Search for resources by:

Definitions of materials Definitions of levels
Exclude Websites
Advanced Search
Please note: Due to project funding termination in summer 2014, this database is no longer actively being maintained. We cannot guarantee the accuracy of the listings.


Norwegian Citations   Norwegian Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: Approximately 4.5 million

Key Dialects: Northern Norwegian (Nordnorsk), Central Norwegian (Trøndsk), West Norwegian (Vestnorsk), and East Norwegian (Østnorsk)

Geographical Center: Kingdom of Norway

The general term “Norwegian” covers the broad spectrum of related dialects spoken in Norway. The two officially sanctioned written standards are called Bokmål (literally: book language) and Nynorsk (literally New Norwegian). A very small community speaks Norwegian in the US and Canada, mostly children or grandchildren of immigrants.

Norwegian belongs to the Northern branch of the Germanic language family of Indo-European. Other Northern Germanic languages are Danish, Icelandic, Faroese, and Swedish. Historically Old Norwegian was a West Scandinavian language (along with Faroese and Icelandic), but the classification is moot now, since many Norwegian dialects and the written form were strongly influenced by Danish (an East Scandinavian language) during the 400 years Norway was ruled from Denmark.

Dialects in Norway are flourishing and carrying on a strong tradition. Dialects represent the continued spoken tradition in Norway, while the two standard written forms are to a large extent distillations of norms.

Nynorsk was indeed created by the 19th century linguist Ivar Aasen (1813-96), who traveled throughout western Norway, collecting dialect samples (målfører) and suggesting forms that might have developed from Old Norwegian if Danish had not been such a strong influence.

In contrast to Aasen, the educator Knud Knudsen (1812-1895) worked to encourage the gradual evolution of Danish into a form whose spelling, vocabulary, morphology and syntax more closely resembled speakers in Norway. The standard forms are similar in most cases: “Jeg heter ikke Lise” is bokmål for ‘I am not called Lise.” The corresponding nynorsk is “Eg heiter ikkje Lise.”

Both forms are mandated as equal by national law in official publications and school text books. Each school district chooses either bokmål or nynorsk as the first language in writing and reading. In 2001, 15% of all elementary students had nynorsk as their first written form.

Norwegian uses the standard 26 letters of other European languages, plus three additional vowels æ, ø, and å which follow z in the alphabet. The letters c, q, w, x and z are used almost exclusively in borrowed terms and names. Double consonants signify longer sounds, while vowel length is usually predictable from consonant length (short or no consonant precedes long vowel).

Spelling reforms have modified the official spelling of words in both standards, including major policy statements in (bokmål)1907, (nynorsk) 1910, 1917, 1938, 1959, (bokmål) 1981. These orthographic reforms set up forms mandated obligatory forms, alternative forms and optional forms. The latter group, for example, cannot be used in textbooks but are allowed on students’ exams and papers. These orthographic reforms have in general tended to allow more forms in both bokmål and nynorsk to be identical.

A movement to work towards merging of the two distinct norms (called ‘samnorsk’ -- joint Norwegian) is no longer a political reality. (see for sample texts at the various stages.) Matters of orthography and language policy are resolved by the Norsk språkråd (The Norwegian Language Council), a body of 36 appointed members, representing a wide variety of professions and media.

Stressed syllables in Norwegian have a pattern of either long vowel + short consonant (eg., tak ‘roof), short vowel + long consonant (takk ‘thanks’) or long vowel followed by no consonant (ta ‘take’). Each stressed syllable in a multi-syllabic word has one of two tonemes: rising (called tone 1), or falling-rising (called tone 2). The tones are suprasegmental, extending beyond a vowel or consonant, and often shape an entire phrase.

There are nine long and nine short vowels in Norwegian (a,e,,i o, u, y, æ, ø and å); and 3 common diphthongs (øy, ei, and au). Consonants include sounds spelled <kj> corresponding to German /ç/ as in ich. Before front vowels (i, and y) the otherwise hard /g/ becomes /j/ so that <gi> is pronounced /ji:/ ‘give.’ Likewise <k> before front vowels (or j) is pronounced as a velar fricative, so that <kyss> ‘kiss’ is pronounced /çys:/.

