Hoel, Oddmund L. (2004). The Fortunes of the Nynorsk Language in Norway 1885-1950. Uprenta føredrag i seminarrekkja til University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh & Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth, Wales, 16.12.2004.
First I must say that I’m very thankful for this opportunity to introduce the Norwegian language situation for a Welsh audience. In Norway I work on a PhD thesis on the history of the Nynorsk language movement between 1885 and 1950.
This paper is based on the assumption that the Welsh, including the academics, know as much about Norway as Norwegians know about Wales – that is not very much. Therefore the first part of this paper will give a brief overview over Norwegian history and the language situation in Norway before I go further into the period 1885-1950. It is not my intention doing a comparison between the language history in Wales and Norway, but that could perhaps be an issue for the discussion.
1. A brief introduction to the Norwegian history and language situation
The Norwegian map
Norway is in population the smallest and in area the biggest of the four Scandinavian countries (Finland included). Norway has a population of 4,5 mill, crowding over an area which is almost 20 times as big as Wales. When I add that almost half of the population lives in the southeastern area, in and around the capital Oslo, you will understand that the rest of the country is sparsely populated, of course with some important exceptions.
The Norwegian borders have been the same since the Danish king lost a couple of wars on behalf of us against the Swedes in the 17th century. Today Norway is an ethnical uniform nation. There is an important exception in the northern area where the Sami people live, an indigenous people with a Finno-Ugric language. There is also a small Finnish-speaking minority in the north. The last 200 years the Sami people has been suppressed by the Nordic nation-states, including the Norwegian, but this has changed much the last 20 years.
The peculiar Norwegian language situation
When I from now on speak about the Norwegian language situation, I don’t refer to the struggle between Norwegian and Sami (and Finnish) in the north, but the struggle between the two Norwegian languages, called ‘Bokmål’ and ‘Nynorsk’. Translated to English these names don’t make much sense – ‘book language’ and ‘new Norwegian’, so I’ll use the Norwegian labels. The two languages have had equal status as national languages since 1885 and are both used in official service and education. About 15 %, mainly concentrated in the rural parts of western Norway, use Nynorsk as their first language. Bokmål is the first language in the rest of the country, but has historically had its strongholds in the towns, also in the Nynorsk area.
The two languages are not very different. Based on the narrow linguistic definition of language. ‘Bokmål’ and ‘Nynorsk’, and Swedish and Danish as well, can be regarded as different dialects or orthographies of a common language. They are all mutually intelligible, and the dialects still constitute a continuum crossing the state borders. But as we know, the difference between a dialect and a language is not as much about linguistics as about politics.
Norway has traditionally had great dialectal variations. Today, all the dialects are mutually intelligible. Due to an increase in status for the dialects during the last 30 years, the use of dialect is common in public life, and it’s usual to hear Norwegian politicians us their dialects.
You’ll probably think that there are some ‘Bokmål’ and some ‘Nynorsk’ dialects, which would explain the geographical distribution of the two written languages. Here, I have to disappoint you – it is part of the explanation, but not the whole truth. The upper class variety of Norwegian spoken in Oslo has since the late 19th century been the important linguistic basis for Bokmål, and some of the more standardised dialects in the Oslo area can be called ‘Bokmål’ dialects. The dialects in the Nynorsk area also have a lot of Nynorsk features. But in fact, the dialects in most of the country are more ‘Nynorsk’ than ‘Bokmål’, so it’s not linguistic, but other social, political and historical factors that explain why Nynorsk is not the first language in the whole area.
Norwegian history and language history
The Norwegian nation has its common myths, and one of the most important has been the memory of Norway as a regional power in the Middle Ages. The Vikings should be well known in these parts. The period up to 1349, when the Black Death reached Norway, was a period of political, economic and cultural growth. Norway shared the strong Old Norse language with Iceland, and especially Iceland produced a famous literature.
