Norwegian (Norsk)

Learning Norwegian is apparently quite a challenge, according to an article I came across yesterday. Not only do you have two written forms of Norwegian to wrestle with, but also numerous dialects of spoken Norwegian.

Most Norwegian language courses teach you to read and write Bokmål, the most widely-used of the two standard written forms of Norwegian, and to speak Standard Østnorsk (Standard East Norwegian), which is considered the standard spoken form of Bokmål. Standard Østnorsk is spoken mainly by the middle and upper classes in the cities of eastern Norway, including the capital, Olso, and is closer to Danish than other Norwegian dialects.

When you try to communicate with people from other regions of Norway however, you’ll probably find it difficult to understand their dialects, which tend to be closer to Nynorsk, the other written form of Norwegian. There are also considerable differences in the dialects of different regions, and Norwegians don’t tend to adapt their language to make it easier for learners to understand them, perhaps because relatively few people study Norwegian.

A Norwegian lecturer who specializes in Norwegian as a second language at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology is mentioned in the article as “calling for her fellow Norwegians to tone down their dialects, so that non-natives trying to learn Norwegian can hope to understand them”.

There are quite a few other articles about Norwegian in Norwegian, English, German, French and a number of other languages at

I haven’t got round to learning Norwegian yet. One day I’d like to though.

Are you studying Norwegian? Have you encountered any of the problems discussed in the article?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Norwegian.

0 Responses to Norwegian (Norsk)

  1. TJ says:

    I had a peak once upon Scandinavian languages, and Norwegian as well too. I didn’t think of it as being several dialects. I though that the Bokmål is the literature form and used in books, and the Nynorsk is the dialect form used by people in everyday life, like we do usually with Arabic. Anyway this idea now seems far away from reality!

    But I read once in some articles that in all of Europe, Norwegian is the most rapid language in developing and it is constantly changing with, as it seems, an abnormal pace!

  2. BG says:

    I had kind of wanted to start learning a Scandinavian language for a few years now, but I didn’t know which one to choose. Then Swedish was choosen for me through a used book sale… Anyway, maybe Swedish was a better choice than Norwegian, considering it is a bit more standardized, although I am sure there are spoken variations, as in most languages. Danish might be the easiest of the three, but I don’t really know.

  3. Logan says:

    There are indeed a number of differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk, but the two are mutually intelligible. Both reflect a spoken standard, perhaps Nynorsk more now than Bokmål in several areas of the country, but the form you’ll find in most literature and online is Bokmål. Nynorsk is up and coming, but it’s nowhere near the point of replacing the written standard.
    A couple grammar oddities in Nynorsk is that it retains the feminine gender of nouns (“en bok”/”boken” = a book/the book in Bokmål; the same is “ei bok/boka” in Nynorsk) and a past tense -a suffix (“snakka” instead of “snakket” for the word “spoken”). Both of these already existed in the spoken language of people who even speak Bokmål, but until Nynorsk came along it was more or less considered strictly colloquial.

    There’s a lot to be said about dialectal differences — older generations retained stronger dialects that younger people who are more influenced by today’s media. The same situation is occurring with Swedish — people in the northern parts of Sweden are said to have a strong dialect, and most of them can understandable a large amount of Norwegian that people from the southern end of the country wouldn’t because of the “dialect blend” in the far north of Scandinavia. But the same can be said for southern Sweden — in Skåne, the language sounds a lot more like Danish (where words are often clipped short and carry glottal stops) than Norwegian (where the rising and falling tone of the language is more predominant) because of the area’s proximity to Denmark.

  4. Halabund says:

    Worst thing is that nynorsk does not even reflect a spoken standard.

    The biggest challenge for me with learning Norwegian is that I get the feeling that most Norwegian people “mumble”: the sounds are not pronounced clearly. Outside the classroom I find it very difficult to understand spoken language. With other languages, such as German, when listening to a colloquial discussion, even though I do not understand the meaning of the words, I could write down much of what I hear. With Norwegian I cannot, and this is frustrating! (Though it is said that this is an even greater difficulty with Danish, so I shouldn’t complain.)

