Free Norwegian!

pdf(Klikk her for norsk.)
The Norwegian quality daily newspaper
Klassekampen has published an opinion piece about the Norwegian language that I wrote for them. Below, you’ll find my English original. Click here for the translation by Eivind Myklebust.

klassekampen1One of the remarkable and likable things about the Norwegian language is how dialects are used even in formal situations. In most other countries, that is highly unusual. I’m a dialect-speaker myself, yet much of the time I speak standard Dutch, a language I learnt in school. The situation is similar in nearly all other European countries.

Another remarkable, but less likable thing about Norwegian is its split into two official written standards, Bokmål and Nynorsk. To me as an outsider, that looks like a tremendous waste of school-children’s time and tax-payers’ money. (How much time and money exactly seems to be a taboo question; I haven’t found any research quantifying the waste.) The two standards also make Norwegian troublesome for newcomers and outsiders. I can read a fair bit of one (Bokmål, as it happens), but I find the other hard to decipher.

I know the history, of course. I know about centuries of Danish rule and about Oslo’s higher classes adopting Dano-Norwegian. I know about Ivar Aasen’s heroic and admirable attempt at linguistic emancipation and nation-building. And I know about the sensible drive to merge the two standards into Samnorsk, causing such a public outcry that the idea is now dead in the water.

Even so, I think two standards are simply one too many. But how to reduce the number to one without sending either the majority of the population or a militant minority up in arms? It looks like an intractable problem, and the Språkråd can’t deal with it, given that it’s much committed to the present situation. Moreover, for all their endless tinkering with the Norwegian language, reforming it no fewer than ten times since times 1900, the Språkråd and its predecessors haven’t come close to solving the puzzle. With such a track record, the Språkråd has clearly forfeited its right to even try.

The way forward, if you allow me to suggest, is in the opposite direction. It’s high time to get rid of the very labels. Both of them. ‘Bokmål’ should go, and so should ‘Nynorsk’. They should be scrapped, ditched, abolished, abandoned, jettisoned, junked and rejected. Burn the old rulebooks! Instead, let the people write the way they like. Let them write Norwegian freely. In other words, let them write Frinorsk [Free Norwegian].

But won’t that plunge us into chaos, you ask, startled by this un-Nordic lawlessness. The answer is: it won’t. Of course, there will be some diversity (but then, the Språkråd itself has for the last 117 years created a lot of diversity). But when people write, they want to be understood. They want to come across as articulate, literate, civilised and employable. Therefore, this written Frinorsk will change gradually rather than radically. At first, things will remain pretty much the same, with Bokmål and Nynorsk (and even Riksmål and Høgnorsk) persisting more or less as before, though no longer under those official and semi-official names.

But after a generation or so, as dyed-in-the-wool Aasenistas and confirmed Danomaniacs are going extinct, the old allegiances will appear increasingly irrelevant. In young people’s writing of 2040 or 2050, the boundary between what used to be Nynorsk and Bokmål will become blurrier and blurrier. The two old straightjackets now forgotten, writing will start to shift towards what is perceived to be the best form of Norwegian, to a language that meets people’s needs for clarity and status and reflects their identity. That’s how it always goes within a speech community, be it local, regional or national: the need produces the standard. The wisdom of the crowd will create what the wisdom of the Råd couldn’t.

What exactly this will look like, I can’t predict. It may be based on the Oslo dialect or on today’s Standard Eastern Norwegian, because capital cities usually have a strong influence on standard languages. It may be similar to the less Danified, more Nynorsk-ish dialects, as these are spoken by the majority, albeit in a rather diverse manner. Or it may be a blend, a middle ground of sorts between the two (with some elements from English and immigrant languages thrown in to reflect the times). Whatever its shape and form, this new Frinorsk standard will emerge organically, without anyone feeling forced to comply. As for the term ‘Frinorsk’, that will eventually fall into disuse. At long last, the written language will once more be called by the old, simple and beautiful name of ‘Norsk’.

The new situation will have many advantages. Children and teachers will not have to waste time on a second variety of their language. Official publications and other printed matter no longer have to be produced in two editions. Second-language learners will finally know what they’re at. Even the language itself will profit, since Frinorsk will be richer than either Nynorsk or Bokmål: all words that existed in either of them can still be used, but will now have stylistic connotations, such as ‘nationalistic’, ‘Danish’, ‘rural’, ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘snobbish’ – a great literary asset. Of course, authors wishing to write dialogue or entire works in dialect rather than standard Norwegian will be at complete liberty to do so.

Admittedly, one group will lose out. Today’s Norway has a small industry of well-meaning language activists, regulators, Nynorsk-Bokmål translators and other hard-working individuals who profit from the language’s dual standard. That sector will vanish. Such is the fate of futile lines of work.

Except for these few men and women, the general prospect is a most alluring one, I would say. And yet, while it’s realisable, I doubt whether it will actually be realised. After so many years of well-meaning Språkråd tutelage, the Norwegians may lack the courage for so much linguistic freedom. But I hope you will surprise me.

3 thoughts on “Free Norwegian!

  1. Interesting to see the usage “learnt”in the first paragraph. A native speaker of American English would, I’m guessing, invariably write (or say) “learned.”


    • It’s partly because I’ve been influenced more by British than American English, though I will use Americanisms (as well as Briticisms), unconsciously and unapologetically. Only when people on one side complain that they don’t understand certain words or expressions will I consider changing them.
      But partly it’s the fact that I like slightly outdated forms. I would use ‘durst’ if I could get away with it (for ‘dared’, that is)!


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