[Simplified Spelling Society Newsletter Autumn 1985 p8,9. Later designated Journal 1]
[Rob Baker: see Bulletins.]
[See comment about Norwegian in J9.]

Spelling Reform and Politics: the Case of Norwegian.

R. G. Baker.

[Rob Baker works in Adult Education at Southampton University, and was co-organizer of the Society's Conference in July 1985. He has researched into machine transcription of speech as part of a system for subtitling TV for the deaf.]


This paper looks briefly at successful and unsuccessful attempts to reform writing systems in various European countries. Dramatic political changes in the last two hundred years have fostered a climate in which public opinion has more or less readily accepted linguistic reform. The case of modern Norwegian, reformed several times since the turn of the century, is discussed in detail. The example of Norwegian illustrates some of the kinds of public reaction that may be anticipated if spelling reform is promoted by the central authorities. This paper cautions against a simplistic view of the political implications of spelling reform.

An analysis of reforms in writing systems throughout the world indicates that they tend to coincide with major political upheavals. For example, reforms in Rumania (independence and romanization of the alphabet ca. 1860), Albania (independence and romanization in 1909), Turkey (overthrow of the feudal system in 1923, romanization in 1928) and Ireland (home rule and romanization in 1922), all came about shortly after the success of popular nationalistic campaigns. These reforms can be seen partly as direct consequences of the removal of foreign yokes, but also, especially in the case of Ireland [1] and in the so far unsuccessful but continuing attempts at romanization in China and on the Indian subcontinent, as part of the movement to join the wider international community. After the defeat of Nazi Germany minor orthographic changes were carried out in formerly occupied Holland and Denmark. In each case reforms could be seen partly as an anti-German reaction.

The case of modern Norwegian, which has the longest, most continuous, most bitter and best documented history of political struggle over spelling, will be used to illustrate some of the political preconditions and consequences of spelling reform. Although the Norwegian situation can hardly be compared directly with that in Britain or anywhere else, it may give us some insights and provide some warnings.

Norway was ruled by Denmark from 1397 until 1814. Norwegian had no written form during that period, though there had been an older tradition of writing in Old Norse. During the period of Danish rule the only written language in Norway was Danish, a closely related Scandinavian language, which could be pronounced in line with Norwegian speech without too much difficulty, though there were differences in syntax and vocabulary. In 1814, following the defeat of Napoleon, Norway was taken out of Danish hands (Denmark had been on the wrong side) and placed under the Swedish crown. However cultural domination by the Swedes did not take place and the Swedish regime was easily overthrown in 1905, when Norway became an independent sovereign nation for the first time in 500 years. During the period of Swedish rule Norwegian nationalism gained sway and there were two parallel movements to de-Danicize the Norwegian language, and especially to create a truly Norwegian written form. The first of these movements may be termed revolutionary and the other reformist.

The main protagonist of the revolutionary line was Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) whose aim was to reconstruct a totally Norwegian new language based on surviving texts from the Old Norse period and on those living dialects of Western Norway which were closest to Old Norse. This form of Norwegian was known as 'landsmål' (country language, or folk language), or more recently 'nynorsk' (new Norwegian).

The 'reformer', on the other hand, was Knud Knudsen (1812-1895), a schoolteacher whose aim was to modify the standard Danish spelling in such a way that it more closely reflected Norwegian speech (mainly the S.E. dialects). This reformed spelling came to be called 'riksmål' ( state language) or'bokmål' (book language).

These two trends gained momentum as Norwegian nationalism gained ground during the full independence was achieved. The reform of 1907 was centred mainly on 'bokmål' and the intention was to bring the Danish spelling closer to Norwegian pronunciation, but at the same time, to bring it closer to the spelling of nynorsk, which by this time was developing a strong, mainly regional literary tradition of its own. The official reasons for reform were:

1. nationalistic (throwing off the Danish yoke)
2. linguistic (better match between sound and spelling)
3. educational (it would make it easier to learn to read)
4. 'democratic' (Danish spelling was seen as a shibboleth preventing children from less privileged backgrounds from reaching their full potential).

