More on Bokmål

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[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]


  1. Vance Maverick said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 9:56 pm

    The news is spoken in Bokmål or Nynorsk. …I would say that it is linguistically incorrect to talk about “speaking Bokmål” or “speaking Nynorsk” …

    I think I understand how to resolve this seeming contradiction, but I'd appreciate another word or two.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 10:34 pm

    Let me attempt a synthesis: "a large spoken dialect continuum with two written standards, one of which could be described as an attempt to construct a 'purified Norwegian' and the other as being closer to Danish". It sounds like both written standards were originally artificial (like many written languages – so this is not surprising); it'd be interesting to know to what extent the spoken varieties fall into the spectrum spanned by the two written standards: It is totally continuous? Do most spoken varieties cluster around the two written standards? Are all spoken varieties somehow in between the two written standards? (The answers won't be clear-cut.)

  3. dainichi said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 10:57 pm

    Sorry this gets posted twice, looks like the system might have eaten my first comment:

    I'd also be interested in knowing to what extent people mix the written standards, and to what extent it is accepted.

    As far as I understand, some parts of Norway remain "neutral" to the two standards. I imagine it must be hard to keep them apart if you read texts in both standards daily, and your own spoken lect is somewhere between the (spoken manifestations of the) standards.

    If, say, someone is schooled in Nynorsk, do they (and can they) continue to write in Nynorsk only, or would they typically mix the standards? Maybe only in colloquial writing?

  4. Eli Anne Eiesland said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 3:14 am

    It's not uncommon to hear people use the expression "speak bokmål", but this pretty much always means "speak the standard Oslo/southeastern part of Norway dialect".

    Regarding mixing bokmål and nynorsk: In my experience this is not uncommon to see, as well as people just typing in their dialect.

  5. Gunnar H said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 3:45 am

    I like Håvard Hjulstad's explanation, and agree with his points.

    @Vance Maverick: I can see why this might seem like a contradiction, but I think what it means is simply that when reading a text aloud, speakers may use other word forms (in the comments on the previous post we discussed the varieties of the first person pronoun: "jeg" in bokmål, "eg" in nynorsk, and occurring in various dialects as "i", "æ", "je", etc.) and possibly other pronunciations than they would in their natural dialect. So they are, in some sense, speaking the written standard.

    @Stephan Stiller: No, the two standards do not span all spoken varieties; there are definitely dialects that fall outside of the range from one to the other (particularly those in the North, but also in the rural inlands to the East).

    @dainichi: Well, it's complicated… For a considerable period up until around the 1960s, the official Norwegian language policy was the long-term convergence of the two standards ("samnorsk", or "joint Norwegian"), and various language reforms have introduced new rules (of permitted and prohibited words, spellings, inflections, etc.) into both standards, sometimes displacing old ones and sometimes existing as optional variants. As you might imagine, this has led to some degree of confusion. (Recent reforms have tended to reduce the number of optional variants in an attempt at simplification.)

    At the same time, people's spoken and written language have been evolving more organically, in part through increased exposure to other dialects and to both written standards. Many of these changes have eventually been incorporated into the language reforms. I believe it's fair to say that modern nynorsk has been more influenced by bokmål than vice versa (adaptations to bokmål seem to have been more focused on better reflecting mainly working-class dialects/sociolects from the Oslo region).

    The upshot of all this is that even with only two standards, there are often a lot of different ways to write the same sentence, all of which either are or at some point have been correct according to one standard or the other. Bokmål in particular has come in different "flavors": radical, conservative, rigsmål (very conservative)…

    So in informal writing, e.g. on Facebook, people will often just "write as they speak" in their natural dialect. In more formal contexts they will generally attempt to use their preferred standard with the optional forms they find most natural (or were taught in school), but for the above reasons (as well as all the other normal ones), errors are not uncommon. But I don't believe many people consciously mix the standards.

  6. Håvard Hjulstad said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 4:22 am

    Even written Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk) has considerable variation, and there are many cases of overlap between the two forms. Only very few words are "allowed" in one of the written language forms only, The differences are mostly morphological. Orthographic principles are the same in most cases.
    In school all Norwegians learn both, but one is chosen as the "primary language form" (for the individual or the municipality). Many employees in public offices are required to master both forms.

