“Norge” origin doubts
Norge does not mean “veien mot nord” (the way leading to the north) as once thought, says professor Michael Schulte
University of Agder
That the name Norge (Norway) means “veien mot nord” (the way leading to the north) is the general opinion among historians, as well as most people. Michael Schulte is one of the writers behind the new, extensive publication Norsk språkhistorie (History of the Norwegian language), coming out in four volumes in 2016. Here he describes several flaws in the well-established name theory.
“While working on Norsk språkhistorie I became aware of the traditional interpretation’s many absurdities. Science is considered as rational, but we have to remember that it also has its history characterized by ideology and national feelings. ‘Veien mot nord’ is a suitable explanation of our country name that gives associations to a sailing Nordic people,” says Schulte.
According to him, the “veien mot nord” explanation is the result of so-called popular etymology, where words change and are reinterpreted over time. He thinks the new interpretation of the country name started in the early Viking Age. When Ottar refers to Norway as “Norðmanna land” (Northmen’s land) and “Norðweg” (Northway), we already have a reinterpretation of the original, he says.
Schulte argues for a second theory, where the names come from Old Norwegian nór and New Norwegian nor, meaning “narrow water, inlet,” related to the English narrow and last but not least the mythological dwarf king Nor.
Schulte points out that the name never appears with the letter ð in runic inscriptions or skaldic poetry. He sees this as a clear indication that the name does not come from norð (north), but from Old Norwegian nór, which means narrow water or inlet.
He points to the Danish Jelling Stone from approx. 960 and the Kuli Stone from Nordmøre (North-Møre) from approx. 1020. These two are often referred to as Denmark and Norway’s baptismal certificate.
Schulte emphasizes that the name Nóregr in skaldic poetry rhymes with words such as stór (big) and fóru (for), something he thinks supports the nor theory.
“In the Norse skaldic tradition from the 10th century, there were strict poetic requirements and rules for what could rhyme with what. Short vowels could rhyme with short and long vowels could rhyme with long, but short vowels could never rhyme with long. It is troubling to cheat.
“The fact that Nóregr rhymes with words with a long vowel suggests that the origin of the name is the word nór as in the Norwegian dialect word nor and King Nor,” says Schulte.
King Nor, whom Schulte points to, was a mythological short king. We meet the dwarf Nóri in the well-known Eddaic poem Voluspå.
“Orknøyingasaga and Flatøybók, which is about to be published in a new Norwegian translation, has several passages about King Nor and plays an important role for Norway. In Orknøyingasaga, the coastal road north of Bergen is described as King Nor’s road, and Nórafjorðr is described as King Nor’s fjord, something that points to peoples’ interpretation of Nórvegr at that time,” says Schulte.
Several place names consist of nor, meaning narrow, small, or compressed, or they are associated with King Nor, if we look at Nore, Norheimsund, Norangsfjord, Norefjord, Norefjell, etc.
In a feature article in the Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen on December 18, 2015, Schulte asserted that the country is named after King Nor, the first king of Noreg. He has moved slightly away from this particular statement, but his point is that the country and King Nor at least have the same linguistic origin.
“Claiming that we are named after a mythological dwarf king might have been a little bold, but this is kind of like the chicken and the egg. What came first? The mythology can have roots far back in time just like the etymology. The point is that the etymology of King Nor and Norge is the same,” says Schulte.
Schulte has received both positive and negative feedback.
Among those who have doubts about Schulte’s theory is cand. philol. Frode Korslund. In a response to Schulte in Klassekampen, he points to the oldest forms of the national indicator “nordmann,” norðmaðr, (north man), and the associated adjective “norrøn,” norðrænn (Norse), undoubtedly connected to “veien mot nord.”
Moreover, Korslund points out that most of the oldest indicators of the country is the Latin Nort(h)wegia from approx. 840 and the Old English Norðweg in Ottar’s travel narrative from approx. 880. These sources are more than a hundred years older than the runic stones Schulte refers to, and the spelling coincides with the interpretation that the name means “veien mot nord.”
However, Schulte thinks foreigners reinterpreted the country name Noregr based on geography and worldview. He emphasizes that Nordic sources, first and foremost the runic stones and skaldic poetry, should be attached great significance despite the fact that they are younger than the Old English and Latin forms.
“In this context, our own Nordic sources are more important than English or Latin sources. A Latin reproduction of a country name will likely reinterpret both the phonological form and the meaning. The same applies to the English reproduction. Even though Old English belongs to the Germanic language, it will be a transfer in a new linguistic context,” says Schulte.
Not a new theory
Schulte adds that the alternative theory about the country name’s origin is far from new. It was introduced as early as 1847, by the student Niels Halvorsen Trønnes in an article in Norsk Tidsskrift for Videnskab og Litteratur (Norwegian Journal of Science and Literature), where he explained the country name with “Strøget (vegr) med de trange Fjorde og Indsøer (nórar), Sund-landet” (the way with the narrow fjords and lakes, the inlet country”).
In 1897, this theory was defined precisely by the Swedish philologist Adolf Noreen in the book Svenska etymologier (Swedish etymologies). A countermovement against the National Romanticism might have been a part of emphasizing one theory more than another.
“When historian P.A. Munch wrote his influential work Det norske folks historie (The Norwegian peoples’ history) in eight volumes (1852-1863), he wanted to get rid of the National Romantic myths, which also meant King Nor. He was a nationalist and to him, the myths had no place in a linguistic history work,” says Schulte.
Consequently, King Nor and the Nor myth, which must have been common knowledge in the 18th century and early 19th century, disappeared.
Professor emeritus in Germanic philology, Harald Bjorvand, and Professor in name investigation, Tom Schmidt, at the University of Oslo have written a discussion piece where they point out that Schulte wipes the dust of an old, well-established name theory.
Bjorvand and Schmidt agree that the rhymes in the skaldic poetry make the connection to nor—narrow inlet—obvious. However, they see no reason to include the mythical King Nor.
Where Schulte thinks it is a question about “the chicken or the egg,” Bjorvand and Schmidt think there is reason to believe that the place name came first. However, Schulte points out that the name Nór already existed in the Viking Age, in the poem Voluspå.
Changed the encyclopedia
Until January 2016, Store Norske Leksikon (Norwegian encyclopedia) was clear that Norge means “veien mot nord.” Now the alternative name theory is also mentioned. A similar change has been made on Wikipedia.
Schulte says that one of the goals with the coming launch of Norsk språkhistorie is to clean up outdated word explanations.
“The point with the country name Norge is that the encyclopedia had to be changed, and we have done that. Some things need to be adjusted, also in the 21th century, and who knows, maybe King Nor is coming back,” says Schulte.
This article was originally published by the University of Agder at www.uia.no/en/research/teft/teft-artikler/raising-doubt-about-norway-s-origin, and is reprinted with permission.
This article also appeared in the Sept. 23, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.