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Language fact: Norwegian

Language fact: NorwegianI always had a soft spot for Norwegians and the Norwegian language. Not for any important reason, mind you, but simply because like the Swiss very few Norwegians speak the way a text is written.

Norwegian is a North Germanic language. Approximately 5 million people speak Norwegian. Beyond Norway, Norwegian speakers can be found in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the UK, Spain, Canada and the USA.

Early Norwegian literature, poetry, and historical prose was written in Old Norse and flourished from the 9th to the 14th centuries. After Norway came under Swedish and, later, Danish rule, Norwegian continued to be spoken but Danish was used for officials purposes as well as a literary language and in higher education.

After Norway separated from Denmark in 1814, Danish continued to be used in schools until the mid-19th century. The movement to create a national language stemmed from nationalistic fervor and the fact that written Danish was so different from spoken Norwegian, making it difficult to learn.

There was considerable debate about how to go about creating a national language and two languages emerged: Landsmål (national language), based on colloquial Norwegian and regional dialects and Riksmål (national language), which was primarily a written language and close to Danish. In 1929, Landsmål was renamed Nynorsk (New Norwegian) and Riksmål is now officially known as Bokmål (book language).

Today's Norwegian
Today schools can choose to teach either Nynorsk or Bokmål and civil servants are expected to be fluent in both forms. The indigenous Sámi people have maintained their own official written language.

For a while there was a movement to create a single standard language to be called Samnorsk (Union Norwegian). Politicians liked the idea of unifying the Norwegian language, while everybody else thought it a bad idea and a waste of time. The Samnorsk project was officially abandoned in 2002.

Going back to my comparison to Switzerland, for Norwegians the dialect makes up an important part of their identity, and by listening to a person's dialect we can in most cases determine with good accuracy from which part of the country s/he is from.

Also, Bokmål and Nynorsk are not classified as different languages where you have to learn the other as a foreign language. A text written in Bokmål is perfectly understandable for a person using Nynorsk, and vice versa.

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