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

Norway achieved full independence from Sweden in 1905 and the Sprak strid (language war) continued into the twentieth century. The Danish based Riksmal became ever more Norwegianised, with language reform in 1907 and again in 1917, while Landsmal also gained some support. The ensuing linguistic chaos was summed up in a cartoon that appeared in the press in 1919. In it, a Russian asks his Norwegian comrade“Well, how’s the Revolution going here in Norway?” to which comes the reply,“For the moment we’re still fighting about how to spell it”16. Landsmal never exceeded penetration of greater than thirty four per cent and its popularity peaked in the 1940s17 . In the 1930s the linguistically neutral Labour government attempted to resolve the language dispute by promoting a compromise language that fell somewhere between the two competing languages. It was called Samnorsk (same Norwegian), but the initiative failed, merely adding another ingredient to the linguistic stew. In the years following independence, language became the issue through which a deeper social and cultural rift within the nation was articulated. The coast and the remote valleys of western Norway are removed from Oslo and the East by more than language; the sheer physicality of the mountains that divide them may explain how two divergent cultures appear to have developed. The West being associated with traditional values of hard work, self reliance, with a tendency towards fundamental religion and alcohol prohibition, with the East tending to be seen as modern, secular and outgoing. It is this urban-rural, centre-periphery divide that has sustained the language war to the present day. Sadly, the quest for a language that would differentiate Norwegians from Danes ended up differentiating Norwegians from Norwegians. The debate, often acrimonious, has tended to focus on petty argument over what constitutes“proper” Norwegian, but while the row continues, the prevailing mood now tends to be more one of frustration that so much time and effort has been devoted to such an unproductive and seemingly interminable debate. Landsmal use has fallen to seventeen per cent18, but in a country that prides itself on democracy and rights of minorities, its official status is likely to remain secure into the future and accordingly, the name of the country will continue to appear as Noreg on twenty five per cent of its stamps while on the remaining seventy five per cent it will read Norge.

Ireland would also experience its share of linguistic strife in the twentieth century. The ideal romantic vision that inspired Easter 1916 and saw the Republic declared in 1919 did not survive intact into the Free State. The Civil War had shattered the dream and ideal Republicanism lost out to pragmatism and the will of the majority. It is significant that while much was abandoned,“in deference to realpolitik, the language remained in the realm of idealpolitik, an untouchable piety in respect of which the Government would not surrender the high ground”19. Restoration of the language seems to have been a genuine, if ambitious, aim. There was a naive assumption that the institution that had overseen the demise of the Irish language, the national school system, would just as effectively restore it. The problem was that in 1831 there had been an economic incentive to switch to English, while in 1920s Ireland there was no equivalent incentive to switch back. Over dependence on the schools and a policy of compulsion were also to contribute to the failure to restore the language and led to it becoming a divisive issue in Irish society. Learning Irish became compulsory in the schools, it was required to pass exams and it also became a requirement for entry to University and the Civil service. The language served to exclude, it became a barrier to advancement and as such was resented by many. The manner in which compulsory Irish was drilled into generations of Irish children meant that many left school with a knowledge of Irish, but with a very negative view of the experience of learning it. They emerged into an English-speaking world and most jettisoned their Irish as soon as it had served its purpose, of passing exams, getting into college or getting a job. The effect of compulsory Irish “was to foster cynicism towards and occasionally passionate dislike for the national language”20. The Gaelic scholar and academic, Osborn Bergin summed up the top to bottom cynicism that attached to language policy:

“today the people leave the problem to the Government, the Government leaves it to the Department of Education, the Department of Education to the teachers and the teachers to the school-children. Only the very young are unable to shift the burden to someone else’s shoulders”21.

People tended to be divided, not so much on the language itself, but on the methods used to revive it. Those who questioned the system were vilified as anti-Irish or West Britons by purist Gaelgoirs (Irish language enthusiasts) who James Dillon described as “intolerant, narrow-minded, egoists”22. The insistence by such people on perfect grammar, pronunciation and even accent (blas) turned the average citizen with their cupla focal (couple of words), away from the language and militated against popular usage.

Since the 1960s the temperature of the debate has dropped as a general acceptance began to emerge that restoration was becoming preservation. In modern Ireland, our national language has acquired a status approaching that of national ornament, a badge of national identity to be proud of, as we are proud of James Joyce, but no more than we feel obliged to read Ulysses, do we feel any great compunction to speak Irish.

In the nineteenth century both Norway and Ireland sought to invent a nation that would define its distinct identity and would enable it emerge from the shadow of their dominant neighbour. While membership of the nation was defined territorially in Norway and by religion in Ireland, language was to become a central feature of competing attempts to invent both nations. Tacitus had said that “the language of the conqueror in the mouth of the conquered is ever the language of the slave”23and by mid century such sentiment was

very much a part of the wave of romantic nationalism that swept across Europe. So determined was Norway to rid itself of the language of the conqueror that it set about inventing a national language and in the process ended up with two. It was easier to re-invent something from the romantic past than to promote something that had lost favour in the real present and in Ireland, romantic nationalism was faced with turning a tide that was running against the Irish language. The negative attitude to the language was summed up in Daniel O’Connell’s pronouncement that “I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of the Irish”24.In the third quarter of the century the minority languages were languishing in both countries. Critical factors that were to change the fortunes of these minority languages were the changing face of nationalism and the emergence of party politics. These developments saw the rise of exclusive nationalism and in both countries the minority language was latched onto as a badge of purer nationalism by the dissenting political voices who sought to challenge the political status quo. In a symbiotic relationship, the minority languages boosted the minority political opposition in its quest for power and when power was achieved the minority language was, in return, accorded a status greater than it warranted. In both Norway and Ireland the minority languages became foci for social division in the independent states; in Norway language came to reflect regional and class difference while in Ireland people divided over the policy and methods employed in efforts to restore the language.

