The fusion of Norwegian English
English, we often hear, is the world’s first truly global language, spoken in more places by more people than any other language in history. Partly this is so, simply, because there are more people today than at any previous time and because more of the world is known than was in Antiquity. In the time of Alexander the Great, Greek was spoken by fewer than ten million individuals, none of whom would have known about the millions who spoke other languages in Asia, southern Africa, Polynesia, and North and South America. And partly English is global because of modern technology. We have the instant communication of films, mobiles, and the Internet, while Caesar had to rely on the laborious production of hand-written copies for a limited literate audience.
Language is malleable
But another part of the reason that English is global is that the language itself is malleable, shaped by the experiences of those who use it. So it’s not the case that one kind of English or one kind of pronunciation is spreading the world over. Many kinds are, and as they spread they reflect less the circumstances of speakers from English’s traditional homelands and more those of speakers from places where English is learned as a second or third language.
Norway is such a place. The current population is slightly over 5 million people, of whom nearly 4.5 million speak English. That’s more than in any UK city save London, or in any US city save New York. If Norway were one of the United States, it would rank ahead of Oregon, Oklahoma, and about 20 other states in number of English speakers. There are nearly as many English speakers in Norway as in the Republic of Ireland or New Zealand.
A linguistic jazz riff
But that doesn’t mean that Norwegians speak and write the same English that’s heard in any of these other places. Indeed, not only do a lot of Norwegians speak English, and speak it well, they do so in an often distinctively Norwegian way. Occasionally, the English stands discreetly beside the Norwegian, joined to it but kept separate at the same time. And so a brochure to attract students to study abroad programs linguistically embodies the cosmopolitan outlook it fosters: “Go Places – studer I utlandet!”
And sometimes English becomes little more than an inspiration for something like a linguistic jazz riff. Even though Norwegian has a perfectly good counterpart to kitchen (kjøkken), one store specializing in glassware, small appliances and the like goes by the name Kitch’n. Here, thanks to an inscrutable but eye-catching apostrophe, English is turned into a decorative object, surrounded by the primary language, Norwegian, which is used to describe the store’s wares. But before we conclude that this is a one-off, consider this sign found outside a used bookshop: “Please Help Yourself Gratis Bøker.” A switch to Norwegian could occur either with bøker or with gratis, since the latter is current in Norwegian as well as English. But wherever the Norwegian begins, it is English that serves as the primary language. Given the transparency of the Norwegian, in fact, the change of languages almost seems superfluous.
This same example suggests, though, that English, like all languages, always has been subject to the influence of its speakers. As an adjective, the now very common gratis is first recorded only in 1659 (the adverbial use is nearly two centuries older) and it represents (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) a contraction of the Latin “ablative” plural gratiis. English readers of Latin borrowed and adapted Latin in their English, then, just as Norwegian speakers of English borrow and adapt Norwegian in their English today.
Is that English or Norwegian?
An even better example of such linguistic adaptation occurs on a sign outside a nightclub: “Ivars Kro, Live Musikk & Pianobar.” Now kro means “tavern,” so the name of the establishment is simply “Ivar’s Tavern.” What Ivar’s offers, though, is a kind of fusion experience that blends an English adjective (live) with a Norwegian noun that has the same sense and largely the same pronunciation as its English equivalent, music. Written, musikk is Norwegian; spoken, it could come across as English in a Norwegian accent. And this hybrid noun itself is matched with the apparently English compound pianobar. I say only “apparently” because by this point in this very short sign, as with gratis in a previous example, it’s not entirely clear what language is being used.
Then there’s an advert for Litago (‘brief journey’, more-or-less), a brand of flavored milk. The Litago logo is a rather jaunty cow, sometimes depicted on downhill skis and wearing a jumper made from the Norwegian flag. At the top of the advert is the text
This is language as imaginative as an alpine cow wrapped in a Nordic insignia. The leftmost column of words is all Norwegian, the rightmost all English, and the two together something that might be Norwegian but also might be English.
Purists can be aghast at the way English is developing as its speakers, increasingly, are second- and third-language learners from around the world. Of course, purists once were aghast at the way English took shape in regional British dialects or in the United States. Perhaps some still are. But Norwegian English is a creative, expressive, and often witty way to use language. And it reflects the kind of adaptation that is necessary for any language to remain alive. Is it English? As a Norwegian once responded to my question in another context, “Ja-ish.”
Tim William Machan is the author of What Is English? And Why Should We Care?