But, to put it simply, the Norwegian aristocracy was not strong enough to rule Norway after the Black Death had undermined their economic basis. From 1380, Norway became the weaker part in a union with Denmark. The Danish-Norwegian Lutheran reformation in 1536 (a well-known year for the Welsh) marks an end to the last autonomous Norwegian political and religious institutions and to the Old Norse language. The reformation in Norway was implemented in Danish. We didn’t get a Norwegian Bible until the 20th century, even if the masses continued to speak Norwegian dialects.
The Danish union ended in 1814, when Denmark had to cede Norway to Sweden, the Nordic winner of the Napoleonic wars. But the Norwegian elite had it’s own plans, and national assembly declared Norway an independent monarchy and drew up a democratic constitution following French and American models. Sweden declared war, and in the autumn of 1814, Norway had to accept a Swedish-Norwegian Union. But this was a limited union – only the King and the foreign affairs were common, and Norway could keep its own constitution, parliament, government, army and a separate economy. In 1905, Norway broke out of the union, and Sweden accepted this without going to war.
The economic crisis following the Napoleon wars undermined the bourgeoisie [boeschwa’si], and the Embetsmenn – the high officials – became the governing class. The Norwegian elite and especially the officials were Danified and often had a mixed Dano-Norwegian identity. Until the Norwegian University was founded in 1811, all officials were educated in Copenhagen, and lived their intellectual lives through the medium of Danish. The Norwegian independence struggle in 1814 and the next years was mainly a struggle against Sweden, not Denmark, and in this context it is easy to see why Danish as a matter of course became the official language of the new state, even named ‘Norwegian’ to objections from Danish philologists. This is the root of the ‘Bokmål’ language.
The rise of Norwegian
Not all were satisfied with the situation. During the 18th century there was a growing antiquarian interest in the Norwegian language and its culture, and the Norwegian intellectuals in Copenhagen played an important role. While Danish scholars thought the Norwegian language had died out and that the present dialects in Norway were Danish only, some of the Norwegians claimed that the famous Old Norse language could still be heard from the peasants’ tongues. Some officials and priests in rural Norway collected dialect words and stated that there was a relationship between Old Norse and modern dialects. At the same time there was a growing idealisation of the myth of the strong and independent Norwegian peasant, descended from the Vikings.
During the National Romantic period, from about 1830, the documentation of folklore material and old history accelerated. Now the language situation became an issue, too. Some intellectuals regarded the fact that the independent state did not have its own language as a political problem. From an antiquarian point of view, the lack of scientific knowledge about the dialects became an increasing problem in the publishication of folklore material.
A young teacher in Sunnmøre in western Norway followed the language discussion in Oslo during the 1830s with great interest. His name was Ivar Aasen (born 1813), son of a peasant, but grew up in intellectual surroundings. He was given the opportunity to study on his own in some local libraries and had two great interests, botany and dialects. It was not the flowers, as he expected himself, but the dialect interest that made him a career and took him away from a boring life as a teacher for upper class children on Sunnmøre. The right people discovered his great linguistic talent, and an academic society in Trondheim engaged him to do research on the dialects. His fieldwork during the 1840s provided the two foundation stones of Norwegian linguistics: a grammar in 1848 and a dictionary in 1850. New and expanded editions came in the 1860s and 70s. During these decades, Ivar Aasen visited most of Norway and documented all the main dialect branches.
With the 1848-50 grammar and dictionary, the antiquarians got what they wanted. But Aasen had a hidden agenda and became a key figure in turning antiquarianism into liberal nationalism. He wanted to create a new written language for common use. His and his successors’ motivation was nationalist – an independent nation needs its own language. But it also had strong sociocultural elements – the dialects and the whole peasant culture was suppressed and needed higher status of democratic reasons. A language built on the dialects would make it easier for ordinary people to learn reading and writing, and they saw this as a necessity to fulfil the democratic intentions of the 1814 constitution.
