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The Scandinavian Languages:
Their Histories and Relationships

In some far distant time peoples speaking variants of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages occupied north central Europe. Over time their languages differentiated into the West Germanic group, which included the ancestors of English, Dutch and Frisian. A northern branch of Germanic became Old Norsk which evolved into the Scandinavian languages. There was also an eastern branch of Germanic, primarily Gothic, all members of which have become extinct. However, the Goths originally came from Scandinavia so the eastern Germanic languges were probably variants of the northern branch. There was, of course, also the branch of Germanic that evolved into the German languages of central Europe, but the focus here is on the Scandinavian languages that came from the northern branch. (The Low German came from Old Saxon which might be consider a member of the western branch. High German came from a different branch.)

There are a number of language groups which are characterized as Scandinavian: i.e.;

Finnish is left out as being from an entirely different language family, Finno-Ugric, although through political and cultural affiliation Finland is part of Scandinavia.

The language of Scandinavia was a form of proto-Germanic that showed up in runic inscriptions which gives a very primitive view of the language structure. The language of Scandinavia in the medieval period is called Old Norsk. Because of the trading/raiding expeditions of the Vikings Old Norsk had some linguistic influence outside of Scandinavia. Remarkably Old Norsk still survives after a millenium as Icelandic. Faroese is also closer to Old Norsk than are modern Danish, Swedish and the two forms of Norwegian. There was also a language called Norn spoken in the Shetland Islands, a remnant of the Norse conquest and and centuries-long occupation by the Vikings, but it became extinct in the 1600's.

Linguistically the languages of the regions of Sweden, Denmark and Norway began to diverge after the Viking era but politically unification in various forms maintained a formal uniformity of the official languages. In 1319 Norway came under the control of the Swedish monarchy. In 1397 the Union of Kalmar brought Denmark and Sweden along with Norway into the same kingdom. Sweden subsequently, in 1523, left the Kalmar Union, but without Norway. Denmark continued to control Norway until 1814. This period of domination by Sweden and Denmark left Norway without a national literature and linguistic culture. That had to be developed by Norwegian scholars and writers in the nineteenth century.

The Origin of the Dual National Languages of Norway

With independence of Norway from Denmark in 1814 there came a certain nationalism that extended to language. The people of the cities and towns of Norway generally spoke Danish, although with perhaps a distinctive accent. The country people of Norway spoke a different language from those of the cities. As is often the case the country people's speech was looked down upon as vulgar by the city people. That gave emphasis for declaring the country people's speech Norwegian. During the Danish days the schools tried to eliminate Norwegianisms from students' speech. In the theatres of Norway Danish actors were favored over Norwegian ones for their accents. It was very natural that with independence that a national language distinct from Danish would be sought.

However, instead of a single national language arising from this nationalism there were two the arose, the result of two different men's effort and dedication. The men were Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) and Knud Knudsen (1812-1895). They were not the only people dedicated to the creation of a national language. The efforts of the many fell into the support of the two men. A poet, Henrik Wergeland, wanted the national language to capture the Norwegian spirit and so he want to draw upon the day-to-day speech of Norwegians from the various dialect areas. In contrast P.A. Munch wanted the national language to be a new standardized speech drawing upon elements of Old Norsk. The goal of Munch became the goal of Ivar Aasen, a self-taught scholar. In contrast to Munch, Aasen wanted the national language to arise out of a synthesis of Norwegian dialects combined with elements of Old Norsk. Aasen made his national language proposal in 1836 and he then began to write in his standized language, which came to be called Landsmål.

In creating Landsmål Aasen tried to use pure Norwegian as much as possible. This meant that he avoided foreign words. But day-to-day life in the city required a good many foreign loan words so Aasen's language was difficult to use for normal life in the cities. Nevertheless because of Landsmål's character of being pure Norwegian it gained enough supporters to have it declared a national language and allow it to be used in some public schools as the language of instruction.

Knud Knudsen also wanted a national langage but he wanted it to the language of the educated classes of the city. This language came to be know as Riksmål. Knudsen was involved in the national theatre of Norway.

In addition to the objective of the creation of a national language there was a movement to reform spelling to bring it into conformity with pronunciation. Knudsen was active in the spelling reform effort.

The problems in spelling that some problems thought to need correction:

In 1862 Knudsen was able to get the national government to decree a national spelling reform. This reform eliminated the double vowels. Foreign word spellings were converted to Norwegian spellings. These were changes such as ph being changed to f and qu being changed to kw. Hard c;s in foreign words were changed to k's.

In the 1870's and 1880's there were more minor spelling revisions, some of dubious significance such as replacing x with ks. Nouns were no longer capitalized.

The changes continued over the years. The letter combination qv was replaced by kv in the spelling reform of 1906. In 1929 the Norwegian legislature made the linguistic situation incrementally more complicated by making the official names for Riksmål and Landsmål, Boksmål and Nynorsk (new Norwegian), respectively. There of course developed a third linguistic faction, called Samnorsk, to promote a unified Norwegian. The tinkering seems endless.

Not all of the linguistic tinkering is harmless. The linguistic purists in eliminating foreign loan words deprive their language of expressiveness and make communication with foreign languge speakers more difficult than it need be.

The Distinctiveness of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian

It is clear that the three languages diverged, but whether they diverged more than as dialects is still at issue. But the separate spelling reforms in the three countries exaggerate the differences. Even if there had been no linguistic divergence the separate spelling reforms would have made the languages seem different.

Whether the linguistic changes went beyond pronunciation changes into grammar changes is another question. There are a relatively small number of instances of grammatical differences in the three languages. These include slight differences in the formation of plurals and a few cases of changes in word order in phrases.

The Movement to Create a Samnordisk, a common language for Danes, Swedes and Norwegians

Given the failure to create common language (Samnorsk) in Norway, it seems hopeless to expect a common language for Scandinavia (Samnordisk) to emerge. However it is within the realm of possibility that some uniformization of spelling could be achieved to make it possible for Danes, Swedes and Norwegians to communicate in writing. This would be similar to the situation that has existed in China for millenia in which the same characters are used to write verbally mutually unintelligible languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese. The creation of a common written language for Scandinavians would countervene the centuries-long movement to make spelling phonetic. Scandinavians are not likely to accept such a overhaul of their languages when they have been perplexed at the relatively minor tinkering with spelling that has ocurred, especially if the overhaul is intended to undo all the past tinkering.

(To be continued.)

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