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Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics

Ed. by Rutten, Gijsbert / Auer, Anita / del Valle, José / Vosters, Rik / Pickl, Simon

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Agnete Nesse: Innføring i norsk språkhistorie

Simon Pröll
Published Online: 2015-05-06 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0008

Reviewed publication

Innføring i norsk språkhistorie, by Agnete Nesse. Cappelen Damm, Oslo, 2013, ISBN 978-8-20240-048-4, 229 pp., NOK 369.00

At a first glance, this introductory text on the history of Norwegian seems to be targeted at B.A. students of Norwegian. However, given that the author has a strong interest in the social aspects of language history, a second look might reveal its relevance for advanced students or researchers who share this interest. Evidence of this orientation can already be observed in the preface, where the conundrum of Historical Sociolinguistics is presented in a nutshell: “Det er altså slik at teksteksemplene og språkhistorien vår i stor grad er en historie om språket til overklassens menn” 1 (p. 8).

The six chapters of the book each deal with one period of Norwegian language history; the author stresses in the introduction that the divisions constituting the first three periods are those commonly used, while the latter three are new divisions proposed by the author. She motivates this new arrangement with a view from below: “Grunnen til dette er et ønske om å la faktisk forandring i folks språkbruk være styrende for periodeinndelingen fremfor viktige politiske hendelser” 2 (p. 10).

The first chapter, dealing with the early history of the Norse language from about 450 to 1050, already underlines that the author did not intend to write an abstract structuralist grammar, but an introduction to change and variation – both diachronic and synchronic, with an eye on social processes. To illustrate the typological aspects in runic Old Norse and its evolvement into Old Norwegian in chapter two (spanning 1050 to 1350) and further to Middle Norwegian in chapter three (1350 to 1536), historical sources as well as characteristics of modern dialects are combined. Increasingly, the historical traits are linked to modern-day regional variation as well as differences between Nynorsk and Bokmål forms. En passant, Nesse explains in a comprehensible way phenomena that are either lost or have become highly grammaticalized in contemporary Norwegian (such as cases and case endings on pp. 44–46 or the subjunctive on p. 65). As the basic structure as outlined in the table of contents reveals, the focus of the book lies on the newer periods of Norwegian language history, starting with the Reformation in Denmark and Norway in 1536. While the first thousand years leading up to this date constitute roughly one third of the book, the other two thirds cover the remaining years until the orthographic reform of Nynorsk in 2012. Regarding the aim of the book – to explain the shape of modern Norwegian as a result of its social history –, this is as reasonable as it is inevitable: to write a sociohistorically informed text, the empirical basis obviously must depend on a solid number of sources from common people, which is easier to accomplish for the era of industrialization than the Viking age. In addition, it is also a question of focus: if the goal of history lies in explaining the present, going further back in time yields fever consequences for the present.

The fourth chapter on “dansketiden” (1536 to 1850), the era when Danish influence on Norwegian was intense, introduces new topics on the side: apart from information on domains and conditions of usage, there are extensive passages dealing with the specific language contact situations of the time. Of course, Danish is the main factor here, but there is also a strong focus on contact with Low and High German – a field in which Nesse is without doubt a proven expert (cf. Nesse 2002). A small passage even incorporates Russenorsk, the sole Norwegian-based pidgin (see Broch and Jahr 1984). Aspects of the education system are taken into account as well, along with contrasts between rural and urban conditions. The remainder of the chapter deals with the rise of national romanticism, a topic that already hints at the focus of the next chapter.

This fifth chapter, spanning the timeline from 1850 to 1965, concentrates on what the author aptly characterizes as “et stor språkexperiment” 3 (p. 129): the gradual evolution and construction of two written standards – Bokmål and Nynorsk – for one and the same language during the age of the Norwegian language conflict. Again, the spectrum of topics broadens; politics, purism and standardization issues now play an important role as well. Both approaches to define a written Norwegian standard – the adoption and adaption of Danish spellings leading to Bokmål, and the construction of what later became Nynorsk from predominantly rural dialects – are explained in detail. Additionally, there is a lot to be found about spoken Norwegian, among other things the relationship between dialects and the emerging broadcast media or the spread of new dialect features such as uvular [ʁ] and retroflex sounds. A good portion of the chapter is also used to address changes in the pragmatic side of Norwegian language use.