In the 1850s, Aasen launched his great plan and the new written standard, and he and some of his supporters started publishing in the new language. This was the starting point for the Nynorsk movement. During the next decades Nynorsk got its first literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and some journals and newspapers appeared. In 1868 the two first societies promoting the language were founded. One of them, the publishing house Det Norske Samlaget, is still one of the most important Nynorsk institutions.
In 1885 Nynorsk got its political breakthrough, when the parliament decided that Nynorsk and Bokmål should have equal official status as national languages. More detailed provision followed: In 1892, the local authorities were allowed to use Nynorsk in primary schools and churches. In 1902, Nynorsk was made compulsory in the teacher education, in 1907 Nynorsk was made compulsory in the gymnasium (the comprehensive schools), and in 1930 we got our first language act which institutionalised the bilingual situation in public service. The central points were (1) that it is up to the local communities to decide whether Nynorsk or Bokmål shall be used in school, church and local government, and the state has to respect their decision, and (2) that individuals can choose which language they want to use when in contact with the government. We got further legislation for the schools and a new language act in 1980, but the main principles – the principles of devolution in language planning – were established between 1885 and 1930.
In the same period Nynorsk was established as a written language usable for all purposes, and used in a wide range of domains. Nynorsk as a first school language expanded geographically in the interwar years. In the middle of the last century it was used in all parts of the country, except for the towns and the rural area in southeastern Norway (when I talk about ‘towns’, I also include the capital Oslo – in Norway we don’t make any distinction between cities and towns). The number of Nynorsk using pupils reached its peak during the Second World War when Nynorsk was the main school language for a third of the Norwegian pupils (34,1 % in 1944).
The 1950s and 60s were a period of decline for the Nynorsk language. Nynorsk was never really rooted in many of the communities which decided to use Nynorsk before the Second World War, and during the backlash period the Nynorsk area shrank to the heartland of today – western Norway and some parts of the mountain area on the eastern side. Today, ca. 14 % of the pupils in primary school have Nynorsk as their first language. All in all ca 600 000 out of a total population of 4,5 mill now have Nynorsk as their main language. But since World War 2 Nynorsk has been consolidated as a national language and as part of common Norwegian culture, and as a strong first language in the heartland. There is still an ongoing struggle, especially concerning Nynorsk as a compulsory subject in School. Nynorsk has all the disadvantages a lesser-used language has to cope with, but the future of the language should be safe.
I’ll now go deeper into the period 1885-1950 There are two main questions: Why did Nynorsk succeed on the political scene in the late 19th century, and in the light of this, why didn’t Nynorsk succeed to be the main national language of Norway?
When the parliament decided Nynorsk should be an official language in 1885, only a few intellectuals and teachers were familiar with the language. But we must also keep in mind that most people spoke Norwegian dialects, which generally were closely related to Nynorsk. The dialects got an important breakthrough in 1878, when parliament decided that teachers had not only to accept and allow, but also speak the pupils’ dialect in schools.
In the 1880s the Nynorsk language movement reached a point, where official recognition and support was considered a key factor to further progress. The decision was a result of a resolution campaign arranged by the movement over three years.
But the main factor was the role of the language issue in national politics. Norway went through a tumultuous political and constitutional period at the time. After 1814 a conservative, stable and more and more Swedish-union friendly regime by officials had been governing Norway. In the 1860s the regime was challenge by a liberal and radical opposition, based on the peasants and urban radicals. The opposition won the 1882 general election, and the parliament forced the conservative government to retire in 1884, against the will of the Swedish king. This was in fact a constitutional revolution where the principle of parliamentarism was introduced. Norwegian political life was polarised in these years, and a two-party system was established. The names of the parties were ‘Høgre’ og ‘Venstre’ – ‘Right’ and ‘Left’.
The liberal and nationalist ‘Left’ party founded its first government in 1884, and one of its most important targets was establishing a real Norwegian language. A united Left party supported the language decision in 1885, and a united Right party voted against it. This pattern can be recognised in all important language decisions over the next decades, although some more parties appeared and disappeared. As early as the 1860s this right-left pattern in the language question was established.
