A writer’s view of Nynorsk
How the quest for a truly Norwegian language divided the country’s tongue—and how a translated bible might have helped
M. Michael Brady
Norway has two official majority languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. By number of speakers, Bokmål is the leader, as it descended from the official language during the long Danish rule of Norway. Nynorsk is said to be a cultural phenomenon, born of the flowering of romantic nationalism after the dissolution of the union with Denmark in 1814. But the literary history of that phenomenon began nearly three centuries earlier. In 1517, Martin Luther published Disputatio pro declaratione virtuis indulgentiarum (abbreviated in translation from the Latin to “The ninety-five theses”), held to be the initial trigger of the Protestant Reformation.
It was during the Reformation that the Bible was translated from scholarly Latin or the original Hebrew and Greek into the everyday language of many countries. The translations not only made the Bible widely available but also set norms for written languages. Perhaps first was the translation into English by Oxford scholar John Wyclife and his followers in 1382. Arguably most famous was the translation into German, by Martin Luther, in 1522. Luther inspired many others to the task. After visiting Luther, English cleric William Tyndale produced a second translation into English in 1525-1535. Despite the existence of two translations, upon ascending the throne in 1603, King James I of England decreed that a new one be made. The resultant work of 1604-1611, known as the King James Bible, stands out as one of the greatest books of the English language. Not even the collected works of William Shakespeare, who was alive when the King James Bible was published in 1611-1612, can match its influence on the language.
In Scandinavia, the Swedish translation was first, in 1526, followed by the Icelandic in 1540 and the Danish in 1550. There was no similar translation of the time in Norway, a failing that set the language adrift and ultimately resulted in the present language situation. A capsule version of the relevant history shows why that is so. After the dissolution of the union with Denmark, romantic patriotism flourished, and opinion leaders called for eradicating the stamp of Danish and for establishing a more Norwegian written language. There were two ways of going about that task. One was to Norwegianize the existing written language. The other was to do what Norwegians had failed to do at the time of the Reformation: write down spoken Norwegian, preferably from areas so remote as to have escaped Danish influence, as Ivar Aasen did in the mid 19th century. Both approaches were tried and both were successful. So while other countries in which the Bible had been translated during the Reformation have just one language, Norway now has two, Bokmål and Nynorsk.
The Devil’s Advocate wonders what the Norwegian linguistic situation might have been had Ivar Aasen lived and performed his linguistic research three centuries earlier. Most likely, Norway would now have just one language.
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.
This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.