Nynorsk or Bokmål?

“Should I study Nynorsk or Bokmål?” is the question Norwegian language learners often ask, as if those were two different languages. Let us destroy some myths and make things clear about Bokmål, Nynorsk, and Norwegian dialects.

Myth 1: Nynorsk and Bokmål are two different languages.

There are two official languages in Norway: Norwegian and Sami. The Sami language is used by the Samis, who are a national minority in Norway. Most of them live in Finnmark, in Northern Norway. The Sami language is very different from Norwegian as it belongs to the Finno-Ugric language family.

The second and most widely spoken official language in Norway is Norwegian. Bokmål and Nynorsk are two different standards of writing in Norwegian. Compare:

Jeg kommer snart. (Bokmål) – I’m coming soon.

Eg kjem snart. (Nynorsk) – I’m coming soon.

To understand how this is possible we have to go back in history for a moment here.

Origins of Bokmål and Nynorsk

The Norwegian language comes from Old Norse, which was a language used in Scandinavia during the Viking Era. However, with time Germanic influences spread to Northern Europe, thus taking the language with them. Later on, Norway entered a union with Denmark. Danish started to prevail in Norwegian society, being a language of the elite, the law, and the church. When in 1814 the union with Denmark ended, there was a rise of patriotic movements, and the search for “own” Norwegian language form started.

We have come closer to the origins of Bokmål and Nynorsk. It was a man called Ivar Aasen who traveled around Norway in the 1800s and compared different dialects around the country. He created a form of Norwegian later called Landsmål, based on the dialects. This is the form that became Nynorsk.

Some were opposed to his work and claimed that Denmark and Norway had shared the language for a long time and this should be accepted. A linguist Knud Knudsen started the Norwegianization of the Danish written form. Later, a Norwegian writer called Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson suggested calling this language “Riksmål”, meaning “national language”. In 1929 Riksmål was officially named Bokmål (“book language”) and Landsmål changed to Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”).

Myth 2: people speak Bokmål and Nynorsk.

The answer to this is that people speak dialects but they write Bokmål or Nynorsk. When students refer to “speaking Bokmål” they most likely mean the dialect around the Oslo area or Østlandet. Some people may also write in their own dialect and ignore the rules of Bokmål or Nynorsk. But it is these two forms that are taught in schools, used in the official documents and media.

So Bokmål or Nynorsk?

Many also wonder if they should learn to write Bokmål or Nynorsk. Well, both forms are used in the country and both forms are taught at Norwegian schools. Bokmål is the form that is more popular in Norway, about 85-90 % of writing is done in Bokmål. However, in some areas, Nynorsk is more popular, especially in Western Norway. So it comes to your preferences and your place of living. It might be hard to learn writing Bokmål in an area where everyone uses Nynorsk.

9 thoughts on “Nynorsk or Bokmål?”

  1. I can’t resist one more post on this interesting topic – just some informal geography / linguistic thoughts from a foreigner who really doesn’t know that much Norwegian yet and then I will shut up – I promise! 🙂

    One is that I think in countries that are either very large or have complicated geography or both (with Norway small in population but large in area and with complex terrain) more distinct dialects arose because of isolated populations. Fx using Greece as a comparison, I had learned from a Classics teacher that what is currently taught as ‘Ancient Greek’ by Classics departments is actually a very specific dialect based on the historical Greek from around Athens and that because of the geographic and cultural complexity of ancient Greece with isolated city-states other strains of Greek would have been so different as to be essentially incomprehensible (so what is currently taught is really the ‘Bokmål’ of ancient Greece). Similarly ‘highland’ and ‘lowland’ Scottish, ‘high’ and ‘low’ German, and there must be a bazillion other more or less extreme examples.

    It seems very similar with Bokmål and Nynorsk – and in reading about Ivar Aasen since reading this article I also learned that what he based Nynorsk on although intended to be more general was biased towards his region, Sunnmøre. Linguistically I would guess that Norway actually has quite a few dialects that are very different (including the completely different language Sami as this blog post also points out).

    Last I read an amusing article on NRK today that seems to be quite complaining about Nynorsk and showing that having the two different forms is a continuing lively issue:


  2. This is the best succinct description of this history I have seen – I think where it gets confused sometimes has to do with the renamings Landsmål => Nynorsk and Riksmål => Bokmål. Also if using old dictionaries it is sometimes difficult to know what flavor of the language is represented. I often find that for reading, especially ‘classical literature’ (Kielland, Ibsen, etcetera) I do better with one of my favorite Danish dictionaries, but I have some older Norwegian dictionaries that I enjoy because of the many colloquialisms – even though not as effective for helping me to read.

  3. Giovanni Grosskopf

    Hello, could you please which app are you using for Nynorsk? I’m studying Bokmål on one app, but I’m still looking for another good one to learn also some Nynorsk from.

  4. I am studying Norwegian vocabulary with two different apps. One is using bokmål and the other one nynorsk, because words are different (for example sju and syv). Do you think it will be funny to mix those two, if I remember some words from the “wrong” version? Or will it be too weird?

    1. Norwegian Academy

      Hi! People might wonder where you have lived and learned Norwegian ? But it might be confusing for you later if you need to write in Norwegian for work, studies or take a Norwegian exam, because you are supposed to write in either Bokmål or Nynorsk.

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300 most frequently used words in the Norwegian language

300 most used words in Norwegian
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