[During the last week or so of December, we had a vigorous, extended discussion on "Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål". The following is a guest post by Håvard Hjulstad that takes up many of the issues that were raised in that earlier post and and attempts to situate them in a more systematic and comprehensive framework.]
It isn’t simple to explain the Norwegian language situation in a few words, but I shall try.
The word “mål” means “tongue” (or “language”; it also means “voice”) in the case of “bokmål”. It is very close to synonymous with “språk”, and it is used both for spoken and written languages. The word “mål” = “goal” and “measure” is a homograph. So “bokmål” could be translated as “book language”.
During the time following the split (in 1814) of the “Kingdom of Denmark-Norway” there were various efforts to reconstruct a Norwegian written language. Spoken Norwegian lived all the time in its various dialects throughout the country. As you will know, Denmark, Sweden and Norway form a linguistic continuum; there are few distinct language borders. During the period of union with Denmark the written language in Norway was the same as the written language in Denmark. It was a written norm like other written norms: conservative, but based on a historical stage of the spoken language, in this case of parts of Denmark.
There were two main trends of Norwegian written language reconstruction during the 1800s (and into the 1900s): (1) “Norwegianizing” the common Danish-Norwegian “book language”, and (2) reconstructing a “new Norwegian” based on Norwegian dialects (looking to some extent also back at earlier stages of Norwegian and Norse).
All the time Norwegian dialects lived and developed, with some features distinctly different from Danish (and Swedish) dialects. But as everywhere (especially in modern societies) spoken language is also influenced by written language.
I would argue that there is just one spoken Norwegian language, but that language has relatively large variation (especially when considering that there currently are fewer than 5 million speakers of the language). There are situations when a written language gets spoken, i.e., when they read the news on radio and TV. The news is spoken in Bokmål or Nynorsk.
Here there is a slight difference in the Norwegian language situation from the situation in many other language communities: Spoken Norwegian in its various dialects may be used in pretty much any situation. Even members of the Norwegian parliament use their dialect from the podium of the parliament. And the same goes for most situations “below” that.
As a conclusion I would say that Bokmål (nb, nob) and Nynorsk (nn, nno) apply to written language, while Norsk (Norwegian, no, nor) applies to spoken language. In addition, Norsk would be a “macrolanguage” comprising Bokmål and Nynorsk. I would say that it is linguistically incorrect to talk about “speaking Bokmål” or “speaking Nynorsk”, although that is frequently used to specify that a spoken language (dialect) is closer to one or the other of the written forms of the language.
The fact that “bokmål” = “book language” and consequently apparently has to be written, is in my opinion really not an argument at all in this case.
I don’t know if this answers any of your questions, or what impact it has on the understanding of the quite different Chinese language situation. But I hope it clarifies more than it confuses the understanding of the Norwegian situation.
[Thanks to François Demay]