A man and his language
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Norway Now, November 1996
A self-taught man and arguably a genius, Ivar Aasen (1813–96) – a contemporary of Marx, Darwin and Queen Victoria – single-handedly invented a new language for Norway, starting discussions about language and identity which still reverberate in a country where real issues to fight over are in short supply.
"A language is a dialect backed by an army and a navy,"
according to a critical perspective on nation-building. Nation-builder
Iver Andreas Aasen (1813-96), later famous under the name of Ivar
Aasen, had no illusions about any army backing him at any time
during his long life of dedicated hard work. He nevertheless created
an entirely new language from bits and pieces, and lived to see
it become an official language in his country. We are celebrating
the centenary of his death this year.
Like in many small, peripheral and colonised European countries,
Norwegian elites were in this period busy negotiating and developing
their national identity as a prelude to serious claims of political
independence. For centuries, the country had been a mere Danish
province; it was now in an enforced union with big brother Sweden,
which would last until 1905. The Danish influence was still very
strong, not least in the cultural field. Notably, the written
language, as well as the spoken language of the urban bourgeoisie,
was all but Danish. Many Norwegian dialects, on the other hand,
were quite remote from Danish. The winds of German Romanticism
blew powerfully across the land, preaching that the soul of a
people resided in its language. In other words, the time was ripe
for a generation of Norwegian intellectuals who had the capacity
and courage to counter the Danish cultural hegemon. Ivar Aasen
was perhaps the most uncompromising and brilliant of them. Born
and raised in modest conditions in western Norway, Aasen found
his vocation early in life. Collecting vocabulary and grammar
from large parts of the country, he meticulously built his distinct
form of Norwegian, as a rule retaining the words and phrases which
he deemed as the most ancient and closest to Old Norse.