The language movement put all its money on the Left movement and worked hard inside the party. The conservatives were regarded as lost cause. In a Left party full of contradictions, the language question was a unifying factor. It appealed to the rural areas, where the party had an important part of the electoral basis, it appealed to national values as opposed to the unionism of the conservative party, and it appealed to the ideals of social and cultural equality. During those years the nationalist movement used the central slogan “Out of the unions” – the political with Sweden and the cultural and linguistic one with Denmark.
Ideas and anonymous political forces are one thing, but someone has to do the work on the ground. The most important group was the teachers, especially primary school teachers. The school system was improved a lot from 1860 onwards. The teachers’ colleges became popular, and important for clever youths from the countryside who didn’t want to be farmers as their fathers, but couldn’t afford to go to school in the towns. During this period the teachers climbed socially from the bottom of the rural communities to the top, challenging – and beating – the conservative priests in the battle for political and cultural leadership in the local communities. The teachers became the leaders of the local organisations, they joined the Left party in great numbers, and many also joined the language movement. From their towering position in the new small white school buildings, they were the key agents in modernizing the Norwegian countryside, and the Nynorsk language was a part of their programme. Some of them also made great political careers and became central in the Left party. In 1907, Jørgen Løvland, a non-academic teacher-educated son of a farmer for the first time became Prime Minster. He was also Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1905 when he led the process and negotiations that ended the union with Sweden, and he became chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.
The Nynorsk language movement was late to be organised at a national level. The main reason was the fruitful and close relationship with the liberal party. The headquarters of the language movement were Det Norske Samlaget (1868), a member based organisation, which was a publisher as well as a centre for political activity. During the 1890s the organisational landscape changed a lot. In 1896 Noregs Ungdomslag, the Norwegian Urdd Gobaith Cymry (they are very, very similar!) was founded as a nationwide organisation on the basis of already existing local branches and county branches. The promotion of the Nynorsk language was one of its important issues.
During the 1890s a lot of local mållag – nynorsk language societies – also appeared, in many places as twins to the ungdomslag, and founded by the same teachers. From 1899 and onwards county organisations were founded, and in 1906 Noregs Mållag – the Norwegian Language Society – made its appearance. Today the organisation has about 11 000 members in 200 local branches, and almost since the founding this has been the mainstay of the Nynorsk language movement. An important cultural institution is Det Norske Teatret, the Norwegian Theatre, which opened in 1913 in the middle of Oslo as an entirely Nynorsk theatre. Today the theatre is one of the two main national stages in Norway and it has played a important role in making Oslo’s citizens familiar with Nynorsk. But there is still some work to do (to make an understatement).
The dominating media have always been Bokmål strongholds, and the biggest national newspapers still don’t tolerate Nynorsk in editorial columns. The Nynorsk national newspaper Den 17de Mai (‘The 17th of May’ – Norway’s national day) was established in 1894 and was a daily newspaper for some years in the early 20th century. Before the First World War it was the second most sold newspaper in Norway, and until its early demise in the 1930s it played a key role in the struggle for Nynorsk. Today there is only a weekly national newspaper in Nynorsk, but there are several local daily and some bilingual regional newspapers.
State-run Norwegian Broadcasting has also been important. The language movement has never campaigned for separate radio or TV channels, partly because Nynorsk is fully intelligible for the entire nation, but most importantly because of the early success within the state-broadcasting corporation. One of the first directors of broadcasting was Olav Midttun, one of the leading figures in the Nynorsk movement and the youth movement. He provided Nynorsk programmes and staff members, and in 1980 the parliament decided that at least 25 % of the total radio and TV programming was to be in Nynorsk. This target has never been reached, and the Nynorsk movement has never been satisfied, of course. But no hunger strikes were needed, and all in all, the Norwegian broadcasting corporation has probably been the most important institution for the Nynorsk language during the last 70 years.
