“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.