Norway is home to two official languages – Norwegian and Sami. Norwegian is by far the language spoken by most people.

Like Swedish, Danish and Icelandic, Norwegian is a Germanic language derived from Old Norse. There are, however, two ways of writing Norwegian – bokmål and nynorsk. This division of Norwegian has a historical explanation: Bokmål is based on written Danish, which was the official language of Norway for more than four hundred years (1380–1814). Nynorsk was created in the 1850s, and is a compilation and combination of mostly Western Norwegian regional dialects. If you have a good command of Norwegian you're not only able to communicate with Norwegians, but also with people in Sweden and Denmark. The languages of the three Scandinavian countries are similar and in most cases you can speak in Norwegian to Danes and Swedes, and also read text written in Swedish and Danish.

Officially, bokmål and nynorsk have been accorded equal status. The languages are not very far apart, but do reflect large regional differences. The majority of the people in Norway are using Bokmål, and it is widely used in Eastern Norway. Nynorsk is used by about 10–15 per cent of the population – mostly on the west coast. Generally, if you understand one of the two languages, you can understand the other fairly easily. However, it should be noted that Bokmål and Nynorsk are not classified as two different languages where you have to learn the other as a foreign language. In short one could say that they are more two different written norms. Thus, text written in Bokmål is perfectly understandable for a person using Nynorsk, and vice versa.

The Sami languages are, on the other hand, completely different from Norwegian. Nevertheless, Northern Sami has been established as an official language equal to Norwegian. It is mostly used by the indigenous Sami people in Troms and Finnmark – two regions in Northern Norway.

Samer_Karin Beate Nøsterud
Sami women in traditional clothing. Photo: Karin Beate Nøsterud.

The fairly complex language situation in Norway can help explain our quite unique acceptance of dialects. The same word can be pronounced in a hundred different ways across Norway – and still no dialect is considered to have more worth than another.


Very few Norwegians, if anybody, speak the way a text is written, whether it's in Bokmål or Nynorsk. Instead we make use of our local dialects. For Norwegians the dialect makes up an important part of their identity, and by listening to a person's dialect we can in most cases determine with good accuracy from which part of the country he or she is from. Beginners to the Norwegian language might find some dialects hard to understand, but Norwegians are understanding and speak closer to the written language if they notice you don't understand them.

The vast majority of Norwegians speak English in addition to Norwegian – and generally on a very high level. Many university degree programmes and courses are taught in English.