The languages now spoken in Scandinavia developed from the Old Norse language, which did not differ greatly between what are now Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish areas. In fact, Viking traders spread the language across Europe and into Russia, making Old Norse one of the most widespread languages for a time. According to tradition, King Harald Fairhair united Norway in 872. Around this time, a runic alphabet was used. According to writings found on stone tablets from this period of history, the language showed remarkably little deviation between different regions. Runes had been in limited use since at least the 3rd century. Around 1030, Christianity came to Norway, bringing with it the Latin alphabet. Norwegian manuscripts in the new alphabet began to appear about a century later. The Norwegian language began to deviate from its neighbors around this time as well.
Viking explorers had begun to settle Iceland in the 9th century, carrying with them the Old Norse language. Over time, Old Norse developed into "Western" and "Eastern" variants. Western Norse covered Iceland and Norway, while Eastern Norse developed in Denmark and Sweden. The languages of Iceland and Norway remained very similar until about the year 1300, when they became what are now known as Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian. In 1397, Norway entered a personal union with Denmark, which came to be the dominating part, and Danish was eventually used as Norway's written language. Danish, a language since medieval times mostly influenced by Low German, came to be the primary language of the Norwegian elite, although adoption was slower among the commoners. The union lasted more than 400 years, until 1814 when Norway became independent of Denmark, but was forced to enter a personal union with Sweden. Norwegians began to push for true independence by embracing democracy and attempting to enforce the constitutional declaration of being a sovereign state. Part of this nationalist movement was directed to the development of an independent Norwegian language. Two major paths were available: modify the elite's Danish, or attempt to undo centuries of foreign rule and work with the commoners' Norwegian. Both approaches were attempted.
In the 1840s, many writers began to "Norwegianize" Danish by incorporating words that were descriptive of Norwegian scenery and folk life. Spelling and grammar were also modified. This was adopted by the Norwegian parliament as Riksmål, or "Standard Language" in 1899.
However, a nationalistic movement strove for the development of a new written Norwegian. Ivar Aasen, a self-taught linguist, began his work to create a new Norwegian language at the age of 22. He traveled around the country, comparing the dialects in different regions, and examined the development of Icelandic, which had largely escaped the influences Norwegian had come under. He called his work, which was published in several books from 1848 to 1873, Landsmål, or "National Language".
After the personal union with Sweden was dissolved, both languages were developed further. Riksmål was in 1929 officially renamed Bokmål (literally "Book language"), and Landsmål to Nynorsk (literally "New Norwegian") — the names Dano-Norwegian and Norwegian lost in parliament by one single vote, as the Danish label was (and still is) very unpopular among Bokmål users.
Bokmål and Nynorsk were made closer by reforms in 1917, 1938 and 1959. This was a result of a state policy to merge Nynorsk and Bokmål into one language, called Samnorsk (Common Norwegian). A 1946 poll showed that this policy was supported by 79% of Norwegians at the time. However, opponents of the official policy still managed to create a massive protest movement against Samnorsk in the 50's, fighting in particular the use of "radical" forms in Bokmål text books in schools. The Samnorsk policy had little influence after 1960, and was officially abandoned in 2002. Users of either written language resented the efforts to dilute the distinctness of their written language in general and spelling in particular. Over the years, the standards for Bokmål have increasingly accommodated Riksmål forms. As a result, some people prefer to follow a more traditional way of spelling of Nynorsk, called Høgnorsk.