In recent articles I’ve taken a look at the languages of various countries, considering how historic and geographic factors have influenced their development and modern usage. Today, it’s time to take a look at the languages of Norway.
Think about what language is spoken in Norway and you’re likely to land on Norwegian pretty fast. However, Norwegian is not the only official language of Norway. The two official languages of Norway are actually Norwegian and Sami.
I’ll discuss each of these below, along with various other languages of Norway, from native tongues to imported foreign languages. Let’s dive into the details.
The vast majority of Norway’s population speaks Norwegian, meaning the language has over five million speakers in Norway alone. Other communities of Norwegian speakers are dotted around the globe.
As Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are mutually intelligible, all being North Germanic languages descended from Old Norse, Norwegian speakers can be found scattered across Denmark and Sweden.
There are also around 50,000 Norwegian speakers in Spain, while the US is home to around 40,000 speakers.
Interestingly, being able to speak the language in Norway means you can converse not just with those who speak Norwegian but also with Swedish and Danish speakers. That means learning Norwegian allows you to converse with around 20 million people across Scandinavia.
However, it’s not quite that simple…
There is more than one version of the Norwegian language spoken in Norway. I’m not just talking about regional accents and dialects. Let’s dip into the history books quickly so that I can explain.
By the 11th century CE, Norway had developed its own version of Old Norse, just as Denmark and Sweden had. Norway had its own writing system, as well as the spoken language, but the chaos wreaked by the Black Plague between 1346 and 1352 wiped out that written language.
Then, at the end of the 1300s, Norway and Denmark joined together, resulting in the adoption of Danish as the language of government and of the upper classes in Norway.
This remained the case for centuries, but Norwegian independence in 1814 meant that the country suddenly needed its own written language again. Around 95% of the population of Norway already speak Norwegian, so the task was to capture that in a standard written form.
Two writing systems were put forward, both of which are still used in Norway to this day. One – Riksmål, which has since been renamed Bokmål (“written tongue”) – was created by Knud Knudsen. Knudsen altered written Danish to create his version of written Norwegian.
Today, Bokmål is the most commonly used form of written Norwegian, used by around 87% of Norway's population.
Lexicographer Ivar Aasen’s approach, on the other hand, was to use rural spoken Norwegian dialects to create a written form of the language. He developed Landsmål (“national tongue”), which later became known as Nynorsk (“New Norwegian”).
Though not as widely used as Bokmål, Nynorsk is still used by around 13% of Norway’s population.
Nor does the situation end there. Variations of both Bokmål and Nynorsk are used across Norway, with the most popular being Høgnorsk (“High Norwegian”). Høgnorsk is a form of Nynorsk that rejected the language reforms that were introduced during the 20th century. Many see it as a ‘pure’ form of the language as a result of this.
Norway’s linguistic makeup isn’t all about Norwegian. It is also home to a number of other languages, which I want to look at now.
I mentioned earlier that Sami is an official language in Norway. Sami is actually a group of languages, which are spoken by Northern Scandinavia’s indigenous Sami people. The Sami languages spoken in Norway include North Sami, Lule Sami, Pite Sami and South Sami.
North Sami is the most widely spoken of the Sami languages, with some 15,000 speakers in Norway. The country is also home to around 500 Lule Sami speakers, 300 South Sami speakers and a handful of Pite Sami speakers. The latter is on the brink of extinction.
Sami’s inclusion as one of the official languages of Norway means that the Sami people’s linguistic heritage now enjoys constitutional protection there. However, the large-scale adoption of languages such as Norwegian (in Norway – and Swedish, Finnish and Russian elsewhere) have seen Sami languages effectively stamped out by various assimilation policies.
Sami’s geographic spread ranges from South Sami being spoken in central Norway, with Pite Sami and Luli Sami spoken as you move further up the country, to North Sami spoken further north.
A native language of Norway spoken by the Indigenous Norwegian Travellers, Rodi is also referred to as the Norwegian Traveller language. It is a living language, though it is unknown how many people speak it.
Rodi is based on Norwegian but borrows extensively from the Romani and German Rotwelsch lexicons. It is spoken in southwestern and southern Norway, where the Indigenous Norwegian Travellers traditionally move along the coastline.
Romani travellers can be found across Europe and beyond. Their language, Romani, has a wide variety of dialects, including several that are native to Scandinavia.
In Norway, the Tavringer Romani dialect has around 6,000 speakers, while Vlax Romani has approximately 500. The Scandoromani dialect is also spoken in Norway, as well as in neighbouring Sweden. This Romani dialect is spoken by Romanisæl (Tater) Travellers, and it is the Scandoromani lexicon that has been particularly influential in the development of the Rodi language.
