Norwegian: What language did Ibsen use?

winenous

Senior Member
English - British
I was rather surprised to notice in a few places rather blunt statements that Ibsen wrote in Danish. For example, the Wikipedia article for Henrik Ibsen states "He wrote his plays in Danish (the common language of Denmark and Norway)".

But elsewhere I have heard (in conversation mainly) that in Kristiania at that time, although many words might have had Danish spellings, the language spoken by most people would have a distinctively local flavour in terms of pronunciation and vocabulary, and would be closer to what is used in Oslo today than the Danish of Copenhagen. Also that Ibsen's works were instrumental in creating the Dano-Norwegian that eventually became Bokmål, so to an extent they helped define Norwegian as a distinct language.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows more detail of Ibsen's language, and/or Kristiania in general, and how it related to Danish and more modern Norwegian - both written and spoken. Links to articles elsewhere (in English or Norwegian) would be fine.

A good start would be to see examples of what Ibsen actually wrote. Do they exist online? I could not find anything, and have read somewhere that modern editions of Ibsen have been "Norwegianised". Certainly my "Ibsens Samlede Verker i billigutgave", first published in 1962, looks pretty much like Norwegian to me, but I have no idea how much it has been changed.
 
  • Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    A precise answer to your question would be quite lengthy, consisting at least of many thousand words. So, I will try to formulate it less precise, but concise:
    To modern Norwegians, especially those born after 1970, the language of Ibsen appears as pure, old fashioned Danish, and they need both extensive explanations of the meaning of the words and of cultural references.
    Actually, however, Ibsens language evolved from his early days as a writer until his death.
    In the beginning, both his spelling, grammar and vocabulary was very close to standard literary Danish of Denmark, but he gradually introduced spelling and vocabulary closer to spoken Norwegian Rigsmål of the upper classes, and popular dialects (in dialogues). It seems that he finally came to a language close to the spoken language of the higher strata of the Norwegian society, but still very Danish in spelling.
     

    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Many thanks for that reply, Ben. For some reason, the possibility that Ibsen's language evolved never occurred to me.
     

    raumar

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    I can just add a couple of links. First, the University of Oslo has made the original versions of Ibsen's works available online, here:
    Henrik Ibsens skrifter: Forside

    Second, I came across an article on the development of Ibsen's language. It certainly evolved, but not in a straightforward way:
    Ibsens språk

    the Wikipedia article for Henrik Ibsen states "He wrote his plays in Danish (the common language of Denmark and Norway)"
    If you add "written" - "the common written language" - I think this is largely correct, seen from the perspective of modern Norwegian. (Although there were two competing versions of written Norwegian during the late 1800s: "riksmål" and "landsmål" - later known as "bokmål" and "nynorsk")). Even though Ibsen''s version of Riksmål Norwegian evolved, it looks like pure Danish to present-day Norwegians - as Ben has explained. Of course, that is the reason why modern editions of Ibsen have been "Norwegianized".
     

    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Here you can read all the Ibsens works i original versions: Henrik Ibsens skrifter: Forside
    I will also emphasize that the Norwegian language continued to evolve after Ibsens death, and did it at a higher speed than many other languages, for example English, German or French.
    So now, they are difficult to read for Norwegians without acquiring an adequate knowledge of his language. The situation is similar to that of an English secondary school student reading a XVII century English text written with a spelling like from Chaucer.

    This said, it is also important to remark, that a Norwegian contemporary to Ibsen, but lacking school education and mastering only own dialect would also have big problems with understanding his writings.
     

    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Thanks again Ben, and thank you raumar.

    Sadly my ability to google for Norwegian texts is still very bad, and the Ibsens Språk link is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Also, it will be good to be able to check for myself (when I have more time!) how he wrote.

    BTW, Ben, Chaucer is a lot older than 17th century, and pretty much impossible to understand even for well-educated native English speakers who have not studied old English. I think Shakespeare might better illustrate your point, he did make it into the 17th century, and is very challenging for school children.

    But I am surprised Ibsen is so difficult for modern Norwegians. My Norwegian is not great (it would take me a long time to type this post in the language, so please forgive me for that), and I can only read Danish through my knowledge of Norwegian, and yet I can read Ibsen in those original versions - not perfectly, but more easily than I can Shakespeare I think.
     
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    raumar

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    But I am surprised Ibsen is so difficult for modern Norwegians.
    I agree with almost everything Ben Jamin has said, but maybe I disagree somewhat on this point. I would not necessarily say that Ibsen's plays are difficult to read, but they require an extra effort. Most Norwegians can read modern Danish easily. But in the case of Ibsen, there is both the Danish-looking language and, in adddition, some archaic words and phrases. That discourages present-day readers.

    I also think that there is a huge difference between Ibsen's plays. For example, Peer Gynt is written in verse, in a poetic style. The original version of Peer Gynt will really frighten off modern readers. The plays with a realistic dialogue, such as Et dukkehjem or Vildanden, will be more accessible - even the original versions.
     

