Continuity and Change in American Norwegian

By David Natvig

The voyage of ‘The Restauration,’ a sloop carrying 52 Norwegians from Stavanger, Norway to New York in 1825, marks the beginning of over a century of Norwegian immigration to the United States. Some of the earliest concentrated Norwegian settlements are in areas of southern and western Wisconsin: Muskego, Koshkonong, Stoughton, Trempealeau, Westby, Blair, just to name a few. Here and throughout the Upper Midwest, they formed communities and social institutions where Norwegian was spoken for generations. In fact, there are people who still speak it as a heritage language in these areas today.

American Norwegian has a reputation of being old-fashioned or archaic; that it is the ‘old Norwegian’ or that the Norwegian language in the United States is ‘frozen.’ While it is true that there are words, phrases, and even pronunciations in American Norwegian that have gone out of fashion in Norway, new linguistic forms and patterns have entered the language in the United States. That means that the Norwegian spoken in both countries has changed, just along slightly different paths and with slightly different outcomes.

One aspect of American Norwegian that appears old-fashioned is its vocabulary. For example, speakers commonly use words like beint ‘straight,’ bøte ‘repair,’ and summe ‘some.’ Similar dialects in Norway, on the other hand, use rett, reparere, and noen, respectively, although there are some older speakers who use both beint and summe. In this regard, American Norwegian is more consistent with older varieties in Norway. Of course, that doesn’t mean that American Norwegian is old or frozen. Norwegian speakers in the United States adopted a host of vocabulary items from English that reflects new or different concepts and experiences in the U.S.: farm, kæunti ‘county,’ seidvåk ‘sidewalk’ (compare gard, fylke/amt, fortau). Although originating from English, these words and many like them have been fully incorporated into the language with Norwegian pronunciation and grammatical rules. They are distinctly American Norwegian, often not recognizably different from vocabulary of European Norwegian origin.

Words make up only a small part of what languages are and what they do, but they are incredibly salient to who we are or to who our neighbors are; we are often able to quickly recognize where someone comes from (or doesn’t come from) based on the words they use (or don’t use). And these factors can contribute to perceptions that American Norwegian is archaic or frozen. But aside from a few changes around the edges of Norwegian in both countries, the vast majority of these languages’ grammars is essentially the same. The Norwegian-speaking communities in the United States found themselves in increasingly different social conditions and contexts than their Norwegian peers, and these speakers adapted and changed their language in slightly different ways as a result. It is an axiom in linguistics that all living languages change, and Norwegian has been in a living language in the United States from the earliest Norwegian immigration up to the present day. We’re lucky to be able to continue studying changes in Norwegian, both in the United States and in Norway, just as we are lucky to have the opportunity to study the many other languages that immigrants and refugees brought and continue to bring to the Upper Midwest.

Sign on a building in downtown Westby, WI. It reads "Greetings from Westby. Come again!"
Picture of the 99th Infantry Battalion, a Norwegian-speaking battalion in the US Army in World War II. From Vesterheim The National Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center in Decorah, IA. Photo Credit: Amber R. Cederström

About the author

David Listug (Stoughton, WI) discusses Hardanger fiddles and Norwegian folk music with Mirva Johnson and David Natvig. Photo Credit: B. Marcus Cederström.

David Natvig is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Oslo’s Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan and holds a Ph.D. in Scandinavian Linguistics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research focuses on phonological theory, language contact – including language shift and maintenance – and language change, particularly in connection to variation in English, Norwegian, and Heritage Norwegian sound systems.