  7. Lane said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 5:02 am

    I have a few suppositions and comments. I understand Nynorsk to be much less widely used than Bokmål. As I commented before, when I asked a half-Danish half-Norwegian friend about Nynorsk, he snorted that "nobody speaks Nynorsk."

    Håvard Hjulstad seems to be saying that "nobody *speaks* Bokmål" either. But perhaps my friend is still sort of correct. To the extent that people button up their Norsk for occasions where a more written-like speech is appropriate, is it fair to guess that they are more likely to button it up in the direction of Bokmål?

    I also take it that Nynorsk is considered something of a nationalist project. For those who choose to write Nynorsk (and any who choose to "button up" their speech in that direction), who are we talking about, socially, regionally, etc?

    As a practical consideration, am I correct in guessing that most foreign learners of "Norwegian" learn Bokmål? What advice is usually given to the foreign learner about how to handle all this?

    I think this is fascinating – small, homogenous country divided over two standards!

  8. Eli Anne Eiesland said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 5:54 am

    "To the extent that people button up their Norsk for occasions where a more written-like speech is appropriate, is it fair to guess that they are more likely to button it up in the direction of Bokmål? "

    The extent to which people do this is super super small. It is virtually always ok (nok only ok, encouraged even) to use dialect in public discourse.

  9. leoboiko said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    I've heard that Nynorsk was essentially designed by Aasen, and that he patched together what he considered to be the "better" features of various spoken dialects, giving preference to conservative elements related to Old Norse, etc. Would it be fair to say Nynorsk is kind of like a conlang of Norwegian?

  10. john riise said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 6:46 am

    Let's hope that formulating and maintaining "Bokmal" as a national standard has never involved any unwise prescriptive behaviour. I'm sure the Scandanavians wouldn't be so crass.

  11. Gunnar H said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 7:09 am

    Whether or not that would be a fair characterization of Aasen's original nynorsk (which he called landsmål, "country tongue/language of the land", but is now referred to as høgnorsk, "High Norwegian"), it's certainly not true of the modern form, which has been significantly modified over the years, generally towards more common vernacular.

    But I don't really think it's a good description in the first place, either.
    Aasen wasn't constructing a new language: he was making a written standard for a language people already spoke, though in a great many significantly different dialects. Yes, he had to pick and choose what elements to incorporate from which different dialects, but as far as I know he did not add his own innovations or speculative reconstructions: every word and grammatical feature of his standard represented something that was actually used by some living Norwegian speakers.

    Defining a single written standard based on a variety of different spoken dialects will necessarily mean giving preference to features found in some variations over others (at least in an alphabetic script: whether the same holds true in e.g. Chinese writing is, I think, the question that brought us to this topic in the first place). In that respect, Aasen's linguistic/literary/historical/political/aesthetic/… principles of selection seem just as valid as any other.

  12. Jongseong Park said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 9:15 am

    @Lane: As a practical consideration, am I correct in guessing that most foreign learners of "Norwegian" learn Bokmål? What advice is usually given to the foreign learner about how to handle all this?

    Only Bokmål is taught in the Colloquial Norwegian series and the other Norwegian language teaching materials I could find back in the early 2000s. A brief summary of the language situation is given so that the foreign learner of Norwegian will be aware of the existence of Nynorsk.

    I think studying Bokmål does help you more with the better known works of Norwegian literature, such as those by Henrik Ibsen, whose language may be described as Norwegian-influenced Danish or a very conservative Dano-Norwegian depending on who you ask. It helps you more when reading Danish works from Denmark as well. Bokmål and written Danish are close enough that those who have studied the former will be able to follow the latter a fair bit.

  13. wally said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    So will native speakers generally be able to understand all of the different variations descrbed above?

