Many languages are used in Norway, and there is more than one flavour of Norwegian. Let's look at the most common languages of Norway.
This article forms part of our long-running series on how to learn Norwegian.
Learning a language is an important aspect of relocating to any country, but in Norway there are some extra things to consider before diving in.
What languages do Norwegians speak?
As their native language, Norwegians speak Norwegian, and write in one or both of the two principal written forms of the language: Bokmål and Nynorsk. Both of these are taught in schools.
English is taught from around the age of 8 and so most Norwegians are fluent by the time they reach their teenage years.
Many also choose to learn a second foreign language either at school or for fun, with German and Spanish seeming to be the most popular options at the moment. Of course, there are also some minority languages including Sami and Kven that are spoken natively by some select groups.
Now let's look at the languages of Norway in a little more detail, because if you're going to be learning Norwegian, it's important to know the differences.
Before the union with Denmark that saw a version of Danish become commonplace, Old Norwegian was widely spoken. It was a variety of Old Norse similar to Old Icelandic but with strong local variants throughout Norway.
Following the outbreak of the Black Death, the language underwent many changes, most notably a simplification of grammar and a reduction in vowels. The language during this period is now referred to as Middle Norwegian.
When most people refer to the Norwegian of today, what they're really talking about is Bokmål, or the Book Language. A written language used by 80-90% of Norway's population and in the vast majority of municipalities, Bokmål has its roots in Danish.
Bokmål was officially adopted more than 100 years ago as an adaptation of written Danish, which was commonly used during and since the long political union with Denmark. The predecessor Riksmål is very similar (the difference is often compared to American v British English) and still used today in some areas as a spelling standard.
I say it's a written language, because there is no spoken standard of Norwegian, and Norway's strong regional dialects (such as nordnorsk) can significantly change what you hear when someone is speaking – more so than in many other countries.
That said, most foreigners are taught to speak the Oslo dialect, which is seen by many as an unofficial standard. It's also sometimes called Eastern Norwegian, or Standard Norwegian.
A more recent development is a spoken form of the language known as kebabnorsk. It's a fusion of Norwegian and foreign languages, and can be heard on the streets in parts of Oslo.
The other written standard for the language is known as Nynorsk, or new Norwegian. Its history is complex, but despite the name it is meant to better reflect the Old/Middle Norwegian language used before the union with Denmark.
Although used as the primary language is many municipalities and schools, these are largely rural and so only around 12-15% of the population use Nynorsk as their primary form.
However, Nynorsk is a mandatory subject for schoolchildren in Norway, so the understanding of the alternative spellings is high. Nynorsk is also regularly seen on the website of the state broadcaster, NRK, whose journalists are free to use either form.
The Sami language – or more accurately group of languages – is spoken natively by less than 50,000 in Norway, yet it has official minority language status.
Since the Sami Act and the creation of the Sami Parliament in 1989, the language has seen a renewed focus with governmental support and grants available to writers and other creatives actively using the language. Whether this results in increased native use remains to be seen.
One of the issues is that there are ten variants of Sami, some of which are notably different. All of them have one thing in common though. They are wildly different from Norwegian!
Sami has its roots in the Uralic language family (of which Hungarian and Finnish are the best known) so they are impossible for native Scandinavian language speakers to understand.
I don't know how close Sami is to Finnish, so if there are any Finnish readers out there, please drop me a note and let me know!
But wait, we're not finished yet!
The Kven language is spoken by the Kven people, a minority group in northern Norway with strong Finnish heritage. The language is said to be spoken by as few as 10,000 people, the majority of which are of retired age, so there is a big risk of it dying out in the coming years.
The language is essentially a strong dialect of Finnish. Two notable features are the high number of Norwegian loan words and the use of Finnish words that are no longer used in Finland. This reminds me of some Norwegian Americans that use phrasing and terms that are no longer used in modern Norway.
The English language in Norway
It would be wrong of me to publish an article about what languages are spoken in Norway without mentioning the obvious elephant in the room: English!
English is taught from the third year of school, which is basically from the age of 8 onwards although some ‘fun' games involving counting, colours and so on could've started a year or two earlier.
Nevertheless, it's common for kids to already have a decent grasp on the language by the age of 8 because of YouTube, Netflix and the like!
