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The Norwegian Dialects Versus Anglo-American English

British-based journalist, Jessica Furseth, who was raised in Norway, has written an article on the increasing and disruptive presence of the English language in her Scandinavian homeland:

“This is a story about a small language being slowly overwhelmed by English, written in English by someone whose mother tongue is so stiff from lack of use it’s hardly serviceable. The irony isn’t lost on me.

The small language in question is Norwegian, spoken by about five million people and also by me, once upon a time. I grew up in Norway and lived there until I was 19, so sure, I can carry a conversation. But my entire adult life has happened in English. It’s been over a decade since Norwegian was the language I used to get around. It doesn’t sit comfortably in my mouth anymore, because another language has taken its place. I struggle to find the words to express an idea more complicated than the weather. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write this in the language of my home country.

As I’ve grown more English, so has Norwegian. New words keep appearing in speech, but they don’t sound like they belong. Most of the new words are English ones. I understand what they mean, of course, but the first time you hear “fancy1” or “touch2” randomly dropped into a sentence in a different language, it sounds so alien. I catch myself wondering, who decides which English words the people of Norway will adopt this year? Where does this come from?

Languages are living things, constantly evolving. In that sense, you could argue that resisting change is unnatural. But as a speaker of a small language, it can be alarming to hear the rapidly increasing influx of new words from a dominant force. Back in 2000, linguistics researcher Sylfest Lomheim caused upheaval by claiming the Norwegian language wouldn’t survive the next century. Is this the beginning of the end?”

It is well worth a read though she fails to note the importance of dialectal splits in the Norwegian language, with four written forms and numerous spoken forms coexisting alongside each other. In terms of spelling these include the majority Bokmål (“book tongue”) and the largely regional Nynorsk (“new Norwegian”), as well as Riksmål (“national language”) and Høgnorsk (“high Norwegian”), conservative and unofficial variants of the previous two. This relative lack of linguistic uniformity may be one of the reasons for the percieved weakness of the Scandinavian tongue when faced by English influences. Though others might see such diversity as a strength.


15 comments on “The Norwegian Dialects Versus Anglo-American English

  1. Lord of Mirkwood

    Very interesting. The sheer amount of English in Norway – on the radio, signage (including in places where you’d think it would be mostly-all Norwegians reading them), the fact that literally everyone spoke it fluently – knocked me off my feet when I went there. Same with Sweden. It kind of felt wrong to walk into a little traditional seafood hut in Flåm on the Aurlandsfjord and order in English. Afraid my Norwegian isn’t up to it, though… 😉

    • I have a Finnish friend, from the Swedish minority, and he has expressed similar concerns about the growth of English in the region. The Finns are incredibly proud of their English fluency, but there are worries that it has so replaced other second languages, French, German, etc. that it is actually having a detrimental effect. That said, the English impact is far less than the true Scandinavian countries, which are more susceptible to anglophone influence for linguistic reasons.

  2. Well two comments really.

    Until I think around 200 years ago, Norway was part of Denmark and Danish the official written language of church, state, literature, newspapers etc. With independence they decided to bring the written language more in line with the spoken language, but there were basically two different approaches to this. One was to use the local pronunciation of what was basically Danish with a few local words thrown in, as used in the Oslo, the other to try and mash together several of the various rural dialects. The idea was to begin by standardising these two extremes and then to gradually bring them closer together. This mean revising both every few years, and after two or three such cycles, changing all the school books each time etc. everyone said ´enough!´ so they ended up with two standards for the price of one.
    It has often occurred to me that if an Indy Scotland decided to try to standardise Scots they would be up against a very similar problem. Do you begin with the distinct but anglified speech of Edinburgh (or ´Embro´) or try to mash together Lallans with Doric etc. And we haven´t even touched on Glaswegian (or ´Glesga´).

    The other thing relates to English words in Norwegian. Surely this is just a long-delayed pay-back. There are very many Scandinavian words, often quite everyday word, in Standard English, more still in Northern English and Scots. Scots Gaelic also has lots of Norse words, Manx more still, and I doubt that Irish doesn´t have a few, although this is one of the things that helps distinguish the different Gaelics.
    Do you say ´sgarbh´ for ´comorant´? or ´sgeir´ for a ´skerry´ (tidal rock)? Not to mention all the place names in ´-ey / -aidh´ (island) or ´-val / -bhal’ (fell) etc.

    • All true. Certainly the Scandinavian languages seem very susceptible to English influences. Dutch and Frisian are in similar positions. The complexity of the dialectal and written variants in Norwegian would take a full post in their own right. It reminds me of Irish at the turn of the 1900s when two or three dialects were competing to become the “national” version, chiefly Munster Irish versus Connacht Irish.

  3. Dara O Rourke

    What intrigued me was her Minnesota cousins. Still speaking Norwegian, albeit heavily accented , after six generations. Compare Irish emigrants of the 30/40s , refusing to speak Irish to their children. J.J. Lee is very good on this in his history of Ireland- 1912 – 1985. All the economic reasons for dropping Irish just dissolve upon contact with reality. After all what use is Finnish , unrelated as it is to any other tongue apart from Estonian and – much more distantly , Hungarian?

    • Clearly this demonstrates that the reasons for emigrants keeping up their original languages or not, as the case may be, are cultural/political/psychological etc. etc. Anything but purely linguistic.

    • It’s that old question. Outside of their home countries what use are most languages? English, French, Spanish and Portuguese at least have a certain global utilitarian aspect to them. German has very little benefit, outside of the EU. The Scandinavian languages are the most obvious examples (aside from our own, of course). I suspect that the post-independence window of opportunity for the restoration of Irish as the majority language of the island was 1922-60. It may be an impossible proposition now. The chance was squandered.

      • Now ponder this. Would a united Ireland diminish the chances of a resurgence of interest in the language, or would it spark of the birth of a new sort of national pride which would seize on the language as a potent symbol? After all there would no longer be a Brit/Irish divide and you would be an independent nation within the EU, so wouldn´t you want to have your own language, ¨just like everyone else¨ 🙂

        • Honest answer? I suspect the price of reunification would be the downgrading of the Irish language, making English constitutionally equal or superior in some regions (the north-east), and thus completing the process of linguistic and cultural extermination. I suspect even Sinn Féin would sign up to that.

          • seamus, i agree with you regarding sinn fein and the irish language. their commitment seems token. the only party that seems to support the irish language in its own right is the green party who seem to support diversity both cultural and biological.

          • That would certainly be a very realistic approach … but when were the Irish ever realists? 😉

        • After all there would no longer be a Brit/Irish divide
          There still would be a divide – that’s for sure. Many Russians in Latvia still see themselves as part of the “Russian world” – as in no different to the Russians from Moscow. And Putin actively encourages this. He justified the occupation of Crimea by the idea that any territories where Russian is spoken are part of the Russian world and it’s OK to treat them as rightful Russian soil and defend them using military force if necessary.

          Don’t see why would anything be different up North after the reunification. The unionists see themselves just as British as those from London – and they would continue to do so.

          • TurboFurbo

            Swedish-speaking Finns see themselves as 100% Finnish.
            You are obsessed with Russia and the Russian language – the humiliating capitulation of Latvia in WW2 bothers you intensely and your hatred of Russia is clear.

            Sek help.

      • You don’t have to live in a particular country to use its language nowadays. The internet makes it really easy to do. I live in Ireland, but still use Latvian every day.

  4. john cronin

    well, it serves em right for colonising England and forcing their vocabulary – anger, skiing, lightning – on the English in the 9th c

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