Norwegian America’s hidden dialects

Research shows how Norwegian-American dialects differ from standard modern Norsk

A welcome sign to Westby, Wisconsin.

Photo: Rudie014 / Wikimedia Commons
Unusual Norwegian dialects are still alive in parts of Norwegian America and Canada, like Westby, Wis.

Sada Reed
Phoenix, Ariz.

According to U.S. Census data, there are roughly 4.5 million people in the United States who claim Norwegian ancestry. The population of Norwegian Americans who speak Norwegian as a first language, however, is aging—and as a result, dwindling. So is the opportunity to record and to study their particular Norwegian dialect, which differs from the Norwegian spoken in Norway today.

University of Oslo professor Janne Bondi Johannessen and her team of researchers are ensuring these dialects are not lost to history.

The NorAmDiaSyn project is a longitudinal study in which Johannessen and her colleagues are recording, studying, and cataloging Norwegian-American dialects. The project is an extension of the Norwegian Dialect Syntax project, or NorDiaSyn, which aims to investigate the structural features of Norway’s dialects.

Between 150 and 200 Norwegian Americans—most of them elderly, living in rural Midwestern communities—have participated in the ongoing study. It began in 2009, when researchers placed advertisements in The Norseman, the Norwegian American Weekly, and Viking Magazine in order to recruit participants based on two criteria: that they be descendants of Norwegian immigrants who came to America before 1920 and that they learned to speak Norwegian within their families. Researchers received about 40 replies.

Field work began in March 2010, when Johannessen and Signe Laake came to the United States on a two-week trip through Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota in order to meet participants and to record their dialects. More fieldwork took place each year until 2016.

“Our main goal is to get the actual speech of the informants,” Johannessen said in an email. “This means that recording the sessions is very important. We have informal interviews with questions about their language history and the immigration of their ancestors. If possible we also try to have conversations between two American Norwegians, since this gives us the language that feels comfortable for them. In addition, we sometimes do certain ‘language games,’ in order to discover specific linguistic features.”

The recordings are transcribed and put into a searchable database available for researchers, Johannessen said.

Blogs from the researchers’ experiences highlight similarities between participants’ dialects and those spoken in Norway today. Though participants may have never lived in these regions, their dialects were essentially, in many respects, time capsules: they spoke like their parents, who spoke like the region from which they or their ancestors came.

This meant they often did not understand the modern, high-speed Oslo dialect.

“They have not been exposed to this dialect, and do not know it, which is why it is also difficult to understand it,” Johannessen said. “Since question words in particular often vary a lot between the dialects, it was difficult for us to interview them until we learned which question words they used.”

For example, the word “when,” in Oslo dialect is “når.” But in many dialects, “when” can be a variant of “hå ti.” Researchers had to first determine which dialect participants used in order to ask them questions. And sometimes more than one dialect was used in the same American region, which may have led to some dialect mixing, Johannessen said.

Other observations included how often people, when asked if they are Norwegian or American, rarely said “American,” but would say either “Norwegian American” or just “Norwegian”—even if they have never visited Norway. There also seemed to be no correlation between pride in heritage and language: rarely did participants speak Norwegian to their children, thinking their children would have better chances of success in school and society if they learned English only.

This phenomenon is not limited to Norwegian immigrants. According to University of Tennessee at Knoxville professor Clara Lee Brown, most second-generation immigrant children remain monolingual in their heritage language until they enter kindergarten. Once they are immersed in an English-only environment, they lose their heritage language rapidly.

There were also historical factors that discouraged research participants’ parents from passing on their language to their children. The Trading with the Enemy Act, which became law in October 1917, forbade non-English language publications of “any news item, editorial or other printed matter, respecting the Government of the United States, or of any nation engaged in the present war, its policies, international relations, the state or conduct of the war, or any matter relating thereto.” Non-English language publications had to submit an English-language translation of articles that discussed World War I and issues related to it. Not doing so could result in a fine, a prison term, or both. According to late media historian Margaret A. Blanchard, the law’s language gave then-postmaster general Albert Burleson largely unchecked power to block non-English language publications’ use of second-class mails, effectively censoring them. Such publications, which already had limited financial resources, often ceased publishing. This policy, among other wartime sentiments, encouraged immigrants of the period to assimilate to American culture rapidly—including their use of English.

