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Language interest : Norwegian

  • Language interestNorwegian
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  • Author:
    Hoel, Oddmund L.
  • Text:

    The decline of the Norwegian kingdom in the 14th century had been followed by the decline of Old Norse as a living written language. From the 15th century Norwegian was replaced by Danish, as Norway was more and more integrated and subordinated in the union under the Danish Crown. Some knowledge about Old Norse and its closest living analogue, Icelandic, persisted in educated circles; its prestige was boosted when Rasmus Rask published his grammar of Icelandic and Old Norse in 1811. When the first Norwegian university was founded in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1811, a professorial chair was founded for ancient Norwegian history and language.

    Spoken Norwegian, meanwhile, had dropped from elite usage and after centuries of change had ceased to resemble Old Norse. However, some small dialect glossaries by Norway-based vicars and civil servants from the 19th century recognized traces of Old Norse; and a compilation by Laurents Hallager (Norsk Ordsamling, “Norwegian Glossary”, 1802) served to demonstrate a subsistence of Old Norse in remote Norwegian dialects.

    In 1814 Norway passed from Danish to Swedish rule under a constitution which called the Danish written language in Norway Norsk (“Norwegian”). A statement from the University of Oslo in 1815 justified that name by arguing that Denmark and Norway had developed the language in common. Norsk thus became the established name for the Danish language as used in Norway. This re-branding drew criticism from Danish intellectuals (Rask, Niels M. Petersen) and from Norwegian writers such as the poet Henrik Wergeland and the philologist Peter Andreas Munch. The debate was intensified by the Romantic-Nationalist link between language and identity; at the same time, the increasing interest in folk literature necessitated a standard written form for oral poems and fairy tales. Two parallel responses emerged, linked, respectively, to the names of Ivar Aasen (and ultimately called Nynorsk) and of Knud Knudsen (and ultimately called Bokmål).

    Following fieldwork on rural dialects in the 1840s (funded by the Royal Scientific Society in Trondheim), the teacher Ivar Aasen (an adept of the comparative method of Rask and Grimm) published a grammar (1848) and a dictionary (1850) arguing that the Old Norse language was still alive in the contemporary dialects of wide areas of rural Norway, and that these dialects added up to a distinct language. In 1853 Aasen published a unified standard for a new written language, which he called Landsmål (a name changed in 1929 to Nynorsk). Aasen and his supporters (such as the poet and journalist Aasmund Olavsson Vinje) began to publish poems, books, and journals written in the new language, and two societies were founded in 1868 to promote it, Det norske Samlaget in Oslo and Vestmannalaget in Bergen. The new standard spread in the countryside largely through its use in primary schools, and was endorsed by the Liberal opposition led by the politician Johan Sverdrup. Once Sverdrup became Prime Minister (following the constitutional reforms of 1884), Landsmål was given co-official status with the established Dano-Norwegian; the decision was inspired by the recognition of Finnish in Finland. By the 1940s, about one third of all Norwegian pupils had Nynorsk as their first language. Today, Nynorsk is used mostly in the western parts of the country, by 10-15% of the total population.

    Landsmål/Nynorsk found little favour as the future national language in more conservative establishment circles, which held to the view that Danish as used in Norway constituted the country’s Norwegian language. Even so, that usage was developing away from the Danish standard as used in Denmark. Spelling reforms devised by Knudsen found support and were implemented by an official orthographic reform in 1862, signalling growing linguistic unilateralism vis-à-vis Denmark. This increased in the 1890s. Under pressure from the Nynorsk language movement and inspired by growing national sentiment (which would culminate in the unilateral abolition of the parliamentary union with Sweden in 1905), the trend to bring Dano-Norwegian into line with Norwegian linguistic practice, regardless of Danish norms, became more pronounced.

    Thus, towards the close of the century three wings in the language conflict were formed: those who, like Ibsen, wished to maintain a linguistic continuum with Danish; the Landsmål/Nynorsk movement (which by the end of the century could take inspiration from language revival movements elsewhere in Europe, in Finland, Ireland, and, closer to home, the Faroe Islands), with its stronghold in the rural parts of the country; and an increasing movement for a standard called Riksmål which, against the activist stance of Nynorsk, resisted all reforms unless they conformed to established usage. Founded in 1899 and reorganized in 1907 as Riksmålsforbundet, led by the prestigious author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, it gained wide support in the cities.

    Nynorsk and Riksmål, each claiming to represent Norway’s national language (a difficult positioning given the strong dialectal continuum of the North Germanic languages), were given co-equal status when the educational legislation of 1892 allowed schools to choose between them. The two variants have existed side by side since then, and in some mutual antagonism – satirized in Gabriel Scott’s play Babels taarn (“The Tower of Babel”, 1911). Out of, and alongside, Riksmål, a less purist variant called Bokmål has emerged as the de facto majority standard. Various usages of Bokmål have in varying degrees over the course of the 20th century shown the influence of Nynorsk elements; a re-convergence between Bokmål and unreconstructed Riksmål became noticeable in the later half of the 20th century. This Bokmål-Riksmål convergence followed the failure of a government plan in the mid-century to introduce a nationwide hybrid uniting all variants, Samnorsk, which brought the country together in a practically unanimous rejection. Thus, a duality between Nynorsk and Bokmål/Riksmål persists, reflecting not only a centre-periphery split between urban centres and rural areas, but also the common dilemma in language revivals: whether to standardize and codify the distinct, living speech of the country folk or the prestigious usage of the educated elite.

    Word Count: 983

  • Article version:
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  • Bandle, Oskar; Elmevik, Lennart; Widmark, Gun (eds.); The Nordic languages: An international handbook of the history of the North Germanic languages (2 vols; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002-05).

    Haugen, Einar; Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1966).

    Sørensen, Øystein; “What’s in a name? The name of the written language of Norway”, in Sørensen, Øystein; Stråth, Bo (eds.); The cultural construction of Norden (Oslo: Scandinavian UP, 1997), 121-137.

    Vikør, Lars S.; The Nordic languages: Their status and interrelations (Oslo: Novus, 2001).

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Hoel, Oddmund L., 2022. "Language interest : Norwegian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 03-04-2022, consulted 29-11-2022.