Tag Archives: languages

Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Ivar Aasen?!

by Carrie Levesque

parlez-vous-quebecois-500I’ve always loved to study languages. I grew up in a bilingual area close to the Quebec border where a French dialect nearly unrecognizable to the French (and sometimes to the Quebecois from whom it derived) is widely spoken. In college I continued to study French, majored in Russian and took a few semesters of Spanish because I had a crush on the professor. As a graduate student in Slavic literatures, I studied Croatian for a summer in ultra-Catholic Zagreb, where the prize for the best language student was a large coin with a fetus on it (it was OK with me that I didn’t win). While I’ve met with many linguistic frustrations over the years (the Russian case system, French verb tenses) little in these experiences prepared me for the hot mess that is learning Norwegian as a foreigner in Norway.

A Norwegian to Norwegian translating dictionary.

A Norwegian-to-Norwegian translating dictionary. … No, really.

Because, you see, in Norway there is no standard spoken language. Norwegian literally has dialects without number, and there is no favored dialect. Your dialect is as good as mine. Mixing dialects: Also kosher. The Norwegian you learn in your Norwegian as a Second Language class is not the same Norwegian spoken on the street, and the Norwegian spoken on your street is different from the Norwegian spoken 50 miles down the road. In any Norwegian family one marries into, your spouse may speak a different dialect from his mother, who may speak a different dialect from her spouse. This is, of course, just a little inconvenient for non-native Norwegian speakers.

Back in the day, Danish was the standard written language of Norway. While the urban elite also spoke the same Danish they wrote, or a Norwegianized form of it, the isolated rural populations spoke dialects that evolved only gradually from Old Norse (Vikingspeak) to something more closely resembling the Dano-Norwegian spoken in the cities.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Norway was liberated from Danish rule in 1814, and as this was the era of Romantic Nationalism, establishing one’s own national language and culture was a primary concern. Norwegian linguist Knud Knudsen began to standardize a more fully Norwegianized form of written Danish into what is today called bokmål (literally, ‘book language’). Meanwhile, a self-taught country boy named Ivar Aasen (who, in my opinion, could not just leave well enough alone) traveled throughout Norway’s far-flung rural settlements, compiling many different spoken dialects into Norway’s other official written language, nynorsk, or “new Norwegian” (sometimes called ‘spynorsk’ (or ‘Pukewegian’) by bokmål devotees).

nei-til-nynorskAlthough only about 15% of Norwegian schoolchildren opt for nynorsk as their language of primary instruction today, all schoolchildren learn both languages in school since nynorsk is the official written language of many counties, especially in Western Norway. So while Bergen is a bokmål city and all of its official written business is done in bokmål, it is located in a nynorsk county, and so all institutions administered by the county (the hospitals, universities and high schools) issue communications in nynorsk. And this doesn’t cover what is spoken in Bergen, which is its own crazy something else. The shock and despair I felt when I learned all of this has since diminished, but it may be years before it ever fully leaves.

I heart NynorskFrom the start, people in Norway have been deeply, personally invested in whichever regional dialect of Norwegian they speak or write, so much so that to affect an easier-to-understand dialect—for the sake of, say, helping a foreign student of Norwegian understand them—feels so wrong that in such circumstances they prefer to speak English. While in Norway, unlike in the US, there is by and large no stigma attached to speaking a dialect, there is a stigma attached to speaking a dialect that is not your own.

Early on it was decided that since it was its dialects that kept Norwegian distinct from Danish, the equal status of all dialects must be preserved. This is not to say that people don’t make fun of each other’s dialects; there is lots of good-natured discussion around whose dialect is the ugliest. But, to give an example, teachers in school cannot correct their students for speaking a different dialect.

So linguistically egalitarian are the Norwegians that Norway’s major public television networks also produce programming in the language of the Sami, the indigenous population living mostly in the north of Norway. Though there are only 40-50,000 Sami in a total population of 5 million, every day they broadcast children’s shows and the evening news in Samisk (with Norwegian subtitles). That would be like American public television networks providing daily programming in Navajo or Cherokee. Hard to imagine that happening.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

It is interesting to imagine what things would be like in the US if we regarded all dialects equally, as the Norwegians do. While I don’t know a lot about the history of our most prominent dialects’ development, I think a lot of the stigma directed in some regions of the country toward certain dialects comes from the complicated and often ugly history framing, for example, Northerners’ prejudice toward Southern dialects, or whites’ prejudice toward Ebonics. How might it challenge us to do some serious thinking about these parts of our history if we learned to view as equally valid the different language patterns that grew out of this history?

“Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers[,]” as W. Wolfram and N. Schilling-Estes explain in American English: Dialects and Variation. What does the way a nation treats its speakers of certain dialects say about the values of that society? Because even if Ivar Aasen made my life more difficult by preserving and legitimizing the dialects spoken by many of Norway’s most disenfranchised citizens, I see the great value of his larger project and its enduring message. Everyone matters. And the tool we use to express our worth—our language—matters, too.

Who Am I? (On Genealogy and Genetic Ancestry)

by Matt McKinnon

Who am I?

I have long been pestered by this question, seeking the answer not in a litany of likes and dislikes or the self-obsessed perspective that modern Western consumerist culture offers me.  But neither in the personal history of myself—where I’m from, where I’ve been, and so on.  Or even less in my career, my “profession,” what I do to make enough money to live comfortably and raise a family.

