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I'm taking a short trip to Norway next year and while doing a bit of research I've been thoroughly confused by which language to learn. Wikipedia goes into great depth about 3-4 different languages, but Google Translate just lists Norwegian

As I'll mostly be in Oslo/Hurum, do I focus on Bokmål, Nynorsk or Riksmål? And how easily will I be understood if I'm speaking the wrong one or speaking with the wrong dialect for the region?

  • Just be prepared for rødgrød med fløde (probably that was the Danish one) in all its variations. – Jan Jun 19 '16 at 12:07
  • @Jan That's not hard in Norwegian at all, it doesn't have the sounds which makes this tricky in Danish. – tripleee Jan 11 '17 at 5:31
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First of all, as a tourist in Norway you will be able to get by with English.
Nobody expects tourists to have learned any of the Norwegian languages.

I do not speak Norwegian but a friend of my does, learned it as a foreigner, and has a good view on the languages as she has lived in several areas.

If you want to learn a few words, just to be polite, it does not matter which version of Norwegian, just learn the version you can most easily find lessons. The people in Norway are surprised enough by the fact that you do speak any of their language, it does not matter if you pronounce the odd word odd and might have selected a rare version of the grammar for the area.

It is when you want to settle in Norway you want to learn a certain version. That is not just or even most the written version, it is the local dialect where you are going to live.

Bokmål is used in Oslo, so if you have the choice, I would go for that.

Added: As you can see in the answer by RWGirl here, most English speakers have difficulties speaking Norwegian when in Norway. But a few words are certainly appreciated. When settling in a country there will be a moment that the people around you do expect you to start speaking the local language.

  • Thanks, that's really useful! I'll probably still learn a few bits out of politeness/personal interest. – Mourndark Dec 24 '15 at 15:44
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    I can add on your last paragraph....yup. When I was living in Sweden I really tried to learn Swedish. But...99% of the time I spoke to somebody they would pick up on my not-Swedish accent and switch to English. The best I could get was them thinking I was Danish (and speaking English with me anyway). Learning Scandinaviska is tough! – the other one Jan 11 '17 at 9:45
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Unless you plan to read/watch something written in Nynorsk, you should go for Bokmål. Most Norwegians have this as their written language, and it's close to what is spoken in the Oslo/Hurum area. Bokmål and Nynorsk are not that different though...

Riksmål is sort of the old-fashioned version of Bokmål (basically the name was changed to Bokmål in 1929), as they spoke in the early 20th century - it's still used by some, as an "upperclass" Bokmål (The Oslo newspaper Aftenposten used it until 2006, when they changed to Bokmål). Landsmål is basically what Nynorsk was called before 1929, but of course there's been some changes in Nynorsk since then. During the German occupation (1940-1945), Nasjonal Samling (National Unity; a Norwegian nazi party) tried to unify the two languages into one - called Samnorsk ("Unified"-Norwegian) - with little support and little success.

In Norway we got two official written languages:

Bokmål (Book-language) - heavily influenced by Danish. Nynorsk (New-Norwegian) - an attempt to revive Gammalnorsk (Old Norwegian), which in turn came from Norse, and which was similar to Icelandic today. Nynorsk was created based on dialect samples from rural and "closed-off" parts of Norway, to get the "genuine" Norwegian. However very few (really none) of these samples came from northern Norway. In the northern parts of Norway, Sámi and Kvensk (basically Finnish) are also official languages - but these are not "Norwegian"... just languages used in Norway.

Bokmål and Nynorsk are the "standard" for written language, however Norway got lots of dialects in spoken language, and some of them got uncommon words and strange pronunciation. However, Bokmål and the "Oslo-dialect" are pretty close.

Now see if you get the "inside joke" in the picture from the TV-show "Lilyhammer" in the beginning of this article:

http://www.nrk.no/hordaland/elsker-ny-norsklua-1.7998149

  • Fantastic summary, that explains it a lot better than Wikipedia does! And yes, I get the joke ;-) – Mourndark Dec 27 '15 at 16:09
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As a native of Norway, I need to clarify something: Bokmål, Riksmål and Nynorsk are not spoken dialects. They are written languages. You cannot learn to speak or listen to them, you can only learn to read and write them.

These three written languages are so similar that people who know one of them can easily read and understand something written in any of the other two.

If anyone wants to learn a written Norwegian language, though, I recommend Bokmål. It's by far the most widely used.

Spoken Norwegian is officially only one language. Practically, though, there are hundreds of dialects to speak it in. Due to geographical features of Norway (mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, fjords, etc.) many communities were separated from each other, and thus developed distinct dialects. The good news is that almost all the dialects are mutually intelligible. With a bit of practice, one can understand any dialect, provided one already knew another.

As for which spoken dialect to learn, I recommend Standard East Norwegian. That is the dialect spoken in Oslo and the surrounding areas. People all over Norway will understand you perfectly if you speak in that dialect. It's the most common dialect heard on the TV, in movies and in other media in Norway*. It's also a good platform from which one can understand all the other dialects used throughout the country. As an extra bonus, if one learns it, one will be almost set to understand Swedish and Danish too. That also goes for written Bokmål.

* = Please note that while Standard East Norwegian is the most common one in national media, other regional dialects are also heard quite commonly. This applies to nearly all channels, but NRK is probably the best example of it.

  • That makes a lot of sense, thank you. I was still having a bit of difficulty working out the relationship between spoken and written but if there isn't one, that clears that up! – Mourndark Apr 21 '16 at 11:54
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    @Mourndark There is a relationship, but none that you would need to worry about in terms of OP. Spoken dialects in the Oslo region resemble Bokmål slightly more than those in other parts of the country. And there are some rural dialects that resemble Nynorsk more. But it's really more complicated than that, and not worth trying to understand either. Bokmål was actually derived from Danish and then adjusted to match spoken Norwegian. Nynorsk was constructed from a fusion of countless rural dialects. Riksmål... I don't know the story on that one. – Revetahw Apr 27 '16 at 15:50
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It's not all that difficult to learn to speak the language (Bokmål as pointed out in the other answers posted) a bit, but you'll probably not be able to understand the reply you'll get. Norwegians speak by stringing words in a common sentences together, such sentences are pronounced like one large word.

So, if you watch this, it looks like quite easy to learn, but this video gives you a better idea of how Norwegians actually speak their language.

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    Whether you will understand replies depends on your language abilities and how many languages you already understand. I personally can understand a lot of Norwegian, from people in different areas as well. Danish is the hard one for me. Most languages string words together, but it does not seem that bad if you understand the language. – Willeke Dec 25 '15 at 10:14
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    @Willeke Obligatory when discussing Danish: youtu.be/s-mOy8VUEBk – pipe Dec 26 '15 at 8:34

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