January 31, 2014

With the Scottish independence debate we hear a lot about the Scandinavian connections and (dis)similarities. I do have my opinions on many of those despite being completely unqualified, but here’s one thing that strikes me and that I do know something about: how many people (apart from Guy Puzey and Øystein Vangsnes) have commented on the parallels between Norway and Scotland with regard to their linguistic landscape?


The official position is that there are two written forms of the (single) Norwegian language, bokmål and nynorsk. Historically, bokmål descends from the so-called dannet dagligtale, the ‘educated vernacular’, essentially a Norwegianized (more so in pronunciation, perhaps less in other aspects) version of Danish spoken in the bigger urban areas of Norway. Nynorsk is a written standard created by the linguist Ivar Aasen, consciously based on traditional regional dialects (mostly of Western Norway) and thus opposed to the more Danish-influenced speech of the urban middle and upper classes.

Landsmål (as Ivar Aasen’s language was originally called) was very much a child of its time, when being ‘authentically Norwegian’ conferred an important legitimacy. The framing of bokmål as ‘Danish’ and ‘alien’ (and nynorsk as ‘boorish’ and ‘hick’ – bondsk, or, as the Irish put it, culchie) survives, to a certain extent, even to this day.

Today, nynorsk enjoys equal rights with bokmål in law, but it is increasingly being confined to its strongholds in rural parts of Western Norway (where it is has traditionally been the written language given its proximity to the local dialects) and to scattered pockets of people who value it as an expression of Norwegian identity (or of their local identity once they move to the bokmål-dominated city). For many others, it is a dead language, hated as a school subject, a waste of public money and a laughable relic of the past; a veritable curiosity cabinet of these attitudes is presented by Øystein Vangsnes (full disclosure: a former colleague of mine) in his recent book.

That is not the whole story, however. Norway is also host to several other indigenous minority languages, and nynorsk, with its hundreds of thousands of active users (and fairly robust intergenerational transmission, if we can speak of such a thing for a written norm) is in ruddy health compared to some of those. The biggest is Northern Sámi (about 20,000 speakers, not all of them in Norway), with Lule Sámi (not more than 2,000 speakers, most of them in Sweden) and South Sámi (speakers numbering in the hundreds and also split between Norway and Sweden) in addition to Kven (a few thousand speakers); all are spoken as community languages in Northern Norway, a large, sparsely populated, remote region. Although mainstream Norwegian culture is happy for the Sámi to exist and attract tourists with their colourful costume and fluffy reindeer, attempts to make the Sámi language more visible are met at best with indifference (in the south of the country, where people honestly don’t understand what the big deal is) and at worst with aggression, whether in Kåfjord / Gáivuotna (bilingual signs shot at), Bodø / Bådåddjo (signs repeatedly vandalized) or Tromsø / Romsa (no signs actually went up after a soberingly aggressive discussion).


Does any of that sound familiar in Scotland? I’d say it does.

The relationship between Scots, however loaded and vague that term is in today’s Scotland, and Scottish Standard English, is not at all unlike the nynorsk/bokmål divide. SSE is essentially a more Scottified version (quite a bit in pronunciation, less so in other areas) of a closely related language that gained prestige by virtue of being associated with a politically dominant southern neighbour. Any legitimacy that Scots can claim comes, on the one hand, from the relative strength of traditional dialects in rural parts such as the north-east and the Northern Isles, and on the other hand from its role as a vehicle for the expression of Scottish identity and a continuous link with a ‘more Scottish past’. Opponents of a Scots written culture of course deride it in turn as rural and uneducated or as a futile exercise by latte-swilling idealists who wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near a farm in Banffshire.

At the same time the indigenous language, Gaelic, is confined to the remote and rural Highlands and Islands. Attempts to increase its profile in the Lowlands end up being attacked as supporting a dead language, a laughable relic of the past, and parents sending their children to Gaelic-medium schools derided as insufferable élitists happy to waste public money on something so inconsequential as Scotland’s ancient language. In parts of the Highlands people are altogether more trigger-happy.

Not the same, of course

The parallels are by no means perfect. For instance, the average Scottish person in Ayr or Kirkcaldy is much happier to view the history and culture of the Highlands and Islands as authentically ‘Scottish’ compared to the attitude of somebody from Hønefoss or Arendal to the Sámi – for one thing, the average Norwegian doesn’t really know much about the Sámi beyond the fact that they herd reindeer (actually, most of them don’t), wear funny hats and drink a lot. All right, one could question how much the average Lowlander actually knows about Gaelic culture, but still, the days of the Highlanders as racially alien brutes are mostly past.

