A biased introduction to Nynorsk history

I made a presentation for my non-Norwegian colleagues on the history of Nynorsk Norwegian, the smaller of the two Norwegian writing systems. Although I stand behind everything I say, it is in no way intended to be a serious discussion. Enjoy!

I have called this talk "A biased introduction to Nynorsk history – counter culture perspectives in Nynorsk activism from 1850s fieldwork to 2020s memes". Despite the slightly pompous title, I am no academic. If anything, I am an activist nerd.

This will not teach you any Nynorsk, but I will try to convince you why nynorsk, at least, is the more counter culture choice.

First: What is Nynorsk?

One of two Norwegian official written languages:

  • Nynorsk ("New Norwegian"), based off 1800s contemporary Norwegian dialects
  • Bokmål ("Book Speak"), based off 1800s Danish-influenced city formal speech

The two are similar and mutually intelligible, but with some different origins and word choices. (The Sami languages are not part of this, but will get a small cameo later.)

It is a weird situation, we know!

When Jon Fosse, a famed Nynorsk author, won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, New York Times described it like this:

"Nynorsk differs from Bokmål in vocabulary and grammar. The Nynorsk style tends to be more direct, compact and have a more active use of verbs."

This article will not be comprehensive in any way, and I will skip a lot of history here because otherwise I’d bury myself in rabbit holes. So: I have Danish friends, and would never say anything bad about them. But to understand the context of this talk, you will have to see these two take home messages:

  • We should all love Ivar Aasen
  • A lot of Norwegian nation building was based on absolutely fucking hating the Danes

The last point is examplified, in modern meme terms, like this, a small taste of what is to come:

Translated version of this image from /r/nynorsk on Reddit:

Now, for some history.

Norway was under Danish rule from the 1300s

After we got tired of being vikings we got in a union with Denmark. At first it was «a personal union» between two equal nations under one King who had inherited Norwegian lands.

Throughout the 1600s, Norway lost a lot of its separate institutions as deciding power and law was concentrated in Copenhagen.

This made a lot of Norwegians very angry and was widely regarded as a bad move.

In this time Danish increasingly became the political and bureaucratic language in Norway, which spread to the spoken word, especially in the largest cities and among the (political) elites.

A 1700s time capsule and quick detour:

A quick detour to the satirical play "Erasmus Montanus", from Bergen-born playwright Ludvig Holberg. The image is from 1910, but could almost be a contemporary caricature of the ivory tower academic – and that is because it is what the play is about!

“Erasmus Montanus” makes fun of both sides of its contemporary Denmark-Norway:

  • The pompous asshole academic who moved to Denmark, and Latinised his name from Rasmus Berg to Erasmus Montanus
  • His superstitious and narrow-minded Norwegian village, whom Erasmus impresses with newfound ideas taken back from Denmark, like LOGICS and RHETORICS

Ludvig Holberg is also responsible for a lot more, which I will mention as it's Holberg Prize season and he was born in Bergen. He moved from the city as quite young, later becoming a Professor in Copenhagen.

In 1737 – when he hadn't been in Bergen for 30 years – he wrote the ultimate diss track: “Den Berømmelige Norske Handelsstad Bergens Beskrivelse”, describing people from Bergen as – and I'm paraphrasing – loudmouth, book-scared, German-governed, provincial and pompous idiots".

The citizens of Bergen took that to heart and has kept the stereotype going ever since. We raised a statue of him, named the world's largest humanities prize after him, even though he hated the city and its people. One of us!

Back to Norwegian language history.

When the levee breaks… (1814-)

In 1814, Norway gains its independence from Denmark, and keeps working on its nation-building. (This is why we celebrate May 17th)

So of course, people started discussing: "Hey, what about our language?" – four main routes, of which 2 and 4 became the leading opposition:

  1. Yay, Danes: Let us just keep Danish…
  2. Yay, elites: Can't we just base it off how the Civilised Christiania (Oslo) People speak?
  3. Yay, vikings: Can't we just base it off Old Norse, and make it Neo Norse?
  4. Yay, us: Can't we just base it off how people around the country speak?
    • This was Ivar Aasen
    • From /r/nynorsk Reddit user rotakronk:

So, who was this Ivar Aasen guy?

  • Ivar Aasen was a farmer's son, from north-western Norway
  • Orphaned at 13, with an early interest in language
  • He was helped by an enlightenment local, a sheriff who also established a local library
  • Owned a cat, which he traveled with all over Norway (sadly, never pictured – but eternalised in poetry and song)
  • And most importantly, Ivar Aasen saw the Norwegian contemporary dialects as ripe for picking

First he had a scholarship from the Norwegian Academy of Sceinces, then later became recipient of the first state scholarship, to gather and categorise Norwegian language.

