Ivar Aasen would have been 200 years old on Monday, and his bicentennial was being both celebrated and pilloried. That’s because Aasen created or “found” Norway’s second official language, nynorsk, seen as both a cultural enrichment and a pest for uninterested teenagers forced to study it.
Aasen is the son of a small-time farmer in Ørsta who had an ear for languages and became both a language researcher and poet. He spent years traveling around rural Norway in the 1800s, studying local dialects and researching what he viewed as the original Norwegian language, free of the Danish widely spoken in Norway at the time and the influence of other foreign languages such as German.
Aasen wound up with a grant to finance his studies from 1843 to 1847, spending most of his time in the western counties that were the most isolated and least influenced by Danish, but also getting as far north as Helgeland.
Today the language that he penned based on ethnic dialects is viewed as an official language in Norway, with state broadcaster NRK required to present a certain percentage of its programming in nynorsk, while middle school students all over the country are required to study and pass exams in nynorsk even though they never use it in everyday life.
That’s a sore point with politicians like Liv Signe Navarsete, a member of government and leader of the small and farmer-friendly Center Party. She comes from Sogn og Fjordane and puts great emphasis on the language that’s despised by many city dwellers in Norway who view it as nationalistic and artificial. They think it’s a waste of time and resources that it’s part of the standard curriculum, and find it pointless for a small country like Norway, with just 5 million inhabitants, to have two official languages.
Promoters of nynorsk, however, have a predictably different view, arguing that nynorsk brings Norwegians back to their rural roots and should be nutured, not marginalized. Navarsete launched an initiative on Monday to make both nynorsk and the standard form of Norwegian known as bokmål equal in the constitution. The languages are equal under the law, but Navarsete won’t be satisfied until they’re also stated as equal in the constitution.
Opposition politicians were quick to pounce on Navarsete’s initiative, and attack the government’s position. “To say that we will detonate a bomb under the language law simply adds to the brutal assaults of the (current left-center) government on the policies of the Conservatives,” Elisabeth Aspaker Svare of the Conservatives told NRK.
Meanwhile, Norwegian author Ottar Grepstad has written a new book about Ivar Aasen who launched the nynorsk movement. Grepstad is among those who objects to the idea that Aasen “created” Norway’s second language, preferring to say Aasen “found” the language.
His new book on Aasen, described as both shy and modest, was to be released on Thursday. He portrays Aasen not just as a language researcher but also as a brilliant storyteller.
“Ivar Aasen has had an unparalleled impact on the Norwegian language, and especially for the written form of nynorsk,” Grepstad told news bureau NTB.