A Brief History Of The Norwegian Language
Norwegian is a North Germanic language, along with Swedish, Icelandic, Danish and Faroese. It’s descended from Old Norse, which was a language spoken throughout Scandinavia from the ninth to the 13th centuries. Old Norse can be traced back all the way to the first century CE, with the earliest versions of the written language found in Elder Futhark inscriptions.
Scandinavia spoke Old Norse pretty exclusively for a while, but that language started breaking up in various regions, and early versions of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian began forming. Norwegian developed its own writing system starting in the 11th century, but it was wiped out during the black plague in the middle of the 14th century. At the end of the 1300s, Norway united with Denmark, and so Danish was suddenly the prestigious language. Norwegian was still spoken by many people, but Danish was the language of the government and the elite.
Dano-Norwegian reigned for centuries, and it wasn’t until 1814 that they split up with the Treaty of Kiel. In that treaty, Norway was actually supposed to become part of Sweden, but Norway declared independence before that happened. Norway did come under the power of the king of Sweden, but it was its own entity. And now that it was on its own, it had to do something about its language.
About 95 percent of the population spoke Norwegian, but in the early 19th century there was no written standard. Two attempts were made: Ivar Aasen developed Landsmål (“national tongue”) based on rural dialects, and Knud Kudsen altered written Danish to work for Norwegian and called it Riksmål. Both of these went through reforms during the 20th century, and today Landsmål is Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”) and Riksmål is Bokmål (“written tongue”).
Bokmål is vastly more popular in the 21st century, with only 13 percent of the population using Nynorsk. Still, both are used, and some people use other variations of these two. One other popular written form is Høgnorsk (“High Norwegian”), which is a purist form of Nynorsk that doesn’t accept any of the language reforms of the 20th century. There’s even more controversy around the history of the written language that we could discuss, but we did say this is a brief history.
All of that has to do only with Norwegian as a written language, and spoken Norwegian is a whole different story. Compared to other countries, Norway is pretty welcoming of dialects, and many different ways of speaking are used throughout the country. There may be a kind of standard based on Bokmål, but it’s not officially sanctioned.
Where Is Norwegian An Official Language?
The only country where Norwegian is an official language is, unsurprisingly, Norway. Norway also has another official language, Sami, which is spoken by the Sami people of northern Norway. But Sami is not a North Germanic language, and thus not mutually intelligible with Norwegian.
How Many People Speak Norwegian In Norway?
Pretty much the entirety of Norway’s population of over 5 million speaks Norwegian. The only other language strongly represented in the country is English, with about 4,300,000 people who speak the language. Almost all of those who speak English in Norway learned it as a second language.
How Many People Speak Norwegian In The Rest Of The World?
There are not a huge number of speakers of Norwegian in countries other than Norway. Spain is one of the biggest with reportedly about 50,000 Norwegians, many of whom moved there after retiring. There are about 40,000 Norwegian speakers who live in the United States, and Norwegians can also be found in places all over Europe.
Norwegian speakers are found in decent numbers in Sweden and Denmark because the mutual intelligibility of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish allows for a lot of cultural interchange. Knowing Norwegian technically allows you to speak to about 20 million other people, even if only about 5.2 million speak Norwegian specifically.
Why Learn Norwegian?
It may not be spoken super widely, but Norwegian is still a fantastic language to learn. The country itself is beautiful and is an ideal place if you enjoy basking in nature. And as mentioned, its mutually intelligible with Danish and Swedish, which gives you the chance to learn three languages (we even say that Norwegian is the best of the three to start with, if you’re unsure). Beyond that, you can enjoy the culture of Norway, and it has some of the strongest literary output of any country right now — and not just because of Karl Ove Knausgaard. No matter your reason, learning Norwegian is a fantastic experience.