Bokmål, Nynorsk and Samisk – the three languages of Norway

Similar to Switzerland, Norway has also more than one official language: Bokmål, Nynorsk and Samisk (which is the language of the Sami, the indigenous people who live in the north of Norway, Finland and a part of Russia). Bokmål and Nynorsk are somewhat similar while Samisk is totally different. Both, Bokmål and Nynorsk are only written language, the spoken language is a mix between these two and characterized by many dialects. Bokmål is used by over 80% as their written language. It is comparable to the “high German” we use as formal language in Switzerland.

Before I left Switzerland, I knew that most Scandinavian people speak English. During my stay, I only met one single person that didn’t speak English. Once at the beginning of my stay, an elderly woman (about 85 years old) dropped her bread in a store and I helped her pick it up. She started talking to me in Norwegian, which I didn’t understand at this time. After telling her that I don’t speak Norwegian she repeated and continued in English. I was so surprised!

A Norwegian friend also told me that there is a high chance that elderly people speak German. Bergen was a “Hansestadt” for many centuries and remained a hanseatic centre until the Second World War. Therefore, a lot of German merchants stayed in Bergen and the Bergenese People spoke German.

If I stay in a country for half a year, I want to learn at least some basic skills of their language and learn about their culture. That’s what I told myself before I left Switzerland. I attended an introduction course designed for exchange students for about three months, which gave a short introduction in Norwegian language (Bokmål) and some basic information about the culture.

I enjoyed learning Norwegian a lot. The grammar is similar to German, verbs are not conjugated, and the spoken language is very similar to Swiss-German. For example, the Swiss-German word “Ussicht” means “utsikt” in Norwegian and the word “Schinke” is “skinke” (pronounced exactly the same way as “Schinke”). Even the words “jo” and “nei” are “jo” and “nei” in Norwegian. For me the most difficult part was to learn a new language that has similarities to my own language (German and Swiss-German) through a language that has a totally different grammar (English).

Reading in Norwegian is quite easy for German speaking persons. Understanding people on the street however isn’t. Bergen is known in all of Norway for its strange dialect. Bergenese people use the letter “k” a lot and tend to swallow the word-endings, sometimes they use words that have no connection to Bokmål at all. When I was in Oslo it was much easier for me to understand people talking. This is because the Oslo dialect is very similar to the written Bokmål that we learned in the course.

Another interesting aspect of Bokmål is that it is almost identical with Danish. Norway was part of Denmark until 1814 and since then the language didn’t change much. We went on a road trip through the north of Norway together with two Danish guys. Whenever we met people (which was very rare, you could drive for three hours and not meet another car) they spoke Danish and the Norwegians replied in Norwegian. They understood each other without any problems. Only when we were close to the Finnish border, they had some difficulties to understand Danish. But then again, this was not a real problem because everyone speaks English. Speaking of similarities to Danish, I can also point out, that the Norwegians adopted the letters æ (=ä), ø (=ö) and å (=oa) from the Danish language. When I had to write my first essay in Norwegian, I first had to figure out how to write these letters with a Swiss keyboard – turns out that one has to change the laptops language to Bokmål and then press “ä”, “ö” and “ü”. Sadly, I was not able to use a lot of my Norwegian skills. In our student housing were only international (and a lot of German) students. The whole corona situation didn’t make it easier to talk to Norwegians (as they are normally already very shy). Nevertheless, I am very grateful that I could attend a Norwegian course (in person, luckily not online) and I hope that I don’t lose all my knowledge.

Marina Schärer

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