Nynorsk in Norway

Nynorsk received official recognition through a parliamentary resolution in 1885. This resolution was the legal basis for the subsequent expansion of Nynorsk as an official form of Norwegian – first manifested in the school sector. As we explained before, Nynorsk had been accepted as the language of instruction in primary schools throughout most of rural Norway outside the southeast by 1940, but it lost ground in large parts of the area during the fifties and sixties. At the highest, the proportion of school children using Nynorsk was estimated to be about 34% (in 1944). After the war, it declined steadily: 32% in 1946, 25% in 1955, 20% in 1965, 18% in 1970. It reached bottom in 1977: 16.4%. This percentage remained constant during the next four years, after which it slowly began to rise again: in 1990 it was 17%. In the nineties a new decline has shown itself; in 1999 the percentage was 15.3.

The decisive phase in this development was the earliest one – the period from 1890 to 1920. During this time, the Nynorsk core area was formed, including rural western Norway plus the extensive mountain areas in the interior, which are intersected by long populated valleys. The area is vast, but its population, traditionally living from farming and fishing, is spread thinly. When the use of Nynorsk declined after World War II, this core area proved resistant, and it still remains a stronghold.

From 1915 onwards, the local language of instruction was to be decided by a local referendum, in which all adult inhabitants were entitled to vote. This is still the case today, after a short period (1969–85) when only the parents of school children were allowed to take part in the referendum. A referendum is arranged if a certain number of local citizens formally request it – provided at least five years have elapsed since last time a plebiscite was held. These plebiscites often take place in a heated atmosphere, with active campaigning from both sides. Generally, the plebiscites are requested by Bokmål adherents living in Nynorsk communities on the outskirts of the core area (or in recently developed suburbs where town dwellers using Bokmål move into a traditionally Nynorsk hinterland). However, in the last few years, they have most often been decided in favor of Nynorsk – a sign that the core area still resists attacks from the urban centers. The fact that to many of its users Nynorsk is a symbol of regional identity and regional pride is an important element in mobilizing support.

In secondary schools (or rather, from the eighth level of primary school onwards), both varieties are compulsory for all pupils – one as the «main language», the other as a «secondary language», according to the personal choice of each student. This regulation has been in force since 1907. It is perhaps not surprising that resistance to this compulsory secondary language is widespread among pupils who prefer Bokmål – especially since many of them also oppose the very existence of Nynorsk. Students with a foreign-language background (including Sámi) may choose their own language as the main or secondary language alongside one of the Norwegian varieties; they do not have to learn both of these. In teachers' colleges and universities, both varieties are taught as compulsory parts of the Norwegian course.

A major problem for Nynorsk as a school language – which it shares with minority languages in general – has been the shortage of textbooks in many subjects. After many years of lobbying from Nynorsk organizations, it was stated in the Primary School Act of 1969 that all textbooks, in order to be approved for use in public primary schools, were to be published in both a Bokmål and a Nynorsk version at the same time and the same price. Five years later, the same principle was introduced for secondary schools. Since then, the situation has improved greatly, although it is still difficult in specialized fields with only few students.

Outside the school sector, the formal recognition of Nynorsk was for a long time based exclusively on the 1885 resolution, which was interpreted to mean that it should be tolerated in official contexts, but not more than that. Nynorsk was gradually taken into use by municipalities in the core area, especially as the first generation educated in it came of age and assumed political responsibility. But the central bureaucracy (and often local officials as well), chiefly recruited from the urban bourgeoisie, remained dominantly opposed to Nynorsk and incompetent in it – even though they had to learn it in school (as a secondary language). The need for a language law to secure the rights of Nynorsk users in their dealings with this bureaucracy was quite apparent. Such a law was passed by Parliament in 1930, stating that officials were obliged to use both varieties according to regulations to be given by the government. A set of prescriptions was issued in 1932 to specify these regulations. An important element in the prescnptions was that every citizen was entitled to receive written answers to letters in his or her own language variety. Furthermore, it was decided that information, announcements and the like should be issued in both varieties in a reasonable proportion. All written communication regarding municipalities and larger areas where Nynorsk was dominant was to be carried out in that variety.

The law led to a gradual strengthening of Nynorsk in official services, but the results fell far short of the objectives. The rules were continually broken, and Nynorsk remained in a subordinate position – much weaker even than the percentage of Nynorsk school children would indicate. After many years of deliberations, a new and more detailed language law was passed in 1980, the Law on Language Use in the Official Service, which was based on the same fundamental principle as the 1930 law. It is worded like this in its first paragraph: «Bokmål and Nynorsk are equal language varieties and shall be regarded equally as written languages in all governmental bodies at the national, provincial and municipal level.» These new regulations for the most part resemble those of the prescriptions of 1932, but they place an obligation on the government to present a regular report to Parliament on language usage and the relation between Bokmål and Nynorsk in the governmental sector (initially required every second year, at present every fourth year). So far, the real position of Nynorsk within the bureaucracy remains very weak, in spite of the requirements of the law.

There are (pr. 1999) 435 municipalities in Norway. 117 of these have chosen Nynorsk as their official language variety, around 165 have opted for Bokmål, while the rest are «neutral». Neutrality, however, in fact means that the majority variety, Bokmål, is almost always dominant; this is the case in major cities like Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim, all formally neutral. The Nynorsk municipalities are concentrated in the core area which we have already defined.