Consonant clusters include /bj/ /kn/ /nj/, and /fn/. The letter <h> in bokmål clusters is silent in words like <hva> ‘what’ and <hvit> ‘white.’ The corresponding cluster in nynorsk is <kv> <kva> and <kvit>.

Nouns in Norwegian fall into one of three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), however in most dialects (and especially bokmål) masculine and feminine have merged to ‘common.’ The dialect in Bergen on the West Coast has only 2 genders – no feminine forms. Nynorsk maintains the 3 gender system more rigidly.

As in the other Scandinavian languages, the definite form of nouns is postposed, so that en katt ‘a cat’ has the definite form katten ‘the cat.’ Verbs are classified as either weak (having a -d or -t ending in the past tense, or -a) (e.g., kastet or kasta ‘threw’) or strong (with characteristic root vowel change and lack of dental ending) (e.g., få ‘get’ fikk ‘got). Adjectives agree with the gender and number of the nouns they modify.

Numbers have several forms in normal speech, but fewer in the standard orthography (e.g., sju and syv are both used as “seven” but only sju is allowed on school essays and in school text books. In the 1950s the government attempted to switch the order of units+and+tens (femogtyve “25”) (the old system) to tens+units tjuefem.

The formal 2nd person pronoun (De) is rarely used in modern Norway. The informal singular (du) is acceptable in almost all social settings, especially outside of Oslo Plural informal is dere.

Dialect use and support is more prevalent in Norway than in many countries, with its rich history of tolerance for two official forms of the language. Literacy is one of the highest in the world, as is the per capita rate of newspaper reading (1.65 newspapers per household on a daily basis). While English is widely spoken in Norway, Norwegians are proud of their language(s). Nynorsk has a reputation for being more ‘earthy’ and poetic than bokmål, which is thought of as urban and urbane, more refined. Both standards and many dialects are heard on national radio and tv.

Runic inscriptions (using the futhark) are the oldest records of Norwegian (with very few Norwegian-specific characteristics differentiating the forms from pan-Nordic) dating from the 800s. Latin letters were introduced to manuscript writing before the twelfth century CE. Old Norse (sometimes called Old Icelandic or Old Norwegian) represents a classical stage of the language, with a large body of literary, legal and scientific works.

During the Middle Norwegian (approx. 1350-1525) period, external forces and influences had the effect of simplifying much of the case system, and introducing many loan words from Low German. Norway’s diminished population (due to the devastation of the Black Death in 1349) weakened the position of the language in governmental and cultural arenas. Swedish, and Danish became more similar to Norwegian, which because less like the conservative Icelandic. Spoken Norwegian continued its own development in regions away from administrative centers (where Danish held sway).

The two movements towards “Norwegification” in the late 1800s (described above) are an outgrowth of the Danish-influence for hundreds of years versus the natural development of the spoken language. Purists advise against English loan words, but Norwegian is heavily influenced especially in technology and commerce. Often words are spelled in a more Norwegian fashion, for example center becomes Norwegian senter, the verb ‘chat’ becomes chatte, which the final –e signifying verb infinitive.

Academic American Encyclopedia. 1993. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier.

Asher, R. E., ed. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

Encyclopedia Americana, International edition. 1993. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Dallas, Texas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Halvorsen, Eyvind Fjeld. Norway: Small country with two written languages.

Haugen, Einar (ed). 1995. Norwegian English dictionary = Norsk engelsk ordbok : a pronouncing and translating dictionary of modern Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk), with a historical and grammatical introduction. , Oslo : Universitetsforlaget.

----. 1966. Language conflict and language planning; the case of modern Norwegian.Cambridge. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

____ 1976. The Scandinavian languages : an introduction to their history Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press

Janus, Louis. 1999. Norwegian verbs & essentials of grammar : a practical guide to the mastery of Norwegian. Lincolnwood, Ill. : Passport Books, 1999.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Vikør, Lars 1993. The Nordic languages : their status and interrelations 1993. Oslo : Novus Press.

Return to the list of language portals


 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

  • You may use and modify the material for any non-commercial purpose.
  • You must credit the UCLA Language Materials Project as the source.
  • If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

Creative Commons License