  14. Johannes said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    @wally Yes, a native Norwegian will generally understand all the dialects and variations. They're no more different than say British/American/Australian English.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 1:32 pm


    That's very different from Chinese, where many of the varieties are largely or completely mutually unintelligible.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

    To bring back the comparative theme that we were pursuing in the previous thread (mentioned at the beginning of this post), we may note that several of the commenters there stated that Zhōngwén 中文 ("written Chinese", but see below) = Cantonese, Zhōngwén 中文 = Taiwanese, Zhōngwén 中文 = Mandarin, and so forth — and they were referring to the spoken forms of these languages. This prompted me to ask whether this implies that Cantonese = Taiwanese = Mandarin. That further leads me to question how the plurisignation of Zhōngwén 中文 as various, quite different (often mutually unintelligible) forms of spoken language squares with its use as a designation for the written standard taught in schools.

    All of these imponderables about Zhōngwén 中文 tie into the issues of "bound (B)" and "free (F)" morphemes and of ellipsis that have come up in the comments to the Chinese (jìn 进 ["enter; advance"]) and English ("because") WOTY posts.

    Let me explain.

    In Mandarin, zhōng 中 ("middle; center") and wén 文 ("writing") are both B (Chao and Yang, Concise, pp. 4, 102); pronounced zhòng, 中 is F and means "hit / strike the market / center"). In the word Zhōngwén 中文, the two constituent syllables may be analyzed as B morphemes that signify Zhōngguó 中国 ("China") and wénzì 文字 ("writing"). One might also think of zhōng 中 ("middle; center") and wén 文 ("writing") as ellipses of Zhōngguó 中国 ("China") and wénzì 文字 ("writing").

    Now, where this gets really sticky is when literarily-minded individuals assert that zhōng 中 ("middle; center") and wén 文 ("writing") can be used independently in Mandarin, and they will assiduously dig up examples that seem to indicate they are being used in this way. But when we look at the examples more carefully, we find that they do not reflect normal Mandarin usage, but are products of a bànwén-bànbái 半文半白 ("semiliterary-semivernacular") style. See:‎

    As several commenters to the "because" thread have observed, its new usage may be viewed as elliptical and belonging to a very special, restricted register, viz., internet chatting, cell phone texting, and so on, which, by their very nature, are highly elliptical and abbreviated (as Julie Lee has correctly pointed out for various types of limited, technical and semi-technical jargon).

    In any event, I perceive the diverse applications of Zhōngwén 中文 ("written and spoken Chinese of any sort") to be a huge and confusing can of worms. I prefer the following usages:

    Zhōngwén 中文 ("standard written Chinese")

    Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic" in the largest sense that embraces all the multitudinous branches, languages, topolects, dialects, subdialects, and idiolects, whether they are written (/writable in characters) or not, and whether they are mutually intelligible or not, though I do recognize that many people use Hànyǔ 汉语 inexactly to refer to Mandarin)

    Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 ("Modern Standard Mandarin" [MSM] as spoken on the Mainland)

    Guóyǔ 国语 (MSM] as spoken on Taiwan)

    I do not equate Huáyǔ 华语 with the above two terms, but consider it to be another indefinite term like the loosely defined Zhōngwén 中文, but tending more toward the spoken realm, whereas Zhōngwén 中文 — even the ill-defined Zhōngwén 中文 — tends more toward the written realm.

    I also believe that we should accurately refer to all of the countless varieties of Hànyǔ 汉语 ("Sinitic") by their own, proper designations (usually derived from a toponym that specifies where they are spoken), and that when we cite terms from them, we should be linguistically precise and do them the dignity of using the sounds they employ for their own words, not just say that a certain very distinctive expression from a particular variety is fāngyán 方言 ("dialect –> "topolect") and lazily give the pronunciation in MSM.

  17. cameron said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    @Johannes: I note the word "generally" in your formulation. I've heard anecdotes about people from remote towns in the north of Norway (Hammerfest, and the like) having to switch to English in Oslo because the locals couldn't understand their accents.

  18. Gunnar H said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 2:40 pm

    @Johannes: Perhaps not, but only if you include all the thickest regional accents and most grammatically and lexically distinctive dialects. The differences are certainly much greater than what an American would experience when watching Dr. Who, let's say.

    Wikipedia has a good article on Norwegian dialects. Take a look at the section on question words to see an example of the language's variety.

    As for intelligibility, yes, they're generally mutually intelligible, mainly because of familiarity. But only up to a point, and (I would argue) in some cases no more than Norwegian is with Swedish and Danish. For example, I am from Akershus myself and have family from Møre og Romsdal and from Rogaland, and I quite frequently have difficulty understanding them.