Despite its early political success, and in some ways because of it, the Nynorsk language has been controversial. The first backlash campaign came in 1899, when the movement to support Bokmål was founded, later named Riksmålsforbundet. The 1899 campaign began with a great speech of one of Norway’s most famous authors, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. This was a reaction to the bilingual legislation of the previous decade, and to the new organisations, the success and the more and more optimistic tone in the Nynorsk movement. It now became apparent that the liberal party not longer stood unified behind the Nynorsk language. The 1899 struggle opened a new period, which saw the urban-rural and regional antagonisms become more important than the earlier left-right antagonism, although the latter didn’t disappear. The next years some conservative MPs from the Nynorsk regions began to support Nynorsk. This forced the conservative party to accept the Nynorsk language, yet without supporting it actively. The language question now played a central role in Norwegian political life. In 1912 the language question forced a change of government when the prime minister in a centre-right coalition praised the Nynorsk language in a speech.
Why didn’t the Nynorsk movement succeed in the towns and especially in the urban upper classes? As mentioned, the self-recruiting governing class of high officials after 1814 continued to speak a mixed Danish-Norwegian dialect close to the Danish written language. Early in the 19th century, Danish linguists even claimed that the Danish spoken in Norway was much better than in Denmark because of the language changes in Denmark. In 1907, an orthographic reform in Bokmål loosened the ties with Denmark and made the upper class Oslo dialect to the normative for the language. In 1919 the first book was translated from Bokmål to Danish. This Norwegianisation was most of all a reaction against the progress of Nynorsk and gave Bokmål back some of the national legitimacy it had lost in the shadow of the distinct Norwegian Nynorsk. In the nationalist climate after the break-up of the Swedish union in 1905 this was important.
In the 19th century the language movement had not tried to win the towns, for two reasons: Firstly, there were almost no towns in Norway until the end of the century. Only 13% of the total population lived in the towns as late as 1855. This changed a lot during the last 20 years of the century, and in 1900, 28 % of the population lived in the towns. Secondly: the ideology, the language and the political practice of the language movement itself. Ivar Aasen avoided the towns in his work. As all his contemporaries, he considered the urban dialects to be influenced by Danish. The real Norwegian dialects were found in the countryside he thought, especially in western Norway and the mountain area. The main ideologist and front figure of the movement, the author Arne Garborg, published in 1877 an important programmatic essay, which deepened the division Aasen and the other early ideologists had constructed: There were two nations in Norway, Garborg said, the real Norwegians of the countryside, and the Danish-Norwegian urban upper classes. Garborg was not interested in the working class in the towns either at that time. This ideology strengthened the language movement in an important period, but one could hardly expect that those who were excluded from the ‘real Norwegian nation’ should join the movement or be sympathetic to it.
During the first years of the 20th century the language movement discovered two important things: The urbanisation of Norway, and that the urban lower class dialects, included Oslo, were excellent Norwegian dialects. A linguistic and political rehabilitation of the urban dialects began to show the connections to Nynorsk and the gap between the urban dialects and the Bokmål language, but no towns were ever won over. In the conservative 19th century towns there was probably no social and cultural basis for a counter hegemonic language policy of any kinds, like it was in the countryside.
In the 20th century the industrialisation and the all-over modernisation changed the Norwegian society. Norway was industrialised late, and in the early 1920s more people were still employed in agriculture than in industry, manufacture and mining. Industrialisation mainly came in the first decades of the 20th century, primarily based on the ‘white gold’, the waterpower, which was Norway’s great comparative advantage in the pre-oil period. Now we at last got a basis for a labour movement. The labour party grew fast during the interwar period. Its power was based on the industrial workers and the unions, but to a considerable extent also on the rural countryside. The first labour MP was elected 1903, not from a town or industrialised region, but from northern Norway, where feudal conditions had radicalised the fishermen and peasants. In 1935 the Party came into power with support from the peasants party (Bondepartiet). This introduced a long social democratic area in Norwegian politics.
