Monday, 16 March 2009

Det Norske Samlaget

Language and identity are intertwined. National awareness sometimes goes hand in hand with violence, as in Northern Ireland, Euskadi and Palestine, even this century. But at other times, as when the Baltic States broke with the Soviet Union in 1991, secession was achieved almost without incident. Even today, a peaceful move to secession, based partly on language, is brewing in Catalonia.

Norwegian national aspirations had been around since pre-1814, when after a brief war with Sweden, Norway became part of a dual monarchy. And in 1830, Norwegian language reform took place. In the 1840s and 1850s, Ivar Aasen began to create a new written language, nynorsk, based on dialects. Norway broke with Sweden in 1905. It is intriguing that in Norway, like in Finland, two significant literary languages are used (Sámi is more international). But unlike in Finland, the two languages of Norway are closely linked.

Scroll forward to 1978. In that year, a publishing house was created that publishes books only in this minority version of written Norwegian: Det Norske Samlaget. Nowadays it publishes around 200 titles per year on a variety of subjects, including fiction and poetry. Novels are also translated into nynorsk, such as one by French author Anna Gavalda among those published in spring 2009. See the following webpage for the details of other authors, mostly writing originally in nynorsk at:

And their main sjønnlitteratur page:,21

One of the authors celebrated on their website is Jon Fosse, major Norwegian playwright and novelist, who is 50 this year. But there are many other authors there, such as short-story author Frode Grytten, and writers producing their first books, such as Hilde K. Kvalvaag, Gaute M. Sortland, and Rune F. Hjemås. The famous novelist Kjartan Fløgstad is also well represented here by various books.

The bokmål majority (around 88% of Norwegians) have not always been happy with the fact that nynorsk continues to be taught and promoted in schools. In 2005, some young conservatives symbolically burnt a copy of a nynorsk dictionary. And the percentage of children being taught nynorsk in primary schools is a mere 14%. But for the time being, the publishing house Det Norske Samlaget continues to thrive.


David McDuff said...

I've always found the enthusiasm for Nynorsk a bit hard to grasp - it seems such an artificial language, like Lallans in Scotland. And who actually speaks it? I recall a young Anglo-Norwegian university lecturer who used to appear at Norwegian embassy functions in London speaking what was supposed to be Nynorsk. Some Norwegians of my acquaintance told me that even they couldn't understand what he was saying.

Eric Dickens said...

Nynorsk may indeed be a kind of written Esperanto, cobbled together from dialects, but I am still fascinated by the movement, the urban-versus-rural and working-versus-middle-class aspects. The literature doesn't, it would seen, have as many "plukey cunt"-type of authors, such as Doric has in Irvine Welsh.

One nynorsk author who is genuinely sophisticated is Jon Fosse, best known as a playwright. But his small novel "Morgon og kveld" is a masterpiece, albeit written in this Norwegian 'Esperanto'.

I am, by the way, no fan of the real Esperanto. One of the reasons is administrative-ideological. Ludwig Zamenhof, its inventor, was always preaching the open-church principle about this artificial language. But when a group of people tried to reform some of the more clumsy aspects of the language, Zamenhof called a halt to all reform.

Actually, I find nynorsk slightly easier to read than bokmål, because some of the dialects it borrows from are nearer to Swedish than to Danish, which bokmål resembles.

Whether speakers of bokmål genuinely cannot understand nynorsk, or whether this is a ploy, is always hard to tell. An analogous case is the language Afrikaans, which is, admittedly rather difficult to understand when spoken, if coming from Dutch. However, during apartheid, Dutch people would quite disingenuously claim that the written version too was incomprehensible. This is not the case; written, standard, Afrikaans is very close indeed to Dutch.