Where is Norwegian spoken, and how many people speak it?

You may know that Norwegian is spoken in Norway, but do you know which other languages Norwegians speak? And where else in the world do people speak Norwegian?

Kirkenes church with signs in Norwegian and Russian
Kirkenes church with signs in Norwegian and Russian / Bair175 (CC)

We’ve dug up some fun facts about the Norwegian language, its origins, its dialects and its unusual dual languages.

What language do Norwegians speak?

The main language in Norway is Norwegian, which is the first language of about 95 percent of the country’s population. The origins of Norwegian derive from the proto-Germanic branch of Indo-European languages.

Is Norwegian a language?

Yes, Norwegian is an official language. It’s descended from Old Norse, but is strongly influenced by Danish and Low German.

Maunus (CC)

However, just to add some confusion into the mix, written Norwegian is not just one language. 

The two ways of writing Norwegian are bokmål and nynorsk, which are similar in spoken Norwegian, but very different when they are written.

What’s the difference between nynorsk vs bokmål?

For almost 500 years, Denmark and Norway were closely aligned, with Denmark being the most powerful partner.

This led to Danish superseding Old Norse and by the sixteenth century Danish was the de facto official written language of Norway – though Norwegian dialects were still widely spoken.

In the nineteenth century, when Norway became independent from Denmark, they had to decide whether to adopt the formal Danish-based written language or the Norwegian dialect-based spoken language. So they chose both!

Bokmål (which means “book language”) derives from the original written Danish, while nyorsk (which means “new Norwegian”) is based on the original spoken Norwegian language and dialects.

In speech, the two versions of written Norwegian are fairly similar and most Norwegians can understand both, but in written form they are very different.

Bokmål is the primary written form, with around 90 percent of the country using it for writing, while the remaining ten percent (mostly in western Norway) use nyorsk. 

Norwegians are taught both forms at school, though bokmål is generally considered easier to learn and is the most used from.

What is the native language of Norway?

The native language of Norway is Norwegian.

However, there is also Sami, a Uralic language which is spoken by the indigenous Sami people who live in the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Northwest Russia. 

Sami is one of the native languages of Norway
Harvey Barrison (CC)

Sami actually consists of up to ten variant languages, which are spoken in different parts of Lapland, the Sami territory.

The four main Sami languages spoken in Norway are North Sami, Lule Sami, South Sami and Pite Sami.

How many people in Norway speak Sami languages?

Some 30,000 people are estimated to speak Sami in northern Scandinavia, with around half of these being in Norway. 

In Norway, most Sami speak North Sami, with around 15,000 speakers living mostly in the north of the country.

Slightly further south, there are around 500 Lule Sami speakers and a handful of Pite Sami speakers. In central Norway, around 300 people speak South Sami.

What are the official languages in Norway?

The official languages of Norway are Norwegian and Sami. Sami was given official language status in the 1990s in an attempt to preserve the language and Sami culture. 

Despite government grants and attempts to promote the Sami language, only a small number of people still speak it fluently, with some variants such as Pite Sami in danger of dying out completely.

What do Norwegians speak?

As well as the two official languages, Norwegian and Sami, there are three other minority languages that are spoken in Norway: Kven, Rodi and Romani.

Kven is spoken by some 5000–8000 speakers who live mostly in northeastern Norway. Although Kven is officially recognised as a minority language in Norway, it is very similar to Finnish and can be understood by most Finnish speakers. 

In Finland, the language is considered a dialect of Finnish rather than an independent language, though many of Kven’s words are so traditional that they are no longer used in Finnish.

Rodi is an indigenous travellers’ language, spoken mostly by Norwegian travellers in southern and southwestern Norway.  Similar to Norwegian, it combines words and grammar from both Romani and German.

Various dialects of Romani can also be found in Norway, including Tavringer Romani (with around 6000 speakers), Vlax Romani (around 500 speakers) and Scandoromani, which is also spoken in neighbouring Sweden.

Are there dialects in Norwegian?

There are five main Norwegian dialects, which can make Norwegian even more tricky for foreigners to learn.

They are Østlandet (Eastern Norway), Vestlandet (Western Norway), Nordnorsk (Northern Norway), Trøndersk (Trøndelag dialect) and Innlandsmål(Midland Norwegian).

The Østlandet dialect is spoken in Oslo
The Østlandet dialect is spoken in Oslo / Oliver Cole (CC)

Østlandet is the dialect spoken in Oslo so it has, by default, become the main Norwegian dialect.

However, within each dialect area, there are also further regional variations. Since parts of Norway were isolated from each other by mountains and fjords until the twentieth century, many other dialects developed with some valleys speaking a different dialect from the neighbouring valley.

How many people speak Norwegian?

Around five million people speak Norwegian as a first language, the vast majority of whom live in Norway.

However, there are other countries where Norwegian is spoken as a mother tongue by a small percentage of the population. 

So, we’ve compiled a chart of where is Norwegian is spoken and how many people speak it – see below!

Which countries have the most Norwegian speakers? 

You may be surprised to see that the country with the second largest population of Norwegian speakers outside of Norway is the US.

The US has a sizeable Norwegian-speakingg population
The US has a sizeable Norwegian population / HMPinnsvinet (CC)

In fact, almost five million people in the US claim Norwegian heritage, though only a small proportion of them speak the language regularly at home.

Canada and the UK also have a sizeable number of Norwegians, but it’s not known how many of them still speak the language. 

CountryNumber of Norwegian speakers
Norway5.3 million
USA55,000
Sweden52,000
Denmark18,000

Can Norwegian speakers understand other languages?

Since Norwegian is so similar to Danish, it’s not surprising that around 50 percent of young Norwegians say that they can understand some basic Danish. 

And as you might imagine, given their enormous shared border and history, around 90 percent of young Norwegians say that they can understand Swedish easily.

These two facts are also explained by Norwegian pronunciation being closer to Swedish, while the vocabulary and written Norwegian are closer to Danish.

Norway’s grammar also shares a lot in common with English!

Do they speak English in Norway? And how many speak it?

The simple answer is yes, English is widely spoken in Norway. It’s the second most common language in Norway, with an astonishing 4.5 million Norwegians able to speak some English (that’s more than 80% of the entire population).

Norwegian children learn English at school
A.Davey (CC)

And most speak it to a high standard too. All Norwegians learn English in school, and many universities teach their courses in English.

What is a Norski?

A Norski is simply another word for someone from Norway, or an American of Norwegian heritage. 

It’s also, incidentally, the name of a potent cocktail made with lingonberry syrup and aquavit!

See also:
Where is Danish spoken and how many people speak it?
Danish vs Dutch: what’s the difference?
How many people speak Swedish?

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