammar complicated and impact how you pronounce certain words. 

Orally, there isn’t an official difference because the two are, officially, purely written languages. Instead, differences in spoken Norwegian mainly stem from different regional dialects. The way some dialects are pronounced can sound similar to how one would expect Nynorsk to be pronounced were it a spoken language.

The written form is where the most significant difference is seen. Nynorsk is mainly used in Western and Central Norway by about 10 percent of residents.

A town or municipality in this country can decide if Nynorsk or Bokmål will be the official language. They can also decide to not choose between the two and be standard neutral. A quick way to identify if you are driving through or staying in a municipality that uses mainly Nynorsk is by looking at the road signs and noticing how directions are spelt on them. 

Below is a map representing municipalities that have declared Nynorsk as the official language (in blue), Bokmål (in red), and standard neutral (in grey).  

Source: Norwegian Language Learning 

Can I understand Nynorsk if I am not from Norway and have learned Bokmål?

Generally, yes. But the amount you’re able to understand depends on your level of Norwegian. You’ve likely already noticed Norway has plenty of different dialects, with some being more difficult to understand than others. 

You will likely understand what a local is saying to you in a dialect Nynorsk is derived from, but reading it would prove to be a bit more complicated. 

Below is an example provided by Norwegian Language Learning.

Bokmål: Vi har syv / sju ravner, en / ei kråke og flere linerler.

Nynorsk: Vi / Me har sju ramnar, ei kråke og fleire linerler.

English: We have seven ravens, a crow, and several wagtails.

As one can see, the spelling and the lack of masculine and feminine article options in Nynorsk are obvious separators of the two languages. 

Another noticeable grammatical difference between Nynorsk and Bokmål is that plural endings for masculine gender nouns are different. Take en hund, or “a dog”, for example.

Bokmål: hunder

Nynorsk: hundar

English: dogs

The government’s regulation of Nynorsk in the media

Even though a large part of the population in Norway uses Bokmål, the Norwegian government has rules set in place to make sure Nynorsk is represented. The use of Nynorsk is regulated in public service institutions such as in the media. 

State-owned broadcasting company NRK must have at least 25 percent of its verbal elements in both television and radio be in regional dialects. This could be confusing for foreigners if they were not aware. A newcomer can click on an article to read on the NRK website and suddenly not be able to decipher the text. Don’t worry about your language skills slipping, as the article is likely written in Nynorsk

Below is a graph showing how much Nynorsk was used in each of the NRK channels last year. 

Source: NRK

There is a third official language in parts of Norway

Bokmål and Nynorsk may be the two official administrative languages in Norway. But in some parts of the country, Samisk or “Sami” has an official standing. Sami is the language spoken by the native Sami people of Norway.

 Two variations of Sami are spoken, though two-thirds of the residents who speak it (mainly in Troms and Finnmark in the North) speak North Sami over its counterpart, East Sami. You can find articles or newspapers written in Sami, though the use of it in government and education in Norway is almost non-existent. 

Sami has the status of a minority language in Norway, Sweden and Finland. However, Sami has the status of an official language in Sami administrative areas within the countries. Unlike the similarities between Nynorsk and Bokmål, Sami derives from the Fenno-Ugrian languages and can not be understood by even native Norwegian speakers. 

Vocabulary in Nynorsk and useful facts 

Ivar Aasen is considered the creator of Nynorsk. As a language researcher, he both collected and systemised different dialects around Norway. His work is the basis for what we know today as Nynorsk

Previously, learning Nynorsk in school was a requirement. At the time of writing, The Education Act is being reviewed, and any changes for Nynorsk will be announced when new legislation has been enacted. The debate over the continued study of Nynorsk in schools has been quite active in the media for years. 

skule – school

korkje – neither

naudsynt – necessary 

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How to talk about family in Norwegian 

Talking about family in Norwegian can be tricky. Discussing your relatives may require a bit of in-depth knowledge of how they are related to you, so it's time to start brushing up on your family history.

How to talk about family in Norwegian 

Let’s start with grandparents. 

Norway has two different words for “grandmother” and “grandfather”, depending on which side of the family you are talking about. This can be confusing for those whose native language doesn’t come with these distinctions. You will almost feel yourself retracing your family tree in your head as you chat about your grandparents in Norwegian. 

Although most Norwegians refer to their mum and dad as mamma and pappa, some Norwegians will also use mor and far, which are the terms also used in the names for grandparents- and other relatives. 

Grandparents, or besteforeldre in Norwegian, can be called bestemor (grandmother) or bestefar (grandfather). Still, it’s probably more common to hear the slightly shorter but more specific, combination of mor (mother) and far (father) used in four different variations, a unique one for each grandparent.

To understand the four combinations, we’ll take a closer look at mor and far and how they combine to describe your relation to your grandparents.

First off, let’s look at your maternal grandparents. Your mother’s mother, or maternal grandmother would be mormor, and your maternal grandfather would be morfar. If it’s your mother’s side of the family, you’ll use more mor first, and if it’s your father’s, you’ll use far.

Your grandparents on your father’s side would be farmor (grandmotherand farfar (grandfather

So to recap: your mum’s parents are mormor and morfar, and your dad’s parents are farmor and farfar.

It’s also worth noting that there will be local variations in different parts of the country. In Hallingdal, for example, those who speak the regional dialect will use gomo for grandmother and gofa for grandfather. 

This also means that the same grandparent can be called two different names depending on their exact relationship with their grandchild. If a woman has a son and a daughter, for example, her son’s children would refer to her as farmor, but her daughter’s children would call her mormor.

In Norwegian, great-grandparents are rereferred to as oldemor (grandmother’s mother) or oldefar (grandfather’s father).

A great-great-grandparent is a tippoldefar or tippoldemor. Depending on how many generations you need to go back will depend on how many times you’ll need to use “tipp”. 

Luckily, when discussing aunts and uncles, the process is much simpler. For that, you can just use tante (aunt) and onkel (uncle). 

Nieces and nephews are also straightforward. Your niece is your niese, and your nephew is your nevø. It doesn’t matter whether they are from your brother’s or sister’s side. 

Cousins are simple, too, although they do have gender-specific words. A female cousin is a kusine, and a male one is a fetter.

Brothers and sisters, you can refer to as søster (sister) and bror (brother). You can also use lille (little) or stor (big) to describe whether they are older or younger than you. When doing this, it should all be one word—for example, lillesøster (little sister). 

Finally, grandchildren. The general word for “grandchild” in Norwegian is barnebarn (“children’s-child”), which is the word you’re most likely to hear.

And finally, we will briefly touch upon the in-laws. To discuss in-laws, you’ll simply need to add sviger to the relation—for example, svigerforeldre parents-in-law, or svigersøster sister-in-law.