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Fretland - English

Positive and negative effects on the relations between the two Norwegian language varieties Bokmål and Nynorsk from legislation and other official regulations


Jan Olav Fretland – Norwegian Language Council

The Norwegian publisher Henrik Groth once said that Norway has met with two serious pests:

The Black Death and Nynorsk. Such a quotation, ironical as it may be, underlines the

seriousness of the Norwegian language struggle, and gives some explanation of the need to

discuss national regulation of the relationship between the two language variants.

In this small lecture I will say a little about the status and distribution of Bokmål and

Nynorsk, and by showing examples from one regulated area I will try to estimate the value of

a national regulation of the these languages for more than 120 years. The relationship between

Bokmål and Nynorsk can be seen as a parallel to that between English and other European

national languages. It is, therefore, my hope that what is said here about the Norwegian

language situation, may be a contribution to the main theme for to-day’s debate and also for

to-morrow’s discussions on legislation. I will also already here notify my primary point of

view, which is that the weaker language, Nynorsk, would have been far more inferior in the

Norwegian society than it is to-day, without national actions of regulation.

What is special about the Norwegian language situation is the fact that the two language

variants are so similar. This is difficult to understand for many foreigners, since both Bokmål

and Nynorsk can be understood by almost all Norwegians. It is important, then, to remind you

of how fundamentally different the two languages are in their origin: Bokmål is the traditional

high status language, originating from Danish, after a 400 year long union with Denmark.

Bokmål is the written and spoken language for the elite, developed from the language in the

upper classes in the capital of Oslo. Nynorsk was the expression of a counter-movement

against this elite and its dominant position. The language genius Ivar Aasen wanted to give

the Norwegian dialects and the people using them, more prestige, by creating a language built

on these dialects. A newly published government report on power and democracy in Norway

(NOU 2003:19, chapter 10) describes the Norwegian language situation like this:

“The movement for Norwegianness (including the Nynorsk movement) and Norwegian

nationalism originated from a struggle against Danish cultural hegemony and Swedish

political dominance. The urban upper classes were regarded less national. The Nynorsk

movement defined itself as a national, popular project. At the same time it has been nonhegemonical

and in constant opposition. Norwegianness and Nynorsk was a counter cultural

movement in Norway. It also had a regional basis, opposing the capital. This perspective

constitutes a contrast to the situation in many European countries, like Sweden or France,

where the capital was the core in the national project, created and supported by the urban

upper classes.”

So Nynorsk is the rebel from rural Norway, existing under a constant threat because, among

other things, of the urbanisation (34 % of the pupils had Nynorsk in 1943, 15 % in 2003).

Apart from some central districts of Vestlandet (Western Norway) Bokmål is the dominating,

often the only language, in trade and industry and in all of the big national newspapers. The

entertainment industry also is mainly a Bokmål industry. So in many high status domains

Bokmål is the dominating language. But the majority of Norwegian politicians have agreed to

help Nynorsk to a more secure national status, by regulating the use of the two language

variants in a lot of fields that are important for Norwegian culture:

- The most fundamental decision was made in Stortinget (the Norwegian

Parliament) in 1885, when the Radical party, after having defeated the

conservatives in elections, ruled that the young Nynorsk language was to be of the

same standing as the Norwegio-Danish language. This decision has secured the

right for Norwegians to choose Bokmål or Nynorsk in many of the most important

language domains: In primary and secondary schools, in church, in local

municipalities, in local papers and so on.

- In 1892 the local school boards were given the right to decide which of the

language varieties the pupils were to use. The next 40 years more than half of the

primary schools changed to Nynorsk.

- From 1912 there was to be a written test in both language variants in higher

secondary school (for pupils 16-19 years), and from 1935 in lower secondary

school (for pupils 14-16). This is the most controversial theme in the Norwegian

language discussions to-day. The leader of the conservative city board of Oslo

newly suggested that the pupils in the capital should only have written tests in

Bokmål. The education minister, however, rejected the proposal.