The reforms were implemented first in government publications and in school textbooks. There was strong criticism from educationalists of the idea of starting the new spelling system with children, on the grounds that they would have to encounter unreformed spelling on leaving school and would be confused. This did appear to happen for the first few years, but the reform was nevertheless accepted. This success must be attributed partly to the recency of the dissolution of the union with Sweden and partly to the fact that, riding on the wave of patriotism, the majority of newspapers adopted the scheme wholesale. The power of the popular press in legitimizing or ridiculing spelling reform cannot be underestimated. However this was not enough. There were still two different written standards, bokmål and nynorsk; and most of the last 70 years have been spent attempting to reconcile what have come increasingly to be identified as two separate languages rather than two orthographic variants.

A small reform in 1909 brought in a few changes in nynorsk, and another in 1917 hastened the rapprochement when most of the basic orthographic principles of nynorsk were adopted by bokmål. However there were many problems of detail; notably in selecting which regional spoken variant should form the basis for the spelling. Nynorsk had, for example, one variant of the definite article (feminine gender), bokmål had another, and yet a third variant was actually spoken by people in the main population centres of the South-East. Here issues of spelling became perfectly confounded with issues of the acceptability of spoken linguistic forms per se, and this confusion has dogged the Norwegian reformers throughout. There were bitter arguments in the Norwegian parliament and the 1919 government threatened to resign over the 'language issue'. A cartoon from a 1919 (Danish) satirical magazine shows a Bolshevik soldier fresh from the October Revolution, approaching a street-barricade in Oslo, with the question "How is the revolution coming along in Oslo, comrades?" The reply he receives is "We're still fighting over how to spell it!"

In 1934 a new reform was proposed. This was to be introduced in school textbooks. However teachers were requested not to mark pupils' spellings wrong if they did not conform to the new norm but did reflect the pupils' speech. Teachers found this unworkable and the authorities retreated from their dogmatic-libertarian position in 1936 by offering lists of 'acceptable alternative' spellings.

In 1938-9 a move to amalgamate nynorsk and bokmål completely was cut short by the German invasion of Norway. The puppet regime of Quisling encouraged the conservative factions in each of the two language camps to entrench themselves.

The attempt to amalgamate, to produce a 'samnorsk' (common Norwegian), was revived after the war. However in a fresh mood of independence literary figures from both traditions called for free and separate development of both standards. Parents, especially in the capital, also rejected a common standard and demonstrated on the streets of Oslo. A permanent Language Commission was set up in 1952 to try and force through new changes in the direction of rapprochement. In 1953 parents in Oslo seized the initiative and their pencils, and 'corrected' the reformed spellings of the new text books in favour of more conservative forms. Authors took publishers to court for 'misrepresenting' their works in the new spelling. Farmers took legal action against map producers and telephone directory publishers for spelling the names on their farms wrong. The language issue had acquired a life of its own in the popular consciousness and would not be legislated upon.

In 1959, in an attempt to gain popular approval for reforms, a series of plebiscites were suggested in which people could vote for individual spelling changes. But who was to vote - the whole electorate or only parents? In the 1960s the situation stabilized with two official textbook norms, each with many optional forms, and two standards in official government publications. For the ordinary Norwegian a situation exists that has been termed 'schizoglossia'. In applying for a job, or writing an exam paper, the individual must decide which standard to use and the choice will be determined as much by knowledge of who is to read what is written, and by what impression the writer seeks to convey, as by personal preference and loyalty to one's own dialectal group.

In summary, the Norwegian case illustrates some of the reactions that may be expected even if spelling reform gains government approval. It warms against trying to force reform, and especially against imposing new norms on the schools before they have been accepted elsewhere. It raises the question of dealing with co-existing standards. Will the old system be allowed to co-exist with the new? If so, for how long, and under what circumstances will each be used? Can spelling reform take place at all without major changes in the political order? With a major international language, like English, can reforms be implemented unilaterally by the UK, or the USA, or Australia, or the third world? Above all, would-be reformers must have their fingers on the political pulse. In the words of Einar Haugen, the Norwegian linguist, whose documentation is the main source for this paper, "language planning is more of an art than a science. Like politics, of which it is a part, it is the art of the possible. The language planner must foresee the wave of the future and ride it to his goal. He can do so only if his goal is essentially the same as that which the people have unconsciously accepted as their own."


Haugen, E., Language Conflict and Language Planning, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Main source of information about other languages: Encyclopaedia Britannica.


  [1] Romanization in Ireland was temporary. De Valera's strongly nationalist constitution of 1937 reversed the decision.

Back to the top.