The "parent language" of Norwegian is, as noted, customarily called Old Norse, a term which includes both Old Norwegian in a narrow sense (the language of Norway) and Old Icelandic. The chronology traditionally used for the Norwegian language is:
Old Norse 700–1350
Middle Norwegian 1350–1525
Modern Norwegian 1525–
In histories of the Norwegian language, this chronology is usually motivated on structural grounds: Old Norse is the synthetic medieval language which we find in the manuscripts of the time, Modern Norwegian represents the analytic stage reached by the Norwegian dialects (supposedly) in the sixteenth century, but not expressed in writing before the codification of written standard Nynorsk around 1850. Middle Norwegian, then, represents a short transitional stage, as indicated by an unstable and fluctuating written language under increasing pressure from Danish.
However, in the spoken language, the development from a synthetic towards an analytic structure must have begun earlier – probably well before 1300 – and proceeded at a different pace in various parts of the country. The Old Norse written language was used earlier and more extensively than Old Danish and Old Swedish; probably the first manuscripts were written in the eleventh century, although the oldest extant ones date from the twelfth. The language was stabilized in a relatively conservative form which did not reflect the changes in speech. It persisted until the middle of the fourteenth century. From then on, it gradually yielded to the more impressionistic way of writing which we call Middle Norwegian, and which itself had to yield to Danish as Danish power in Norway tightened its grip. Distinctively Norwegian forms of writing did persist for a while, but around 1525 the replacement of Norwegian by Danish was nearly complete. When Latin yielded as an ecclesiastical language because of the Lutheran Reformation (1536), Danish took its place. Christian III's Danish Bible was introduced in Norway, too; no Norwegian translation was made until modern times. The only Norwegian texts still used after 1536 were old law texts, ultimately dating from the thirteenth century, and these were replaced by Danish texts around 1600.
Danish was the only written language employed in Norway from this time until the second half of the nineteenth century. In speech, Norwegian dialects were used, but in the cities, a Danish-based upper- class spoken variety gradually arose, especially for formal use, but it also strongly influenced everyday language. This variety was actually based on spelling pronunciation: phonetically North Scandinavian, but on all other levels Danish. In fact, it corresponded closer to the Danish orthography than ordinary spoken Danish did, since this orthography was (and is) very conservative, reflecting medieval more than modern Danish pronunciation.
After the secession of Norway from Denmark in 1814, this situation continued, but it was felt as increasingly problematic. Europe, including Scandinavia, had now reached the Romantic Age, and one of the new insights was that there was a deep connection between a nation and its language. The question arose of how Norway should attain linguistic autonomy. In the decisive period between 1830 and 1860, two answers to this question appeared.
One was formulated by the self-taught linguist Ivar Aasen (1813–96). After extensive research which entailed more than four years of travel around southern Norway in the 1840s, he presented a comparative study of the dialects which became the foundation of Norwegian dialectology. Based on this material and aided by methods developed by internationally known linguists such as Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm, he developed a standard written norm for modern Norwegian, presented in a grammar (1864, see Haugen 1965 ) and a dictionary (1873). This became the basis of the variety called Nynorsk.
The other method for developing a Norwegian written standard was less dramatic, perhaps, but still controversial – namely, using the Danish written language as a basis and norwegianizing it according to the norms of urban upper-class speech. This approach is associated with its most prominent spokesman in the nineteenth century, the teacher Knud Knudsen (1812–95). The variety resulting from it, which Knudsen and his followers called "Dano-Norwegian", was the basis of modern Bokmål.
At the outset, the Norwegian language struggle was a competition between these two policies and the language varieties resulting from them. The struggle intensified from about 1880, in parallel with an intensification of the general political struggle about parliamentarianism and the union with Sweden; the language controversy was clearly seen as an aspect of this political struggle. Nynorsk gained ground in the countryside, especially after the victory of parliamentarianism in 1884. The new radical parliament acknowledged it formally in 1885 as being on a par with Danish, and in 1892 it became possible to choose Nynorsk as a language of instruction in primary schools (as part of a strong expansion of elementary education, especially in the countryside).
By 1920, Nynorsk had been introduced as the language of instruction in most of western Norway and the interior mountain valleys, where it still has its stronghold, and also in large parts of Trøndelag and other regions, where it has since lost ground.
The cities and towns, however, along with the populous southeastern part of the country, remained solid "Dano-Norwegian" territory. But this variety was transformed to suit Norwegian speech better through two spelling reforms, in 1907 and 1917. From then on, it has been customary both in Denmark and Norway to view Norwegian Bokmål as a language distinct from Danish. The first book to be translated from Bokmål into Danish appeared in 1919.
Although Nynorsk experienced a rapid expansion, Bokmål remained the majority written language. The struggle between the two partisan groups was one of the major political issues in Norway at the time, and it is not unnatural that thoughts of reconciliation made themselves felt. Since the linguistic difference between the two varieties was not so great, the idea arose of gradually bringing them closer together, aiming at amalgamation into a single Common Norwegian (Samnorsk) written language. This idea had already been voiced in the 1880s, but it gained ground after 1900 and received political support from the leading Left Party (liberal and radical) and later from the growing Labor Party. Linguistically this plan was supported by the fact that the dialects of the most populous areas of Norway had many core features in common with both written standards, so that an amalgamation should be possible by using these dialects as a basis. In 1917 and 1938, two very ambitious spelling reforms aimed at convergence were issued after several years of debate and struggle.
After World War II, a reaction set in against this policy, especially on the Bokmål side. A bitter struggle developed in the 1950s and early '60s concerning "Common Norwegian". At the same time, Nynorsk was ousted as an instructional language in many districts, but it retained its position in its heartland in western Norway, where it is still strong.
While a slow convergence, mostly in idioms and style, can be discerned in written usage, the official policy of amalgamation was given up – definitely or temporarily – in the 1960s. A partial reversal of this trend has even taken place in Bokmål through a spelling reform in 1981, but both Bokmål and Nynorsk today exist in several sub-varieties, some traditional, some "radical" – i.e. approaching the other variety and the most common forms in the dialects.
There are four and a half million Norwegians today, and more than 95% of them use one of the varieties of Norwegian as their primary language (often a dialect for speech and one of the standards for writing) – the Sámi being the most important minority. No census has been taken of Bokmål vs. Nynorsk users, but 15% of all school children are taught Nynorsk as their first written variety, the rest Bokmål. Many of the Nynorsk children change to Bokmål if they move to a Bokmål milieu later in life (and almost all urban centers are dominated by Bokmål), so the actual proportion using Nynorsk is probably less than 15%. On the other hand, the percentage was around 30 in the 1940s and has since decreased gradually, so we might expect a larger proportion of Nynorsk users among older age groups. It may be reasonably realistic to assume that about 10-12% use Nynorsk, i.e. somewhat less than half a million people.
The dialects of Norway are customarily divided into five main groups: Western, Central (i.e. comprising the mountain valleys of the interior), Eastern, Trønder (of Trøndelag), and Northern. Nynorsk was traditionally most closely related to the Western and Central dialects, but through the spelling reforms it has grown closer to the three other groups. Bokmål, on the other hand, is a compromise between originally Danish-based upper-class speech and southeastern dialects.
Dialects have a much higher prestige in Norway than in the other Scandinavian countries, and they are used relatively freely in most contexts [...].
Haugen, Einar 1965: Construction and Reconstruction in Language Planning: Ivar Aasen's Grammar. In Word 21:188–207. Reprinted in Haugen 1972:191–215.
Haugen, Einar 1972: The Ecology of Language. Essays, edited by Anwar S. Dil. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.