    Speakers of smaller dialects will also often moderate their dialect features when speaking to people from other parts of the country. If any of you Norwegian-speakers watch this clip (from a show where two people with the "strangest dialects in the country" have to try to communicate with each other), you may notice that Harald Anton (the bearded one) is more or less understandable when speaking to the host, but lapses into total incomprehensibility (at least to me) when he takes a call on his cell phone.

  19. Ray Girvan said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 3:04 pm

    @Victor Mair: Even members of the Norwegian parliament use their dialect from the podium of the parliament.

    Echoing what others have asked in various ways, is there any analogy in English for how these dialects differ? Are they as variant as, say, RP English and broad Scots, as in (hypothetically) …

    Prime Minister: "It would be premature to discuss the matter, and that is all I am saying."
    MP for Inverbroath: "I ken unco well whit the Meenister's sayin'. Housomeiver, sic a muckle maiter needs talkin' aboot richt nou."

    … or even more so?

  20. Johannes said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

    @cameron, @gunnar, @ray Yes, there are some Norwegian dialects that can be hard to understand for other Norwegians. I've heard similar anecdotes about the Setesdal dialect.

    But I believe the situation is similar in English: As far as I know, it's perfectly possible to find someone speaking sufficiently heavy cockney or rural Scottish dialect, for instance, that they would have a hard time being understood on the streets of New York.

    I believe we deal with the variation in much the same way as English does – people who speak unusual dialects also know how to switch to a more standardized form when needed. And TV, movies etc. spread the standard variants pretty much everywhere, so I think every dialect speaker understand the standard variant.

    I'd still call it a single language simply because we can adjust to an unfamiliar dialect in a matter of days or weeks, while learning an entirely new language, like a Norwegian learning French, takes years.

    I agree with Gunnar that Danish and Swedish appear very similar to dialects rather than different languages from a "mutual comprehensability" standpoint.

  21. Eirik Hektoen said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 3:46 pm

    It is a widely accepted maxim in Norway that you should write in Bokmål or Nynorsk but speak in your particular local dialect. But to say that nobody speaks Bokmål seems to me to be taking this idealisation too far.

    Speaking from my own experience I find it very hard to think of any significant difference between Bokmål and widely used forms of spoken Norwegian in and around Oslo. This is true especially for the more "conservative" spoken variant (which is what I speak myself, and which is highly similar to so-called conservative Bokmål—or even Riksmål) but also for the more "popular" variant (which is very similar to so-called radical Bokmål).

    (Simply put, "conservative" and "radical" Bokmål refer to systematically choosing the optional forms and grammar—within the ranges allowed by the standard—that are, respectively, more similar to Danish or to the authentic Norwegian dialects.)

    For what it's worth, my view is supported by this paragraph in the Norwegian Wikipedia:

    "Standard østnorsk er et dansk-norsk språk som blir talt av en stor og voksende minoritet i Norge, særlig den urbane middel- og overklassen på Østlandet. Språkhistorisk sett er det ikke en norsk dialekt, men et koinéspråk og en sosiolekt. Det er så å si sammenfallende med leseuttale av bokmål."

    Standard Eastern Norwegian is a Dano-Norwegian language spoken by a large and growing minority in Norway, especially the urban middle and upper class in Eastern Norway. From the point of view of historical linguistics, it is not a Norwegian dialect, but a koiné language and a sociolect. It virtually coincides with a reading pronunciation of Bokmål.

    I would be very interested if anyone who has studied these dialects/sociolects academically could give examples of how they differ from Bokmål.

  22. Eirik Hektoen said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    The paragraph in the Norwegian Wikipedia I referred to above is here:

  23. cameron said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    @Gunnar H; @Johannes: given that so many of the speakers of the Norwegian dialects can code-switch to a more standard form of Norwegian (perhaps retaining traces of their native dialect's pronunciation) while communicating with outsiders, it might be the case that their actual native dialects are significantly more impenetrable to outsiders than outsiders can tell. Has anyone done in-depth dialect studies in Norway such that the question as to whether there are any dialects as different from "standard" Norwegian as the Elfdalian language is from Swedish?

