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About Norwegian Language

Norwegian (norsk) is a North Germanic language spoken primarily in Norway, where it is the official language. Together with Swedish and Danish, Norwegian forms a continuum of more or less mutually intelligible local and regional variants (see Danish language).

These Scandinavian languages together with the Faroese language and Icelandic language, as well as some extinct languages, constitute the North Germanic languages (also called Scandinavian languages). Faroese and Icelandic are hardly mutually intelligible with Norwegian in their spoken form, because continental Scandinavian has diverged from them.

As established by law and governmental policy, there are two official forms of written Norwegian – Bokmål (literally "book language") and Nynorsk (literally "new Norwegian"). The Norwegian Language Council recommends the terms "Norwegian Bokmål" and "Norwegian Nynorsk" in English.

There is no officially sanctioned standard of spoken Norwegian, and most Norwegians speak their own dialect in all circumstances. The sociolect of the urban upper and middle class in East Norway, upon which Bokmål is primarily based, can be regarded as a de facto spoken standard for Bokmål. This so-called standard østnorsk ("Standard Eastern Norwegian") is the form generally taught to foreign students.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Danish was the standard written language of Norway. As a result, the development of modern written Norwegian has been subject to strong controversy related to nationalism, rural versus urban discourse, and Norway's literary history. Historically, Bokmål is a Norwegianised variety of Danish, while Nynorsk is a language form based on Norwegian dialects and puristic opposition to Danish. The now abandoned official policy to merge Bokmål and Nynorsk into one common language called Samnorsk through a series of spelling reforms has created a wide spectrum of varieties of both Bokmål and Nynorsk. The unofficial form known as Riksmål is considered more conservative than Bokmål, and the unofficial Høgnorsk more conservative than Nynorsk.

Norwegians are educated in both Bokmål and Nynorsk. A 2005 poll indicates that 86.3% use primarily Bokmål as their daily written language, 5.5% use both Bokmål and Nynorsk, and 7.5% use primarily Nynorsk.[citation needed] Thus 13% are frequently writing Nynorsk, though the majority speak dialects that resemble Nynorsk more closely than Bokmål.[3] Broadly speaking, Nynorsk writing is widespread in Western Norway, though not in major urban areas, and also in the upper parts of mountain valleys in the southern and eastern parts of Norway. Examples are Setesdal, the western part of Telemark county (fylke) and several municipalities in Hallingdal, Valdres and Gudbrandsdalen. It is little used elsewhere, but 30–40 years ago it also had strongholds in many rural parts of Trøndelag (Mid-Norway) and the south part of Northern Norway (Nordland county). Today, not only is nynorsk the official language of 4 of the 19 Norwegian counties (fylker), but also of many municipalities in 5 other counties. The Norwegian broadcasting corporation (NRK) broadcasts in both Bokmål and Nynorsk, and all governmental agencies are required to support both written languages. Bokmål is used in 92% of all written publications, Nynorsk in 8% (2000).

Norwegian is one of the working languages of the Nordic Council. Under the Nordic Language Convention, citizens of the Nordic countries who speak Norwegian have the opportunity to use their native language when interacting with official bodies in other Nordic countries without being liable to any interpretation or translation costs.

From Old Norse to Scandinavian languages

The languages now spoken in Scandinavia developed from the Old Norse language, which did not differ greatly between what are now Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish areas. In fact, Viking traders spread the language across Europe and into Russia, making Old Norse one of the most widespread languages for a time. According to tradition, King Harald Fairhair united Norway in 872. Around this time, a runic alphabet was used. According to writings found on stone tablets from this period of history, the language showed remarkably little deviation between different regions. Runes had been in limited use since at least the 3rd century. Around 1030, Christianity came to Norway, bringing with it the Latin alphabet. Norwegian manuscripts in the new alphabet began to appear about a century later. The Norwegian language began to deviate from its neighbors around this time as well.

Viking explorers had begun to settle Iceland in the 9th century, carrying with them the Old Norse language. Over time, Old Norse developed into "Western" and "Eastern" variants. Western Norse covered Norway (including its overseas settlements in Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands), while Eastern Norse developed in Denmark and south-central Sweden. The language of Iceland and Norway was practically the same up until the 1300s, when they started to deviate from each other.

The language phase traditionally dated to 1350–1525 is known as Middle Norwegian and is seen by many as a transitional period from Old Norse to Modern Norwegian. The reason for this is that although most languages are in a state of constant change, Norwegian phonology, morphology and syntax changed considerably during this time. The use of grammatical case, and a great portion of the conjugation of verbs was lost and replaced by a more fixed syntax, use of prepositions and a greater use of auxiliary based verb forms. During the late Old Norse period and this period there was also a considerable adoption of Middle Low German vocabulary. Similar development in grammar and phonology happened in Swedish and Danish, keeping the dialect continuum in continental Scandinavia intact, but with greater dialectal variation. This process did not, however, occur in the same way in Faroese and Icelandic. These languages remain conservative to this day, when it comes to grammar and vocabulary, so mutual intelligibility with continental Scandinavia was lost.

Danish and Swedish rule

In 1397, the Kalmar Union unified Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and from 1536 Norway was subordinated under the Kingdom of Denmark–Norway. Danish became the commonly written language among Norway's literate class. Spoken Danish was gradually adopted by the urban elite, first at formal occasions, and gradually a more relaxed variety was adopted in everyday speech. The everyday speech went through a koinéization process, involving grammatical simplification and Norwegianised pronunciation. When the union ended in 1814 the Dano-Norwegian koiné had become the mother tongue of a substantial part of the Norwegian elite, but the more Danish-sounding solemn variety was still used on formal occasions.

