Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Catch-22 of a Small Language

Norway is a very small country. We just passed the five million mark last year. And outside of Norway, there are not a great many people who speaks our language. Not many at all. And if you look at the demographics, we’re not growing all that fast either.

I love my language. Obviously. It is my native tongue. 

In a way, there are many advantages being such a small language. For one, the costs per capita (so to speak) of dubbing films, translating books, etc. are very high. That means that films are not dubbed and not very many books are being translated into Norwegian. So for that reason and others, we are very exposed to other languages - first and foremost English, of course. And thus, on the whole, we have quite good foreign language skills. Most people can to some extent communicate in English, and many people in other languages. All good.

On the flip side, in certain areas, we have to rely on foreign literature and media. I referred to this in a post back in 2009 titled «More on language - sub-standard Norwegian non-fiction». The main point was that the volume of non-fiction literature in Norwegian is very scant, and the number of good quality works low. This is an issue in academia.

But also outside of academia, this is a problem. Let’s say if you want to check up on something on the Internet. For me, I practically always type in the English search term when I want to look up something, sometimes even when my search relates to Norway. If you compare en.wikipedia with no.wikipedia, the contrast in striking. The volume of information in the Norwegian version is a fraction of the English one, and a lot of articles are not yet written.

And also, for certain stuff on the Internet, the English speaking community is obviously so much larger than the Norwegian-speaking one. Then you got the choice of relating to a tiny Norwegian community or a vast English speaking community online. This of course also goes for academia.

So, back to the title of this post: «The Catch-22 of a Small Language». Do we want to further the use of Norwegian whenever we can, produce Norwegian non-fiction literature that will be read by a handful of individuals, relate online to not many more? Or do we want to communicate in English (which is relatively easy for most people), and reach many more? If we choose the former, we will strengthen Norwegian as a language, I think, but isolate ourselves more. If we choose the latter, we will weaken Norwegian, but to a larger extent be part of a global community. It is a sliding scale, of course, but where on the scale do we want to be?

Nevertheless, it is a Catch-22 situation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gallons and litres - some thoughts on cars and culture

Recently, I heard a radio ad (or, rather a podcast ad) for the new Ford Focus. These days, every brand and company takes every opportunity to boast its green credentials and high environmental standards. This ad was no exception. The claim was forty miles to the gallon of petrol, which I believe is pretty good.

The ad was an American one. Had it been Norwegian or European, it would have had the same claim, I’m sure. But in would have been reversed. It would have claimed so many litres per kilometer. The difference is perhaps a subtle one, but I think it contains some important insights to our cultures, which in many ways are quite different.

Everything is bigger in America, they say. Cars are bigger, cans of coke are larger, and of course meals are bigger (note the fact that MacDonald's doesn’t have small sized meals, only medium and larger). Likewise with this particular example. First of all, a gallon is a larger measure of volume than the litre. A gallon is roughly four litres. And the mile is slightly more than one and a half kilometre (more precisely 1609,344 metres).

But most interestingly is this: In the American way of measuring petrol consumption, the focus is how far you can go on one unit of petrol (i.e. gallon). In the European measure, the important thing is how little petrol you use on a set distance (i.e. kilometer). So, it seems to me that the miles per gallon measure is more focused on how far you can go, not on how «green» or environmentally friendly the vehicle is and how much petrol you burn off. More so with the European way whose mentality is perhaps a bit more reserved and modest.

Also (and according to the «big in America»-thought), the more miles per gallon, the better. For the European way it is completely opposite; the smaller the litres per kilometer measure, the better. For the Ford Focus, the measure was 40 miles per gallon. For a fuel-saving European car, 0.5 or so would be good, but less would be even better.

In the American psyche, according to my understanding, a car is freedom. And the further you can go with your car, the more free you are. Driving into the sunset with your Mustang along the Route 66, and all those other clichés. The Americans were never much for trains and other means of collective transportation, but rather a nation of drivers.

Anyway, it's interesting to see how little things sometimes can say a lot about different mentalities...

Friday, March 5, 2010

The most sexy Norwegian dialect

So, it is finally officially confirmed, what all us northerners already knew. In a survey made by InFact, the dialect (or should I say dialects) of northern Norway has come out top as being the most attractive dialect in Norway.

I may be partly to this, but I must say that I agree with this conclusion. The dialects of Northern Norway has some sexy associations and connotations to it in many respects; it is something fresh and honest about it. Interestingly enough, the dialect that come out second in the survey was the far-south dialect; on the other extreme of our country.

As I also brushed upon in my previous post, Horsecocks and sissies, the sense of identity is pretty strong up north. The conclusions from the survey is that the self-perception of northerners is no longer connected to loud swearing and vulgar jokes (which of course is an improvement).

Check out Finnmarken for a (Norwegian) article on this.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Horsecocks and sissies - stereotypes and self-perception

Some time ago, a southerner (a person from southern Norway that is), visited a small fishing village up north. To start with he had a hard time understanding the ways and humor of the people in the little town, but as the days passed on he got to know them better and better, and befriended them all. As the day came when he was to leave, they had a farewell party organized for him. And as the party drew to a close, one of the townspeople rose up to say the last words. At the end of his little speech, he said that "we have all concluded that you are in fact a really nice horsecock", and although the southerner himself was a bit puzzled by this remark, many of the townspeople were touched to tears about this unbelievable compliment.

This story is probably not a hundred percent true, but it nevertheless highlights some of the perceptions of northerners in our country - that is both their own self perception and the perception of others. Now, the fact that there is a divide in some ways between people in different regions in a country is nothing particular for Norway. You do have the same in France, in the UK, in the USA, and in Germany (think Ossies and Wessies), and problably any country in the world in fact. But what lies behind the differences (perceived and real) is quite interesting, I think.