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No, my interest in identity has been more in my genealogy, my distant past, and what we now call “deep genealogy”—the history of my DNA, that mysterious code I have no control over but that dictates much of who I am.

2The more I have sought answers in these two areas, the more I have come to realize that they are decidedly different—that my genealogy (the relatively recent history of my family and ancestors) and my “deep genealogy” (the origins and history of my DNA) offer two quite different portraits—even though the latter, after tens of thousands of years, ultimately leads to the former.

But that’s the key: after tens of thousands of years.

I remember my first dabbling in genealogy when I was in high school: I had always known that my name, McKinnon—or rather MacKinnon—was Scottish in origin.  I had been told by my family that we were mostly “Scots-Irish,” a term which, I came to find out later, is basically an American invention used rarely if ever in either Scotland or Ireland.  It can denote the Ulster Scots whom the English used to colonize Northern Ireland in the 17th century (and are thus not “genetically” Irish at all), or Lowland Scots and those of the Borderlands between Scotland and England.

3But a little research soon proved that the MacKinnon name is Highland, not Lowland or Border, and certainly not “Scots-Irish.”  The Highlands and Islands of Scotland are mostly Gaelic, and hence Celtic in origin, while the Scots of the Lowlands are a mix of Celtic, Roman, German, English, Scandinavian, Irish, and Scottish in varying amounts.  And since our most recent Scottish ancestor was a MacKinnon who left the Isle of Skye sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century, my Highland ancestry was confirmed.

So I spent the rest of my high school days donning plaid scarves, Shetland wool sweaters, and Harris Tweed caps and playing records of bagpipe music at home that frightened the cat and annoyed my parents and siblings to no end.

But deep down, I knew that this was not answer enough.  Indeed, ethnic identity continued to elude me and offer more questions than answers.

And it still does, even after countless hours spent researching family history and genealogy, and hundreds of dollars spent on research and DNA analysis.  Perhaps my developing awareness of the fragmentary and somewhat arbitrary nature of what we call “history” has made my search one of exponential questions instead of hard and fast answers.

For what we call “Celtic” is in fact a linguistic designation, like (and related to) “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic.”  These are first and foremost language identifiers and not “genetic” ones.

So MacKinnon, being a Highland name, at least designates my ethnic identity as Celtic, right?

Perhaps.  At least to some extent.  But what does that really mean?

After all, these groups—Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic—are only Indo-European linguistic identifiers with origins in a shared Proto-Indo-European population of tribes who inhabited Europe most probably during the late Neolithic Age (circa 4000 BCE).  Only then did these peoples begin their various migrations north and west as they differentiated into the more well-known (if often mistakenly applied) names like the Celts, Germans, Slavs, Romans, etc…

4The point being that, any location of one’s ancestry as “Scottish,” or “Highland,” or “Gaelic,” or “Celtic,” or, for that matter “Germanic” or “Balto-Slavic” is rather arbitrary in that it assigns prominence to one moment in a wave of modern human migration that began in Africa some 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is today Eastern Europe about 30,000 years later.  From there, these various groups migrated into all directions, as wave after wave of tribes populated Europe, developing different cultures and languages, though all sharing the same not-too-distant Indo-European past.

(It is interesting to note as well that these folks only started to look “European,” i.e., “white” around 11,000 BCE.)

5So that Highland MacKinnon ancestry I was so sure about?  Well, it turns out that a deep DNA analysis confirms my paternal lineage (the Y-chromosome of my father’s father’s father’s father’s father…all the way back to its beginning) to be that of Haplogroup (I won’t even get into it) I2, subgroup a2.

Haplogroup I began 30,000-40,000 years ago in Eastern Europe, with I1 and I2 diverging about 6,000 years later.  I2a arose about 11,000 years ago in the Balkans and is still today concentrated in Eastern Europe and Russia.  I2a2, that of my Highland Scots paternal DNA, only emerged some 7800 years ago, also in the Balkans, before starting its migration north into Central and Eastern Europe as well as Russia.

And, at some point, as the DNA of a male member of a Celtic or perhaps Germanic tribe who ultimately made his way to Scotland.  And then passed it along to me.

So my Highland Scots DNA is actually Baltic in origin, and is shared by more Serbs and Croats and possibly even Russians than it is by my “fellow” Highlanders.

But if that’s not confusing enough, this only represents one line of grandfathers on my father’s side, going back roughly 8,000 years.  If we consider that there are approximately 400 generations between me and my Neolithic “European” ancestors, then the number of my direct relatives from present day all the way back to the New Stone Age is considerably large [nerdy editor's note: large enough to need scientific notation: 2.58 x 10120].

But we need not go back that far to make my point: much of an individual’s “ethnic identity” is relatively arbitrary and tells precious little about their deep genetic makeup.

In calculating the rather complex mathematics of our ancestry, scientists have concluded that all modern humans are related to each other in the not too distant past—within a few hundred years in fact.  Steve Olson, writing in The Atlantic in 2002, reported that

  1. Everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and
  2. Everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

Grandma?That would be everyone.

Which means that all modern humans alive today are related to each other—and related to each other rather recently, considering that modern humans have been in existence for about 100,000 years.

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Indeed, everyone reading this post is probably at most my 20th cousin.

But you’re not invited over for Thanksgiving.

And I’m guessing you’re not all Highland Scots.