Norwegian Language

Norway is a land with two official languages, Bokmaal (Book Language) and Nynorsk (New Norwegian). To understand why a land with only four and a half million people has two languages, you must understand a bit about Norwegian history. In 1397, weakened by the climate changes and resulting crop failures of the "Little Ice Age,” and the devastation of the Black Plague, Norway entered into a political union with Denmark. It became little more than a province of Denmark. Danish was used as Norway's written language. Over time, it evolved into a language called Riksmaal (Language of the Kingdom). Since languages are dynamic and constantly change, this Dano-Norwegian has continued to evolve; it is now called Bokmaal. This is the dominant tongue in today's Norway. It is based primarily on the urban dialects of eastern Norway.

In 1814, Denmark was on the losing side of the Napoleonic Wars. Sweden had allied itself with Britain against Napoleon. In the Treaty of Kiel, Norway was given to Sweden. This was not popular in Norway. The 19th century saw the growth of a nationalistic movement in Norway that strove to preserve Norwegian culture and gain independence. On May 17, 1814, Norway adopted its own constitution, but Sweden refused to grant independence. That goal was not reached until November of 1905.

Nynorsk was an outgrowth of the nationalism that swept Norway during the 1800's. The Norwegian linguist, Ivar Aasen, developed a written variety of Norwegian in the 1850's. He based it on the Norwegian dialects spoken in rural areas, primarily in the western part of Norway, and on Old Norse. He called this language “Landsmaal” (Language of the Land). Many of the great nationalistic writers and poets of the era seized upon this Landsmaal as an expression of their desire for a distinct Norwegian culture. Wonderful literature was written in Landsmaal. Over the years, it has evolved into Nynorsk (New Norwegian). While both Bokmaal and Nynorsk are now taught in the public schools, about 85 percent of Norwegians use Bokmaal as their main written language.

I learned these songs from music that was brought to America by Norwegian immigrants. Most of it dates from before, or just after, the Second World War. As a result, the words I learned were the original Landsmaal and Riksmaal in which they were written. I think that the poets would approve. You can compare the differences between poetry written in Landsmaal and then later translated into Bokmaal to the modern English translations of the Bible. The translations may make some words easier to understand, but the majesty of the language of the King James version is lost. To the best of my ability, I have tried to sing these songs as their creators wanted them to be sung.