Norway was forced to enter a new personal union with Sweden, shortly after the end of the former one with Denmark. However, Norwegians began to push for true independence by embracing democracy and attempting to enforce the constitutional declaration of being a sovereign state. Part of this nationalist movement was directed towards the development of an independent Norwegian language. Three major paths were available: do nothing (Norwegian written language, i.e. Danish, was already different from Swedish), Norwegianise the Danish language, or build a new national language based on Modern Norwegian dialects. All three approaches were attempted.

Danish to Norwegian

From the 1840s, some writers experimented with a Norwegianised Danish by incorporating words that were descriptive of Norwegian scenery and folk life, and adopting a more Norwegian syntax. Knud Knudsen proposed to change spelling and inflection in accordance with the Dano-Norwegian koiné, known as "cultivated everyday speech." A small adjustment in this direction was implemented in the first official reform of Danish language in Norway in 1862 and more extensively after his death in two official reforms in 1907 and 1917.

Meanwhile, a nationalistic movement strove for the development of a new written Norwegian. Ivar Aasen, a self-taught linguist, began his work to create a new Norwegian language at the age of 22. He traveled around the country, comparing the dialects in different regions, and examined the development of Icelandic, which had largely escaped the influences Norwegian had come under. He called his work, which was published in several books from 1848 to 1873, Landsmål, meaning national language. The name "Landsmål" is sometimes interpreted as "rural language" or "country language," but this was clearly not Aasen's intended meaning.

The name of the Danish language in Norway was a topic of hot dispute through the 19th century. Its proponents claimed that it was a language common to Norway and Denmark, and no more Danish than Norwegian. The proponents of Landsmål thought that the Danish character of the language should not be concealed. In 1899, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson proposed the neutral name Riksmål, meaning national language like Landsmål, and this was officially adopted along with the 1907 spelling reform. The name "Riksmål" is sometimes interpreted as "state language," but this meaning is secondary at best, compare to Danish rigsmål from where the name was borrowed.

After the personal union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905, both languages were developed further and reached what is now considered their classic forms after a reform in 1917. Riksmål was in 1929 officially renamed Bokmål (literally "Book language"), and Landsmål to Nynorsk (literally "New Norwegian"). A proposition to substitute Dano-Norwegian for Bokmål lost in parliament by a single vote. The name Nynorsk, the linguistic term for Modern Norwegian, was chosen for contrast to Danish and emphasis on the historical connection to Old Norwegian. Today this meaning is often lost, and it is commonly mistaken as a "new" Norwegian in contrast to the "real" Norwegian Bokmål.

Bokmål and Nynorsk were made closer by a reform in 1938. This was a result of a state policy to merge Nynorsk and Bokmål into one language, called "Samnorsk" (Common Norwegian). A 1946 poll showed that this policy was supported by 79% of Norwegians at the time. However, opponents of the official policy still managed to create a massive protest movement against Samnorsk in the 1950s, fighting in particular the use of "radical" forms in Bokmål text books in schools. In the reform in 1959, the 1938 reform was partially reversed in Bokmål, but Nynorsk was changed further towards Bokmål. Since then Bokmål has reverted even further toward traditional Riksmål, while Nynorsk still adheres to the 1959 standard. Therefore a small minority of Nynorsk enthusiasts uses a more conservative standard called Høgnorsk. The Samnorsk policy had little influence after 1960, and was officially abandoned in 2002.

Accent

Norwegian is a pitch accent language with two distinct pitch patterns. They are used to differentiate two-syllable words with otherwise identical pronunciation. For example in many East Norwegian dialects, the word "bønder" (farmers) is pronounced using tone 1, while "bønner" (beans or prayers) uses tone 2, just like in Danish. Though the difference in spelling occasionally allow the words to be distinguished in written language, in most cases the minimal pairs are written alike, since written Norwegian has no explicit accent marks. In most eastern low-tone dialects, accent 1 uses a low flat pitch in the first syllable, while accent 2 uses a high, sharply falling pitch in the first syllable and a low pitch in the beginning of the second syllable. In both accents, these pitch movements are followed by a rise of intonational nature (phrase accent), the size (and presence) of which signals emphasis/focus and which corresponds in function to the normal accent in languages that lack lexical tone, such as English. That rise culminates in the final syllable of an accentual phrase, while the utterance-final fall that is so common in most languages is either very small or absent.

There are significant variations in pitch accent between dialects. Thus, in most of western and northern Norway (the so-called high-pitch dialects) accent 1 is falling, while accent 2 is rising in the first syllable and falling in the second syllable or somewhere around the syllable boundary. The pitch accents (as well as the peculiar phrase accent in the low-tone dialects) give the Norwegian language a "singing" quality which makes it fairly easy to distinguish from other languages. Interestingly, accent 1 generally occurs in words that were monosyllabic in Old Norse, and accent 2 in words that were polysyllabic.

Alphabet

The Norwegian alphabet has 29 letters.

  • A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Æ Ø Å
  • a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z æ ø å

The letters c, q, w, x and z are only used in loanwords. Some also spell their otherwise Norwegian family names using these letters.

Some letters may be modified by diacritics: é, è, ê, ó, ò, and ô. In Nynorsk, ì and ù and ỳ are occasionally seen as well. The diacritics are not compulsory, but may in a few cases distinguish between different meanings of the word, e.g.: for (for/to), fór (went), fòr (furrow) and fôr (fodder). Loanwords may be spelled with other diacritics, most notably ü, á and à.

Dialects

There is general agreement that a wide range of differences makes it difficult to estimate the number of different Norwegian dialects. Variations in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and pronunciation cut across geographical boundaries and can create a distinct dialect at the level of farm clusters. Dialects are in some cases so dissimilar as to be unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners. Many linguists note a trend toward regionalization of dialects that diminishes the differences at such local levels; there is, however, a renewed interest in preserving distinct dialects.

 

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