- In 1930 a Language Act was passed, ruling that the government had to use both

Bokmål and Nynorsk in official correspondence and other official documents. A

new and revised law was passed in 1980.

- In the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), the Norwegian parallel to

BBC, there is a defined rule that at least 25 % of the programmes are to have

Nynorsk and at least 25 % are to have Bokmål. In practise, this goal has never

been reached: Nynorsk tends to occupy between 15 and 20 %. The other big media

institutions do not have so strict compulsory rules and accordingly have a much

lower percentage of Nynorsk.

There are different figures on the situation for Bokmål and Nynorsk to-day in Norway. A

couple of reports, however, indicate that perhaps 12-14 % (5-600 000 people) use Nynorsk

and 86-88 % Bokmål. In Stortinget there has so far been a great majority in support of the

language legislation. Stortinget also decided that the Norwegian Language Council from 1994

was to see to that the legislation and regulation are followed up by public servants and

institutions. Only the right wing Progress Party and parts of the Conservative party question

this. But in one field, as I mentioned earlier, more people are sceptical to the rules: The

question of whether to have written tests in both language variants in secondary education.

The Norwegian Language Council (NLC) is the “watchdog” supervising the distribution

between Bokmål and Nynorsk in governmental texts. One might say that NLC works with

language questions on at least two levels:

- They work to strengthen Norwegian, both Nynorsk and Bokmål, in competition

with Anglo-American language culture

- They work to strengthen Nynorsk in important language domains, countering

Bokmål dominance

We will now take a close look at one language domain: The choice of language variant in

public services in Norway. We will try to find out how the different kinds of regulation are

followed up. Above we have described a system of legislation from 1930 for public services,

revised in 1980. There are explicit rules, for example one stating that about 25 % of each

language variety in external, written texts, including on the Internet. The NLC is to give

advice and assistance on how public services can manage to follow up the legislation. All

state institutions are bound to write an annual report on the situation for Bokmål and Nynorsk

in their work. The bureaucrats in the ministries are not too fond of this surveillance, and

occasionally one notices examples of conscious neglect of the rules. A report from NLC

expresses the situation like this:


A fundamental experience is that 1) the supervisor role is important and it is necessary 2)

In 1994 an employee of the NLC was appointed a supervisor of this part of the regulation

system. In the following diagram you find a registration of how many state institutions

managed to fulfil the claim of at least 25 % in both Nynorsk and Bokmål in 1994 and in the

following years. One column is for texts of more than 10 pages and one for texts with less

than 10 pages.

efnil speeches.jpg


There is a significant increase in the number of institutions with a satisfying result in the first

years after 1994. We also include a table of the period 1997-2000 that partially gives the same



 1-10 pages

More than 10 pages


Total number of institutions






















When it came to special initiatives, NLC mentioned two, in addition to the four points above:

5) The Ministry of Culture must see to it that all ministries follow the claims in the

legislation, and 6) the supervising system must be given higher status in the system.”

The report concludes with a proposal:

“We propose that the Ministry of Culture, together with the NLC, initiates a three year

project, with a defined goal: That after three years most central state institutions manage to

fulfil the 25 % rule.”

Some employees tend to be dispirited:

“The supervisor work in NLC must be given higher priorities if it is to make any sense. After

more than 9 years of language legislation work in NLC there are still less than 13 % (i.e .of

the state institutions) that do a proper job.”

Some quotations from letters to the NLC underline the lack of willingness to follow the rules:

Be aware of the moralistic tone in some of the sentences:

(From a report to the NLC board in May 2003)

“If you have wrongly received an invoice for 100 000 N kr, the question whether The

Consumers’ Council can help you or not, is more important than what language form the help

is given in.”

(Answer from Consumers’ Council September 2003)

“From the reasons mentioned above we do not find it expedient to fill in your formulas for the

use of Nynorsk in 2002

Some are more humble:

(Regular answer from the Court of National Insurance)

“We have very few employees in our administration and very much to do, so we have not been

able to give priority to this work.“

The most dramatic example of lack of willingness to follow up the languages regulation could

be noticed last summer from the Oslo University, by far the biggest university of Norway,

with students from all over the country and with lots of courses that can only be taken there.

