Norway: A mix of languages

Here is a little introduction to the different languages you will have to deal with when you get into Norwegian genealogy.

I sometimes hear foreigners say they are a bit nervous about getting into Norwegian genealogy as they don’t know “the language”. Yes, in the introduction I wrote  “different languages” meaning that there are several.  I can comfort you by telling that the majority of foreign genealogist learn as they go and do great with Norwegian sources with only a superficial knowledge of these languages. It can, however, be easier to combat the language barrier when you know what you are up against.

In this article I will deal with written languages. As you may know we speak many different dialects.

As you will see, this is not a comprehensive history of languages in Norway. It is merely an introduction to the languages we find in the most used genealogical sources.

Here is a quick overview of the languages you may encounter:

  • Latin
  • Danish
  • 3 forms of Norwegian:
  1. Riksmål
  2. Bokmål
  3. Landsmål/Nynorsk.

Throughout European history, an education in Latin was considered crucial for those who wished to join literate circles. Latin was used as the language of international communication, scholarship, and science until well into the 18th century, when it began to be supplanted by vernaculars. (Wikipedia). For us as genealogists, it is the Church Latin we for the most part have to deal with. We can also encounter Latin expressions in legal documents and when looking at causes of death.

In the Church records there were a number of expressions written in Latin. I have tried to collect and explain as many as I can of these expressions in my “Norwegian Genealogy Dictionary”  (Please send me a mail if you come across words that should have been included).

Some medical terms in Latin are found in my list of “Causes of death”

The dating in the Church records are based on the feast days of the Church year, also written in Latin. You may want to have a look at my article “Moveable feast days in Norway”.

The minister Hans Poulsen Egede (1686-1758) was the son of Dane Poul Hansen Egede who moved from Denmark to serve as magistrate in Harstad, Troms county By Johan Hörner (Frederiksborg Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From 1380 until 1814 Norway was in a union with Denmark. Nearly all higher officials both in the military and civil administration were Danes.  Little by little the old Norwegian laws were translated and all official decrees were issued in Danish. After the Lutheran reformation the Bible and the hymnals were translated to Danish (Wikipedia). From 1629 ministers serving in Norway had to have a diploma from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark (Lundeby 1972:40). Norwegians who wanted a higher education had to write Danish. This made Danish the administrative language in Norway in this period(Lundeby 1972:37).

Even after the union with Denmark was ended, Danish was used as the written language in Norway. Based on this, we see that we must expect to find a lot of Danish words when we read official records.


Above I mentioned 3 forms of Norwegian language (Sami is a language used in Norway, but it is not a Norwegian language).

About 1830  new views on language was put forward in Norway. Among others, the author Henrik Wergeland was a strong advocate for a Norwegian language (Ustvedt 1995:185).  The Norwegian educator and linguist Knud Knudsen proposed in the 1850’s to change spelling and inflection in accordance with the Dano-Norwegian koiné, known as “cultivated everyday speech.” Knudsens language was later called “Riksmål” (Wikipedia). Riksmål have similarities with Danish.

In sources from the last part of the 1800’s Riksmål may be used. In spite of the  similarities with Danish, a large part of the glossary is the same as in modern Bokmål.

About the same time as Knudsen worked on his language, the scolar Ivar Aasen travelled rural Norway and collected samples of the different dialects. Based on common traits in these dialects he created what he called “Landsmål” (Venås 1996:9-11). From 1929 this language has been called Nynorsk. From the last part of the 1800’s you may find occasional sources written in Nynorsk.

Map of the official language forms of Norwegian municipalities. Red is Bokmål, blue is Nynorsk and gray depicts neutral areas.
Map of the official language forms of Norwegian municipalities. Red is Bokmål, blue is Nynorsk and gray depicts neutral areas. (Attribution: By Norway_municipalities_2010_blank.svg: Kåre-Olav Derivative work: Røed CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Both Nynorsk and Bokmål has been through several language reforms in an attempt to narrow the gap between the two forms. This has resulted in a rift among the supporters who do not adhere to the reforms. There is a substantial group who stick to the Riksmål. While among Nynorsk users there are a nearly extinct group that uses what they call Høgnorsk. (Wikipedia).

We learn both Nynorsk and Bokmål in Norwegian schools. There are conservatives in both camps who claim to not understand the “other” form. This is just nonsense as the forms today are so close that there really is no problem.

A large number of local history books (Bygdebøker) have been written in Nynorsk. This is mainly in the “blue areas” (See map). The language in the oldest of these books are often influenced by the dialect in the area.

As established by law and governmental policy, the two official forms of written Norwegian today is – Bokmål (literally “book tongue”) and Nynorsk (literally “new Norwegian”). The recommended  terms  in English is “Norwegian Bokmål” and “Norwegian Nynorsk” (Wikipedia).

I hope this presentation haven’t discouraged you from doing research in Norway. I am collecting words found in genealogy work in my “Norwegian Genealogy Dictionary”. Helped by tools like those I mentioned above, I am sure you will have few problems with your Norwegian search for ancestry. In addition I strongly recommend getting a Norwegian dictionary to keep at hand at your work place.

I have seen the dictionary linked below be recommended by English speaking genealogists.

Norwegian-English Dictionary: A Pronouncing and Translating Dictionary of Modern Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk) with a Historical and Grammatical Introduction
by Einar Haugen
For more than forty years, the Haugen Norwegian–English Dictionary has been regarded as the foremost resource for both learners and professionals using English and Norwegian. With more than 60,000 entries, it is esteemed for its breadth, its copious grammatical detail, and its rich idiomatic examples. In his introduction, Einar Haugen, a revered scholar and teacher of Norwegian to English speakers, provides a concise overview of the history of the language, presents the pronunciation of contemporary Norwegian, and introduces basic grammatical structures, including the inflection of nouns and adjectives and the declension of verbs.


“Høgnorsk” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (Visited Aug 27 2016)

“Latin” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (Visited Aug 27 2016)

Lundeby, Einar: “Språket vårt gjennom tidene : kort norsk språkhistorie” Oslo : Gyldendal, 1972

“Norsk språkhistorie (1830–1900)” Fra Wikipedia, den frie encyklopedi (Visited Aug 27 2016)

“Norwegian language”  From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (Visited Aug 27 2016)

“Riksmål” From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  (Visited Aug 27 2016)

Ustvedt, Yngvar  “Henrik Wergeland : en biografi” Oslo : Gyldendal, 1994

Venås, Kjell: “Livssoga åt Ivar Aasen” Oslo : Ivar Aasen-året 1996

2 thoughts on “Norway: A mix of languages

  • August 30, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Excellent article as usual. I have often wondered where the Germanic influence comes into play. One of my earliest known ancestors (born 1705) was Frantz and his father was Erich. That is how the names are spelled in the Parish books. Do you have any insight into this language variation? They lived in Buskerud County.

    • August 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm

      Erich is a Germanic form of the old Norse name Eirikr – Erik. We have had many Scandinavians kings named Erik. Frantz is an old Latin name originally Fransiscus. The spelling you found in the parish books are variations with Danish/German influence.


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