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New Old Words - The Struggle for Norway's Nynorsk Language.

For over a hundred years, Norway has officially been bilingual. In May 1885, the Storting, its parliament, passed a motion saying that "the Norwegian folk language should be equal with the ordinary book language." These two languages are known today as Nynorsk and Bokml. They were called Landsml and Riksml before 1929, when they were renamed. As a result of the 1885 decision, all Norwegians are expected to have some training in both languages.

The two are closely related--if you know one, you're able to read the other--and equal, according to the law. In reality, this latter point is often neglected. Official forms should be available in both languages, but it can be difficult to find some documents in Nynorsk. Nynorsk users feel they are being treated disrespectfully.

With a largely homogeneous population of 4.5 million, Norway is hardly a multicultural society. Thus, it may be hard to make sense of this dispute. Even more puzzling is the fact that Norwegians have been wrangling over language for the past 150 years.

Several organizations identify with the politics of Norwegian language. The two biggest are Noregs Mllag and Riksmlsforbundet. Formed in 1906, Noregs Mllag supports Nynorsk and has around 11,000 members. Riksmlsforbundet was formed the following year. Although this organization has only half as many members, it offers the counterargument that Bokml speakers are being treated unreasonably. "There is a huge majority of Bokml users in Norway," says Tor Guttu, the group's vice chairman. "We have no need for these regulations saying that everything has to be available in both languages."

Guttu accepts the fact that Norway has two official languages, as does Oddmund L[inverted question mark]kensgard Hoel, leader of Noregs Mllag. But Hoel stresses that things are wrong: "Our aim is not that Bokml should disappear. All we ask is that the two languages get equal treatment."

Birth of Nynorsk

The roots of this disagreement can be traced to 1380. Prior to this, Norway had its own rich vocabulary and language--Old Norse--in which several texts were produced. In 1363 the regents of Denmark and Norway had married, creating a union of the two countries. The marriage produced an heir, Olav Hkonsson, who would become king of both lands. Norway soon became the weaker partner in the union. Danes moved to Norway and began to occupy positions of influence in government offices. Gradually the Norwegian language was forced to give way to Danish.

Norway regained its independence in 1814 but entered into a union with Sweden the same year. Nevertheless, one result of the breakup was that Norwegians took greater pride in their own society. Folk music and dancing, as well as traditional foods and crafts, gained increased attention throughout the nineteenth century. Still, although Norwegians spoke their own dialects, Danish was the only written language in use. Increasingly "Norwegianized," it formed the basis for what is today Bokml.

Debate over the language question began in the 1820s, but Danish remained the only formal language for several decades. The discussion focused on how a Norwegian language should look. Should Danish be only slightly Norwegianized? Should one dialect be chosen to become the written language?

In the 1830s, a farmer's son from the coastal districts in western Norway, Ivar Aasen, entered the discussion. Well, "entered the discussion" is an imprecise description. In 1836 he wrote a short essay arguing that Norway, as a free country, should have its own language. He suggested that young Norwegians should be taught their own language in school. The written form should be compiled from all the dialects, and the article went on to describe how this work should be done.

Aasen's essay remained unpublished until well after his death. Remarkably, given the facts that he was only 22 when he wrote it and was basically self-taught in these issues, the essay describes the very work that Aasen would go on to accomplish. His most comprehensive biography to date was written by Stephen Walton, an English professor, and published in 1996. In it, Walton comments:

"There are plenty of language revivers around. Aasen is unusual in that he was born into the peasantry and used the new written language as his first mother tongue. He is distinctive not only for his social origins, but also by the breadth of his project. He not only created the new written language, but also set about creating a functional literature in it, across all genres."

No one disputes Aasen's qualities as a linguist. "He was an exceptional philologist," says Guttu, who works at the Nordic institute at the University of Oslo. "Everybody working with dictionaries has to have respect for Aasen. He knew languages very well and was clever in several other fields."

