A house divided against itself shall not stand

We are standing on the borderline between 2013 and 2014, and this brought me to reflect on some similarities and differences between Scotland and Norway. Scotland is facing its big referendum in the year which also celebrates Norway’s 200th anniversary of the dissolution of the union of parliaments between Norway and Denmark. Even though Norway entered into a new union of crowns with Sweden, which lasted until 1905, 1814 is still celebrated, as this was the year when Norway got an idependent parliament and its own Constitution – hence the celebrations every 17th of May, which was the day that the constitution was signed. Scotland has still got to make its choice in 2014, but the similarity between Scotland and Norway has been duly noted and used in political speeches by Alex Salmond and the yes-campaign. Seen through the yes-campaign’s spectacles, Norway looks like what Scotland could be: A happy, small nation which enjoys wealth as well as fairness and social security. And, actually, that description, although simplified and somewhat rose-tinted, is not too far from the truth.

However, there is another aspect of the situation: One which hasn’t received much attention so far, but which is obvious to me as a sociolinguist. And that is the similarities between the language situations in Scotland and Norway, where – again – Norway offers a glimpse of what Scotland could possibly look like a hundred years into the future. However, on this occasion the Norwegian example might not look as rosy.

In 2013, Norway celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ivar Aasen. He was quite a remarkable man. In the years when Norway was still finding its national identity, this autodidact linguist travelled the country between 1842-47, mainly in rural areas of the south and west, and collected what he considered to be the true Norwegian vernacular and the descendant of Old Norse by speaking to ordinary folk and taking meticulous notes of their grammar and vocabulary. The reason he was not interested in doing the same in cities was that he considered the speech of the middle and upper classes to be too much influenced by Danish to be of much use for his project. Ivar Aasen’s project culminated in the publication of a Norwegian Grammar in 1848 and a Dictionary in 1850.

What Ivar Aasen was doing, is what sociolinguists today would call corpus planning. The Norwegian language was at this point in a minority relation to Danish, which was used for all prestigious functions such as writing and printing, in school and in formal speech. If a people wants their language to break out of that kind of situation and become more than a spoken, unofficial vernacular, corpus planning is the first important step. Someone has to take on the daunting task of codifying the language; that is making a systematic norm for how to write the language. Ivar Aasen took on that task for Norwegian. Once you have devised a way of writing it, the next step is to produce texts where the language is actually being put to practical use. Ivar Aasen did some of that as well: He was a very able poet.

However, Ivar Aasen’s project was not the only one of its kind. On the scene was also Knud Knudsen, with a similar, but competing, project. He agreed with Ivar Aasen that Norway needed its own written language, but had a very different view of how to achieve it. Instead of creating something from scratch, he wanted to amend what was already there. He wanted to use Danish as a basis, but “Norwegianify” it by drawing on the “educated everyday speech” of the very classes that Aasen had excluded from his fieldwork.

Eventually, the written norm that came of Aasen’s project became known as Nynorsk (“modern Norwegian” or literally “new Norwegian” as opposed to Old Norse), while the norm that came of Knudsen’s project became known as Bokmål (“written norm” or literally “book language”). Which of the two would win the position as Norway’s general written standard?

Well, it turned out that this was more of a political question than a linguistic one. In sociolinguistics, this stage is called “status planning” and involves political struggles over elevating one or more standards to an official norm or National Language.

There was a heated debate in the Norwegian parliament in 1874, which failed to reach a conclusion, so the controversy continued. From 1884, Norway had two political parties: Høyre (“Right”) and Venstre (“Left”). Høyre was mostly supported by the middle and upper classes, townspeople and people involved in trade and commerce, while Venstre was supported by the farmers and labourers. Venstre backed Nynorsk’s claims to be the official written standard. To this day Nynorsk continues to be stereotyped as something rural and is also still associated with the political left. The two factions were both strong. So strong, in fact, that the parliament never came to a final decision on backing one of the proposed standards. Instead, in 1885 the parliament decided to give both standards equal support, and thereby Norway ended up as a country which still, two hundred years after Ivar Aasen’s birth, has two written standards.

In practice, this means that when you start school, you start learning one of them. Which one depends on where you live. Some schools are Nynorsk schools and some are Bokmål schools, but schools have been known to shift allegiance – especially from Nynorsk to Bokmål. Between the two standards, Bokmål is by far the most widely used. Groups of parents can request forming a class which would learn the other standard. If you live, for example, in a Bokmål catchment area, and you manage to find a group of parents to ten or more school starters who are willing to request Nynorsk for their children, the Bokmål school has to start a Nynorsk P1 class. When the children reach secondary school, however, all pupils have to learn both standards by the “sidemål” system. The “sidemål” is the other standard, whichever one you haven’t learned in primary school, which you now start learning in addition to your “hovedmål” or main standard. Finally, all pupils sit exams in both “hovedmål” and “sidemål”, and needless to say, the “sidemål” exam is much hated by pupils. All governmental agencies have to respond in the standard in which a member of the public writes to them, and the NRK (Norwegian equivalent to the BBC) also has to use both standards in their TV and radio broadcasts for subtitles and in programmes using standard speech, such as news reading. (It should be said, though, that much of the spoken text on TV and radio is in dialect).

The controversy is still not over. For a while there was a political aim to bring Nynorsk and Bokmål gradually closer together so that they could eventually be merged into a variety called Samnorsk (“united Norwegian”). However, these attempts got a severe blow in 1966 when hords of angry parents burned their children’s schoolbooks, which were written in a radical (closer to Nynorsk) form of Bokmål. Attempts to merge the two standards into one were abandoned, and since the 1980s Bokmål has been on a path towards greater concervatism and once again a greater gap between Bokmål and Nynorsk.

So, what can Scotland learn from this story? As the referendum draws nearer, Scotland will have to face the possibility of having to make the same choice as a newly independent nation. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Scots was on its way to becoming a written standard developing independently of English. Great writers such as Gavin Douglas started viewing Scots as something different from English. If political history had been different, we would perhaps today have regarded Scots and English as closely related, but yet independent languages, just as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are. However, since the introduction of the printing press, and the Union of Crowns and Union of Parliaments, the written (and to a lesser degree spoken) language in Scotland has been much influenced by English, and today, of course, there is no difference in the written standard of Scotland and England. What will Scotland do if its people vote “yes” to independence? Will Scotland see its own Ivar Aasens and Knud Knudsens? Will there be a controversy lasting for more than a century and a half? And what about minority languages such as Sami and Gaelic? Regardless of Bokmål/Nynorsk and English/Scots, these minority languages also need support and must not drown in the controversy over the more powerful language varieties.

I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to what Scotland should do. All I can do is observe where it has led Norway ... and quote “a house divided against itself shall not stand.”

Ragnhild Ljosland, December 2013