The labour party inherited a lot of its political principles, members, activists and voters from the declining liberal party (e.g. parties), and the Norwegian share in the famous model of Scandinavian social democracy (important to Plaid Cymru) was in many ways invented by the Liberal Party in the early 20th century.
Important sections of the Labour party also inherited a positive attitude to the Nynorsk language, but Nynorsk never became core policy. As an editor in one of the labour newspapers wrote in 1912: “It doesn’t matter whether we say ‘gryta’ or ‘gryten’ (the casserole) as long as we have got something in it.” A socialist internationalism set the tone for the party during those years, and the party was unfamiliar with the language movement’s culture nationalism.
After the First World War, and especially during the 1930s, the language question began to play a more important role in the labour party. Early in the century it became clear that Nynorsk wouldn’t disappear and that Norway had been a bilingual country. This was a situation no one was satisfied with. Ideas of advantages of bilingualism were, in Norway as elsewhere, a phenomenon of the late 1960s. Noregs Mållag decleared in 1921 that its ambition was to make Nynorsk the only national language in Norway, after many years of militant rhetoric on both sides. The enemy in the Riksmålsforbundet made all possible efforts to stop the progress of Nynorsk and to get rid of the language where it had taken root.
Ideas as to the definitive solution of the language problem were developed by some of the important ideologists and urban academics in the liberal party as early as the 1880s. They argued that both languages were needed for the nations future. Nynorsk had the right national identity while Bokmål was bearing a literary tradition. Their answer was not bilingualism, but linguistic amalgamation: Nynorsk and Bokmål should be amalgamated into Samnorsk – ‘Common Norwegian’. In the golden area of Norwegian nation building the needs for national linguistic unity and integration were stressed.
This was also the beginning of the golden area of social engineering of all kinds, and the government’s linguistic engineers realised a part of the amalgamation programme in two big orthographic reforms in 1917 and 1938. Between 1917 and 1938 it was still legal to write the traditional varieties. The 1917 orthography made the speakers of the eastern and northern dialect groups more familiar with Nynorsk, and therefore the dominant section in the Nynorsk movement supported the reform.
The ‘Common Norwegian’ project was developed by Left party intellectuals, but it was the Labour party that made it into a distinct language policy for the party, in opposition to the Riksmål-supporting Right party and the Nynorsk-supporting liberal party. When the labour party came to power, it forced through the 1938 orthographic reform where important traditional features in both languages were banned, now to strident protests from the Nynorsk movement and Riksmålsforbundet. The main architect was Halvdan Koht, a great historian and politician, a former member of the Left party who joined the social-democratic wing of the Labour Party in 1912 and became Minister of Foreign Affairs 1935-1940. In the 1920s he was also the chairman of Noregs Mållag.
The 1950s and 60s were characterized by the Riksmålsforbundet’s struggle against the new Bokmål orthography. They managed to mobilise huge economic and political forces combined with a mobilisation of parents in the towns who were shocked to see what they regarded as low status dialect forms in their children’s Bokmål schoolbooks. This was probably the most successful right-wing populist campaign in Norwegian history. In the late 1960s the ‘Common Norwegian’ project was defeated, and two years ago the parliament removed the last traces of this policy in the Norwegian Language Board act.
How did the Nynorsk language movement react and respond to industrialisation and the growing labour movement? In two ways. Firstly, by going into counter-offensive and establishing a defence framework. At the political level some sections of the labour movement were apathetic and sometimes directly hostile to the language movement. The language movement was historically closely related to the liberal movement, which at this time played a powerful and almost hegemonic role in Norwegian political life. A lot of the main figures in the language movement also had important positions in the liberal party and later in the Peasants party, which (to simplify very much) broke out of the liberal party after the First World War. These parties became clearly anti-socialistic parties in the 1920s and more and more conservative parties in defence of the traditional agrarian life in rural Norway and communities in which the Nynorsk language and the language movement could be rooted. The traditional agrarian communities and their local leaders, often leaders of the local language movement, reacted against large-scale industry, socialist workers and industrial capitalism. “The Norwegian mind is not made for industry”, one of them wrote. The dialects of the incoming industrial workers were bad, they thought, and Bokmål became the language of the local capitalists and companies, as well as the unions.