  24. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 7, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

    @cameron et al.: There has indeed been research into this. One point to start would be the dialectometric (I hope that's a word) studies by Gooskens and her colleagues, e.g. Gooskens and Heeringa (2006), "The relative contribution of pronunciational, lexical, and prosodic differences to the perceived distances between Norwegian dialects", Literary and Linguistic Computing 21(4). I think one version is available from Gooskens' web page, and there are other papers on Norwegian from her and some other people.

  25. julie lee said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 1:20 am

    @Ray Girvan,
    Thanks for that delightful bit of broad Scots.

    @ Victor Mair,
    As I've mentioned before, my folks and our friends come from pre-Mao China, and sought refuge in Taiwan. We call Chinese (speech and writing) zhongwen 中文 (literally "Chinese writing" in Mandarin)。But when I met a younger relative on mainland (Mao) China, she corrected me, saying, " 'Zhongwen中文' is incorrect, the correct term is Hanyu 漢語 (literally 'Han speech')"。“ Seems to me "Zhongwen" gives primacy to writing since Zhongwen ("Chinese script") also means speech, while "Hanyu" gives primacy to speech since Hanyu ("Han speech") also means writing. Seems to me in Mao China there's been a change in emphasis, in consciousness. The Chinese script has always been a symbol of the elite and elitism. But since Maoism preaches equality, it is not surprising to find the status of speech or vernacular raised.
    However, the Chinese government is in practise eroding dialects and topolects– by enforcing Mandarin as the national standard. On the other hand, there is a counter-trend– in many Chinese people, myself included, who have acquired a new respect for our native dialects and topolects. So I think these different Chinese vernaculars will continue to live and flourish. And hopefully, scripts will be developed for all of them.

  26. Lane said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 8:01 am

    So we have some disagreement here, with Eli Anne saying

    "he extent to which people [button up their speech in the direction of a written standard[ this is super super small. "

    and Johannes saying

    "I believe we deal with the variation in much the same way as English does – people who speak unusual dialects also know how to switch to a more standardized form when needed."

    and then Wikipedia

    and then that Oestnorsk "virtually coincides with a reading pronunciation of Bokmål."

    So I still am left concluding that some people sometimes do "button up" their Norwegian in the direction of a standard, but it almost always happens in the direction of Bokmål or Oslo dialect/Oestnorsk, and that no dialect-speaker, in order to be more widely understood, Nynorskifies their speech.

    Eller hvad? (Danophone here, so if I seem to be "pulling" for Bokmaal, I'm not totally neutral…)

    And I'm still left wondering: who writes in Nynorsk, and why?

  27. RP said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 8:47 am


    Presumably, those most likely to write Nynorsk are those who were taught in it. Although Norwegians learn both varieties, some schools (mainly in the west) teach them one variety first, others the other. Apparently only 12% of Norwegians write Nynorsk, though.

    At the Nynorsk-using author writes that as a result of writing Nynorsk "the social group I am likely to be identified with is 'uneducated country folk'."

    Her concern in that regard suggests there are social/class implications rather than just regional.

    If you visit the websites of the major Norwegian political parties, all the homepages seem to be in Bokmal. I've also heard that Nynorsk receives less time on public broadcasters than it is legally entitled to.

  28. Gunnar H said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    @Johannes: I certainly agree that irrespective of mutual intelligibility, the variations within Norwegian constitute dialects, not separate languages. (I stated as much in comments on the previous post.)

    When I believe there is more variation between Norwegian dialects than within (most?) English dialects in Britain, North America and Australia, it has less to do with inter-comprehensibility (which is highly affected by familiarity, and therefore by the unusually high status and public use of dialects in Norwegian) and more with what I perceive as greater grammatical and lexical variation. Although perhaps some forms of AAV differ from standard English to a similar extent. I'll leave the question to actual linguists. (Thanks for the link to Goosken's work, @Jarek Weckwerk.)

    @Eirik Hektoen: The reluctance to say that people "speak bokmål" or nynorsk is not because we disagree about the facts of the situation, I think, but rather a matter of terminology. It's based on the view that "bokmål" properly refers to the written standard, not to a spoken dialect. Bokmål and "standard/educated East-Norwegian" are closely associated, but different in that one is written (and used by people who don't speak with a standard East-Norwegian accent), while the other is spoken.

