I always hear, from Norwegians, Brazilians, Chinese – everyone – that English is very hard to learn. They say it is because English is notorious for breaking all the rules. For example: why does ‘heard’ and ‘beard’ have different vowel sounds when they have the same ending ‘-eard’? Same with ‘great’, ‘treat’ and ‘threat’? There are very good reasons for all this – ones that have trully made me appreciate Norwegian.
In Europe, language used to be written in Runes and words were phonically spelt. Therefore you could get numerous spellings of the same word. I’m sure dialect would of had a great effect on the written word. During the periods of Old (450-1150) to Middle English (1150-1500), a form of Roman alphabet was used by scribes. However, words were still written phonetically and so many spelling variations developed (even from the same scribe!). But this didn’t cause much of a problem when it came to reading. Phonetic writing made texts easier to decipher as there were no (use or need for) silent letters – every letter in a word was meant to be pronounced.
In the late Middle English period a written standard developed because of the record keeping in London courts. This is known as ‘Chancery English’. However, it was still based on ‘free spelling’ though certain spellings or combinations of letters such as ‘gh’ and ‘th’ at the end of words became the norm. Then a language change occurred known as the ‘Great Vowel Shift‘ where all the vowel sounds in English moved up a notch and muddled up the scribes with their spelling. Another change occurred with the introduction of the printing press in 1476. It helped to standardise spelling by ‘repetition’. However, rather than formally standardising English (by way of using the sounds or spelling of words from one area), the press borrowed spellings from different scribes, different areas, different peoples and different classes. They were also peer-pressured into using ‘posh’ spellings so the snobby upper-class would think it trendy to read the paper. (Should have known it was the press who wrecked English.)
Since then English spelling has been dependent on regional dialects, popular trends and scribe misspellings. The ‘intellectuals’ have always squabbled over standardising English – which are the ‘proper’ spellings, the ‘proper’ sounds, the ‘proper English’ – but no one can seem to agree on a regular system. Therefore English has never been reformed. This means English spelling has been left to the devices of the people, forever changing.
So what does all this have to do with Norwegian? Well, Old Norse and Old English developed very much in the same way. Firstly, Old Norse, just like Old English, began by using a runic alphabet. Secondly, Old Norse was spelt phonetically, pronouncing every letter in a word, just like English. And, thirdly, Old Norse started using the Roman alphabet with the spread of Christianity, like English. However, after the Viking Age different effects on the languages made them develop in different ways. Today there are two main differences of English and Norwegian – Norwegian didn’t go through the Great Vowel Shift, meaning it has retained its vowel sounds from Old Norse, and in 1907 Norwegian went through a language reform, just two years after independence, which defined the Norwegian of today.
I must note that the language ‘Old Norse’ died out about 300 years after the Viking Age. From the 1400s Norway was ruled by Denmark which governed the language. Danish was considered the official language and ‘Norwegian’ was the language of the people. After independence in 1905 Norway ‘reclaimed’ its languages, especially through the development of Nynorsk (meaning ‘real’ Norwegian) which was influenced by what was considered ‘country dialect’. In 1952 the Språkrådet began to maintain the Norwegian language, especially keeping an eye on the two written forms bokmål and nynorsk. They also ‘Norwegianised’ modern and new words to make sure Norwegian doesn’t go astray.
Even though Norwegian has been reformed into a national standard it is very similar to what it was in Old Norse times, including spelling, compared to English. Evidence of this can be found in English. During the Viking Age, Scandinavian ‘contact’ introduced new words to the inhabitants of the British Isles. One of these words was ‘barn’ (meaning child or children). This word is used today in Scotland and still retains its original spelling and meaning, as it does in Norwegian.
‘Knife’ is also another word that English borrows from Norwegian. What is interesting to note is that the word is still spelt the same in both languages but pronounced differently. If there wasn’t so much grammar change and no Great Vowel Shift, English could still be pronouncing ‘knife’ like the Norsemen ‘keh-nee-feh’.
I must say, one thing that certainly makes modern Norwegian very easy to read and write is its phonetic spelling. Each letter in a word, or combination of letters, has only one sound (barring the few ‘safe’ rules of silent letters). But because Norwegian has retained its Old Norse phonetic spelling, if you don’t know how to say a Norwegian word you can start sounding it out from the beginning to the end – reading the word, each letter, from left to right – and get it correct. However, the way Modern English is now constructed, a reader is required to ‘chunk-read’ the word in one go in order to pronounce it properly (eg. brake and receive). This certainly makes English a lot harder to read and pronounce, especially when there are no ‘safe’ rules for silent letters and combination sounds. If Modern English retained its old spelling and sounds it would look and sound very much like todays Norwegian.
Taim flais vehn jå havyng fahn!
I am so glad English is my native language. No wonder Norwegians have to learn English in school for 12 years. And even after that they are still nervous to speak with the English!