In 1841, Aasen traveled to Bergen. He gained support for his plan and eventually received funding to support his efforts from a scientific society in Trondheim. He left his home in [macron]rsta in 1842 and spent the next four years traveling throughout Norway, taking notes on the characteristic elements of the dialects he encountered. In 1847 he settled in Christiania (today's Oslo) and formed the language today known as Nynorsk.

Aasen had an extensive knowledge of Old Norse. He sought to create a language that would be close to the way Old Norse might have survived into the 1840s. Thus some dialects were deemed too influenced by Swedish or Danish. What Aasen sought were words and inflections related to the old language. When he eventually published the earliest versions of his main works--Grammar of the Norwegian Folk Language (1848) and Dictionary of the Norwegian Language (1850)--he received enthusiastic reviews. P.A. Munch, a leading Norwegian scholar of the time, wrote of the grammar that "this is not only a pride for our literature, it is also a pride for the entire nation."

Despite such tributes, it took a while before the language was taken seriously. Aasen's first publication in Nynorsk (the earlier publications were in Danish) was Samples of the Norwegian Folk Language (1853); he published the first Nynorsk play, The Heir, in 1855. He wrote many scholarly works, perhaps the most significant being a Norwegian Grammar (1864) and Norwegian Dictionary (1873). He died in 1896.

"In the development of a Norwegian language, no one was as influential as Ivar Aasen," argues Hoel. "Norway has yet to produce a comparable linguist of his excellence. Aasen must receive most of the credit for Nynorsk's success." Hoel believes that Nynorsk or something comparable could have been created without Aasen--the number of European languages doubled in the 1800s--but acknowledges that it is hard to see anybody else capable of doing Aasen's work.

Nynorsk comes of age

The reactions and disagreement created by the introduction of a new Norwegian language in the 1850s persist to this day. The first major public dispute came in 1858, and the issue continues to be heavily debated. Minor victories were secured early on. It was essential that Nynorsk be available and used in central social areas. So, publishing houses like Det Norske Samlaget (established 1868) and Mons Litleres Forlag (1886), both of which published only Norwegian books, helped spread the language. From 1878 it was legal for teachers to use Nynorsk in schools. In addition to making the new language accessible to pupils, this innovation must have made school easier and more interesting, seeing that students were taught to read and write in their own language, instead of the foreign Danish tongue.

Nynorsk also found its way into the church. On Christmas Day in 1884, seven years before Nynorsk was officially permitted to be used in services, a congregation in Telemark risked the wrath of all powers by singing a Nynorsk hymn written by Elias Blix. Then in 1889, with assistance from Aasen, Matias Skard, and Johannes Belsvik, Blix translated the Bible into Nynorsk. The importance of this achievement was expressed by Aasen, who remarked, "If this translation had been available during the Reformation, a lot of things would have been different."

Without strong organizations such as Noregs Mllag, things might still look bleak for Nynorsk. One reason for the government's comparative neglect of the language is that the capital, Oslo, is situated in a strong Bokml area. Nynorsk users must fight to get what the law promises them. An example is the role Noregs Mllag played in 1930, suggests Hoel. Its efforts resulted in a decree saying that all letters sent to state offices must be answered in the language in which they were written.

Another important victory was won when it was decided, during the 1970s, that all schoolbooks should be available in both Bokml and Nynorsk, though this last ruling is still occasionally neglected. In 1997, the fight for Nynorsk entered the Internet. A central textbook, available only in Bokml, forced students to make their own Nynorsk translation. This was made available for free on the Web (despite violating copyrights in the process).

There are also different spellings of the country's name. Bokml users write Norge, while Nynorsk users write Noreg (though this form is not used in any dialects). Still, the term Noreg holds high symbolic value. Today it can be found on passports, coins and stamps, and other things.