    To make an analogy, it is (in this respect, though not in many others) like the difference between British English spelling and RP pronunciation.

    This is why, I think, the sources in fact do talk about "standard East Norwegian" and about "reading-pronunciations of bokmål" instead of just "spoken bokmål".

    As for whether there's a difference between standard East-Norwegian and "reading-pronunciations of bokmål" (apart from any residual accent markers other dialect speakers may exhibit in the task), it gets tricky (even in principle) to distinguish slang, sloppy articulation and grammatical errors from firm dialectal features. And innovations in the spoken dialect probably eventually make their way into the "reading-pronunciations" as well. Plus, even within bokmål it is common to to use eye-dialect renderings of spoken dialogue, or for common expressions that aren't necessarily part of bokmål proper.

    That said, I propose that these may be features of at least some varieties of spoken standard East-Norwegian that are not standard parts of bokmål grammar or "reading-pronunciations of bokmål" (sorry for not using IPA consistently):

    -"hvertfall" ("at least", "in any case") as a merged word without an "i": "Jeg har hvertfall ikke sett den" vs. bokmål "Jeg har i hvert fall ikke sett den." ("Well I haven't seen it.")

    -"a" as an emphatic or interrogative particle: "Kan vi ikke det a?" vs. bokmål "Kan vi ikke det, da?" ("So can't we do that?")

    -"døh" for "du"

    -monophthongization of /æɪ/ to /æ/ in some contexts: "jeg" -> "jæh", "nei" -> "næh"

    -metathesis that moves an /r/ from between two vowels to after both, particularly in "-ren" endings (with the /e/ modified according to the first vowel): "moren" -> "mo'orn"; "har den" -> "ha'arn" (Though the former example would probably be found in some reading pronunciations depending on the speaker's natural dialect)

    -various contractions involving verb+"ikke" ("not") that would not be written as contractions in bokmål and probably (?) not used in reading-pronunciations: "kan ikke" -> "kan'ke" ("can't"); "har ikke" -> "ha'kke" ("haven't"); "får ikke" -> "få'kke" ("can't get", "isn't allowed"); etc. (This may be more a matter of register than dialect)

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    It would seem to me that "book language" is an unfortunate designation for a standard that appears to differ from the speech of most Osloites than does standard French from that of most Parisians, with the difference a decreasing function of the speaker's educational level. The situation is one that I have called weak diglossia, and most people in such a situation think of themselves as speaking (with greater or lesser "correctness") the language, referring to it by the name under which it's taught at school.

    For example, the Serbocroat-speaking area is covered by three or four standards, and people refer to themselves as speaking Croatian, Serbian (and possibly Montenegrin) or Bosnian depending on their ethnic identity, not on the dialect they actually speak. Thus, people speaking the same Bosnian topolect will say that they speak Croatian if they are Croats, Bosnian if they are Bosniaks, Serbian if they are Serbs.

    As regards 中文, it would seem natural that Mandarin-speakers would, by the same token, call their speech by that name. In El Cerrito, California, where I live, there is a Chinese preschool that calls itself, in Chinese, 中英文幼儿园. I assume that 中英文 is a conflation of 中文 and 英文 intended to tell the Chinese public that English is also used, but, being a preschool, it is Mandarin- (and English-)speaking; its website says nothing about reading or writing. On the other hand, I have a hard time understanding how 中文 is used for non-Mandarin Sinitic languages, except perhaps in the way that the children of Italian immigrants in the US and elsewhere used to say that their parents spoke Italian at home, even if what was actually spoken was Sicilian or Piedmontese.

  30. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    I mean to say I (in line 3) "differ no more".

  31. Avinor said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Coby Lubliner, from your essay:

    Weak diglossia, by contrast, occurs when the dialect is what I have called a parastandard, and in this case speakers usually think only in terms of “the language” (“English,” “French” or whatever) which may be used more or less “correctly” (the model of “correctness” being of course the standard), and discrepancies are perceived as “faults,” or at the very least as “colloquialisms,” but not as indications of distinct language varieties.