The final chapter (dealing with the years 1965 to 2012) picks up on these pragmatic innovations. In addition, it deals with the (political) de-escalation of the language conflict and the actions taken to minimize discrimination through language use. Apart from fitting “modern” technologies into the big picture of change, Nesse again illustrates processes that led (and still lead) to spatial variation in modern Norwegian, most prominently the ongoing merger of <sj> and <kj>.

Throughout the book, a lot of language variation data is directly illustrated using original documents – letters, court documents and contracts as well as diaries and other private documents (thankfully none of them have been normalized). Some of them are even displayed in color photographs (e.g. of the Gyda-pinnen, a wooden rune stick, on p. 40). If they date back earlier than the 1850s, they are also given in modern Norwegian spelling. The corresponding analyses are thorough and clear, often providing a practical in-depth perspective on theoretical points. Along the way, Nesse manages to keep the reader on track where the data is located on the continuous scale between orality and script culture (e.g. pp. 103–107). Additionally, even though writing an introductory textbook, she explicitly points out the limitations and caveats of historical methods and diachronic data: “Det vil si at enhver generalisering vi gjør av språket i en viss periode, bør utdypes med forskjeller knyttet til sjanger og den sosiale bakgrunnen til den som skrev” 4 (p. 97). Every chapter closes with practice questions, a key to which is provided at the end of the book (pp. 213–217). The text is also enriched with boxes explaining more or less fundamental linguistic terminology (“ordforklaring”). While most of these boxes will probably be skipped by readers above a very basic linguistic training, they are nonetheless effectively placed and allow non-linguists to study the text without impediment. The book closes with an index spanning five pages.

Obviously, the book was not written to be used as a traditional synchronic historical grammar (resources of this kind are available in abundance; see Larsen 1978; Ranke and Hofmann 1979; Faarlund 2008 to illustrate some examples). The big innovation that sets this introduction apart from other books on Norwegian language history (and books on the histories of languages in general) is the decidedly socio-cultural angle that is present on every page. A bonus is that it is also well written and exhibits a concise and clear structure, even when it touches on a plethora of different aspects. Thus, the biggest benefit of this strong text is probably a didactical one: it shows that it is both feasible and worthwhile to approach undergraduate linguistic teaching from a clear sociohistorical perspective.


  • Broch, Ingvild & Ernst Håkon Jahr. 1984. Russenorsk. Et pidginspråk i Norge, 2. utgave. Oslo: Novus. Google Scholar

  • Faarlund, Jan Terje. 2008. The syntax of old norse. With a survey of the inflectional morphology and a complete bibliography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar

  • Larsen, Erling Georg. 1978. Norrøn Grammatikk. 2. opplag. Oslo, Bergen, Tromsø: Universitetsforlaget. Google Scholar

  • Nesse, Agnete. 2002. Språkkontakt mellom norsk og tysk i hansatidens bergen. Oslo: Novus. Google Scholar

  • Ranke, Friedrich & Dietrich Hofmann. 1979. Altnordisches Elementarbuch. Einführung, Grammatik, Texte (zum Teil mit Übersetzung) und Wörterbuch. Berlin: de Gruyter. Google Scholar


  • 1

    ‘It is thus the case that the text examples and our language’s history are at large a history of the speech of upper class men’ (all translations from Norwegian S.P.). 

  • 2

    ‘The reason for this is a desire to let the actual changes in the people’s language determine the division into separate periods of time instead of important political events’. 

  • 3

    ‘a large-scale linguistic experiment’. 

  • 4

    ‘This means that every generalisation we make of the language of a certain period needs to be qualified using differences tied to genre and the social background of the writer’. 

About the article

Published Online: 2015-05-06

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics, Volume 1, Issue 1, Pages 139–142, ISSN (Online) 2199-2908, ISSN (Print) 2199-2894, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jhsl-2015-0008.

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