Home
Department of Linguistic, Literary and Aesthetic Studies

Norwegian across the Americas

This research project investigates the Norwegian language as spoken across the Americas – and how it has developed over generations.

Hultstrand
A family of Norwegian heritage, North Dakota, 1898
Photo:
commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11202804

About the project

Over recent years, Norwegian as spoken in North America has received considerable attention. This language, which is spoken by the descendants of emigrants who left Norway in the 19th and 20th century, is a heritage language. Heritage languages are acquired and used in the home, but they are not the dominant language of the larger, national community. Heritage speakers are often descendants of migrants, and they represent an extremely interesting form of bilingualism: The heritage language is their first language in terms of order of acquisition, but it is not their dominant language when they reach adulthood. 

The research on heritage Norwegian in North America (USA and Canada) has made significant progress; however, some important issues remain understudied. This project deals with two of them.

First, the project will, as the first of its kind, investigate a new variety of heritage Norwegian, namely Norwegian as spoken in Latin America. Between 1820 and the 1950s, more than 20,000 Norwegians emigrated to Latin America, and Norwegian is still present as a heritage language. Studies of this language will pave the way for comparative research on heritage Norwegian in different contact situations, as the contact language in Latin America is Spanish, not English. This, in turn, can shed new light on the effects of language contact and help us understand whether a linguistic innovation is a result of direct influence from another language, or more general processes of change. Latin American Norwegian data will be collected through interviews with speakers of Norwegian heritage in Argentina and Chile.

Second, the project will study in depth how heritage Norwegian in North America has developed over time by making use of a unique resource, namely recordings of previous generations of North American Norwegian speakers made by the linguists Einar Haugen, Didrik A. Seip and Ernst Selmer in the 1930s and 1940s. A number of these recordings will be transcribed and tagged, facilitating direct searches for various grammatical phenomena. This can help us understand whether innovations in today’s North American Norwegian were i) already present in the previous generation; ii) represents a systematic change between generations, or iii) is a result of attrition, i.e. loss of linguistic skills over the lifespan.

Research topics and ideas for PhD or Master’s theses

The project deals with the grammar (morphosyntax) of heritage Norwegian. Relevant research topics include the ones mentioned below, which could be starting points for PhD theses (particularly the two first topics) or Master’s theses. Note that the list is not exhaustive; other topics could also be interesting. Candidates who are interested in writing a PhD or Master’s thesis in connection with the project should read the more detailed project proposal, which also includes references.

The syntax of complex nominals 

In complex nominal phrases, speakers of North American Norwegian exhibit patterns that deviate from homeland Norwegian. This has been shown for gender agreement (neuter et fint hus 'a nice house' vs. masculine en fin traktor 'a nice tractor'), possessive constructions (prenominal vs. postnominal possessors, e.g. mitt hus vs. huset mitt 'my house') and definiteness marking, more precisely in constructions with double definiteness (det fine huset, lit. 'the nice house-the'). Some speakers do not mark gender consistently. Some speakers are overusing prenominal possessors (mitt hus), which may look like influence from English, but an even more common pattern is for speakers to extend the 'Norwegian' construction with a postnominal possessor to new contexts. We have little knowledge about the historical background for these new patterns in North American Norwegian; by studying the spoken language of previous generations of heritage speakers, we can find new answers.

Investigations of complex nominals in Latin American Norwegian are interesting in their own right, and they may also provide new perspectives on the processes of change in North American Norwegian. The reason for this is that in terms of nominal syntax, Spanish differs from English in important ways. Spanish has grammatical gender, as opposed to English; thus, it is interesting to investigate if gender agreement is more stable in Latin American Norwegian than in North American Norwegian. Moreover, as opposed to English, Spanish in certain contexts allows postnominal possessors (un amigo mío, lit. 'a friend my'). It is not clear how this affects the use of possessive constructions in Latin American Norwegian. Spanish also has postnominal adjectives (una camisa verde, lit. 'a shirt green'), as opposed to both English and Norwegian, and differential object marking, whereby animate objects are marked with the preposition a. It is not known which effects this might have on Latin American Norwegian.

Verb placement

In homeland Norwegian, the finite verb is in the second place in declarative main clauses; this rule is referred to as V2. One – and only one – constituent appears before the finite verb. Jeg leste boka i går (lit. 'I read the book yesterday') is thus an acceptable sentence, and so is I går leste jeg boka (lit. 'Yesterday read I the book'). A sentence like *I går jeg leste boka (lit. 'Yesterday I read the book'), in which two constituents precede the verb, is unacceptable.

In North American Norwegian, V2 is generally stable, but some speakers produce sentences with V2 violations, such as I går jeg leste boka. It is possible to analyse this as influence from English (Yesterday I read the book), however, if so, it is not clear how direct this influence is. Previous research has suggested that V2 violations in North American Norwegian speakers seem to correlate with a different property also typical of English, namely a low proportion of sentences in which a constituent other than the subject is in the clause-initial position. In this connection, it is very interesting to study Latin American Norwegian. Spanish is different from English in that non-subject-initial declaratives are fairly common. Based on this, one might hypothesise that the V2 property should be more stable in Latin American Norwegian than in North American Norwegian.

The syntax of predicate constructions

In homeland Norwegian, no indefinite article is used in predicate constructions such as Hun er lærer (lit. 'She is teacher'). In this respect, homeland Norwegian differs from English, which uses the indefinite article (She is a teacher). Previous research has found that the indefinite article is occasionally used in North American Norwegian too: Hun er en lærer. We have little knowledge as to how old this use of the indefinite article in North American Norwegian is, or the background its emergence. On the face of it, it looks like influence (transfer) from English (this has been proposed in the literature), but in principle, it could also be an independent development.

By analysing recordings of previous generations of heritage speakers in North America, we can gain new knowledge about how the use of the indefinite article in North American Norwegian has developed over time. By studying the use of the indefinite article in Latin American Norwegian, we get a new perspective on the mechanisms of change and the effects of language contact more generally. Spanish is like Norwegian in the sense that the indefinite article is not used in predicate constructions: Es maestra '(She) is a teacher'. If Latin American Norwegian speakers do not use the indefinite article in predicate constructions, this corroborates the proposal that the development in North American Norwegian is due to English influence. If Latin American Norwegian speakers do use the indefinite article, this could be an indication that the development in North American Norwegian is independent and not (solely) a result of influence from English. 

Participants and collaborators

The core team consists of Kari Kinn (University of Bergen), Silvina Montrul (University of Illinois) and Janne Bondi Johannessen (University of Oslo). Additionally, the following scholars have roles in the project: Ida Larsson (University of Oslo), Arnstein Hjelde (Østfold University College), Véronica Pájaro (University of South-Eastern Norway), Jan Heegård Petersen (University of Copenhagen) and Mike Putnam (Penn State University). The project owner is University of Bergen; University of Oslo is a collaborating institution. The data will be transcribed and processed by the Text Laboratory at the University of Oslo. 

Corpora and other resources

The data collected and transcribed during the project period will be made available for future research as a part of the Corpus of American Nordic Speech (CANS); this corpus is accessible for research purposes via login. A related resource of great relevance to researchers working on heritage Norwegian is the Norwegian part of the corpus Language Infrastructure made Accessible (LIA), which consists of old dialect recordings from all parts of Norway. LIA includes speech data from speakers born as early as the 1860s/1870s, and it is therefore a window into the spoken language in Norway in a time at which large-scale emigration took place. Another important resource is the Nordic Dialect Corpus (NDC).