The Language of the Recent Norwegian Writers

IN the literature of one kind and another that has been, of late, so suddenly and plenteously evoked by the introduction of the poet Ibsen to the English reader, there is often a curious confusion as to his nationality. In the desire to place him somewhere among the Scandinavian races, he is variously called, in the light of what may be an explicably hazy knowledge of the political divisions of that people, either a Norwegian, a Swede, or a Dane ; and, as a logical consequence, his language, or at any rate its literary expression, is in kind stated to be either Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish. Most of the English versions of the plays style themselves simply “ translations,” ignoring, as now well known, the foreign medium from which they come. On the title-page, however, of at least one of these translations we are told that that particular version of the Norwegian poet is “from the Norwegian.” The term, from a linguistic point of view, is, nevertheless, in reality much the same sort of a misnomer that it would be for a German to print on the title-page of his translation of Mr. Longfellow “ from the American.” There would be, in such a case, the important difference that, while the Norwegian writer might maintain that his language is really Norwegian, the American author would, as probably, with propriety have resented the imputation of having written anything but English, and would have viewed as an ill-earned fate a relegation to the pages of that book alone whose title called down upon itself the outspoken wrath of Matthew Arnold, the Primer of American Literature. That there is no literary language properly called “Norwegian” is as true, in its way, as that there is no literary language properly called “ American.” The conditions may and do differ in Norway and America, where they have had a widely different origin and growth; but the result ultimately attained in both of linguistic dependency is sufficiently similar to allow a very suggestive parallel to be drawn between them.

To assert that a nation’s linguistic conditions depend to a great extent upon that nation’s political history is a truism that may go without defense. All Teutonic Scandinavia had at one time a single language, the mother tongue of the scalds and the saga-men, which at the end of the so-called Viking Age, or about the year 1000, had already differentiated itself into three more or less homogeneous dialects, to correspond with the three northern countries, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. This ancient Norwegian language, for various reasons truer than its neighbors to its prototype, maintained itself down to the Calmar Union of 1397, when Norway fell under the sovereignty of Denmark. The Danish rule essentially changed the conditions of language that had hitherto prevailed. Although originally identical with the language of Norway, which, as has already been stated, continued down to this time to be the most conservative of the Scandinavian group, Danish had pursued its own course of development, and in this period of four hundred years had changed more materially than either of its sister dialects. It had become, accordingly, at the time of its introduction into Norway, to all intents and purposes a distinct language, with well - defined characteristics. As the language of political administration, of education, and of the culture of the day, it in course of time gained complete possession of the field. When literature came to be produced, Danish was no less surely and naturally its medium, and only medium, of expression; and down to the separation from Denmark, in 1814, nothing is heard of a Norwegian language any more than of a Norwegian state. While Danish thus acquired, through perfectly intelligible causes, a literary supremacy, Norwegian, none the less, as a spoken language did not cease to exist, and still exists, in unbroken continuity, down to the present day. From the absence of a recognized norm, it has, none the less, utterly lost the homogeneity that it is safe to assume once prevailed, and has since been divided and re-divided into local dialects, that, according to a recent writer, attain the astonishing number of over four hundred, distinguished from each other by appreciable differentiations.

The summary cession of Norway to Sweden by the Peace of Kiel called again into life the dormant national spirit of the Norwegians, and, in accord with the notion of separation that then arose, things are once more patriotically, but often indiscriminately, called “ Norwegian. " Although linguistic conditions, in the mean time, had undergone scarcely any material changes, the national appellation was soon given to the literary language, also; and we henceforth hear of “Norwegian,”which, nevertheless, differs, at the bottom, from the Danish of the time in very little except fiat. In 1848, the desire for a real national language for Norway, that should completely dispossess the Danish, found a much more definite expression. Ivar Aasen at this time published a Grammar of the Norwegian Folk-Language, in which he sought to establish, on the basis of the popular spoken dialects, an ideal normal form that should be used in common by the whole land. The idea, at first sight, is not a bad one, and it had the advantage, besides, of being carried out by Aasen with extraordinary acumen and wide linguistic knowledge. It failed, in that the result proposed represented an artificial product that had never existed, and, under the circumstances of development, could never have existed ; and although its intention was simply to level dialectic differences, it really became to most parts of Norway a new language, which would have to be laboriously acquired as a foreign tongue. The impetus given by Aasen to this matter of a common speech has been continued, with slightly varying direction, down to the present time. It has, however, gained in intensity, until the movement for a, or national language, is one of the most important and widely discussed questions of the day in Norway. Champions of a particular form of language, based upon the local dialect of a particular district, in east or west, are met by others, who suggest a compromise on ground between. In one case, the government, by a liberal money appropriation, has assisted in the furtherance of a form proposed in the north, which has met, however, in spite of this recognition, with but scant general favor. What renders the whole matter especially complicated is the fact that, in the local desire for representation in this national language of the future, the various advocates of a Landsmaal have thus far been unable definitely to agree upon a single grammatical form. In point of fact, the matter can never be settled in this way. If the possession by Norway of a language that shall really be entitled to the name “Norwegian is to depend upon the adoption of a form thus artificially produced and accepted by decree, the difficulties in the way are so insuperable that it is safe to assume they will never be successfully overcome, and she will be left without one to the end of her history.

