Why Norwegian?

By Rachel Christ

The Norwegian Teachers Association of North America (NTANA) announced an essay contest for college and university students in North America. The essays should cover the benefits and positive aspects of majoring in Norwegian. Judges were the executive committee of the NTANA and Bjorn Kanavin, Director of the Norwegian Information Service in North America. Rachel Christ was the winner of the contest, and her essay was published in the February, 1993 issue of the Norwegian Teacher's Newsletter. We take pleasure in sharing it with our readers as well.

"You're majoring in what!??...Norwegian? Why?" As a college junior, I am inevitably asked about my major(s). Only rarely does anyone react to the fact that my other major is German; somehow German is automatically viewed as useful or acceptable, even if only to teach high school language. Majoring in Norwegian is exotic and frivolous, somewhat like majoring in Underwater Basketweaving.

I have unfortunately become used to justifying and defending my Norwegian Major. It is all too easy to use my Norwegian Heritage as an excuse for my interest in Norway, a land of only 4.2 million people. Why else would I want to study about a country most Americans believe to be the capital of Sweden? If I take the time to explain my real motivation, the more accurate response is that the country, the people, the nature, and the culture fascinate me.

A knowledge of the Norwegian language has given me access not only to Norway, but also to Sweden and Denmark, countries with closely related languages. I can read the literature of such great authors as Ibsen and Kierkegaard in their original language, giving me a much better appreciation of the texts. Literature in translation inevitably loses some of the colorful nuances in an effort to retain literal accuracy.

I am also able to complete research with materials available only in Norwegian. One example of the many highly current research topics is the Barent Sea area. This was once a region of flourishing international trade. Russenorsk, a pidgin language of Russian- and Norwegian-facilitated trade. The Barent Sea Region is being recreated as an area of both economic and ecological interest.

The Norwegian people have maintained a rich and diverse culture which has extended well over the last thousand years. When I mention my Norwegian major to others, one of the first comments is usually in reference to the ruthless Viking warriors who raped and pillaged throughout Europe. Easily forgotten are the incredible achievements of this period. In open wooden boats, the Vikings discovered and temporarily settled North America. Many of the large cities on the west coast of Ireland can be traced back to Viking settlements. The infamous Normans of 1066 trace their very existence to Rollo, also known as the Viking Ganger-Rolf. Vikings even formed a sort of royal guard in Byzantium; the runic inscriptions are still to be found today.

The Viking Age may have been Norway's great expansionist period, but certainly was not the end of Norwegian culture. In more recent times, Norway has produced many world-class artists. From the writings of Ibsen, Bjornson, and Hamsun to the paintings of Munch and the sculpture of Vigeland, Norway has contributed to the quality of fine arts at the international level, spreading more peaceful contact than their forefathers.

1993 is a year in celebration of Edvard Grieg, Norway's foremost composer. Grieg's music has been strongly influenced by Norwegian culture and traditions. For example, the first notes of "Morning" correspond to the tuning of the drone strings on a Hardanger fiddle. Perhaps the greatest influence upon Grieg was the overwhelming nature of the western coast of Norway. While many picture books celebrate the beauty of this region, their pictures portray an image of carefree summer, neglecting the harsh reality of life during the fall and winter months. One must experience Vestlandet in the winter to understand the foreboding sense of gloom and immanent danger present in the fjords. This dark side of Norway surely influenced Grieg as much as the summer.

Students of any academic discipline can explore their specific areas while also studying for a Norwegian Major. Historians can explore the Viking period, or look at the effects of WWII from a new angle. Archaeologists can explore the movement of pre-historic peoples into the northern fringes of Europe. Norway has a thriving modern literary culture as well as having produced some of the literary giants of the 19th century. Each region of Norway has developed its own unique dialect, and on the national level, Norway has two standardized forms of the Norwegian language, giving linguists a broad spectrum of material to work with. Musicians can study the diverse folk music traditions of this country, from the sung kved to the various instruments, including the hardanger fiddle. Or they may wish to study the distinctive Norwegian influence in the music of Grieg.

A Norwegian Major is easily combined with other majors, such as economics or history, creating a unique and specialized course of study. Mastery of another culture and language is quickly becoming a requisite job skill for graduating college students. A Norwegian major is a valuable asset; not only is it unique, it gives any potential employee a unique perspective on international relations and the role small countries must play in international relations. Norway is a relatively small country and yet plays an important and active role in the United Nations and international relations. When I am asked why on earth I am majoring in Norwegian, I must respond, "Why not?" My Norwegian Major has given me much useful background knowledge about a fascinating country, while allowing me to explore my personal interests and challenge myself academically. 


This article was reprinted from The Norseman, November 1993, pp. 20-21. Copyright © 1993 by Rachel Christ.


Read about Amber Sorenson's experience taking Norwegian at Luther.