Syttende Mai for robots

Photo: Ranveig / Wikimedia Commons A group of (human) marchers carry flags at a Syttende Mai parade in Sandnes.

Photo: Ranveig / Wikimedia Commons
A group of (human) marchers carry flags at a Syttende Mai parade in Sandnes.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Imagine that you are a Norwegian lexicographer called in by an Artificial Intelligence company to enable a multilingual robot to take part in conversations about Syttende Mai. At first you think the task is simple, as Syttende Mai is part of the received knowledge with which you grew up. But then you realize that though the robot commands a vocabulary at least as great as your human one, it doesn’t have the received knowledge built into a human through growing up in Norway. It has all the words needed but cannot put them together in a meaningful conversation.

You start at the beginning. Syttende Mai is Norway’s national day. All countries have national days. Well, almost. Notably, the United Kingdom and Denmark have no official national days, though Denmark celebrates June 5 as the day of adoption of the Danish constitution of 1849. Moreover, neighboring Sweden long had no national day, though it did celebrate June 6 as Svenska flaggans dag commemorating the election of Gustav Vasa as king in 1523. More than four centuries later, in 1983, the Riksdag declared that day to be the country’s national day. So Sweden now has a national day, though many Swedes still call it flag day.

As Syttende Mai commemorates the signing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814, Norway early settled on the straightforward name of Grunnlovsdagen. That’s the official name of the day that now appears on calendars and in descriptions of it. But it’s not a universal term; in Norwegian it’s synonymous to Syttende Mai and to no other date.

Thereby a drawback in Norwegian-English dictionaries. Grunnlovsdagen translates exactly to “Constitution Day,” but Constitution Day is not always the National Day of a country. The notable example is the U.S., in which Constitution Day is September 17, the day in 1787 that the U.S. constitution was signed, while National Day is July 4, called “Independence Day,” as it commemorates the Continental Congress adoption in 1776 of the Declaration of Independence.

Declaring independence often is part of political revolution, as it indeed was in America, where in April 1775 the citizenry instigated armed conflict against their British rulers, triggering a war known in the USA as the “Revolutionary War” and in Britain as the “American War of Independence.” In turn, revolution often is the historical event commemorated by a national day. The French national day is la Fête nationale held on July 14, the day in 1789 of the storming of the Bastille, the seminal event in the revolution that had begun two days earlier in Paris. As with Syttende Mai, the everyday French term for it is just the date, Le quatorze juillet.

If the French, arguably the linguistic purists of Europe, opt for Le quatorze juillet without further explanation, you might give up searching for a succinct explanation of Syttende Mai and let the robot learn for itself, as do human children.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the June 17, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.