In the mean time, the question of a Landsmaal has, curiously enough, but naturally, too, in the light of surrounding circumstances, been pursuing a way of its own. While the written language of what may truly be called the Norwegian literature of the present is still undeniably Danish, it is, none the less, no longer the Danish of Denmark, but a markedly different speech, rich in characteristic national elements, and strikingly strong in expression where the other, by contrast, is often feeble and effete. This literary language is, however, infinitely nearer Danish, of which it is strictly to be considered simply a differentiated form, than are the popular dialects, which are, in their turn, as has been said, the true modern representatives of the old Norwegian language. This popular speech naturally finds its way not infrequently into literature in stories of Norwegian life, just as dialect stories in English and German are a perfectly well-recognized form of literary expression. But the difference between it and Danish is so great that they are really different languages, certainly more unintelligible in Denmark than either Swedish or German. A note to one of the short stories in the third edition of Björnson’s Fortællinger (Copenhagen, 1881) puts this matter much more clearly than can a mere general explanation. “ A Dangerous Wooing,” it goes on to say, “ was originally written in the Danish literary language, and afterward translated [sic] into Norwegian peasant dialect. It has, in the latter form, according to the judgment of the Norwegian reader, received a fresher color and tone, so that the author is no longer able to dissever them. But since the narrative has thus become less accessible to Danish readers, and since its aim is to give an idea, in simple outlines, of the so-called ‘ Saturday wooing,’ which was originally, and in places is still, a poetic and innocent custom that gives an opportunity to develop both courage and invention, strength and daring, among the youthful wooers of the valley, and holds within it the Norwegian peasant’s freshest remembrances of youth, the author has desired to offer the Danish reader a paraphrase.”

The real differences between the literary language of Norway and literary Danish are differences in orthography, in vocabulary, and in idiom, but all to a degree scarcely a whit greater than are to be found, for instance, in the literary language of America when contrasted with the English of England. The first volume of Björnson’s Fortællinger, a book of three hundred and seventy pages, glosses, in the manner of notes at the bottom of the pages, four hundred words and phrases, or a little more than one for each page, and the stories contained in the book are without exception tales of Norwegian life. Magnhild (Copenhagen, 1877), another Norwegian story by the same author, a book of one hundred and seventy-four pages, has but thirty words explained in the gloss at the end. The vocabulary, accordingly, cannot be widely different from that of literary Danish, since the whole purpose of the explanations is to make the text intelligible to the Danish reader. None of the works of Ibsen, so far as has been noticed, has been glossed in the manner described ; but it is quite safe to assume that the number of these Norwegianisms is no greater in his pages, and in all probability it is not often so great. What differentiates most of all the printed language of the Norwegian writers from the literary Danish of Denmark is the orthography. Björnson and Ibsen in this particular do not essentially differ. Ibsen’s native dialect is that of Skien, in the southwestern part of Norway. Björnson, who has frequently expressed himself on the subject in newspaper articles, brochures, and in his books, uses what may be termed in some respects a middle form between the dialects of the west and east. In his last novel, The Ways of God (Copenhagen, 1889), in a note to the reader at the end of the book, he calls attention to the complaints that the Danes, in particular, have raised against his orthography.

The linguistic conditions in Norway are such,” he continues, “ that if we do not proceed in the direction of the customary pronunciation, the advocates of the provincial dialects have a just cause for criticism ; and if we neglect the claim to probability, that also may be made for linguistic forms if the people’s speech and habits of thought shall be correctly represented, then that quickly avenges itself in the diction. But the literary language with us has slipped too far away from the colloquial language to permit me to venture to be strictly consistent. The variations, besides, are more than I myself have desired, for I am a bad proof-reader. They, however, who blame me for my good intention should bear in mind what my former publisher assured me, that I lost thousands because of my orthography, — and that I likewise still cling to it.”