There are a few examples of connections to right wing activism and populism within marginal sections of the language movement. Nynorsk hostile members of the Labour movement frequently used them as examples to claim that Nynorsk and socialism were incompatible. But it must be underlined that right wing populism never took root in any important parts of the language movement. This became clear during the German occupation 1940-45. The Nazis never managed to force the language movement or the national youth movement to cooperate, and they arrested many of the leaders. This as opposed to Riksmålsforbundet, whose annual meeting in 1941 decided to cooperate with the Quisling regime to get rid of the 1938 amalgamation orthography. This has, in fact, caused a hot debate in Norway last month! In the language movement a liberal nationalism and a moderate anti-socialism continued as mainstream through the Interwar years, and most of the leading figures were high-profile liberal politicians.
At the same time the dominant part of the language movement followed a very different strategy. They considered the close relationship to the liberal party a problem when the party’s hegemonic position began to crumble after First World War and the Labour movement grew stronger. Halvdan Koht’s election as chairman of Noregs Mållag in 1921 was part of the campaign through which the leading strategists in the movement tried to win the Labour party, through meetings, headhunting and ideological modifications. Ideologically, the class contrast between the two languages was accentuated, but the nationalism was not rejected. In Halvdan Koht’s great socialist vision the liberal movement had liberated the peasants, and there was now a historical moment for the labour movement to continue this work by lifting the labour class into the nation, creating one united nation. This was the opposite of class struggle. Koht promoted an integrative social-democratic nationalism, and the rise of Nynorsk wedded with the amalgamation idea was a central cultural part of this.
At the local level small-scale industries in many places were well integrated in Nynorsk speaking agrarian communities. We also have many examples of local Nynorsk speaking Labour party politicians and representatives, and all in all the Labour party was much closer to the Nynorsk movement than to the Bokmål and Riksmålsforbundet. But the party’s great linguistic project was the amalgamation, and the relationship with the language movement never really took off. Neither did the Labour party at any time need the language movement in the same way that the Left party did. In a lot of ways, the Nynorsk movement was sidelind when Norway entered into the Post War period.
Why did Nynorsk become the dominant language in some regions, but not in others? This is one of the most difficult research questions in this period, and I can only touch it briefly here. The answer is a combination of different variables: linguistic, cultural, social, political and economical. If we only consider the linguistic variable, it’s understandable that some of the most Nynorsk-alike speaking areas preferred Nynorsk while the dominating classes in Oslo preferred Bokmål. But Norwegian dialects form a continuum. It is impossible differentiate sharply between Nynorsk- and Bokmål-like dialects, and the Bokmål/Nynorsk map has never mirrored any dialect map. Nynorsk tends to have become the dominant language in the regions most marked by social and economical equality, where the traditional cultural and religious differences dominated the local political life. In the areas marked by social polarisation, the socio-economic difference dominated political life at the expense of the cultural. It is in those areas the Labour party also developed its rural strongholds and Nynorsk never got a breakthrough.
To conclude, Nynorsk won its present political, social and geographical position between 1885 and 1930. This was the core period of modern Norwegian nation building and a period of liberal hegemony in political life. During this period the traditional Danish language in Norway was Norwegianised, first and foremost to fight back the threat from Nynorsk. This was successful in the way that Nynorsk did not became the predominant language of the nation, as many hoped or feared in the inter war years.
The result is a bilingual situation, which many foreigners find strange because of the small linguistic gap between the two languages, or between the two forms of the common language Norwegian, if we follow the official terminology. That is the main reason why Nynorsk isn’t found on maps and in overviews listing European minority and regional languages.
Foreigners as well as Norwegians often find the Norwegian language situation peculiar. But I hope to have shown that when social, political and historical factors is taken into consideration, the Norwegian language question is not as abnormal as Norwegian often think themselves.