Danish, the official language of Norway since 1397, became also, in the 16th century, the written language of Norway. Danish was generally spoken by the educated classes, especially in the cities, while Norwegian dialects continued in use in the country districts and among the working and middle classes of the towns. During the 19th century, the spoken Danish developed into a language called Dano-Norwegian, which was heavily Danish in structure and vocabulary, but with native Norwegian pronunciation and some native grammatical influences. Later termed Riksmål, it became the official language of Norway. Dano-Norwegian is the language of such literary figures as the poet and dramatist Henrik Ibsen.
Subsequently, however, a strong nationalistic and romantic movement awakened a desire for a language people felt was their own. In response to this desire, the linguist Ivar Aasen began, in the middle of the 19th century, the construction of a new national literary language, the Landsmål ("country speech"), based on Norwegian dialects and free of Danicisms. This endeavor won public support, and the Landsmål, further developed, became an important secondary language.
Under pressure of the Landsmål movement, the Riksmål went through a series of significant reforms (1907, 1917, and 1938) emphasizing strictly Norwegian speech and spelling. The names of the two languages were officially changed: The Riksmål became the Bokmål ("book language") and the Landsmål, the Nynorsk ("New Norse"). The two languages have equal validity in law, and both must be taught in the schools. The Bokmål, still the leading language, is strongest in eastern Norway, the Nynorsk in western Norway. Changes continue to occur in both languages.