One common argument is that linguistic duality is expensive. As mentioned, all official documents and schoolbooks must be available in two versions. In 1899, the author Bj[inverted question mark]rnstjerne Bj[inverted question mark]rnson asked if "the Norwegian people can afford this language battle," and in 1973 publisher Henrik Groth commented that "Norway has suffered two severe disasters--the Black Death, and Ivar Aasen." But Walton suggests there is a bonus in the situation for Norwegians. "The dual language situation on Norway has a number of advantages," he says. "First, it makes it difficult to forget just how political all language use is. This reality is more easily obscured in societies with a single influential standard variant." Walton adds that the duality makes it harder to discriminate against people using their own dialects.

The value of language cannot necessarily be counted in money, insists Hoel. "The costs of having two languages are far less than what is commonly believed. We're talking about a couple of million kroner, less than what some people earn during a year." Guttu doesn't quite agree with this number but adds that Riksmlsforbundet has never checked the figure. "Of course it makes everything more difficult for government offices, which have to make two versions of all documents. Still," he says, "we must keep in mind that Norway is a very wealthy country, and we can afford this."

"We have no illusions. We know that Norway will have two languages in the future," says Hoel, again insisting that Nynorsk users only hope for equal treatment.

Today, Noregs Mllag works hard to increase the use of Nynorsk among students and schoolchildren. The percentage of Nynorsk users in schools reached its highest level in the 1940s, at around 34 percent. Today around half that number use the language. "One important part of our work is to influence parents," says Hoel. "For a school district to offer a parallel class in Nynorsk, ten parents must demand it. In the last year we have seen Nynorsk classes established in the three biggest cities in Norway."

Guttu believes that it would be better for pupils to learn one language properly than to divide their time between two. "We feel that writing papers in one's second Norwegian language should be optional. A lot of time is wasted this way, and it is also harder for the teachers," he says.

The contribution of Nynorsk literature

Nynorsk literature is of a high standard, as even Bokml users might agree. This has been a self-conscious development. When Aasen formed the basic rules for Nynorsk, he realized that the language would struggle for acceptance unless it produced texts that ordinary people could read. His grammar and dictionary were treated with respect when published, but to reach a wider audience, Nynorsk had to be used in stories, plays, poems, and novels. The first Nynorsk poetry collection was published in 1855. These works are largely forgotten today. However, poems from Aasen's own collection Symra (1863) stand among Norway's best-known poetry.

Other early Nynorsk writers, like A.O. Vinje and Arne Garborg, also wrote and published newspapers. Vinje's D[inverted question mark]len, published from 1858 until his death in 1870, contains some of the finest Norwegian journalism.The twentieth century produced many great writers. Three names stand out, in my opinion. Tarjei Vesaas (1897--1970) from Telemark reached his greatest accomplishment in two of his later novels. In The Ice Castle (1963) he brilliantly enters the mind of a young girl, describing what happens when one of her friends disappears. The Birds (1957) is possibly the finest Norwegian novel ever. It tells the story of Mattis, a somewhat demented character struggling to come to terms with life, and with the fact that his sister, with whom he lives, gets a boyfriend who threatens to take her away from him.

Olav Hauge (1908--1994) was a poet from Ulvik in Hardanger. After struggling with a nervous condition in his youth, he produced his first collection in 1946. He eventually published six volumes, in addition to translating foreign poets into Norwegian. Schooled as a gardener, he had an extensive knowledge of literature and expressed much through images and phrases drawn from everyday life. This endeared him to readers of all backgrounds and generations. His poems have been translated into twenty-five languages.

Finally, the contemporary playwright Jon Fosse (b. 1959) should be mentioned. Unlike Vesaas and Hauge, Fosse has an academic background. He published his first novel in 1983 and about a decade later wrote his first play. He has become the most performed Norwegian playwright since Ibsen, and his works have been translated into several European languages.

Fosse isn't the only reason for Nynorsk's bright future. The government recognizes that the language has played an important part in forming Norwegian culture. This summer, an information center opened in [macron]rsta, next to Aasen's childhood home. The building, designed by the renowned architect Sverre Fehn, promises to house an institution that will increase interest in a language whose roots lie firmly in Norwegian soil.n

Eirik Helleve is a curator of the Ivar Aasen Center for Culture and Language.
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Author:Helleve, Eirik
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EXNO
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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