A note on capitalization
The Norwegian American
As editors here at The Norwegian American, we have a lot of conversations about the big things, the major events, ideas, and stories happening in Norway and Norwegian America. But we also talk a lot about the little things that make our newspaper a high-quality part of the media landscape: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. You’d be amazed at how long a conversation a single comma can inspire!
One of the big questions about small things that comes across our desks at least twice a year is how to capitalize the names of Norwegian holidays. Arguably our two most important issues each year are the Christmas issue and the 17th of May issue. Both special holiday issues are, of course, chock full of the Norwegian names for these special days: jul and syttende mai.
I’m sure you noticed I did not capitalize those titles. In Norwegian, according to Språkrådet (the Norwegian Language Council), the titles of all holidays are not to be capitalized. The “Norwegian” way to write Merry Christmas! is God jul! Likewise, Hooray for the Seventeenth of May! is written, Hurra for syttende mai! (Moreover, “syttende mai” is seldom written out anymore—it is usually found as 17. mai in print; see “Further reading” below).
Yet, for a publication like ours, it’s not so simple! Our publication is like a colossus, straddling two similar but distinct cultures: Norway and Norwegian America. Nearly all of you, our readers, are familiar with many Norwegian customs. In many cases, you’re also familiar with the Norwegian language.
While the ideas, terms, and traditions that shape Norwegian-American culture came from Norway, many of them have evolved in North America over time and, of course, have woven themselves into the English language. This presents a stimulating challenge for us as editors: when do we follow Norwegian-language conventions and when do we follow English-language conventions?
As a Norwegian language teacher, I’m particularly interested in this problem. In my classes, I attempt to give my students as accurate as possible an image of contemporary Norwegian life, lived in the contemporary Norwegian language. So, in that context, I follow Norwegian-language conventions. But for a (mostly!) English-language newspaper full of Norwegian names and terms, the question is a little more complex.
Norwegian Americans—and to be sure, some Norwegians—are accustomed to capitalizing holidays, even when the name is borrowed: Many of us often write God Jul! and Hurra for Syttende Mai! For many, this kind of capitalization feels more natural in American-style language conventions. But for the sticklers, it feels unnatural in Norwegian style.
At some point, as a publication that takes language-use and journalistic professionalism seriously, we simply have to decide on a convention that fits our “colossal” situation. So, after many long discussions several times a year, we’ve concluded that Syttende Mai is most appropriate for this Norwegian holiday that we honor in an American context.
Språkrådet’s rules for capitalization (in Norwegian):
Conversation on Språkrådet’s Facebook page discussing the issue—note that one Norwegian user suggests “Syttende mai” (in Norwegian):
This article originally appeared in the May 7, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.