According to the stereotype, the northerner is utterly straight forward. He is telling everything as it is, straight from the gut. Uncomplicated and unpretentious, he is free of any urbane streaks. And his language of course, is juicy and full of imaginative swearing. An independent soul, never giving up no matter how dark things (literally) look. And as for humor, it is at times dark, at times light hearted, but mostly very coarse and a lot of the time of a sexual nature.

I guess the development of the nature of the northerner (perceived or real) can be at least partly explained historically. (Note: the following is largely speculation and my interpretation of things. I do not have very much academical backing for my claims here.) The northern parts were (and some say it is still) quite provincial, being the back waters of Norway. In fact large parts of the borders were not drawn out until in the mid 18th century, at least in part reflecting the irrelevance of this area for the government in Copenhagen (as Norway was in union with Denmark at this time).

It is easy to imagine how people in this situation would develop a character different from the urban centers down south. This situation would have encouraged a mentality of self-reliance, as people would have to cope with their lives without any help from outside, and in short a "tougher" and coarser mentality than you would typically get in more urbane settings. And of course, as people sometimes tend to define themselves by their differences compared to others, this might have been a self-reinforcing process as well: "We are a tough bunch, much tougher than those sissies down south"

Even today, a lot of northerners are defining themselves based on the perceived differences from southerners. We up north have an image of the "typical" southerner as a wimp and office rat, sipping his caffé latte or whatever they drink down there, and we define ourselves pretty much as the antithesis to this. We take pride in being able to withstand the harsh and cold weather (never mind that there are regions further south which have much colder weather than us), that we have such a coarse and simple humor, etc.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Oslo Blog Gathering 2010

There are some people in this world who has got an amazing passion for what they do, and who will go to great lengths for what they burn for and believe in. Renny Bakke Amundsen from RennyBA's Terella seems to be such a person.

This summer, he will be arranging the Oslo Blog Gathering, a five-day event for bloggers from all over the world. The Gathering will take place on August 18-22. This will provide a great opportunity for bloggers to meet up, make connections and the aquaintance of other fellow bloggers, and enjoy the city of Oslo in good company. If you are interested, please check out the website of Oslo Blog Gathering.

If you are not already familiar with Renny's blog, I urge you to check it out. He's writing extensively and in an interesting way on a lot of topics concerning Norway and Norwegian culture.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Some further comments and reflections on "Storsamfunnet"

(This is a comment to my last post, "Storsamfunnet")

It's funny sometimes when you've been thinking about something, and you found yourself constantly stumbling over things that are connected to this particular subject. This happens all the time to me.

I just read a book called Å gjøre en forskjell (To make a difference) by the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre. In his book, Støre is referring to the American sociologist Robert Putnam and his thoughts about what he calls "Social Capital". Social Capital is in a sense the glue that binds us together as a society. It is the feeling that we are a society, a feeling of mutuality in the society, of trust, and a feeling that each of is is part of the society.

In Bowling Alone Putnam shows how the American society is disintegrating in the sense that social and civic bonds are being weakened and are withering away. Partaking in NGOs, community service of any kind, etc. is on the wane. People are more focused on individual rights than in taking part in activities that improves the social capital of the country.

I see this as being directly relevant to the attitudes and mentality I described in my previous post. When your view of society is that there is a big bad monster - the big society or "storsamfunnet" - that you are not a part of and that is fundamentally opposed to your own interests, then there is definitely a case of a lack trust between yourself and society. If a lot of people feel there is a big divide between themselves and the society at large (which is really just everyone else, isn't it?), that cannot be good for society as such. Norway tends to take pride in being very egalitarian in many ways. But the idea that there is a "big society" dominating the "little people" is contrary to this.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Occasionally I think and reflect upon words and terms in our language. Language is a funny thing - full of quirks, connotations, color, subtle or hidden meaning, etc. One of the terms I have some issues with I addressed in one of my post from October 2008, titled Social levelling. Another term that I have thought about quite a bit, but I never came to terms with and have never quite understood is "storsamfunnet". Translated, it means society at large or big society or something like that.

The term seems to be mostly used when there is somebody (a person or a group, most a minority one) that has been treated at variance with their rights, or in some way been treated unfairly or oppressed. A lot of times, the perpetrator of these sins is "storsamfunnet". It seems to me that the term is all but exclusively used by the political left.

Like many terms, this is one that only helps to muddle any nuanced and precise debate. It is devoid of any real meaning but conjures up a whole host of connotations. What comes up in my imagination when I hear talk of "storsamfunnet" is an army of faceless and heartless bureaucrats hellbent on making the lives of the "little people" (whoever they are) as miserable as they possibly can. From their shady offices they plot on ceaselessly to oppress any independent thinking there might be in the nation. Of course, you couldn't name any of these boogiemen, it's as if they're not really there as individuals, only as a group. But they are there - make no mistake about it - lurking in the shadows and under beds. And they are up to no good. Needless to say, "big society" is capitalistic to the teeth and fiercely loyal to USA.

In my opinion, the usage of such a term betrays a fundamentally pessimistic, negative and slightly paranoid world view. The state is not there to make our lives and coexistence better, more organised and safer. No, it's there to oppress us, to put us all under surveillance, to take away our liberties, to control us.

Well, to sum up all these chaotic ramblings in a way; I never really understood this term, and I can't really see what this "big society" is as opposed to normal society. And I think I am too optimistic and positive about the role of the state in the modern world to buy into any conspiracy that "big society" is there mainly to oppress us..