A big consequence of this is that the relevance of Gaelic to contemporary Scotland is a subject of debate. That debate can be acrimonious and at times stupid, but it exists. Mainstream Norwegian society does not so much oppress the Sámi and Kvens as it doesn’t really care about them. The debate only exists in Northern Norway, and is wound up with all sorts of vexed questions about Northern identity in the broader Norwegian context that might again be quite reminiscent of the debates in Scotland or Catalonia – but for the average Norwegian the Sámi languages and Kven might as well be spoken on another planet.

Another thing is that the Norwegian romantic nationalism that legitimized Ivar Aasen’s landsmål had no real counterpart in Scotland. Despite the importance of Ossianism, nineteenth-century Scotland was happy to see itself as a successful part of the British Empire, and did not need to legitimize itself through links to a glorious past (which is more than a bit ironic, given that Scots has the potential for building on the written tradition of Older Scots, whereas landsmål/nynorsk was self-consciously a modern creation rather than the continuation of a mediæval tradition – and look which has been more successful).

The politics of a new language

One thing that the Norwegian language struggle (språkstriden) teaches us is that the legitimacy of a language, whether spoken or written, has absolutely nothing to do with any objective linguistic distance. Bored high-schoolers in Oslo claim to not understand a word of nynorsk not because they don’t (this is a pretty laughable notion, to be honest) but because moaning about it is much more acceptable than to be seen making an effort to engage with it (unless you’re a swot). Northern Norwegians will tell you that it is so Western and far from their own dialect that they’d rather stick to bokmål, even though nynorsk did hold a strong position in significant parts of Northern Norway at some point – not to mention the fact that many northern Norwegian dialects are probably much more similar to nynorsk than to bokmål. In Norwegian politics, the code for ‘we hate nynorsk’ is ‘families should have the freedom of choice’, buttressed by arguments such as ‘the immigrants get confused and don’t understand nynorsk’ (this one always got me: these slogans are usually fronted by speakers of urban Eastern Norwegian varieties, and being used to Northern Norwegian I often struggled to understand them because of the great difference in pitch accents – why don’t we abolish bokmål because, you know, there are quite a few immigrants who don’t understand you, either) – ironically, it is reported there are only two pupils in all of Oslo who insist on being taught in nynorsk, and, guess what, they’re both from immigrant families.

A further corollary is that the outcome does not necessarily come from the numerical strength of people willing to identify with a particular form of a language: perceived legitimacy and a political will are much more important. Here, it is instructive to compare Scotland with Northern Ireland: despite the Scottish government’s goodwill noises, actual political action to support Ulster-Scots has been much more extensive, despite the fact that Ulster-Scots has little if any independent tradition to fall back on and a very small base of people willing to support it. The obvious reason, of course, is that Ulster-Scots is caught up in the Northern Irish political football game as a counterpoint to the support for Irish promised by the Belfast Agreement (and that’s not going extremely well, either), but that’s a story for another day.

So, where does this leave Scotland?

On the face of it, the similarities between Scots and nynorsk are undeniable, if not entirely compelling. Does it mean it could gain the same sort of recognition? In theory, yes, especially in an independent Scotland (or maybe a Scotland with more devolution, or even a Scotland gaining independence at the second attempt).

In reality, however, I would imagine that Gaelic is a better candidate for ‘Scotland’s nynorsk’. It already has widespread legitimacy as an authentic part of Scottish heritage, and, despite the loud opposition, support for measures such as Gaelic-medium education has been quietly growing. The idea that one day the culchie dialect made up by that Aasen crackpot will be taught in every school must have seemed ludicrous to a mid-19th century Oslo clerk, and yet that’s exactly what happened. Despite the pressure nynorsk finds itself under, and despite the salutary lessons from Ireland, it does not seem impossible that, in the right circumstances, Gaelic may yet gain a foothold in mainstream Scottish society. It will always remains a niche pursuit, but the Norwegian example shows that concerted action may yet provide a strong foundation for its maintenance.

And what of Scots? Again, in theory the same type of action might build a base for it too. In practice, it faces an uphill battle: the framing of riksmål as ‘too Danish’ could be a successful strategy in the romantic-nationalist Norway of the 19th century, but attacks on Standard Scottish English as ‘too English’ are unlikely to sway many people in 21st-century Scotland. In a reversal of our Norwegian parallels, I would suggest that its best hope is building a strong regional base: just as Sámi is much more important in Northern Norway without having much of an impact down south, so written Scots – perhaps in a more regionalized Scotland – could gain legitimacy in a more local context. But I don’t know quite enough about that part of the world to make any definite pronouncements.

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About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I’m a Senior Lecturer in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.



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