Language usage in Norway's civil service

Language usage in the Norwegian civil service is regulated in two ways: Through the official prescription of spellings, inflected forms and other rules that apply to written material, and through the Act relating to Language Usage in the Civil Service, which regulates the relationship between the two official Norwegian languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk.[1]

At work, State civil servants are obligated to follow the officially prescribed norms in respect of the two Norwegian languages. In 1981 the Storting (Norway's national assembly) decided that the State should follow the so-called textbook standard. In principle, that decision entailed a curtailment of the freedom of choice previously enjoyed by State employees. It was no longer acceptable to use specific alternate expressions, i.e. the words and forms listed in square brackets in the dictionaries. Such expressions may only be used in written work produced by pupils and students, and by others.

The most comprehensive rules are those embodied in the Language Usage Act and the appurtenant regulations. The most important provision of the Act stipulates two principles: First, the principle of parity, i.e., that Bokmål and Nynorsk shall be equal language forms and, second, the principle of equality, i.e. that they shall have equal status as written languages. The principle of parity entails the right to use both language forms, i.e. they shall both be accepted, while the principle of equality also entails a mandate that both forms shall actually be used. The Act lays down more detailed rules about the situations in which one language form or the other shall be used.

The regulations explicitly point out that each individual State agency shall be responsible for ensuring that the rules are followed. It is also stipulated that every State agency is responsible for ensuring that its employees receive the necessary training in Bokmål and Nynorsk within a reasonable period of time.

With reference to language usage within the context of the EEA and the EU, it is important to note that Norway's language usage provisions do not apply to internal administrative work, nor do they regulate the use of spoken language.

According to the old Language Usage Act of 1930, the obligation to use both Bokmål and Nynorsk was limited to State employees born after 1 January 1905 who had achieved a certain level of education. According to the new Act, the obligation applies to all who have to write in connection with their work, regardless of age or education. This obligation rests with the individual employee, not with the office or State agency as such. However, this shall not be interpreted to mean that the head of a State agency does not have an obligation to ensure that the employees follow the language usage rules.

One fundamental feature of the Language Usage Act is that lower levels of government administration, i.e. municipalities and counties, may often make language usage decisions that have a binding effect on higher levels, i.e. on the State administration, as regards using a certain language form (Bokmål or Nynorsk). Correspondingly, the language preference of private individuals and other private legal persons determines the form of language a State agency shall use in correspondence with the person in question. Only where municipalities and counties have not expressed a preference for a particular language form, or where the language preference of private legal persons is unknown, is a State agency free to choose the form of language it will use.

When a State agency writes to one or more municipalities within a limited area, the State shall use the language form (Bokmål or Nynorsk) preferred by the majority of the relevant municipalities. Where more than half the municipalities have elected to remain linguistically neutral, there is no majority linguistic preference, and the State agency shall be free to choose which language form to use. Account shall not be taken of the populations of the municipalities.

The linguistic decisions adopted by municipalities shall also determine the civil service language used by local and regional branches of State agencies. Local State agencies shall use this civil service language to address all other State agencies. The same shall apply to regional State agencies, except that the civil service language of a local State agency shall be used to address said agency. Likewise, central State agencies that write to local or regional State agencies shall use the civil service language preferred by said agencies. Although these rules may appear rather complicated at first, there is a clear logic behind them. They are based on the same principle as mentioned above, i.e. that the lowest administrative level shall determine which language form the higher level shall use in its correspondence. It all goes back to the municipal language usage decisions.

§ 8 probably has the most far-reaching linguistic policy consequences of any section of the Act. It contains a wide assortment of provisions that cover practically all the written material produced and distributed by State agencies, except for correspondence addressed to individuals. Pursuant to the Act, this section covers "circulars, notices, information material, etc." It covers everything from stamps and bank notes to parliamentary documents and other State publications. In brief, the section covers all material written for the public that is not covered under the other rules.

Meanwhile, the section covers all State agencies at all levels, from the largest directorate to the smallest vicar's office. However, it does not apply the same rules to the different State agencies. Once again, it is the lowest level that generally determines the language form. Thus material with special ties to a municipality shall follow that municipality's language usage decision. This applies inter alia to announcements for job vacancies in the State. Where the catchment area of a State agency is larger than one municipality, but still limited, the majority language form for the area shall be used for such material as is covered under the section. In linguistically neutral areas, the material shall alternate between the language forms, ensuring a reasonable ratio between them.

In the same way, State agencies that service the entire country shall ensure that the material covered by the section varies between Bokmål and Nynorsk so that there is a reasonable quantitative distribution between them. For quite some time it was unclear what should be considered reasonable in this context, but since the Storting issued a statement on the question in 1988, the regulations now specify that a reasonable quantitative distribution is that neither language form shall, over time, be used less than 25 per cent of the time. This applies to every State agency independently, rather than to larger units of government administration collectively.

Should an individual agency find just cause for so doing, such material as is covered under § 8 may be distributed in both Bokmål and Nynorsk. As regards forms/questionnaires, the rule is that they shall always be available and accessible in both language forms. The most practical way to accomplish this is usually to produce bilingual forms.

In conclusion, it must be mentioned that the Act related to Language Usage has a special provision regarding appeals. Thus in addition to the ordinary right of appeal in cases of personal relevance, language organisations may appeal to a superior agency if they believe a State agency is contravening any of the rules in the Act or the regulations. This probably leads to more reporting of such breaches than what would otherwise have been the case. It also means that such cases are reported to the Ministry.

Otherwise, the most important provisions of the Language Usage Act may be summed up as follows:

  • Private individuals and other private legal persons shall receive responses in the language (Bokmål or Nynorsk) they use when addressing a State agency.
  • Municipalities and counties may decide to require Bokmål or Nynorsk in the correspondence they receive from State agencies, or they may decide to remain linguistically neutral.
  • The so-called civil service language of a lower administrative level in the State shall determine the form used at a higher level to handle correspondence between them, for example, and the civil service language in turn is based on the municipality's choice of language.
  • State agencies shall generally alternate between the two languages in the documents they produce for the public, i.e. everything from parliamentary documents, books and magazines to stamps and bank notes, so that neither language is ever used less than 25 per cent of the time.


[1]Translator's note: While Bokmål and Nynorsk are two distinct written languages, they are similar in many respects, and may be viewed as two discrete variants of Norwegian.

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