Immigrant Norwegian in the Upper Midwest

Since at least 1931, when Einar Haugen joined the faculty of the Department of Scandinavian Studies, the University of Wisconsin – Madison has been directly involved in working to understand Norwegian spoken in the American Upper Midwest.

Over a year ago, prompted by discussions with the TextLab at the University of Oslo, faculty and students at Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures began the next generation’s work to nurture that tradition. In September, we hosted a set of leading Norwegian linguists for a workshop on “Investigating immigrant languages in America”.  Colleagues and students from the U.S. presented on German, Low German, West Frisian, immigrant-influenced English and — yes — Norwegian in the region. Inspired by the presentations on Norwegian by our European colleagues, and especially having had the opportunity to participate in some of their fieldwork, a whole set of us are recording Norwegian in the region and beginning analysis.

Luke Annear (Scandinavian Studies), Kristin Speth (German) and Brent Allen (Linguistics) have been visiting towns in Minnesota and Wisconsin to work with heritage speakers of Norwegian.  Some of these speakers are fourth-generation Americans yet had still learned Norwegian as their mother tongue.  Though they all use English as their primary language now, about 40 people were interviewed who could either understand Norwegian or were still fluent speakers.  The data are proving very rich indeed, not just for this particular immigrant community, but for understanding an array of subfields of linguistics, from language shift to borrowing and codeswitching to phonetics and phonology.

Luke and Kristin have examined how newspapers and local churches worked in the maintenance of Norwegian in the Midwest, arguing that the use of Norwegian within various social domains, and high concentrations of Norwegians in rural areas were major factors contributing to the long life of Norwegian as a heritage language (using frameworks for understanding language shift being developing at the University of Wisconsin).  More recently, they have focused on how English elements — words and longer units — are incorporated into Norwegian conversation (drawing on work by Yaron Matras on bilingual speech). Brent Allen (working together with Joe Salmons) is focusing on how heritage speakers maintain Norwegian phonological contrasts not present in English (like geminate or ‘long’ consonants) but show apparent influence from Norwegian on the phonetics of their English.

Other fieldwork by Brandy Trygstad (English and German) and Marcus Cederström (Scandinavian Studies and Folklore) is focusing on Swedish spoken in the region.  Similar to the Norwegian group, these speakers learned Swedish as their first language, but the evidence suggests that English has become the dominant language.  Current work is examining code-switching, as well as convergence in pragmatics and syntax.  Issues beyond linguistic structure include the folkloric conceptualization and construction of Swedishness, such as the celebration of holidays and food traditions.

The results of this research have already been presented at venues ranging from the Germanic Linguistics Annual Conference (GLAC) in Austin, Texas, and the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA) Conference in Decorah, Iowa. Upcoming presentations include the next workshop on immigrant languages in America (to be held in Gudbrandsdal in September), a regional meeting of the American Dialect Society and the American Folklore Society.

While we’re working to continue an old tradition at Wisconsin, we’re really just beginning our work.

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