In general, Nynorsk has two kinds of social bases: One is the core area, and the other is a group of nationwide cultural institutions run from Oslo.


The geographical core are of Nynorsk

Western Norway, the geographical core area of Nynorsk

In the core area, Nynorsk is used as the written language of daily social intercourse, both informal and formal (the local dialects are used orally, but they are linguistically close to Nynorsk). There are many Nynorsk newspapers in this area, most of them small and appearing two or three times a week. There is one daily, Firda, issued at Førde in the county of Sogn and Fjordane, to the north of Bergen. Sogn and Fjordane is the only county with a massive dominance of Nynorsk: 95% of the children are taught in Nynorsk, and all municipalities but one employ this variety. Sogn and Fjordane is agricultural, without big towns but with some regional population centers based on hydroenergy for metal production and on tertiary activities. In one of these centers, Førde, the Norwegian State Broadcasting Company has a regional office transmitting Nynorsk programs. The counties neighboring Sogn and Fjordane to the north (Møre and Romsdal) and south (Hordaland) are more urbanized, and the proportion of children taught in Nynorsk here amounts to almost 60% in Møre and Romsdal and 50% in Hordaland.

The second largest city of Norway, Bergen, is located in Hordaland, and in this county Bokmål is the dominant urban written language and Nynorsk the dominant rural one. Since Bergen is a Bokmål-dominated city and at the same time a regional center serving a large Nynorsk area, we can say that it encompasses the whole Norwegian language struggle in a nutshell. The big regional paper, Bergens Tidende, the fourth largest paper in Norway, is also the daily paper which uses the most Nynorsk. between 10 and 20%. Bergen is also the seat of a regional department of the Norwegian State Broadcasting Company, where Nynorsk has a strong position.

In the church, Nynorsk also commands a strong position in its core area, as well as having national recognition through its leading psalmists, particularly the earliest of them, Elias Blix (1836–1902), who is regarded as a classic. In the military forces, on the other hand, it occupies a very modest position. In the private sector, it is used by small local enterprises in the core area, but not much elsewhere.

Outside the core area, Nynorsk has its most important stronghold in some nationwide cultural institutions run from Oslo, as we said above. One of these is the Norwegian State Broadcasting Company (Norsk rikskringkasting or NRK), which is dominated by Bokmål, but Nynorsk has always had a clearly visible (or rather audible) position there. It has, however, been underrepresented, and in 1970, Parliament resolved that NRK should endeavor to broadcast on average at least 25% Nynorsk. This percentage has not yet been reached; in practice, it has often been between 15 and 20%.

Shortly after its creation, the first supporting organizations of Nynorsk were formed – at first independent of each other, but gradually coordinated at the regional level and finally at the national level, when the central organization Noregs Mållag was founded in 1906 (it has about 15,000 members at present). The movement was and is strongest in the core area (particularly Hordaland), but it is led from Oslo and active in all parts of the country. Among the fruits of its activities are the national cultural institutions which may be said to be the second social base of Nynorsk today: a publishing house, Det Norske Samlaget (founded in 1868), a theater, Det Norske Teatret (founded in 1913), a children's magazine, Norsk Barneblad (founded in 1887) and a weekly journal, Dag og Tid (appearing regularly since 1964). They have been instrumental in integrating Nynorsk as an essential element in Norwegian culture, especially the publishing house and the theater, as their contributions have been held in high esteem across the Bokmål-Nynorsk divide. Nynorsk poetry and prose is also highly esteemed as part of Norwegian literature. Among the leading authors are Arne Garborg (1851–1924), Olav Duun (1876–1939) and Tarjei Vesaas (1897– 1970), and in the present generation Kjartan Fløgstad (b. 1944), Edvard Hoem (b. 1949) and Jon Fosse (b. 1959). In the film medium, however, Nynorsk has not been able to secure a foothold: only very few Nynorsk films have been made, and they are based on Nynorsk literary works.

If we compare the situation of Nynorsk with that of Sámi and Finland-Swedish, we find that it comes out better in some respects and worse in others. The most important difference is that Nynorsk is very close to Bokmål linguistically. This means that Nynorsk in principle has the same functional range as Bokmål: every Norwegian who uses Bokmål understands Nynorsk. This is a great advantage, of course: other minority languages can only be used within the minority groups themselves. On the other hand, this very fact gives Nynorsk a certain autonomy problem: it easily merges with Bokmål, and the dialects on which it is based often contain many Bokmål elements in their structure and even more so in their vocabulary.

The legitimacy of Nynorsk as a parallel official variety is often questioned because of this closeness to Bokmål. The answer to such arguments is that the linguistic base of Nynorsk – the dialects – and the literary tradition built up in this variety, give it a particular flavor, with many connotations different from those of Bokmål and not easily integrated into it. Bokmål and Nynorsk have been cultivated in different ways and have become unique literary means of expression, and it seems difficult for those versed in one of them to be able to transcend to the other without feeling that they lose something of themselves linguistically. In other words, Nynorsk is felt by its users to be an integral part of their linguistic identity, and this is one of the reasons why it has been maintained for so long in its minority position.

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Publisert:24.06.2004 | Oppdatert:06.11.2023