And boy did he travel!

This was very important for the historical collection and lexigraphy of Norwegian language in the nation-building times, and is still crucial for discussing Norwegian language history.

From 1842-1855 he made numerous travels, mainly by foot, around Norway. For 25 years he traveled on average every third day, going 28 350 kilometers.

This was old-fashioned fieldwork, talking to people to collect words, sayings, stories, songs, and names. All while writing poetry and setting his large political idea into play.

Map of Ivar Aasens reiser, from:

Aasen never traveled to Finnmark, because Norwegian wasn't the majority language there at the time. But the 1850s is also the start of the “fornorsking” (Norwegification) where minorities like the Sami, the Kvens (and some Finnish) was terrorised and had their culture attempted erased by the Norwegian government, only being taught Norwegian instead.

In 1868 Ivar Aasen returned to Christiania (Oslo) for the last time to make his treasure, what was to become “Norsk Ordbog med Danske Forklaringer”.

He thought it would be quick, but spent 9 years on it, which I’m sure no academic finds relatable.

Aasen died in 1896. His work laid the foundations of a Norwegian Peoples Language.

Some would also argue that the Ivar Aasen poem and song Nordmannen (Mellom Bakkar og Berg) is the proper Norwegian anthem. I certainly sometimes do.


Språkstriden – the language strife

Language split the country in many ways. Norwegian anarchist and radical writers (Arne Garborg) used the burgeoning Peoples Language to declare distance to the Danish oppression.

But not exclusively so, several of our most important nation builders (Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Wergeland) wrote Danish-Norwegian, and to a certain degree protested the use of Aasens language.

Due to its audience, nynorsk got closely attached to Norwegian cultural heritage, particularily its folk dance, folk music and bunad movements (Hulda Garborg).

In 1885, Aasen's Nynorsk and Bokmål was made equally official as Norwegian languages. That does not mean the strife was over.

the Nynorsk dictionary, with quite a normal defacing: Nynorsk Ordliste, written into Spynorsk Mordliste – meaning something like “vomit Norwegian murder list”.
the Nynorsk dictionary, with quite a normal defacing: Nynorsk Ordliste, written into Spynorsk Mordliste – meaning something like “vomit Norwegian murder list”.

Political faults were language faults, often rural versus urban

Many large newspapers refused to print Nynorsk (and still do! I have written for newspapers that wouldn’t let me write Nynorsk).

The strife went the point of banality:

  • A story from back home is that a cattle farmer that supported Nynorsk refused to let the neighbour bull breed his cows, because the neighbour supported Bokmål.

But this time was also the rise of many of the Nynorsk Norwegian great authors. One of my favourites is modernist poet (and gardened) Olav H. Hauge, which has been translated to English.

Last half of 1900s

The Norwegian government wanted, politically, to join the two by making Samnorsk (United Norwegian). That never caught on and was met with political protest from both sides, so we kept having two separate languages.

1929 was the year the two languages got their modern names, nynorsk and bokmål. Through time they have become closer to each other, allowing for more nynorsk words in bokmål and vice versa.

There was a lot of anger towards Nynorsk after the war, especially in Eastern and Northern Norway: "Why do we have to learn two languages!?»

There are many myths surrounding the evils of nynorsk, most which are not true. This has dampened the past few decades, but some strife still remains…

The Progress Party´s Youth Party (Framstegspartiets Ungdom) has, several times, launched a political campaign called “F**K NYNORSK”.

I welcome the discussion!

Firstly because I am for freedom of speech.

Secondly because the campaign always leads to massive growth in the Nynorsk language organisation, Noregs Mållag – 2024 numbers are over 15 000 members, up from 12 000 a couple of years ago.

Screenshot from the TikTok of Simen Velle, PPY leader:
A musical aside: Some Nynorsk music

In addition to the many songwriters writing homemade poetry in Nynorsk and Nynorsk inspired dialects…


Translation is often central – "Why isn't this in my language? Now it is!"

  • Humour band Dei nye kapellanane making new versions of Smokie and Sex Pistols songs
  • Art enfant terrible Oddvar Torsheim singing horribly on purpose(?) on translated Beatles songs
  • Metal side project Rammsund is a band that only plays Nynorsk translations of German industrial metal band Rammstein

Finally, we are back at today:

Translated version of this image from /r/nynorsk on Reddit:

Bokmål is the big boring default, the unseasoned oatmeal porridge of Norwegian language, celebrated by no one.

(Is my bias showing yet?)