Between 5,000 and 8,000 people in northeastern Norway speak Kven. Kven has been recognised since 2005 as a minority language within the framework of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
There is debate over Kven’s status as a language. It is mutually intelligible with Finnish and in Finland is generally considered to be a dialect of that language. However, in Norway Kven is more often regarded as a language in its own right. For details on the difference between a language and a dialect, you can click the link below.
One interesting element of the Kven language spoken in Norway is that it borrows words from both Norwegian and Finnish. Some of these words, particularly the Finnish ones, are so old that they are no longer used in their original language, despite still being part of the Kven language.
Like the Sami languages, Kven has suffered greatly as a result of programmes aimed at stamping out this Norway native language. Government-driven attempts to stop the use of the Kven language began in the 1860s, with its use forbidden in schools and government offices. The Norwegian government even went so far as to replace Kven town names with Norwegian names. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Kvens (along with the Sami) were allowed to use their language in schools once more.
Efforts are now finally underway to try and preserve and protect the Kven language. There is now a Kven language board (formed in 2007), while a written standard Kven language was published in 2014.
However, most native speakers of Kven are now aged 60 and above, with younger generations of the Kven people losing the language in favour of Norwegian. Though primary schools in Børselv in northern Norway teach Kven, there seems to be little hope for the language’s long-term future.
English in Norway is spoken extensively as a second language, with Norwegian English speakers numbering around 4.5 million. That’s around 90% of Norway’s population who can speak English proficiently. In fact, in Norway English is so widely spoken that the country ranked fifth in the world in the 2021 edition of the EF English Proficiency Index.
However, when it comes to native English speakers in Norway, the number is far, far lower, at just over 11,000 people.
For more on English being spoken within Europe, as well as other languages spoken across the continent, you can click on the link below.
English aside, several of the languages spoken in Norway today are imported from overseas, so I just wanted to run through a few of the most spoken ones quickly.
A South Slavic language that is spoken as a primary language in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Serbia and Croatia, Serbo-Croatian has around 12,250 native speakers living in Norway.
Interestingly, both Norwegian and Serbo-Croatian feature a pitch accent system, with Serbo-Croatian being one of only two Slavic languages in which this is present.
Arabic speakers can be found around the world. This includes Norway, where approximately 11,500 native Arabic speakers can be found. According to the Joshua Project, it is Moroccan Arabic that is most commonly spoken in Norway.
No round up of imported Norway languages would be complete without a mention of Somali. This Cushitic Afroasiatic language is spoken natively in Norway by just under 11,000 people.
Kurdish is another of the languages of Norway that has been brought into the country from overseas. Around 7,000 native Kurdish speakers can be found in Norway.
Native to Eritrea and to the Tigray Region in Ethiopia, Tigrinya is a Semitic language that can also be heard occasionally in Norway. Just over 5,500 Tigrinya native speakers live there.
One of Afghanistan’s two official languages (the other is Pashto), Dari has upwards of 20 million native speakers around the world. Around 5,200 of them call Norway home.
Russia is one of only three countries with which Norway shares a land border (the other two are Sweden and Finland). It follows, therefore, that a handful of native Russian speakers should be found in Norway. In total, it is estimated that Norway is home to around 5,000 people who speak Russian as their primary language.
Persian (also known as Farsi) is spoken natively by around 70 million people and as a second language by another 40 million. However, only a very small percentage of those individuals can be found in Norway, which is home to around 4,900 Persian speakers.
The last foreign language of Norway that I want to mention here is Albanian. An Indo-European language with around 7.5 million speakers worldwide, Albanian has around 4,500 native speakers in Norway.
Like so many countries, Norway is struggling to preserve its linguistic heritage. Following over a century of trying to assimilate native peoples, resulting in major language loss, the country is now pushing hard to preserve what is left of languages such as Rodi, Kven and the Sami languages.
In some ways, the efforts being made to preserve Norway’s native languages are admirable – many countries are doing far less when faced with their own indigenous language extinction threats. However, I feel this sad, lingering sense that it’s too little, too late, in Norway’s case. With younger generations moving away from using indigenous tongues in education and in the home, I’m not sure how much realistically can be achieved when it comes to creating a bright future for the likes of the Sami languages – particularly those where speaker numbers have already dwindled to just a few hundred speakers (or even fewer, in the case of Pite Sami).
In terms of the primary language of Norway – Norwegian – I’ve found it interesting to look at a language that has two different written forms (or more, if you look beyond Bokmål and Nynorsk to the other, less used variations). Though this isn’t unique, nor is it common.
As with every country language overview that I’ve worked on so far, Norway is home to fascinating languages that are inextricably intertwined with the country’s culture and history. I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle-stop tour of the languages of Norway. Feel free to leave a comment below to share your thoughts.