Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Leaves' Eyes, "Mine Tåror Er ei Grimme". Norwegian is not always the most obviously beautiful of languages, but every language has its strengths; you just have to play to them. I think this quiet melody, composed and sung by Liv Kristine (best known for having been the lead singer for the goth metal band Theatre of Tragedy), brings out those strengths splendidly. The title means something like "My Tears are Not Horrible" and the chorus is something like "My tears are not horrible, / With weeping I cannot win"; the song is that of a woman weeping for her husband, who has died in battle.

The particular dialect used is one version of Norwegian Nynorsk, which is an interesting language form. It's one of the two dominant forms of Norwegian, the other being Bokmål. (Norwegian native speakers tend to split about 70% Bokmål and 30% Nynorsk; each is not so much a dialect as a dialect-family.) Bokmål is a natural development, mostly: Norwegian affected by Danish language conventions. Nynorsk, associated with Western Norway is actually a reconstruction. It's a partly artificial language, which is why it has its name, "New Norse". In the nineteenth century there was a powerful Romantic movement for national identities -- the sort of thing that gave us semi-artifical epic masterpieces like the Kalevala (in Finland) or the Kalevipoeg (in Estonia), which are built out of genuine folk-stories but reconstructed and re-shaped. Nynorsk is an analogous product, despite being a national language rather than a national epic. Ivar Aasen was a linguist who went around Norway studying various dialects. He made a dictionary and a grammar that attempted to isolate the purely Norwegian elements of the languages he was studying from outside influences (mostly Swedish and Danish). This meant that the reconstructed language had a vocabulary and grammar growing out of Old Norse, but it was very deliberately intended to be a modern language, and since different modern dialects had different Old Norse influences, the result was a clever weaving together of bits from different Norwegian dialects to create a kind of Norwegian that could honestly say that it had both Old Norse roots and modern Norwegian forms. In a sense, you can think of it as an answer to the question: If Old Norse had transformed into Modern Norwegian without foreign influence, and keeping its essential features, what would this modern form look like?

In one sense it was a conservative modification: much of what Aasen did was just keep parts of the various Norwegian dialects that had changed least. In another it was a revolutionary one. For three hundred years the official language of the Kingdom of Norway had been Danish; all upper-class Norwegians had spoken Danish, albeit in a dialect different from any found in Denmark. In the nineteenth century this changed, and the upper-class Dano-Norwegian dialect of Danish began mixing with lower-class Norwegian in ever increasing amounts; Bokmål (which literally means "book language") was the result of this. Landsmål, Aasen's reconstruction and the root source of Nynorsk, was an implicit depiction of an utterly non-Danish Norway. To be sure, since it is a form of Scandinavian and all full Scandinavian languages are closely tied to each other, it is still fairly close to Danish: but it is not so close as Bokmål is.

To complicate matters, the two versions of Norwegian began to be associated with different regions and different politics. Despite heavy-handed government attempts over a century* to force the two versions together (which only diversified the dialects of each by introducing innovations that rarely became widespread), Norwegian divisions over language are very sharp. The divisions are often bewildering; I'm not even sure Norwegians themselves are always entirely sure what is going on, because it draws so much of the entire nation into it. But if we are allowed a lot of simplification, we can say that Nynorsk is associated with rural Norway, with suspicion of urban cosmopolitanisms; it's a reconstructed folk language, and certainly has the folkish character, but being reconstructed, there is nothing backwoods or uneducated about it.

In any case, I think after the dust clears, and even if Bokmål dominates entirely, Nynorsk will be seen as what it is: an exquisite cultural accomplishment on the same level as the great folk epics that grew out of the same Romantic movement.

* As in many European nations, the government of Norway attempts to regulate the language. Unlike some nations (France is the most famous), the Norwegian government is notoriously incompetent at it. I think it can safely be said that it has never had a single unambiguous success.


  1. Arsen Darnay10:17 AM

    Absolutely fascinating discourse. My own awareness of such matters relates to Finland, where Finnish is spoken by the folk, Swedish by the elites. In that place, to be sure, Finnish is not rooted in Germanic, hence fewer games are possible. But Swedish-speaking Fins are forever learning Finnish.

  2. branemrys12:04 PM

    It does seem to be a common thing across much of Northern Europe. It's a situation that allows for considerable creativity, but also a vast amount of tension.


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