Bokmål is now the written language of around 90 % of Norwegians, while Nynorsk is mainly in the Western parts of Norway.

Bergen is, technically, a language-neutral city, but the county Vestland is a Nynorsk county.


Nynorsk and its modern meme culture

I would still argue nynorsk is the hotter choice.

It is still considered a more poetic and literary form of Norwegian, although it's "exoticness" is dampened the past decades. But where it truly lives in modernity is in memery and internet shitposting.

The Distracted Boyfriend meme, with “Me” looking back at Nynorsk instead of Bokmål.
The Distracted Boyfriend meme, with “Me” looking back at Nynorsk instead of Bokmål.
An anecdote from my new job

First day of my new job, I come into a collagues office. When I exit, I see this image on his wall:

A ballet dancing Ivar Aasen, with the text “Haters gonna hate” under it.
A ballet dancing Ivar Aasen, with the text “Haters gonna hate” under it.

I made that, a thousand internet years ago. Posted it in an argument about the validity and excellence about nynorsk "I don't care if some bokmål people hate when I write nynorsk", and it probably spread throughout the nynorskosphere – to this office wall.

I knew I had come to the right place.

The resulting memes are a kind of self-aware and ironic homage, often leftist in nature. Like all other meme cultures it plays off our current (pop) culture.

“If you like bokmål so much, why dont you move to Denmark?”
“If you like bokmål so much, why dont you move to Denmark?”

Some are most likely written by bokmål writers. And I know about at least one Russian teenager, and an Estonian nerd, who just read language history, and decided to teach themselves Nynorsk. Nynorsk enthusiasts are a strange bunch of people.

"How much did you let your nynorsk supporter beard grow?" with a collection of nynorsk activists throughout the ages and their beards.
"How much did you let your nynorsk supporter beard grow?" with a collection of nynorsk activists throughout the ages and their beards.

Technology can also bridge a gap here. No images of a young Ivar Aasen exist, so modern technology comes to the rescue:

What a handsome fella!
What a handsome fella!

I often find that if I need something to fill a space, Ivar Aasen is there. This is why my Animal Crossing island has several references to Nynorsk.

“Aasen Lives” – at the entrance to my small village.
“Aasen Lives” – at the entrance to my small village.

Some might take it a bit far. This is a post in an otherwise normal forum thread, stating that they often have sex dreams about Aasen – a famously single man, dedicated only to his project, not taking neither partner nor significant other.

A forum poster talking about their sexual dreams of Ivar Aasen:
A forum poster talking about their sexual dreams of Ivar Aasen: "I often have sexual dreams about Ivar Aasen…" "I don't think it's out of the ordinary."

My wife wanted me to make it clear that this is not me.

I don't put my sexual fan fiction in spaces this public.

Ivar Aasen as the Norwegian Che Guevara

In modern times, this has given way to an almost personal cult status for Aasen. As stated in this article: “The only question is why?”


Then deputy leader of the Youth Organisation for Nynorsk, Jens Kihl, stated an oft-repeated quote – that "Ivar Aasen is, in a way, our Che Guevara".

Quotes from panel discussion on Nynorsk, Google Translated.
Quotes from panel discussion on Nynorsk, Google Translated.

Now, he is not saying that Ivar Aasen was a dictator, bigot and mass murderer, but again it's the face as a strong visual element, a type of counter culture identity marker. Aasen is on posters, on tattoos, he is the mascot of a beer company, he is a “hero to all”.

It doesnt even have to be in Nynorsk:

As an avid bikes, I am very happy about this meme.
As an avid bikes, I am very happy about this meme.

Nynorsk as literary language

Currently, Nynorsk sits in a middle ground. It is a literary language, being both “the sound of cows” for some, and a beautiful and poetic language to others.

The best translation of Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, is also in Nynorsk – because with its Norwegian dialect influences, it much better reflects the different ways of speaking English that the Tolkien creatures of Middle Earth do. The bokmål version is very bland.

This year Jon Fosse won the Nobel Prize in Literature, which means 25 % of Norwegian winners are Nynorsk writers.

Nynorsk is punching about its weight – check mate, Danes!

"Fosse has said it is simply the language he grew up with,” and that rings true for me as well. Nynorsk is My Language, not That Other Language. It is a part of the western Norwegian identity, as a periphery to the central Oslo power – still showing obscene hand languages to our former colonialists, even though they are, technically, our friends now.

When Fosse won, Associated Press quotes translator Guy Puzey:

«Guy Puzey, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said Bokmaal is “the language of power, it’s the language of urban centers, of the press.” Nynorsk, by contrast, is used mainly by people in rural western Norway.

“So it’s a really big day for a minority language,”»

Some further links

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