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Genetic Heritage, Language, & Religion of Norway

Genetic Heritage

Most of Norway's population is genetically Norwegian, Sami, or a combination of the two. Norwegian is similar to other northern Germanic and Scandinavian people, making some of their closest genetic relatives the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and Icelanders. The people of Iceland are most closely related to the Norwegians as Iceland was originally settled by Norwegian Vikings, making the two nearly identical genetically, although Iceland has a strong genetic influence from the British Isles.

Genetically, the Norwegians are descended of early proto-Europeans, later Germanic people, and other settlers to the region, most of whom are northern European. So the Norwegian people are really a mixture of people from the past, however this combination has become somewhat distinct and today genetic differences between Norwegians and people from other Germanic and Scandinavian peoples is noticeable.

Interestingly though, the genetic pool found in the Norwegian people is very widespread. The Vikings traveled everywhere from modern day Iraq and Ukraine to France and the British Isles. They left behind their genes in these populations and today there are many shared genes between the people of Norway and people across the world, including many Slavic people, the French (particularly those in Normandy), and the British Isles.

Additionally, due to emigration from Norway, there are numerous descendants of Norwegians who have settled elsewhere, including people in the United States and Canada. These people remain very similar to Norwegians genetically and they have also helped spread genes typically found in Norwegians into these new areas.

The Sami are a Nordic group of people that is a bit of a genetic unknown. These people made their way to Norway via modern day Finland and many argue that their descendants came from Asia, a theory primarily based on their Uralic language (an Asian language with roots in Central Asia). What is known is that the Sami are more closely related to the Finns than the Norwegians in terms of genetics, but their actual origin is still questionable.

Although the Sami languages are Uralic languages, other evidence tends to indicate that the Sami are genetically rooted in Europe. No matter the genetic origins of the Sami, it seems the people were isolated for some time and are quite unique genetically, rarely intermarrying outside this group for thousands of years.

Language

Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk are the official national languages of Norway, although Sami is officially recognized regionally. Both Norwegian languages are members of the Scandinavian language family, which is a language family that also includes Swedish, Danish, Faroese, and Icelandic. All of these Scandinavian languages are distantly related to the West Germanic languages (Dutch, German, and to a lesser degree English) as the Scandinavian languages are considered to be part of the North Germanic language family.

Norwegian, as well as Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Faroese, developed from Old Norse. Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese developed from Old West Norse, while Swedish and Danish arose from Old East Norse. However, all these languages remain very similar and the past unions Norway had with both Denmark and Sweden have further united the languages, making them widely understandable across speakers.

The differences between Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk primarily arose due to history. Norwegian Bokmål is known as the "book language" and more closely resembles that of Danish. Under Danish rule, many people in Norwegian cities began to speak Danish as official documents were written in Danish and after Lutheranism was introduced to the country, Danish also became the language of the church in Norway. Although, the Danish language never fully took over in these places, over time many people were using this new written language, which was not entirely Danish, but not entirely Norwegian either. Today this is the most popular written language in Norway (about 85% of Norwegians write in Bokmål), however few people speak in a manner that is consistent with written Norwegian Bokmål.

As Bokmål developed in the urban centers, the traditional Norwegian dialects dominated in rural areas and these spoken dialects were later formalized in a written context, becoming known as Norwegian Nynorsk, or "New Norwegian." Today the written Nynorsk language is used by a far smaller percentage of the people (less than 10%) than Bokmål is and its use is on the decline.

Despite the differences between Norwegian Bokmål and Norwegian Nynorsk, few people speak a language that is truly faithful to either of these written languages. Throughout the country the Norwegians have numerous oral dialects, all of which are, generally, mutually intelligible. There is no standardized oral version of Norwegian and all forms of the spoken language are commonly accepted. Oddly, despite the heavy tendency to write in Norwegian Bokmål, many dialects of spoken Norwegian are more closely related to the written version of Nynorsk.

