Restoration and Invention: The role of language in the invention of the Irish and Norwegian Nations.

Restoration and Invention: The role of language in the invention of the Irish and Norwegian Nations.


In Ireland, cultural nationalism of the Herderian variety emerged onto a stage dominated by Constitutional nationalism as defined by Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell had shaped a popular nationalist movement behind his campaign for Catholic Emancipation. It was a nationalism that was, above all, defined by its Catholicism and, although he spoke fluent Irish himself, O’Connell promoted English among his supporters2. From 1831 the national school system oversaw the systematic advance of English. The system was, however, pushing an open door, because practical economics had deigned that Irish was seen as the language of the poor, while English was seen to be the language of opportunity3. It was difficult therefore for Thomas Davis to reconcile with the practical reality in Ireland, his continental inspired view that“to lose your native tongue, and learn that of an alien, is the worst badge of conquest”4. Davis came to the realisation that the glories of Ireland’s past, including the glories of its language, could be effectively promulgated in the pages of The Nation, in English. After the famine, the language had declined to the extent that its interest became largely the preserve of those concerned with its preservation as opposed to its restoration. Language featured little in politics as nationalism focused on the land question and became a coherent political entity in support of Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party. With the support of Gladstone in Westminster, all indications were that constitutional nationalism, which had been made Catholic by O’Connell, landed by Parnell and had become conservative and anglophone in the process, was about to win out. One problem for constitutional nationalism was that its success was built on promoting the interests of Catholic Ireland and from the northeast was to come a hitherto ignored voice that would cry halt. The Unionist/Conservative veto of Home Rule from 1886 was key to a dramatic period of political change that would see the Irish language become a central element to a different invention of the nation.

If language remained largely on the fringes of Irish nationalism for most of the nineteenth century, the situation in Norway was not as clear-cut. Following the Napoleonic wars, Norway, which had been ruled as a province of Denmark since 1397, was separated and given to Sweden. Norway resisted and an independent constitution was drawn up, but, after brief hostilities, they were forced to accept union with Sweden. Norway was, however, allowed to retain its constitution and with it, a large measure of independence5. The sudden separation from Denmark meant that a Norwegian State, that had been submerged for four hundred years, had re-emerged. The fear was that if a Norwegian nation did not emerge to match it, their newfound independence might be undone by the Swedes. This requirement for the urgent reinvention of the nation coincided with the upwelling of romantic nationalism in Europe and many in Norway were inspired by the ideas emerging from Germany. One such was poet and nationalist Henrik Wergeland (1807-1845), who argued that:

&ldquoNorway must no longer remain a cultural province of Denmark; should Norwegians be persuaded to lose confidence in themselves and their future in the cultural sphere, then Norway will not long enjoy the benefits of political independence.”6

Against this background the question of the Norwegian language became a cause for great concern. Old Norse began to be supplanted by Danish following the union with Denmark in 1397 and, by the time of the reformation, with the introduction to Norway of the Danish Bible, the process had been completed. The desire to sever links with their Danish past as well as the influence of German inspired linguistic nationalism led to moves to reform the language in order to turn the Danish spoken in Norway into a distinct Norwegian language. In an essay,“On Norwegian Language Reformation”, in 1835 Wergeland led the calls for reform and made the case for an independent written language but warned, presciently, that“the profit and honour of an independently developed language” would cost the Norwegians“a literary civil war”.7

Danish as spoken in Norway had a distinct pronunciation that distinguished it from the original. The difference ranged from almost pure Danish in the cities fading out into the countryside to the more obscure dialects of the remote areas. The mainstream approach to reform was spearheaded by Knud Knudsen (1812-1895), whose idea was to take what he called byfolkets talesprog (the spoken language of city people) and gradually introduce a more Norwegian sounding spelling, moving the orthography, over time, in a Norwegian direction. A more radical approach was adopted by Ivar Aasen (1813-1896), who took the view that the dialects of the remote areas were not degenerated forms of Danish, but, in fact, much altered remnants of Old Norse. The result was that two definitions of Norwegian emerged: one broadly acceptable and conservative which sought merely to put a gloss on the Danish spoken in urban Norway and call it Norwegian; the other alternative was revolutionary in its contention that the remote dialects were a link to the old language. Using these dialects, Aasen devised an entirely new language which he called Norwegian. In order to differentiate between the alternative languages, Aasen’s version was referred to as Landsmal (language of the country). It won favour with some poets and writers, but would have remained little more than a linguistic curiosity had it not been adopted as a political tool in the 1880s.

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