Björnson’s position, thus candidly stated, is wholly a rational one ; and the fact that he, the most national of all Norwegian writers, has advocated, by his own use of it, this particular form has given, more than anything else, a definite direction to the movement, and has all but established a national literary norm. Björnson has thus consciously and with result played an important part in the struggle for a Landsmaal. That the whole matter has proceeded in quite a different manner from that suggested by the more revolutionary " speech-reformers ” is, after all, in complete accord with natural conditions ; and it is an inference amply justified by facts of development, both here and elsewhere, that only by this gradual, but persistent, incorporation of national elements into the blood and bone of a sturdy national literature will it be possible for it to gain still greater signification and weight. Ibsen, in Peer Gynt, “ the Scandinavian Faust,”where opportunity is found to scourge with unsparing hand almost every Norwegian foible, does not forget to turn his lash upon the Landsmaal. Since it shows accurately his own attitude toward this struggle on the part of the speech-reformers for a national language, the passage is, perhaps, worthy of quotation in its entirety, particularly as it has never before been rendered into English. Peer Gynt, late in his career, finds himself in a madhouse at Cairo. Begriffenfelt, its director, to strengthen in Peer’s mind the idea of the self-sufficiency of the individual, assures him that “ nearly all in the world at the outset is new,” and, offering to show him an example, calls to an “ obscure figure : ”

Good-day, Huhu ! How, goest thou, my lad,
Thus always about with the impress of sadness ?
Huhu. Can I well do else, when the nation,
Age by age, dies unexpounded ?
[To Peer Gynt.] Thou art strange here, wilt thou listen ?
Peer Gynt. [Bows.] God forfend !
Huhu. Thine ear then lend me.
Far in East, like wreath on forehead,
Lies a strand, the Malabarish.
Portuguese and men of Holland
All the land bespan with culture.
In addition, dwell there numbers
Of the real Malabar folk.
These folk, now, have mixed their language ;
They are of the land the masters.
But in times long since departed
The orang-outang once ruled there,
Was the forest’s man and master ;
Free he dared to beat and bind there ;
As the hand of nature made him,
So he grinned and so he gaped there ;
There to screech he was permitted ;
He was ruler in his kingdom.
Ah ! but then came strange oppression
And confused the forest language.
Long nights, now, of years four hundred
Over all the ape folk brooded ;
And one knows that nights so endless
Set their stamp upon the people.
Silenced the old sound in forest;
Growling there was heard no longer.
If to paint our thoughts we ‘re able,
That must be with help of language.
What constraint for all conditions !
Portuguese and men of Holland,
Malabar folk and mixed races,
Ill have fared they, each and equal.
I have eke essayed to combat
For our forest speech, the true one;
Tried new life to give the body;
For the right to screech I’ve striven ;
Screeched myself, and showed how needful
In the people’s songs its use is.
Little they esteem my efforts.
Now, I think, thou ’lt grasp my sorrow.
Thanks that thou thine ear hast lent me.
If thou help hast, let me hear it!
Peer Gynt. [Softly.] One should howl, so stands it written,
With the wolves when in the forest.
[Aloud.] Dearest friend, as I remember,
In Morocco are there thickets
Where orang-outangs assemble
With no singer or expounder;
There their speech was Malabarish,
It was fair and exemplary.
If, like other men of station,
You have left to bless your fellows —
Huhu. Thanks that thou thine ear hast lent me.
I will act as thou advisest.
[ With a profound gesture.] Thus the East rejects its singer!
The West orang-outangs has ever !

[He goes.

Ibsen, as may unmistakably be read from this speech of Huhu, whom he calls, in his list of dramatis personae, " a speech-reformer from the Malabar coast,” imputes but little value to the aims and efforts of the would - be reformers, who, like Aasen and many of his successors, would ideally rehabilitate, with the use so far as may be of modern elements, a previous linguistic condition. Like Björnson, however, and in the same direction, he is still performing his part in gradually, but none the less surely, Norwegianizing the language of Norway by using a rational form that must perforce impress itself upon his countrymen, because of the strength and value of the message it conveys.

Whether Norwegian as a language will ever exist in any other sense than the limited one that it bears at present will depend, not upon the speech-reformers alone, but particularly upon the conscious efforts of great writers in a succeeding generation in the direction taken by Björnson and Ibsen in this. In the mean time, the literary language of Norway is not Norwegian, but Danish, or, if one chooses, NorwegianDanish. With the rise of Norwegian literature, Norwegian writers are constantly printed and read in Denmark, and Norwegian expressions, in surprising numbers, are as surely finding their way into the literary Danish of the Danes. It would be a singular working of fate if, in some remote future, with a by no means impossible literary preëminence in Norway, a true Norwegian language not only should develop itself by continual differentiation from the Danish, but, through the influence of the stronger upon the weaker, should even thoroughly Norwegianize that language itself. Such an adventitious result, however, naturally does not enter into the plan of even the most patriotic Norseman, whose object is to have a nationality and a language that he may consistently call Norwegian. In both points he may not improbably attain his end. Of all means that can consciously be employed, if such a separation in language as this between Norwegian and Danish is desired and striven for, a national literature, strong in its originality and its consequent self-assertion, may become the most effective and irresistible propaganda for a characteristic national speech.

William H. Carpenter.