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aasenA man and his language

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Norway Now, November 1996


A self-taught man and arguably a genius, Ivar Aasen (1813โ€“96) โ€“ a contemporary of Marx, Darwin and Queen Victoria โ€“ 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.

Ivar Aasen's name is known abroad to a few linguists, historians of nationalism and other specialists. In Norway, his is a household name. Hated by some, loved by more and respected by all, the self-taught and extremely prolific scholar Aasen singlehandedly devised a comprehensive grammar, a lexicon and indeed a literature for the new language, nynorsk or New Norwegian. Nynorsk or landsmaal ("Rural Language") as it was first called, was envisioned to replace Dano-Norwegian as the national language of the new nation. Alas, this never came about. Ironically, rather than uniting the people, the new national language quickly became the source of one of the most bitter and protracted controversies dividing the Norwegian nation, right from the beginning in the mid-nineteenth century up to the present.

 



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.

Aasen's project was compatible with the Romantic nationalism in vogue at the time, which emphasised both the virtues of the rural life and postulated connections with the Viking era in its anti-Danish and anti-Swedish imagery. However, during the early attempts to officialise Aasen's New Norwegian, it quickly transpired that a large part of the Norwegian elite would be happy to see Aasen's innovation as a symbol of nationhood, but were less enthusiastic about actually using it. As a result, the country was divided between Dano-Norwegian and New Norwegian inclinations. This is still the situation, despite ingenious attempts at bridging the gap between the two varieties -- which are mutually intelligible -- through the development of hybrid forms, which have only contributed further to the general linguistic confusion in the country.

Today, there are "radical" and "conservative" variants of both New Norwegian and reformed Dano-Norwegian (bokmål, Book Language, or riksmål, National Language). Both are official languages, although the great majority of the population uses some form of bokmål, nynorsk being predominant in the west and in the central mountain areas of Southern Norway. Twenty-five per cent of national broadcasts are in nynorsk. In the areas where the majority of the population use nynorsk, it is the language of instruction in schools; and schoolchildren all over the country have to write compositions in both variants of Norwegian.

The choice of language form is not a mere linguistic issue. Indeed, one probably has to be Norwegian in order to fully understand the subtle political nuances and connotations associated with the language controversy. Nynorsk is associated with the rural life and with a commonsensical scepticism vis-à-vis the affectations, hierarchies and mannerisms of the urban centres. It is perceived as more "folksy" and more "rooted" than bokmål, which does not mean that it is anti-intellectual. Many of Norway's finest writers and most outstanding thinkers write in nynorsk. It nevertheless remains in many ways a counterculture of resistance - more than a hundred years after its officialisation.

So which language form, then, does the Norwegian army support? The obvious answer is: Neither, but it remains firmly committed to defending the dispute to the last man.