By the time they reach the teenage years, the vast majority of Norwegians are fluent in English, and that ability sustains itself throughout adult life with the exposure to English language culture on TV, film and online.
English is also increasingly becoming the business language of Norway. Of course this isn't true for all sectors, but in science and engineering, many offices operate on an English-first policy.
What languages of Norway should I learn?
If you are considering relocating to Norway, you do face a choice. Learning Norwegian is an absolute must if you plan to remain in Norway on a long-term basis. To become a citizen or permanent resident, the majority of people will need to pass Norwegian exams in written, listening and oral skills.
The choice between learning bokmål or nynorsk comes down to where you live. For most learners, bokmål is the obvious choice. This is because the vast majority of educational material is available in bokmål.
If you're moving to Bergen or a rural part of Western Norway, you could consider Nynorsk. However, I still recommend learning bokmål first, then switching to nynorsk when you've mastered the basics.
15 thoughts on “The Languages of Norway”
I think one of the most interesting and overlooked historical change is in the “th” sound. In Icelandic (much closer to Old Norse than Norwegian now) there are two versions of this sound; voiced and voiceless. They even have their own special characters:(Ð ð for the voiced version and Þ þ for unvoiced– these examples show upper case first and then lower case. But in Norwegian now this sound is totally gone and a simple “t” is used instead. It makes me wonder if the name “Thor” (which sounds like a typical Norwegian name to me) is still in use in Norway and how it is now pronounced.
Tor (without the h) is most common.
The name Thor is very common to me.
However, ‘th’ is always pronounced as ‘t’.
My wife is Thorgun her father was Thor.
However, many variants such as Torbjørn are spelt with a ‘t’.
Riksmål is actually an old, conservative variant of bokmål, more similar to Danish.
Ikke glem norsk tegnspråk! Norwegian Sign Language is a language with grammar and lexicon distinct from other sign languages in the world and is used by roughly 15,000 people. Norway is on the process of making norsk tegnspråk one of the county’s official languages.
What an excellent post! My grandmother and grandfather were both born in Bolga Helgeland, above the Artic Circle on a tiny island. When they immigrated to Minnesota, my grandfather, Jacob Christian Nelson, was so proud to be an American that he forbade his family from speaking Norwegian which I am trying to learn now. I think I grew up listening to the Riksmal dialect? Sounds like I should be learning the Boksmal?
I had 8 very enjoyable years working off-shore in the Norge oil industry where English was the everyday language so it was only during work breaks that I heard Norwegian spoke.
Whenever there were Finnish workers there was always robust joking about their languages and customs.
This was over 17 years ago so only good memories remain and very little of the language. Takk.
Jeg har lært meg bokmål selv. Lesing og skriving er også veldig bra. Jeg har bare problemer med å snakke, jeg har bare ikke muligheten til å øve. Derfor er jeg så glad for at så mange av mine norske venner snakker tysk.
How close is Danish to the Norwegian language, i.e., could someone learning Danish, to intermediate level perhaps, converse well in Norwegian?
Written Danish is almost identical to written Bokmål, with some spelling differences. Pronunciation however could not be more different. Danes speak with a hot potato in their throat 😀
Norwegian and Danish look very similar, so with a little practice and reading you will easily be able to understand written Norwegian. Speaking is another matter! They are pronounced so differently that it can be hard for a foreign speaker of one to understand the other completely (native speakers are more used to hearing the other language spoken and can usually manage to decipher 80-100%).
Swedish and Norwegian, on the other hand, look quite different but sound more similar. Norwegian is a good language to learn, therefore, if you want to gain access to all three mainland Scandinavian languages. It is also an entry point into Icelandic and Faroese, though not without considerable further study. They are closer to Old Norse, the language the Vikings spoke!
Great post! My folks still speak Old Norsk (90 years young and going strong) – as a young child listening to my family speak their native tongue, I heard songs. The language always sounded like they were singing.
Perhaps you could record their conversations for future generations?
I’m sure it would be greatly appreciated and I know I, for one, would love to hear them for sure.
I am a 7-grade-girl who lives in Norway, and we started learning English in the first year of school.
That’s the most common now, but before we learned English later😊
You forgot to tell about the travelers Romani Rakripa. In Norway maybe as few as 100 are able to talk it.