  5. PP says:

    Halabund: Same thing was for me with English. English sounded to me like when someone too drunk tries to speak. :) (and some accents still do) Most languages sound more or less mumbly until you get used to their sound, but none so much as English.

    I tried to listen to Norse radios and I think I would have no big problems writing down what they say.

    IMO it depends on how phonetically close/distant is the langugage to your native language.

  6. West Norwegian says:

    “calling for her fellow Norwegians to tone down their dialects, so that non-natives trying to learn Norwegian can hope to understand them”.

    Tone down into what? East Norwegian? Sorry, not going to happen. And who decided that that was the standard anyway? Yes, that’s right. Some posh East Norwegians from Oslo. You’ll never going to get me to speak that way, except to mock them. I’ll speak slower and clearer, but in my own dialect.

  7. Brinxmat says:

    It’s always interesting to read about Norwegian, and the attitudes towards the two written standards — neither of which represent any single spoken variant. It is true that the phonetic representation of Bokmål is similar to the Norwegian spoken in the East of Norway, but it is in many ways closer — to my ear at least — to the grammar of Northern Norwegian. Nynorsk is a minority standard, but one which is fiercely defended by its users; its phonetic representation and accepted grammar seems to reflect the pronunciation of dialects of the West of Norway better than those of the rest of the country — though what counts as West in this case is debatable.

    The interesting thing about the two written standards is that they are nevertheless quite flexible in regard to what people consider acceptable usage — it is for example quite normal to use feminine gender in Bokmål, and many people would not react to the use of for example the dialectal (and Nynorsk) -a ending for past tenses on verbs that take this ending (for example “snakka”). This flexibility means that Nynorsk word lists (lists of words with indications of inflection/declension) often indicate alternative words that are considered either more or less conservative — and Nynorsk can thus be written so that it is as close to Bokmål as possible.

    Grammatically speaking, things that trip up learners of Norwegian — aside from prepositions, irregular verbs and the other usual candidates — are the articles, particularly with regard to gender — especially for those who don’t speak a language with gender — and definiteness. Syntax related to verb second and subordinate clauses when an adverbial is present. The remaining thing that I think is difficult is tone, where a word that is essentially the same has two different tones and thus means two different things (an example here bønner, which means either beans or farmers (or prayers) dependent on rise-fall or even tone, but don’t ask me which one). Oh, and the use of English words in Norwegian, but not quite like an English-speaking person would use them can be confusing.

    On the pronunciation front, the sounds are often similar, but different — as with any language — but the vowel sounds are particularly difficult for English speakers. (As are some of the dialectal features like retroflex L and palatalized sounds.)

    The accents in Norway can be quite different; those that are geographically close are often very similar, whereas those that are geographically distant are often very different. Dialect as such tends to be toned down when speaking to foreigners (and I assume people from other dialect regions), though accent mostly isn’t. I’m not sure that I would say Kakskiv to a person from Oslo, I’d probably say Smørbrød for the sake of being understood.

  8. Evan says:

    I thought I’d join in on this discussion, since I learned Norwegian as a third language, know a lot about the language, and have several Norwegian friends.

    Bokmål and Nynorsk are both strictly written forms of Norwegian; when you speak, it is in a dialect though. The dialects can be insanely different from both written forms, or very similar, depending on where you are.

    Here are some examples of ways to say “I am not…” in Norwegian:
    Bokmål: Jeg er ikke…
    Nynorsk: Eg er ikkje…
    Trøndersk (Dialect in Trondheim): Æ e itj…
    Stavangersk (Dialect in Stavanger): Eg e’kje…
    Surnadalsk (Dialect in Surnadal): E æ ikkje…

    Fun stuff eh?

    I should also add that the dialects closer to Bokmål are around the Oslo area, whereas dialects closer to Nynorsk are on the western side. Many people from the Oslo area actually have trouble understanding those from the North and West…but those in the North and West understand people from Oslo with no difficulty!

  9. goofy says:

    Norway, land of the linguists!

    “Traditional Bokmål has dominated the post-war period. In retaliation, a movement sprang up seeking an immediate merger of the two languages. Its advocates were for the most part well educated, often politically radical idealists who were influenced in the 1960s and ’70s by the new views on linguistics advanced by American and British sociologists.”