Brief History of the Norwegian Language - A summary of 1500 years
1500 years is a long time, and during that period the Norwegian language has gone through many stages and undergone many changes. Modern Norwegian has borrowed countless words from German, English, French, Latin, Danish and Swedish, and here’s the story of how it all happened.
Keep in mind that most references to dates in this article are approximate.
The first runic alphabet had 24 letters, and it was called “futhark” after the six first letters in the alphabet. It is believed to have come from early Greek or Latin. The later runic alphabet had only 16 charcters and looked like this:
The letters were considered to be magic ("runes" means "secret") and to bring protection or good fortune. Thus, few people mastered the skill of writing with runesRunes were carved into stone or wood, and they are often found on tomb stones, amulets and weapons.
The words were extremely long and complicated. Five syllables was the normal length of a word.
Norse: 700-1000 (The Viking age)
Norwegians spoke generally with the same accent. The language was simplified, shortening the words and making the conjugation of verbs and nouns more straightforward.
The Vikings travelled a lot. They pillaged and plundered, but peaceful trade occurred too. The Norwegian Vikings and the Englishmen could communicate without problems. Many Vikings settled on the British isles and their language influenced English a great deal. For instance the word “bag” comes from the Norse “baggi”, and, in strange twist, “bag” has recently found its way back to modern Norwegian.
Missionaries from the Catholic church introduced the Latin alphabet to the Norwegians around the year 1000. With the missionaries and their alphabet came many Greek and Latin words which are still used in Norway today (so-called loanwords).
Despite the introduction of the Latin alphabet, the runic alphabet was still in use and increasing numbers of Vikings were learning to use it. Runes would be used for another 400 years.
The 13th century was a golden age of Norse literature.
Literature that had been handed down from generation to generation orally was now written down. The literature from these times include sagas, very longs poems about morality and old stories about the Norse gods. Alliteration was very common in the literature of this period.
Many well-off Norwegians settled on Iceland, where much of the Norse literature has been found. With their settling on Iceland the Norse people exported their language, a language which is extremely close to the language on Iceland today. In fact, a Norwegian from the 13th century and a modern Icelander would probably be able to read and understand the same text. They wouldn't understand each other's spoken language because the pronunciation has changed too much.
In 1349 the Black Death came to Norway’s west coast. The plague wiped out almost one half of the population, and many of the dead were priests and monks who’d been called to pray for the dying and then caught the pest. With many monks gone there were only a few literate persons left, and no-one to preserve the written Norwegian language in years to come:
Shortly after the plague, the Swedes took over rule of the nation, then some years later the Dano-Norwegian Kingdom was founded. The Danish and Swedish rule of Norway influenced the Norwegian language heavily. In the larger town, such as the town of Bergen on the west coast of Norway, many Hanseatic merchants came to trade goods and hence the local dialect of Bergen was influenced by German. The dialects of all major cities that received visitors from abroad picked up foreign words.
Most of the traditional Norwegian fairy tales come from this period. People were superstitious and many of the folktales sought to explain natural phenomena with trolls and witches. The folktales were written down in the mid 19th century. (See also: Trolls)
Danish became the official language of Norway, but the common citizens continued speaking their dialects. All documents had to be written in Danish, and the upper class of Norway tried their best to speak Danish as it was considered a finer language (what could be finer than what the King spoke?). The upper class comprised a total of 2% of the population.
Danish was taught in schools: the children had to speak and write Danish as long as they were at school. The children faced a problem when they had to describe the Norwegian nature in Danish - the Danes simply didn’t have the adequate words. For instance, at that time, there wasn’t any Danish words for tall mountains, the closest one was hill.
The union with Denmark came to an end in 1814. On the 17th of May Norway got it’s own constitution. Shortly after, the nation started a union with Sweden again.
The big issue was what to do with the language? The way the writers, politicians and journalists saw it, the country had three options:
1. Keep the Danish.
2. Norwegianize the Danish - changing the spelling so the words looked more like the way the Norwegians pronounced them and adding special culture-specific words to the written language.
3. Make an entirely new written language based on the Norwegian dialects.
Option no 1 was rejected, but the two others were both set into practice.
The Norwegianized Danish would later be known as “Bokmål” (or Dano-Norwegian) and the other as “Nynorsk” (or New-Norwegian). (See also: Dano - and New-Norwegian)
Mr. P. Ch. Asbjornsen and Mr. J. Moe traveled from village to village in the 1840s. Every placed they stopped they would ask one of the locals to tell a fairy tale, and then the two writers would write down the story. When Mr. Moe and Mr. Asbjornsen wrote down the fairy tales, they encountered a problem: The stories had been told in a local dialect. Should they write it in Danish or in the dialect that it was told? Writing it in a dialect would make it incomprehensible to anyone who was accustomed to Danish.
The solution the two gentlemen came up with was this: They wrote the stories in a rather radical form of Danish, making the sentence structure more Norwegian and keeping culture specific words. Their work soon became a huge part of the work to Norwegianize the Danish. Keeping the culture- specific words was also important to rebuild Norwegians cultural identity - of which after 400 years of Danish rule there was little left.
The debate over New-Norwegian and Dano-Norwegian was very heated. See The Norwegian Language for more detailed information.
More and more English words have found their way into the Norwegian language, especially after the second world war. The English words have come from movies (most imported films in Noway are from the U.S), music, computer terminology, television, books, etc. However, the English influence on Norwegian is not as great as was the Norwegian influence on English during the Viking age - yet.
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