Mar 08

Ever visited Londdonne, in Egnland?

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 1

Two Norwegians are on their way to Great Britain. On the plane to Stansted they talk about their destination and it comes to light that, while the man talks of London, his girlfriend admits she prefers to call it Londdonne. He protests: No, don't be silly. I think you'll find it's called London, England. But she won't have any of it: In reality, our destination is called Londonne, in Egnland. 

Ridiculous conversation? Well, not if the plane is going in the opposite direction and the tourists are on their to Norway, a country known to all Norwegians as ...

...that's just it, I'm afraid. You've got a choice. Some Norwegians call their country Norge. Others call it Noreg. 

I saw it again last year on the Oslo plane. Two British tourists in an intense discussion in hushed tones over a Norwegian bank note. The man had taken out some Norwegian currency before boarding the flight and had amused himself for a while studying the details of the unfamiliar notes. And then his eyes had widened, and he had bent over the 200 crown note as he flipped it back and forward. 

He whispered to his partner but she just laughed and insisted on scrutinizing it with her own eyes. But then she too had curved her back over the blue bank note and discussed it with him in a low, conspiratorial voice.

It's not the first time. Tourists who think they might just have solved all their holiday budget problems for years to come, if they really have found a bank note with a .... Well look, it must be a printing error, what else could it be?! They shake their heads, rub their foreheads: I mean, really, why on earth would a national bank swap round a couple of letters in its name so that it is called NORGES BANK on one side of its notes and NOREGS BANK on the other?

It's not just the two names Norwegians give their country that has outsiders baffled, but also the games they've played with their capital. If you saw the latest Sherlock Holmes-film with Robert Downey Jr. you would have been a (probably unaware) witness to the great sleuth falling into a devilish Norwegian trap. Arguing with his nemesis Moriarty, Holmes reminds him of the bomb threat at a peace summit in Oslo the year before. Oslo? Foiled again, Mr. Holmes! It would be another 30 years before Kristiania would take back the ancient name of Oslo.

To be fair, it's such a tricky minefield that also Norwegians wander into it all the time. I recently visited the webpage of the Grieg Museum in Bergen to read their biography of the composer, which includes a page called "The Kristiania Years".  But the facts of the matter are that Grieg never lived in Kristiania, or at least not for many weeks. In 1866 he had moved to Christiania and left the city again in 1877, the same year that the city was re-christened Kristiania

In today's Oslo both spellings might be used by institutions wishing to spread a little old-time charm to their dealings: the Kristiania Bar at the Oslo Central Station, the Hotel Royal Christiania and the Christiania Glasmagasin.

The first place I got to know outside Oslo was a suburb of Fredrikstad.  I would travel down there once a week to conduct the Borge Symphonic Wind Band. The suburb, once a village, was called Selbak. Or was it Sellebakk? I still don't know. 30 years on and both forms of the name are as much in evidence around the place as they ever were – in the names of businesses ranging from Selbak Pizza and Selbak Mekaniske Verksted (engineering works) to Sellebakk Legesenter (medical centre) and Sellebakk hud- og fotpleie (pedicurist).

The confusion is not helped when one realizes that this dual way of spelling names spreads all the way up to officialdom. Take for example the coastal town that is the administrative centre of the island community of Hvaler. The town is called Skjærhalden, if you believe the official line on Hvaler. Or Skjærhallen if you choose other authorities, among these the Norwegian News Agency (NTB),  as seen here. If your job is to make road signs, you have really got to know what you're doing! As if it wasn't bad enough not knowing whether the town ends with -halden or -hallenhere the road authority introduces another possibility: that the town should begin with either Skjær- or Skjæer- !

(Incidentally, the town of Skjærhalden is on the largest island of Hvaler. The island is called Church Island in English, and in Norwegian - yes, it gets complicated again -  either Kirkeøy,  if you follow the Hvaler municipality, or Kirkøy, if you prefer to swear by the spelling used by ... well, actually by the Hvaler municipality, that one too. 

Visitors to the country first meet this double-headed attitude in bank notes and place names. Confusion can give way to downright astonishment when they realize that it pervades the whole language, both written and spoken. Or languages, rather. For there are two official, though similar, Norwegian tongues, one greatly influenced by Danish, and the other closer to the ancient rural language and therefore called.... New Norwegian (they do like their games!). It can seem confusing, even astonishing, but of course the chaos in spelling is down to neither poor orthography or indifference. It's history! 

Norwegian independence was won in 1905. For 600 years the little, winsome milkmaid-Norway had been lusted over, or simply raped, by the muscular bullies that surround her. Along its Swedish border, which stretches for most of Norway's north-south axis, cultural intermingling has always been a way of life as long as there have been borders. During wars of the last 300 years parts of Norway have been ceded to the rowdy neighbour. But for the language of Norway the influence of the Danes has been much more damaging. For 400 years Norway was ruled from Copenhagen; throughout government administrations Danish was the lingua franca; Danish priests stood in every pulpit in Norway; the two languages were not dissimilar, but in this period only the Danish way in matters of grammar and spelling held any prestige. 

Is it any wonder that today's urbane Norwegians are pretty schizophrenic about their own rural cultural heritage?  

Historically it is very important to stress, however, that Norway never was, and to a great extent still is not, an urban culture. During the centuries of rule from Copenhagen the great majority of the Norwegian population only had to relate to the Danish-Norwegian version of the mother tongue in church on Sundays and when drawing up deeds of ownership. 

Norge or Noreg? Selbak or Sellebakk? There is much deep history, much identity conflict in the double-orthography.  There is also deep history in the fact that my British background has afforded me the privilege of being astonished at Norway's chaotic spellings. Stroke of luck - being born on an island that has not been invaded for 1000 years and has never been ruled from abroad; the notion that London and England might be spelled Londonne and Egnland seems therefore ridiculous. When we read NORGE / NOREG on Norwegian bank notes, however, we are opening a window onto many centuries of quiet, dignified struggle for national survival.  

Comments: 1

Magne Aasbrenn

Mar 09
An excellent summary of the history of the Norwegian languages.
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