The oral dialects of Norwegian are generally divided by geography as the dialects primarily recognized include North Norwegian (the northern half of the country), Trøndersk Norwegian (the region in central Norway, which includes Trondheim), West Norwegian (including much of the southwest, including Bergen), and East Norwegian (including much of the southeast, including Oslo). These dialects have no written standards and each general dialect group includes further regional dialects and even dialects that vary from town to town or fjord to fjord. Few people alter their dialect (except in some formal business settings), even when an individual is in a different region. An individual's dialect is a reflection of their home, background, and identity. Many Norwegians are proud of their dialect as it represents are part of who they are.

The Sami languages, or dialects (there are many), fall into the Uralic family of languages, which includes Hungarian, Finnish, and numerous smaller languages from Central Asia. Despite having numerous dialects, there are a great number of linguistic similarities among the southern Sami speakers and the northern Sami speakers. In Norway, the spoken Sami languages (or dialects) are Southern Sami, Ume Sami, Pite Sami, Lule Sami, and Northern Sami, with Northern Sami being the most commonly spoken by a significant degree, as none of the other languages have more than about 2,500 speakers.

For a great number of years the Sami languages were discouraged in Norway and elsewhere in the Nordic countries, nearly destroying the languages. Since the early 1990s there has been a small linguistic renaissance in Norway, but even with this resurgence, Sami population numbers remain small so the number of speakers also remains rather small.

Few non-native speakers learn any of the Sami languages, however most Sami in Norway today are multilingual. The Sami often learn Norwegian (generally the local spoken dialect and Norwegian Bokmål) and this is the primary language of communication throughout Norway, including many areas dominated by the ethnic Sami.

The people of Norway, both the ethnic Norwegians and the ethnic Sami, tend to learn English as a second language, although other foreign languages are also taught, including Swedish and Danish, particularly in areas closer to those countries.

Religion

Most of Norway's population, about 75%, are baptized members of the Church of Norway, which is an evangelical Lutheran church and is the state religion of Norway. The Church of Norway was officially established in 1536 after the reformation. Despite early protests and resistance, the Danes successfully introduced Lutheranism to Norway beginning in 1529, at which time Norway fell under Danish rule; the religion was further encouraged in 1537 after Christian III became king of Denmark-Norway. Since this time the state and the church have been closely intertwined as the church fell under the direct jurisdiction of the king (with the exception of World War II when the church refused to work with the Nazi-appointed government). Not surprisingly, this religion is almost identical to the state religion of Denmark.

Prior to the introduction of Lutheranism the people were primarily Catholic, which they converted to in the 900s and 1000s, most heavily under the rule of King Olaf II (later St. Olaf), who is buried in or near Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. The Norwegians remained Catholic from this time until the 1530s when the Danes forced Protestantism on them. The Norwegians were slow to accept this conversion to Lutheranism, but later fully embraced it and when the Norwegians gained nominal independence in 1814 they recognized the Church of Norway as the state church and religion.

Despite the close ties between the church, the people, and the government, few Norwegians are overtly religious today and very few people practice regularly. Churches, including the impressive stave churches and the cathedral in Trondheim, are in many ways a symbol of Norway, however few people practice regularly so the roles the church and religion take vary from person to person. For most individuals religion only holds a minor role in their day to day lives, but a more significant role in their cultural and historical identities.

The ethnic Sami have a slightly different religious history than that of the ethnic Norwegians, although today most Sami are also nominally Lutheran. Prior to conversion to Lutheranism, the Sami primarily followed a polytheistic religion, closing linking the natural world and the spiritual world. In the late 1600s Lutheran missionaries destroyed much of the past religion and the last of the Noaidi (shaman). By the early 1700s nearly all Sami had converted to Lutheranism and remain so today, again at least in a nominal sense.

The Church of Norway is fairly liberal and, since Lutheranism allows various interpretations of the Bible, the Church of Norway tends to follow a more figurative, rather than literal interpretation of the Bible. However, the Church of Norway is not viewed as being as liberal relative to the government and the majority of Norwegian people. While women are allowed to be ministers in the Church of Norway, as are individuals in same-sex relationships, some people in the church disagree with these practices and the church remains very divided on same-sex marriages, which it doesn't allow at this time, although same-sex marriage is legal in Norway.

Learn more about Lutheranism's doctrines, sacraments, liturgy, & hierarchy on Safari the Globe.

This page was last updated: September, 2014