Languages & dialects

Norway was, until fairly recently, isolated pockets of humanity making a living in the valleys between the mountainous areas which cover most of Norway. Travel was difficult and communication was slow. As a result, local and regional dialects have developed on their own, producing an incredible range of sounds and words, with radical differences from one another.

The same word can be pronounced in hundreds of different ways across Norway. No dialect is considered to have more worth than another, except by the people who speak them. Most Norwegian dialects – with some notable exceptions - are understandable once you get to understand a little Norwegian.

Three for price of one
To add to the confusion, we have three official written languages in Norway: Bokmål, Nynorsk and Sami. The two biggest are Bokmål and Nynorsk. Bokmål is based on written Danish, which was the official language of Norway for hundreds of years. Nynorsk was created by linguist Ivar Aasen in the 1850s, and is a compilation and combination of some (mostly West-Norwegian) regional dialects. The two languages are not very far apart, but do reflect the large regional differences. Generally, if you understand one of the two languages, you can understand the other fairly easily.

Officially Bokmål and Nynorsk have been accorded equal status, although Bokmål is more widely used in Oslo and the larger towns. Nynorsk is used by about 10-15 per cent of the population, mostly on the west coast. You will also find a substantial part of government documents, church services and public broadcasting written in Nynorsk.

Sami, on the other hand, is a minority language used by the indigenous Sami people. It is mother tongue to about 20,000 individuals in Norway. Sami is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of languages, and North Sami has been established as an official language equal with Norwegian. It is mostly used in Troms and Finnmark – two regions in Northern Norway.

English as a second language
But if you’re not planning on learning Norwegian, don’t worry: Norwegian children start learning English at school at the age of six and as a result, practically everyone in Norway has some skill in English (and theoretically speaking also either German or French). Young people in particular are mostly completely fluent in English. On the other hand, English-speaking films and television series are subtitled instead of dubbed. So if you can read this, you should have no problem speaking to other people, or even just watching television in Norway.