    I have never, ever heard a Norwegian refer to dialects as being "less correct" than the written standards. This is fundamentally different from the situation that you describe above. The dialects are perceived as "distinct language varieties", not as flawed versions of a national standard. I think this is why the role of bokmål and nynorsk as written languages (only) is constantly emphasized.

  32. Johannes said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 10:08 pm

    @Lane: I don't think Eli Anne and I disagree, I'm not aware of anyone buttoning up their speech in the direction of a written standard either.
    I was referring to people with pronounced dialects/accents shifting their speech, mostly in the direction of the Oslo/Østnorsk dialect; simply because if other people can't understand what you're saying, it makes sense to modify your speech enough to get the meaning across.

    There aren't too many dialects where this is really needed, but there are some. Here's from an article titled "The Setesdal dialect under pressure":

    "Some people find the Setesdal speech so hard to understand that 'it might as well be Greek'. Not so strange perhaps – the Vikings would probably understand the people of Valle [a county in Setesdal, population 1200] today. […]
    'No other dialect in Norway is as close to Old Norse as the one in Valle', says professor in Nordic language history, Martin Skjekkeland."
    (Translated from )

    The Valle dialect (Vallemål) has apparently retained inflections from Old Norse that other Norwegian dialects abandoned a long time ago.

    Example: Singular/plural inflection of verbs
    *Vallemål – bokmål (English)*

    eg kjem – jeg kommer (I come)
    di kome – dere kommer (you (pl.) come)

    Example: Gender inflection of numbers

    tvai guta – to gutter (two boys)
    tve jento – to jenter (two girls)

    trei guta – tre gutter (three boys)
    treå jento – tre jenter (three girls)

    (From )

    There's also an online Vallemål dictionary. Most Norwegian dialects have at least a few dialect-specific words, but the Setesdal dialects have a lot of them:

    Others are better qualified than me to compare this to variations within English. Broad Scots, and perhaps some forms of AAV as Gunnar H suggests, seem like natural comparisons; but I'm neither a linguist nor a native speaker of English.

    As for "who writes in nynorsk, and why":

    For some, the nynorsk spelling standard is a closer match to their dialect.

    For a few others, it's more that nynorsk represents "regional dialects" vs "Oslo dialect", or "folksy Norwegian" vs "pretentious Norwegian". Or something; I'm not sure I fully understand it myself :)

    Most of the rest go with bokmål, simply because it's the most widely used.

  33. Stephan Stiller said,

    January 8, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

    I'm very impressed by what Wikipedia states about the social situation:

    [W]idely different dialects are used frequently and alongside each other, in almost every aspect of society. Criticism of a dialect may be considered criticism of someone's personal identity and place of upbringing, and is considered impolite. Not using one's proper dialect would be bordering on awkward in many situations, as it may signal a wish to take on an identity or a background which one does not have.

    Different issue: I am wondering whether there is any sentiment among Norwegians as regards Bokmål being so close to Danish.

  34. Ron Chowdhury said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 12:58 am

    Pretty sure members of the Norwegian Parliament take turns speaking from a lectern — not a podium.

  35. RP said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 4:44 am

    @Stephen Stiller,
    Hopefully the Norwegians will correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always thought that part of the motivation for introducing Nynorsk was the fact that Riksmål was actually just Danish (it was the direct descendant of the Danish written standard that Denmark imposed on Norway during the period of Danish rule). Riksmål evolved into Bokmål, which is a little more Norwegianized but still looks very similar to Danish (and you can see on lists of ingredients on food that the same text is often used for Danish and Norwegian, often with slashes so that both the Bokmål and Danish variants can be included where they differ).

    Scandinavian languages can be divided into two main groups, East Norse and West Norse. Wikipedia (at least the English one, I didn't check Norwegian) states that Norwegian is West Norse. Actually, Nynorsk is West Norse, and Bokmål is East Norse.

    As people have said, the term Riksmal is now used to refer to the most conservative (Danish-like) variety of Bokmal. Norway's largest newspaper is Aftenposten, and according to Wikipedia, "True to its conservative line, Aftenposten is published in a very conservative form of the Norwegian written language called Riksmål, which keeps closer ties to the Danish language than more commonly used norms… Aftenposten has been under repeated criticism for its very strict editorial policy on this matter; mainly because it converts every contribution to the newspaper, including letters from readers, into this language standard – even if they were correctly written according to official language guidelines"!