    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Must admit, when I wrote that I could read Ibsen's original language without too many problems, I was looking at one of his contemporary plays.

    Peer Gynt is difficult enough to understand even in English translation :)
     

    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I think there is a need of clarification of a misunderstanding.
    I wrote:
    To modern Norwegians, especially those born after 1970, the language of Ibsen appears as pure, old fashioned Danish, and they need both extensive explanations of the meaning of the words and of cultural references.

    This is almost exactly the same what raumar has written.
    I have also made an attempt at making some historical comparisons in #5, and these where maybe not quite successful, but I wrote about young people in secondary school. For many of them even Johan Borgen may be difficult. In Ibsen's texts there is a strange spelling, unusual syntax, plenty of obsolete words and archaic social settings. Of course, the brightest students will be able to break all those obstacles, but the majority will get a headache after reading only a few pages. The young generation preferes to write on facebook over reading old books.
     

    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Hope I did not offend you, Ben. I was just trying to understand better what you were saying, and I think it is clear now.
     

    Sepia

    Senior Member
    High German/Danish
    I can just add a couple of links. First, the University of Oslo has made the original versions of Ibsen's works available online, here:
    Henrik Ibsens skrifter: Forside

    Second, I came across an article on the development of Ibsen's language. It certainly evolved, but not in a straightforward way:
    Ibsens språk



    If you add "written" - "the common written language" - I think this is largely correct, seen from the perspective of modern Norwegian. (Although there were two competing versions of written Norwegian during the late 1800s: "riksmål" and "landsmål" - later known as "bokmål" and "nynorsk")). Even though Ibsen''s version of Riksmål Norwegian evolved, it looks like pure Danish to present-day Norwegians - as Ben has explained. Of course, that is the reason why modern editions of Ibsen have been "Norwegianized".

    It also looks like pure oldfashioned Danish to me. Grammar wise only recognize Danish - none of the changed word order which I believe is standard Norwegian. And the orthography - much of what may seem odd was actually standard Danish up till the reform in the Fifties - so there were still loads of books around up through the Sixties written that way.

    What pronunciation is concerned, even if they had been speaking Danish in Oslo - what they may even have done to some extent - all depending on what you consider Danish - there will have been a local version of it. Everyone had a local version. Even various parts of Copenhagen and probably Oslo too.

    Even during my chilhood in the Seventies I heard local versions of Danish that differed more from Standard Danish than modern Norwegian does. However, Norway having its own royalty, army, navy, air Force, and a lot of oil, Norwegian IS a language and not a dialect of Danish.
     
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    Svenke

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    Apart from Ivar Aasens Landsmål (to become Nynorsk), just about everything that was written in Norway in the 19th century was almost pure Danish. Except for scattered use of specifically Norwegian words and syntax, very little distinguished the written language of Norway from that of Denmark before 1907, when there was a Norwegian spelling reform and Riksmål (to become Bokmål) separated from Danish.

    But it should be noted that Norwegians often called this language "Norsk", as witnessed by several grammars written between 1814 and 1907. Although the proponents of a separate Norwegian written language eventually won (and the result was two written Norwegians), not everyone supported these developments.
     

    Sepia

    Senior Member
    High German/Danish
    Thanks Sepia. Do even the contemporary dramas look like Danish to you?
    Norwegian always LOOKS Danish. When there are only a few lines one always has to take a closer look to figure out whether it is Danish or Norwegian. Looking fo "y" where there should be a "j". But it sounds differently.
     
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    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Thanks again, Sepia. Also Svenke - I did not realise there were Norwegian grammars published so early

    I keep thinking back to the Ibsens Språk article (see above), where it is pointed out that Ibsen's language was initially thought not to be suitable for publication in Copenhagen, and Ibsen adjusted his language in the direction of more standard Danish to make it more widely understood. I accept that this did not seem to be regarded as a Danish vs Norwegian issue, but it at least indicates that Ibsens was at some point writing in a way that deviated from acceptable written Danish. They must have been interesting times for a writer!
     

    Ben Jamin

    Senior Member
    Polish
    BTW, Ben, Chaucer is a lot older than 17th century, and pretty much impossible to understand even for well-educated native English speakers ....
    Yes, I know that Chauscer was much earlier, and the langauge he wrote was much more different from the XVII century English than the latter was from modern English, but it was my (unsucsessful) attempt at illustrating the discrepancy in spelling of phonetically same words.

    But I am surprised Ibsen is so difficult for modern Norwegians. My Norwegian is not great (it would take me a long time to type this post in the language, so please forgive me for that), and I can only read Danish through my knowledge of Norwegian, and yet I can read Ibsen in those original versions - not perfectly, but more easily than I can Shakespeare I think.
    Well, it is just corroborates my view of this case: the difficulty is not so great as it appears to be to an unprepared reader, it is quite straightforward for a motivated person to "break the codes" and begin to learn, but nonetheless many people get repulsed by the differences and don't dare to make an effort.
     
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