The university sent an application to get an exception to the 25 % claim for Nynorsk, to the

Ministry of Education. The Ministry refused, naturally enough, pointing out that the Oslo

University is a national institution, no matter if it is situated in a region where the great

majority use Bokmål.

The work is troublesome, but the tables above all the same show that the supervising has a

certain effect, and that you can achieve quite good results with small resources. Both in the

public services and in the NRK the percentage of Nynorsk is higher than the percentage of

Nynorsk users in Norway. If one compares with areas with no language regulation, there are

dramatic differences: In national voluntary organisations, trade unions, trades and industry,

the big media corporations, national papers, and in commercial language elsewhere one finds

that the share of Nynorsk is perhaps one or to per cent. We also see that there are quite a few

national institutions that are able to fulfil the language claims. We therefore mention in short

some features connected with those that succeed (my source is a report to the NLC board

from the supervisors):

- If you have leaders or public relation people that are sympathetic to Nynorsk, it

will almost certainly influence the Nynorsk percentage.

- If following up the claims for 25 % Nynorsk is made an obligatory responsibility

for the leaders, making it necessary for them to include it in the plans of their

organisation, there will be made routines and ways of working that secure that the

obligations are fulfilled. The Bergen University is a good example of this. This

institution made an explicit programme with concrete working goals, initialised by

their leaders. The results are good: The university administration has reported 30–

50 % Nynorsk in the period 1997-2000.

Reports from our officials and other kinds of documentation state some clear conditions to get

progress in this kind of work. The key word is motivation, and different approaches are to be


1 Offer of advice and support. Many public servants feel that they do not master

Nynorsk well enough and want competent assistance. A public consultant service is suggested

in the 2004 budget for the Ministry of Church and Culture. 1,5 Millions N. Kroner is

suggested to deal with such a service in the first year. Other important tools in this connection

are the new language translation programmes that are now being made. These programmes

will in a few years be able to translate most texts between Nynorsk and Bokmål.

2 Work must be done to get more understanding for the Norwegian language situation

and to get all people in Norway to realise that Nynorsk supporters are not some kind of

strange, slightly fanatical race that only want to bother Bokmål users.

3 Skilled bureaucrats, who make good plans and who are held responsible if the plans

are not fulfilled.

4 In addition there must, of course, be sufficient resources for necessary supervising

There is at present an intense debate between those who think that motivation and support is

enough, and those who think that certain sanctions against institutions that seriously violate

the language law are also needed. The present minister does not want sanctions, but instead

more work to stimulate and motivate the public institutions. In the Norwegian Language

Council we think that in serious cases there ought to be sanctions. Possible means might be

reprimands for leaders, cuts in budgets and so on.

With these small glimpses from an everyday situation for the language supervisors in Norway

I conclude this lecture. If one transfers my examples to our main theme, my assertion is that in

order to strengthen language domains that are threatened in many European languages, it is

not enough to motivate and give information. In many cases it is necessary to make plans for

action and to give direct support to the national languages. In some areas it is also necessary

to regulate, by legislation or otherwise, the relationship to the Anglo-American language


Further suggestions on what forms plans for action are to have, and what systems of

regulation we need, and what systems we do not need, I hope we can discuss later this


(The State College of Architecture)


- The Ministry of Labour and Government Administration

- NLC, Annual Report 2001, pages 26-29:

: NOU 2003:19, chapter 10

- Two reports to the board of the Norwegian Language Council. The reports are unpublished,

but available at the NLC

- Interview with NLC employee Trine Gedde-Dahl


that it takes a lot of hard work, and 3) that we are in lack of sufficient means. The Ministry of

Culture has transferred a lot of tasks connected to language legislation to NLC, but has failed

to give us satisfactory means to carry out the work in a good enough way. 4) In addition the

Ministry itself has been almost invisible in supervising the work in the last years”

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