In many ways, the Norwegian language is very different from most other languages; Although Norway only has 4.5 million inhabitants, it has:

  • Two different, official written languages
  • Hundreds of (more or less) clearly distinct dialects

Characteristics of Norwegian

Norwegian as a language has a few quite distinct typicalities:

Lack of definite article

The Norwegian language (well, actually; the nordic languages, i.e Swedish, Danish and Icelandic as well) completely lacks a definite article:

E: a chair - the chair
N: en stol - stolen

E: a house - the house
N: et hus - huset

E: a doll - the doll
N: ei dokke - dokka

Words have genders

If you look at the examples above, you notice that there are variations in the endings of the words. This is because there are three genders that a word can have (And you thought French was bad :), namely Male, Female and Neuter (non-gender-specific) words.

This means that nouns conjugate like this:

E: a house - the house - houses - the houses
N: et hus - huset - hus - husene (neuter)

E: a knife - the knife - knives - the knives
N: en kniv - kniven - kniver - knivene (male)

E: a girl - the girl - girls - the girls
N: ei jente - jenta - jenter - jentene (female)

There are a few rules on how you can determine the gender of a word, but the only way to be sure is to look it up in a dictionary. When you get good at speaking Norwegian, you will hear whatever sounds right, for some reason.

Neuter: Mountain (fjell), house (hus), tray (brett), and glass (glass)
Male: Boy (gutt), beer (øl), telephone (telefon) and vagina (!) (vagina)
Female: Girl (jente), soap (såpe), cable (ledning)

To significantly complicate matters even more, the gender of a word in a sentence can change:

A ski: en ski (male)
A pair of skis: et par ski (neuter)

A letter: et brev (neuter)
A pile of letters: ei bunke brev (female)
A lot of letters: en mengde brev (male)

The two written languages

The history of the two written languages

In Norway, the written language is very flexible - you can get away with writing pretty much anything.

Example: "Hvordan" can be written "Åssen". Although the two words don't look (or sound) anything alike, it is the same word. The word means "How". Although the second form is a dialect, the use of the word is so common in the eastern part of Norway, that is is pretty much accepted.

Even though the language is flexible, there are still two different written languages. The most commonly used is called "Bokmål" (Book-language, also called "riksmål"). Norwegian history is a bit confusing, but the main line of history is that Norway has been handed back and forth between Denmark and Sweden several times in the 1700 and begin of the 1800s, until Norway claimed its independence in 1814. (It finally got its independence from Sweden in 1905). The written language during this time has been Danish. Bokmål is therefore based on Danish.

"Nynorsk" (New Norwegian, also called "landsmål") is the other of the two Norwegian languages. This language is actually not a naturally developed language; The language was "invented" when Ivar Aasen (1813 - 1896) travelled along the west coast and the southern and northern regions of Norway in the middle of the 19th century, literally collecting words for the language that was to become the "true Norwegian written language".

Bokmål was developed by "Norwegian-izing" the Danish written language at about the same time as Aasen did his effort on creating his language.

The two written languages today (feb 2003)

Although Nynorsk is still mandatory in school, only about 12% of Norwegians have the language as their first language, and even fewer than than use Nynorsk as their primary writing language. It can be argued that the language should be allowed to die, but several organizations and lobby groups work hard in favour of keeping the language in schools.

The NRK (Norsk Rikskringkasting, the Norwegian equivalent of the BBC) has a policy that 25% of the TV and radio broadcasts have to be in Nynorsk. This is obviously futile, as nobody speaks clean Nynorsk, or Bokmål, for that matter, but at least they try.

Differences between the two languages

Norwegian as a whole is far from unified linguistically, something which the two written languages illustrate quite clearly.

When Nynorsk was created, it set out to remove some of the strong influences from abroad, especially from the German language. In particular, the following were replaced:

  • Words with the prefix ge-
  • Words with prefix hv-
  • Words with the suffix -het (german: -heit, such as Wildheit etc.)

Some examples:

E: Truth
B: Sannhet
N: Røyndom

E: Rest
B: Hvile
N: Kvile

And, of course, the most obvious (and to foreigners, most surprising) difference: The name of the country is actually spelt differently in the two languages:

E: Norway
B: Norge
N: Noreg

The Dialects

Dialects in Norway have evolved throughout many many years. The topography of the country, with it's high mountains and deep valleys, has prevented people from interacting much - the farms in the countryside were often self-sufficient, and the only contact people would have with the outside world would be the occasional trip to the market, or the visit from the postman.

Another reason for why Norway has so many and wildly varying dialects, is that even if people lived in the same villages, their dialects could differ slightly; In most of continental europe (and indeed in the rest of the world) farms would be clustered around a small town square, creating a natural meeting point. In Norway, for some reason, the layout was very different - you would find a farm in the middle of the farmlands, effectively putting it miles from the closest neighbors. A possible explanation for this is that many farms would be set in the hillsides of mountains, preventing the classical cluster formation.

Even today, most Norwegians (and indeed, most foreigners trying to learn Norwegian*) can hear the differences between if someone is from the general north, south, east or west of the country. The average Norwegian can pick out somewhere between ten and fifteen different dialects, whereas a trained ear can pinpoint people who speak the dialects cleanly (i.e with little or no influence from other dialects) to several hundred distinct locations, by listening to the usage of words, intonation and pronounciation.

*) A small anecdote here: When I went to folkehøgskole for a year, I went to the same school as an Englishman, who later became one of my best friends. He came to the school speaking virtually no Norwegian. The very nature of a folkehøgskole causes a lot of people from different parts of Norway to gather. My friend, then, learnt Norwegian from about 70 Norwegians speaking about 10-15 different dialects. He leart Norwegian just fine, but when you hear him speak, it is like hearing someone speak English with a mixture of typical British, Southern-state American, Irish, Australian, New Yorkian and Scottish words.


  • English:
    • I (as in myself)
  • Norwegian
    1. Jeg (Bokmål)
    2. Eg (Nynorsk)
    3. Æ
    4. E
    5. Je
    6. I
    7. Oss
    8. Me

... English is spoken by a good few people in the world, but even in the oddest dialects, "I" stays the same. Norway, with their 4.5 million people, have at least 9 different ways of referring to themselves (I say at least, because I can't think of any more - there are probably a few more)

Learn Norwegian!
Norwegian swearwords and curses
Norwegian polite phrases