The pendulum, however, swings the other way as a population becomes more removed from their immigrant ancestors’ experience. It is not uncommon for grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants, for example, to take an interest in their family’s heritage language. However, when modern American students enroll in a Norwegian class, the language they learn is not their grandparents’ Norwegian, but Bokmål (“book tongue”), which is one of the two standard written forms of the Norwegian language (Nynorsk being the other one).

University of Minnesota Senior Lecturer Hanna Zmijewska-Emerson said she has had students who spoke standard Norwegian close to Bokmål with their elderly relatives, and their relatives struggled to understand them. However, the students would also report that those older relatives were impressed by the fact that the student wanted to learn the language, even though they were three or four generations removed from their Norwegian immigrant relatives.

Other students have less interest in learning Bokmål Norwegian because it’s not what their family spoke. That attachment to a specific dialect is strong because it’s rooted in a person’s identity, she said.

“Older people who take language classes have some recollection of what they learned from family members,” Zmijewska-Emerson said. “They want to remember what they learned at home from grandma and grandpa or their parents. This is the Norway in their hearts. But Norway has been changing very rapidly.”

For one thing, immigration in Norway has boomed. This has shaped Norwegian society in ways Norwegians coming to America’s shores 100 years ago could not have imagined. According to Statistisk Sentralbyrå (Statistics Norway), 6,312 immigrants arrived in Norway between 1951 and 1955. Between 2011 and 2015, that number jumped to 74,223. Immigrants now make up 16% of Norway’s population.

Religious affiliation has also shifted. Whereas roughly 71.5% of the population are members of the Church of Norway, this number is down 90,225 from four years earlier. Muslims now make up somewhere between 2% and 4% of the population.

The customs cherished by Norwegian immigrants’ descendants are also not as evident in Norwegian culture today. For example, Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis, which produces about 90% of the lutefisk sold in the United States, sold about 400,000 pounds of lutefisk in 2016. Countless Norwegian Americans crowded into church basements to consume this fish at Christmas last year. However, Norwegian sociologist Annechen Bahr Bugge found in 2005 that only 3% of Norwegians include lutefisk in their Christmas dinner.

This changing Norwegian society makes for more diverse motivations for learning Norwegian. It used to be that the majority of her students were heritage learners, Zmijewska-Emerson said—they wanted to know the language of their ancestors. But this group is getting smaller. Now there are also students who are interested in learning Norwegian because they want to study a specific topic pertaining to Norway, such as the welfare state, hydropower, immigration integration policies, forestry, or the fishing industry. Then there are students who attended folkehøgskole (“folk high school”) during a gap year or attended summer language camps and now want to continue. Or their significant other is Norwegian and they want to learn the language.

Overall, Johannessen said she wanted to highlight how nice it was to work with the American Norwegian community.

“The people are generally very helpful and nice to us,” she said. “It has been a bit of a surprise, at least to begin with, that talking with them felt more like talking to people in Norway than in America. They really are Norwegian not just in background and language but also in culture, including social ways. We are very grateful.”

Johannessen and her colleagues’ work can be found on the Norsk i Amerika project website, which is available at tekstlab.uio.no/norskiamerika/english/project.html.

Note: This article originally stated that Muslims make up 23.8% of the population; it has been edited to reflect that the Muslim population is actually estimated to be between 2% and 4% of the Norwegian population.

Sada Reed is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix. A former sports reporter, she specializes in teaching and researching sports journalism practices and organization. She earned her doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her master’s and bachelor’s degrees at the University of Minnesota.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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