Were it not for the adoption of language as a political tool by the emerging political opposition, Irish and Ivar Aasen’s personal invention, Landsmal, would have remained the preserve of linguists and preservationists. That they did not is testament to the political stars to which they were hitched; that they never supplanted the mainstream language is evidence that the majority regained control, both politically and linguistically, in both countries. However, such was the evocative appeal of cultural nationalism that no majority could turn their back on these linguistic sacred cows. Both cows, despite health problems and an uncertain future, have struggled through the twentieth century. In Ireland a hypocritical mixture of official devotion and practical neglect saw the cow limp into the twenty first century, while in Norway, interminable democratic debate served the same purpose.

References:

1Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of Nationalism, (London, 1991), p. 6.

2Tomas O’Fiaich, ‘The language and political history’, in Brian O’Cuiv (ed.), A View of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969), p.109.

3R.V. Comerford, ‘Nations, nationalism, and the Irish language’, in T.E. Hachey and L. McCaffrey (eds.), Perspectives on Irish nationalism, (Lexington, 1989). P. 22.

4Joshua A. Fishman, Language and Nationalism, (Rowley, Mass. 1975), p. 48.

5John Midgaard, A brief history of Norway, 8th. edition, (Oslo, 1982), p. 75.

6Einar Haugen, Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian, (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), p. 28.

7Einar Haugen, Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian, (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), p. 27.

8Kevin B. Nowlan, ‘The Gaelic League and other National Movements’, in Sean O’Tuama, (ed.), The Gaelic League idea, (Dublin, 1993), p. 49.

9Tomas O’Fiaich, ‘The language and political history’, in Brian O’Cuiv (ed.), A View of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969), p.110.

10John Hutchinson, The dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish Nation State, (London, 1987), p. 169.

11D. G. Boyce, Nationalism in Ireland, 3rd. edition, (London, 1991), p. 237.

12John Hutchinson, The dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish Nation State, (London, 1987), p. 178.

13Ibid. p. 179.

14Einar Haugen, Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian, (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), p. 37.

15Einar Haugen, Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian, (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), pp. 45-46.

16Einar Haugen, Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian, (Cambridge, Mass., 1966), p. 87.

17Ibid., p. 227.

18Lars S. Vikor, ‘Northern Europe’, in Stephen Barbour and Cathie Carmichael (eds.) Language and Nationalism in Europe, (Oxford, 2002), p.116.

19R.V. Comerford, Ireland, (London, 2003), p. 145.

20Adrian Kelly, Compulsory Irish: Language and education in Ireland 1870s-1970s, (Dublin, 2002), p. 135.

21Terence Brown, Ireland: a social and cultural history 1922-1985, (London, 1981), p. 53.

22Adrian Kelly, Compulsory Irish: Language and education in Ireland 1870s-1970s, (Dublin, 2002), p. 135.

23Tomas O’Fiaich, ‘The language and political history’, in Brian O’Cuiv (ed.), A View of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969), p.101.

24Brian O’Cuiv, ‘Irish in the modern World’, in Brian O’Cuiv (ed.),A View of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969), p.123.

Bibliography:

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of Nationalism, (London, 1991).

Barbour, Stephen, Carmichael, Cathie, (eds.), Language and nationalism in Europe, (Oxford, 2002).
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Boyce, D. G., Nationalism in Ireland, 3rd edition, (London, 1991).

Brown, Terence, Ireland: a social and cultural history 1922-1985, (London, 1981)
.

Comerford, R.V., Ireland, (London, 2003).

Comerford, R.V., ‘Nation, nationalism and the Irish language’ in Hachey, T.E., McCaffrey, L., (eds.), Perspectives on Irish nationalism, (Lexington, Kentucky, 1989).

Eckstein, Harry, Division and cohesion in democracy: A study of Norway, (Princeton, 1966).

Fanning, Ronan, Independent Ireland, (Dublin, 1983).

Fishman, Joshua A., Language and nationalism, (Rowley, Mass. 1975).

Haugen, Einar, Language conflict and language planning: The case of modern Norwegian, (Cambridge, Mass., 1966).

Hutchinson, John, The dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish Nation State, (London, 1987).

Janson, Tore, Speak:A short history of languages, (Oxford, 2002).

 

Kelly, Adrian, Compulsory Irish: Language and education in Ireland 1870s-1970s, (Dublin, 2002).

Midgaard, John, A brief history of Norway, 8th. edition, (Oslo, 1982).

Nowlan, Kevin B., ‘The Gaelic League and other National Movements’, in Sean O’Tuama, (ed.), The Gaelic League idea, (Dublin, 1993).

O’Corrain, A., MacMathuna, S., (eds.), Minority languages in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland, (Uppsala, 1998).

O’Cuiv, Brian, ‘Irish in the modern World’, in Brian O’Cuiv (ed.), A View of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969).

O’Fiaich, Tomas, ‘The language and political history’, in Brian O’Cuiv (ed.), A View of the Irish Language, (Dublin, 1969).

Sorensen, Oystein, Strath, Bo, (eds.), The cultural construction of Norden, (Oslo. 1997).

Vikor, Lars S., ‘Northern Europe’, in Stephen Barbour and Cathie Carmichael (eds.) Language and Nationalism in Europe, (Oxford, 2002).

Acknowledgements:

My thanks to Birgir Haugen, Oslo, Norway, who advised and assisted on both the history and current status of the language issue in Norway.


I. Even-Zohar: LANGUAGE CONFLICT AND NATIONAL IDENTITY.

“Ivar Aasen.”



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