    As for the "social situation" of tolerance of all dialects, this is good news but apparently not everyone in Norway feels it's that clear-cut (just because it's rude to express the prejudice doesn't mean there's no stigma there, I suppose) – see my comment yesterday for a relevant link.

  36. RP said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    On the point about Scots, it's unclear whether that really is "variation within English", as many hold that Scots is a separate language! I think we use the term Broad Scots to make clear we're not talking about Scottish English nor Scots Gaelic, but just "Scots" is really the language's name.

  37. Gunnar H said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 9:53 am

    @RP and Stephan Stiller: Yes, part of the motivation for nynorsk was to have a distinct native written language (at a time before riksmål/bokmål had been defined as separate from Danish). That's more than 150 years ago, though. Today, I think only the most partisan nynorsk-activists would claim that bokmål and the standard East-Norwegian dialects are Danish and not Norwegian. Or if you turn it around: the Dano-Norwegian-speaking elite of the Danish union period would probably have considered modern bokmål and modern Oslo-dialect as scandalously common.

    As for prejudice against dialects, yes, it exists here and there, despite a widespread attitude of support for language diversity and for local identity, and despite the ideal that people should speak their natural dialect in all situations. Of course, it's tied up with political tensions and regional stereotypes: that city people are arrogant towards the outlying districts, that rural people are provincial and poorly educated, that people from one place are drunkards, those from another are greedy, if you're from over here you're a snob, from over there and you're a religious nut, etc., etc. People from Northern Norway (nordlendinger) faced real discrimination within living memory, of the "Irish need not apply" variety.

    There are no doubt still bigots who believe seriously in such caricatures (some of which may have more foundation than others: there is something of a political gulf between Oslo and the remote districts, and the South-West Coast is more religious than the rest of the country), and there's definitely some bitterness about it from the targets of the less flattering prejudices. On the whole, I don't think the tensions and conflicts are all that severe (milder for sure than what you find in most countries), but others might disagree.

    There are also specific dialect features that are widely stigmatized as "ugly", such as the "thick L" (retroflex flap) in a wider-than-usual range of phonetic contexts (seen as characteristic of Østfold), and some aspects of Arendal dialect: This article reports that the use of "du" for the second person singular pronoun in the accusative as well as the nominative (instead of the standard "deg") has more or less disappeared in the last fifteen years, after it was made fun of on a popular comedy show.

  38. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    To what extent is the fact that during the 19th century when this was happening Norway had passed from Danish rule to Swedish rule en route to full independence relevant? Did that make more Danish-like features of Bokmal seem less colonialist/oppressive (for everyone who was not flocking to the Nynorsk banner) than they otherwise might have been had Danish rule continued, with the more important point being avoiding pressure to Swedify the prestige/written standard? FWIW, at least in the U.S. "No Irish Need Apply" is said by some more recent scholarship to be an urban myth with no historical foundation, although a widely-believed one.

  39. RP said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 11:16 am

    @Gunnar H, thanks for the detailed reply. Appreciated.

    @Stephan Stiller, sorry I misspelt your forename earlier.

  40. julie lee said,

    January 9, 2014 @ 12:18 pm

    @Gunnar H says prejudice against dialects are tied up
    "…with political tensions and regional stereotypes: that city people are arrogant towards the outlying districts, that rural people are provincial and poorly educated, that people from one place are drunkards, those from another are greedy, if you're from over here you're a snob, from over there and you're a …."

    Indeed. Sounds familiar. Common stereotyping among the Chinese I've heard are that people from Shanghai are slick, from Hubei are cunning because merchants, from Shandong are hicks because farmers, from Sichuan are fiery because they eat too much hot pepper, from Hunan never of the highest calibre because they eat too much hot pepper (look at Mou Zedong from Hunan with his muddle-headed "Great Leap Forward" and other follies), from Guangdong lacking culture whose speech sounds like they're always quarreling, from Beijing (in pre-Mao days) kind, generous, magnanimous, never small, because it shows when your city has been the imperial capital for hundreds of years, ….

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