Is the Norwegian language under threat? Could it one day disappear from daily use and perhaps sink under the surface of the linguistic ocean? Many have expressed the concern that English is becoming increasingly prominent, but are Norwegians really losing their native tongue, or are Norwegian and English in fact forging a dynamic partnership, fighting fit and futureproof?
A losing battle?
Two decades ago, the respected academic and former chairman of the Language Council of Norway (Språkrådet), Sylfest Lomheim, opined that by the year 2100, Norwegian would die out as a written language and remain only in spoken form. He was commenting on a trend that had started to become more noticeable around that time: larger companies adopting English as their corporate language and more and more academic research being published in English.
So twenty years on, can we say that he was right? Are we moving in a direction that will see Norwegian pushed to one side in any other contexts than say ordering a takeaway (called takeaway in Norwegian), or hailing a taxi (called taxi in Norwegian), or going on a date (called date in Norwegian), or… well, I think you get the point?
The bigger and more international a business is, the more English is used.
There is ample room for worry. In 2015, a large survey conducted by the Language Council of Norway found that nearly 7 out of 10 Norwegian corporations used English in their business communications; even 40% of businesses with Norwegian-only customers did the same. Usage does vary based on several factors: the bigger and more international the business is, the more English is used.
The tendency to use English is also spreading like linguistic knotweed in academia. As early as two decades ago, 71% of academic publications were published in English. By 2006, only 2.4% of science publications were published in Norwegian, in sharp contrast to 55.4% of publications in the humanities (hurrah for us humanities graduates).
Keeping pace with technology
In addition, over these past two decades another development has intensified: the rise and spread and all-encompassing ubiquitousness of the internet, with its related new technologies and gadgets and apps, and most of them with names in other languages than Norwegian. The pace of the development has made it all but impossible for language officialdom to keep up with technology usage.
The Language Council of Norway does suggest Norwegian terms, but these often miss the mark. The term they came up with to replace “netbook”, for example, was the eight-syllable long mouthful minibærbar datamaskin (mini-portable data-machine). It hasn’t spread. But it’s not only individual terms: if you want to connect with people globally, English is the go-to language – whether you’re gaming or discussing current affairs.
Various policy approaches have been attempted to keep the flame of Norwegian burning: the Nordic Council of Ministers has created a working group that came up with ten recommendations for promoting the parallel use of native Nordic languages and English in academia, and the Language Council of Norway is working continuously with businesses, organisations and government to promote not only the use of Norwegian, but clear and concise Norwegian. A worthy goal, no doubt.
But are those who are trying to hold back the influx of English usage merely latter-day king Cnuts, pointlessly raging against the inevitable rising tide of English? Well, not necessarily.
Recent surveys conducted among business leaders and the general public by the Language Council of Norway, found that 62% of respondents believed it was important to actively use Norwegian where possible, and another found that 57% wanted all advertising to be in Norwegian. People were found to be accustomed to the presence of English, but also in favour of using Norwegian wherever possible.
Within businesses the attitude was also shown to be English when we must, Norwegian when we can, meaning that English is almost only used where the international nature of the business transaction (foreign customers or multi-national board meetings) requires it.
So even though the international nature of sectors such as oil and gas, shipping, finance and technology means that businesses must use English as a lingua franca, the active presence of Norwegian within organisations for most daily communications is still strong. In addition, many reputable international businesses make the effort of having corporate communication translated, thus becoming part of the solution, rather than the problem.
A report by the Language Council of Norway found that 60% of users responded that they spend more time doing their work when standards are in English.
Where business and government agencies could do better is in having industry and regulatory standards translated. The 2017 report by the Language Council of Norway on the status of Norwegian found that in 2016, 1,059 European or international standards were adopted as Norwegian standards, but only 31(!) of these were translated into Norwegian – that’s a mere 2.9%. It’s similar for other years.
The same report by the Language Council of Norway also found that 60% of users responded that they spend more time doing their work when standards are in English, with respectively 30% and 28% saying that English text has led to misunderstandings and even mistakes. Translation can save time and money.
Within academia, one of the main obstacles to publishing in Norwegian is the need for brownie-points earned on international recognition within one’s field of study. In order to clock up professorial “likes”, the article or thesis must be read across the world.
In cooperation with the Language Council, Norway’s universities have introduced language policies and many academics are themselves making a concerted effort to write in their native tongue. Together with the above-mentioned policy of parallel publishing, Norwegian should therefore still have a healthy showing within academia.
Professor Anne-Line Graedler at the University of Oslo maintains that despite a 750% increase in anglicisms between 1945 and 1999, Norwegian has a well-demonstrated ability to absorb loanwords, either in their original form (pub and bacon), or by giving them a spelling that sits more naturally with Norwegian orthography. Examples of the latter include the French “chauffeur” becoming sjåfør and the English “handbrake” becoming håndbrekk (which really ought to mean a fracture of the hand). The vocabulary will change and expand, but the integrity of the language remains – much as has happened to English itself over the ages, as professor Graedler points out.
Resistance is not futile
And in most cases where the Norwegian name for a new phenomenon or piece of technology is good enough, there are clear signs that users are happy to adopt it.
Four factors determine whether a localised neologism wins favour with users: brevity, sound, rhythm and the power of association.
A good example is the success of the Norwegian term for “tablet”, namely nettbrett (web-board). Notice it is two syllables just like the original, and it is a clever term that describes its referent beautifully. It was the technology journalist Per K. Bjørkeng who came up with this term for an article on the iPad tablet in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Bjørkeng believes four factors determine whether a localised neologism wins favour with users: brevity, sound, rhythm and the power of association. Nettbrett has all of these.
Becoming part of the solution, as mentioned above, also makes commercial sense. We know that Norwegians prefer to be addressed by companies in their own language. We also know that the Nordic consumers spent £20 billion online in 2017, with total imports amounting to a staggering $423 billion. As an international business it therefore pays to lift your voice above the crowded marketplace and speak to the Norwegian and indeed Nordic consumer’s heart – by having your commercial communication translated by experienced translators who know their nettbrett from their minibærbar datamaskin.
Norwegians are in fact snow-meltingly passionate about their language.
The well-tempered, level-headed Norwegians are in fact snow-meltingly passionate about their language. Hugely popular shows have been running on national radio and television exploring every aspect of language, from general vocabulary to the peculiarities of regional dialects. In newspapers’ letter pages and on social media groups, debates rage over the questionable use of a preposition and countless other linguistic topics.
It is therefore reasonable to assert that people who care this strongly about their native tongue are not about to lose it.