These Norwegian Dialects Make It Difficult for Norwegians to Understand Each Other

A street sign written in Nynorsk
A street sign written in Nynorsk | @ Harald Groven / Flickr

Norway is a diverse country. So diverse, it spans over nine different climate types. It’s fairly understandable seeing as the early communities were often isolated from one another due to difficulties that came with traveling as it required a lot of time. Lacking external influences, local dialects became very idiosyncratic. Fast forward to today, and Norway’s linguistic landscape is still diverse – and sometimes puzzling even to locals. Here’s what you need to know about Norwegian dialects.

One country, four (main) dialects

It has been said that “there are more Norwegian dialects than Norwegians”. That’s not a complete exaggeration. See, the Norwegian you’ve been learning, that straightforward and easy-to-learn language? That’s not necessarily the same Norwegian a local in the next county would speak. The truth is, there’s no “standardized” Norwegian as there are two quite different written languages and four mostly mutually intelligible main dialects with dozens of internal variations each. Standardized Norwegian is only used in court, official decrees and national broadcasting. The kind of Norwegian you’d hear in regular, everyday life is literally subject to your current latitude and longitude.

The Norwegian dialects are divided geographically into four main groups: Vestlandsk (Western Norwegian), Østlandsk or Østnorsk (Easter Norwegian), Trøndersk (Norwegian of the Trøndelag county, Central Norwegian) and Nordnorsk (Northern Norwegian). And just like counties comprise different cities, towns, and villages, each dialect has its own sub-groups depending on the area. It’s safe to assume that every village or town has its own unique way of saying things, and expressions you won’t encounter anywhere else. To make things even more interesting, a sub-group of a dialect may be more similar to one of the three other main dialects than to its own. So how do people even communicate in this country?

In Norway's westernmost island, people speak Vestlandsk and write Nynorsk | © Solund Nyheter

Common tongue is not that common

As mentioned earlier, the dialects are mostly mutually intelligible. But there are some big differences, both when it comes to accent and in vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Verbs have different endings, questions are phrased differently, the future tense takes other forms, letters are substituted for other letters or removed completely. It can be quite a headache for people who are just now learning the language, but very often it proves to be a headache for locals, as well.

What are a few key characteristics of each dialect? Well, Eastern Norwegian has open vowels and is usually fast spoken. Being the dialect most similar to the one used when learning Norwegian, it’s also not considered the “standard” Norwegian. Truth is, the Easter dialects are spoken in Oslo and the one spoken close to the Swedish border are quite different from one another – with the latter sounding a lot like Swedish. Vestlandsk can be very difficult to decipher due to it having countless sub-groups; West Norway is fjord Norway, so people were living scattered across small villages and islands, cultivating their own way of talking. But one thing you will notice, especially in Bergen, is the “r”; it sounds like the French “r”. In Nordnorsk, “hv” sounds turn to “k”, so for instance, the phrase “Hva heter du?” (“What’s your name?”) becomes “Ka du hete?” As for the Trøndesk dialect? The personal pronouns change completely. For example, “Jeg elsker deg” (“I love you”) becomes “Æ ælske dæ” in the Trøndesk dialect.

Bryggen in Bergen | © Paulus Bruzdeilynas / Visit Bergen

The curious case of Nynorsk

Of course, all these dialects affect verbal communication. Written communication is not without its challenges. Norway has two official written Norwegian languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk (Sami is also an official language in Norway, the language of the indigenous population). Although Nynorsk is not as widely spread as Bokmål, both are taught in school and you will see many signs on the street written in both forms.

Why complicate things even further with a second written language? It all boils down to national identity. At its core, Bokmål is Danish, courtesy of the many centuries Norway was under Danish rule. Of course, the language has changed and evolved, but it’s not the Old Norse language that people living in these areas used to speak before. Nynorsk claims to go back to the true Norwegian routes, using elements from all the verbal dialects and incorporating them in written speech. It’s more complicated and nuanced than Bokmål, but equally beautiful. Diversity is always a good thing, even in language.

One of the many differences between Bokmål and Nynorsk | © Nynorsksenteret