Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

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

It can be seen that nationalism placed much greater emphasis on the national language in Norway than in Ireland. The determination to invent a distinctive language of their own underlines how powerfully felt was the notion that languages were the true boundaries to nations. Indeed, W.B. Yeats was to hold Norway up as an example when he wrote in 1900“we must be prepared to turn from a purely political nationalism with the land question as its lever, to a partly intellectual and historical nationalism, like that of Norway with the language question as its lever”.8 In Ireland the lack of enthusiasm for the language related to the negative connotations associated with the Irish language and the fact that nationalism had already adopted land as its concern and Catholicism as its principal badge of identity. Despite the fact that language was a major concern in Norway and even with competing versions of the language, it did not become a divisive issue, until the later part of the century. The fact that it did and that language also became a divisive issue in Ireland can be related to changes in the nature of politics and nationalism that occurred in both countries at that time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century nationalism was very much an inclusive ideology that aimed to bind people to the nation, be they Catholic, Protestant or dissenter. At mid century, romantic nationalism began to promote a more essentialist brand of nationalism, but even then, when faced with a dilemma on the question of language, Thomas Davis took an inclusive bilingual approach, advocating ‘one language as a medium of commerce, and another as a vehicle of history, the wings of song, the soil of their genius and a mask and guard of their nationality’9. In Norway both Knudsen and Aasen, though both approaching the language issue from opposite ends of the dialectal spectrum, each, genuinely, sought to produce a language that was as inclusive as possible.

In the later part of the century, those who sought to challenge the political status quo became aware of the emotive power of cultural nationalism and its utility in manipulating public opinion. As the century concluded, the inclusive nationalism of Wolfe Tone and Davis had given way to a narrow exclusive nationalism, which together with the emergence of party politics, saw competing inventions of the nation pitted against one another in a tussle for the right to define the essential character of the nation. Language was catapulted to the forefront of nationalism in Norway and Ireland to be worn as a badge denoting purer national identity in opposition to the incumbent establishment who could be seen as perhaps not as true to this purer invention of the nation.

In Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century the political disarray within the Parliamentary Party that followed the demise of Parnell together with their failure to deliver Home Rule in the face of Unionist opposition created a political vacuum. The vast majority of the people still supported the Parliamentary Party, however, a disparate but growing minority were disillusioned by their“ossification at Westminster into a Tammany Hall elite”10. At the same time, the language movement took a radical turn with the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893. Under the leadership of Douglas Hyde, it promoted the preservation and advancement of a national identity based solely on the Gaelic cultural and linguistic heritage”11. Hyde insisted on its non political and non sectarian status, but its increasingly political message of de-anglicisation, its extensive organisation and its popular social activities made it an ideal recruiting ground for Sinn Fein and the IRB and it became“an umbrella organisation for a wide range of Irish Causes”12. The strident Catholicism of D.P. Moran’s ‘Irish Ireland’ campaign alienated Protestants, who had initially supported the League and the early years of the twentieth century saw the crusade to de-anglicise Ireland in the vanguard of political opposition to the Irish Parliamentary Party. So threatened did John Redmond feel that he even offered Hyde a seat in Parliament13. Another indication of how politicised the language movement had become was the fact that the popularity of the Gaelic League waned in the period between 1906 and 1913 in direct contrast to the improving fortunes of the Irish Parliamentary Party in that period. The political opposition that crystallized around the Gaelic League was Catholic, nationalist, increasingly separatist and resolutely Gaelic. The Irish language was now central to the credo of political opposition but it was still very much a minority political opinion. The separatists who took the initiative in Easter 1916 were Irish Irelanders, but neither their vision nor the rising were particularly popular at the time. In 1916, the majority of the people were foursquare behind the idea of Home Rule and had no plans to forswear the language they associated with progress and advancement. It has been well documented how public opinion changed following the executions of the 1916 leaders and how separatist politics eclipsed constitutional nationalism as a result. It is ironic that this dramatic shift in the political allegiance of the Irish people saw to it that the State that emerged in 1922 was fior-gaelach (truly Irish), whereas the Home Rule arrangement they would have been happy to accept in 1914 would have been popularly anglophone. It was not so much that the people had been won over to the cause of Irish Ireland, as having acquired it by default. The suddenness of its assent may explain why later, in the new State, devotion to the language was not as unswerving as official policy might have suggested.

Norway experienced a similar politicisation of the language issue; there too it became associated with a challenge to the established political power block. Up to 1880, Landsmal, the new language invented by Ivar Aasen, had but limited support, mostly confined to the remoter parts of the west coast. It did find favour with some of the liberal intelligentsia and through them it became allied to Venstre (Left) the emerging party of liberal opposition. As had happened in Ireland, cultural nationalism and Landsmal in particular, provided an attractive platform for a party that sought to win support for its new purer invention of the nation. Venstre drew its support from sources not dissimilar to those who in Ireland, were to gravitate to The Gaelic League and later Sinn Fein. It accommodated many dissident elements from farmers and fishermen to liberal intellectuals and fought for greater Norwegian sovereignty and wider suffrage.14 Universal suffrage would have altered the balance of power in Norway and was resisted by the established educated bureaucracy who used Riksmal, as the Danish based version of Norwegian was known. Venstre portrayed itself as representing the real people of Norway, the people of the countryside, with their truly Norwegian language, in opposition to a Danish dominated urban elite. Venstre entered government in 1884 and passed legislation that placed Landsmal on an equal footing with Riksmal. Landsmal became established and Venstre grew in strength, as they pressed for complete independence from Sweden. The threat to the established language from the minority Landsmal was countered by Bjornesterne Bjornson (1832-1910), the literary heir to Wergeland who declared that Landsmal“was artificial, regional, culturally undeveloped and fit only for peasants.” Ibsen was also an opponent and made fun of the language in Peer Gynt. Meanwhile, supporters of Landsmal described Riksmal as“a foreign, unpatriotic idiom”.15 Thus language, or more particularly, differing versions of the language were chosen as weapons by the political and cultural representatives of two conflicting interpretations of Norwegianness. As in Ireland, its adoption by the political opposition breathed new life into the minority language, giving it, in both Norway and Ireland, an official status it would not otherwise have achieved. In return, the minority language had boosted the nationalist credentials of those challenging for power.