Sorry, but Norwegian isn’t dying
March 31, 2011
COMMENTARY: “Sorry,” I said, as I tried my best not to knock people over on my way through the bus. It was my first week in Norway and “sorry” was still my awkward, automatic reflex in any such situation. As debate continues over use of language in Norway, especially by youth, none of the Norwegian passengers batted an eyelid, or asked me what I saying.
At first, I put this down to the fact that Norwegians are generally pretty good at English. If I break into my native language by force of habit when speaking to someone, there isn’t even a slight pause in the conversation to allow for the Nordic brain to switch gears. You never see the cogs turning.
It was only later that I realized that “sorry” in particular was more than just an English word that Norwegians understood. Standing on a packed bus myself later that week, a young Norwegian found herself needing to get around me – and offered an apologetic “sorry,” complete with a Norwegian lilt and pronunciation, in compensation.
Particularly among young Norwegians, “sorry” seems to be preferred to its Norwegian equivalents, “unnskyld” or “beklager.” There doesn’t seem to be anything to be said for “sorry” above “unnskyld” or “beklager” in terms of their ease of use – and I doubt the Norwegians who use it have undertaken any kind of rational analysis of the comparative advantages and disadvantages. Essentially, some Norwegians are just like me – “sorry” is their social reflex as much as it is mine.
Why this is so is no mystery. After all, Norwegian media and arts are saturated with English language influence, and debate has been lively lately over how English keeps moving its way into the Norwegian language. I cannot think of a single advertisement I have seen on TV in Norway that doesn’t have some English – indeed, a good number are simply in English, sometimes with no translation offered. American and English dramas, comedies and documentaries dominate the TV schedules and, with Norway’s predilection towards subtitling instead of dubbing, English turns of phrase are preserved intact and, ultimately, reproduced.
There is nothing unique about this – it just so happens that English is the dominant language in Western media and society. Growing up in the UK, American-English expressions and inflections periodically became part of the vocabulary – usually based on which TV shows or movies were currently in vogue – and disappeared just as quickly. The fact that Americans and Brits share the same language was inconsequential – it was the cultural influence that was in the driver’s seat. And older Brits are just as infuriated as older Norwegians when they hear their children using American-English accents to utter pop-culture references that parents do not recognize.
Indeed, Norwegian youth are often cited as the worst offenders for substituting in English (or Spanish, or other language’s) expressions, usually verbatim, where Norwegian ones already exist. My own observation of this suggests that any fears of a Norwegian becoming a dead language are, however, greatly overstated. When young Norwegians use English words, they usually apply as fillers – socially useful but practically meaningless pit stops in conversations, applied in order to greet people, cover gaps or transition from point to point. The meat of the discussion remains in Norwegian; the useful information is still exchanged in the mother tongue. If anything, the use of English is a social marker that says – “I’m in tune with pop culture. If you understand me, you’re cool, too.”
Simply cosmopolitan credentials
The same is true of older Norwegians, whose belief that youth are the cause of the problem is an exercise in generational self-flattery. Adult Norwegians use English phrases as social markers too – in my experience, they are employed to emphasize intelligence, or signify awareness. More complex English phrases are borrowed – again, usually verbatim – by these adults, and employed at key times in order to confirm points of argument, or add an air of finesse to key areas of conversation. Once more, the exchange of knowledge itself is conducted in good old-fashioned Norwegian but, just like the wayward youngsters, whipping out a choice English phrase here or there is nothing more than a nod to one’s cosmopolitan credentials.
The past is littered with such social uses of foreign words. In Britain, use of Latin was, and is still, looked upon as a sign of refinement. French, too, still has its charms for us Brits. Indeed, the use of any foreign language to augment one’s speech is received, positively or negatively, as evidence of learnedness and intelligence. Those few English people who excel at foreign languages in school – which increasingly places less and less importance on teaching such languages – cannot help but show off their knowledge in public, any more than a generation of Norwegians bombarded with American and English reality TV shows can avoid the odd English phrase creeping into their everyday discussions.
Perhaps one of the main points for Norwegians to consider, more fundamentally, is what “Norwegian” really is. Modern bokmål (one of the accepted forms of Norwegian) is similar to written Danish thanks to the influences of history, with some Swedish and German no doubt thrown in for good measure. Some dialects in Norway frankly seem more different to each other than they are to Swedish and Danish, and with nynorsk – constructed to remove Danish influence and find “true” Norwegian – it is hard to talk of a “spoken Norwegian.” English itself has been heavily influenced by Old Norse thanks to the Vikings, as well as French, German and other languages. ‘”Borrowed words” and phrases have sometimes been borrowed so much that some have gone from one language, to another and then back again in a new form. Languages are themselves in a constant dialogue with one another, with so many crossing influences that it is difficult to know where words or phrases truly originated. We are more conscious of the influence of English or other languages now because of the effects of a mass education system, which demands more clearly defined boundaries for language – but who knows whether the “English” words now entering modern Norwegian actually started out in Scandinavia in the first place.
All in all, it may sound clichéd – but language is an ever-evolving cultural phenomenon, with no regard for borders, or manners, or even feelings.
C’est la vie, you could say. Ikke sant?