Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nordic vs Scandinavian: The Terms That Launched a Thousand Ships

Today we've got a great post from Colin, clarifying a point that has confused many folks (myself included).

A recent post on this blog generated some comments about the cultural connections between Scandinavia and Finland. The discussion brings up an interesting issue about the distinctions between Scandinavians and their eastern neighbors.

In America, the words “Nordic” and “Scandinavian” are used more or less interchangeably, but there’s a distinction between them that’s worth making. Strictly speaking, “Scandinavian” is a term referring to people who share a common Germanic linguistic and cultural ancestry, and live in or come from the countries we now know as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands. The term “Nordic” is meant to encompass a larger group of people living or coming from a geographic region, roughly defined as stretching from Finland to Iceland, or even Greenland, depending on the context.

Scandinavians are the linguistic and cultural descendents of tribes of wandering Germans who ventured north as the last glaciers receded. Even today, their languages are very similar and to a great degree, mutually intelligible. Finnish, on the other hand, is completely different, and is far closer to Hungarian than any of the Scandinavian languages.

Despite the linguistic divide, there has been a long history of cultural and political connection between Finland, Scandinavia, Greenland and, for that matter, the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Over the centuries, various groups have invaded, conquered, colonized, fled, migrated to and been pushed out of each other’s countries, the borders of which have changed significantly through history. Thus, the ethnic and cultural makeup of the Nordic region is far more complex than people commonly think. There are Swedish-speaking people in Finland, Finnish-speaking people in Sweden, ethnic Danes in Greenland, the Eskimo-Aleut Greenlanders, the Kven people in Northern Norway, various groups of Roma (gypsies) throughout the region, immigrants from all over the world, and of course the Sami, who might be related to the Finns, but maybe not – no one really knows for sure. The term “Nordic” is convenient, if not tremendously specific, because it lumps all of these people more or less together.

In America, we’re fairly inconsistent about how we use these terms. Your typical “Scandinavian” gift store will also include a good number of Finnish items. At the University of Minnesota, I studied Norwegian under the aegis of the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, although the same department also offers Finnish; this is reflected in that my major is known as “Scandinavian Languages and Cultures and Finnish” which is misleading given that, unfortunately, the closest I ever got to studying anything remotely Finnish was to read The Finn Family Moomintroll, a children’s book series written by a Swedish-speaking Finn. On the other hand, the Nordic American Thanksgiving Breakfast event is dutifully so titled because it includes representatives from the Finnish-American community, and various incarnations of Sons of Norway’s mission statement have taken pains to make the distinction: The mission of Sons of Norway is to promote and to preserve the heritage and culture of Norway, to celebrate our relationship with other Nordic Countries, and provide quality insurance and financial products to our members.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

It's Never Too Early for Norwegian Language Lessons

Good morning world! It's still dark outside on this cool October Tuesday, so the creative/mental juices are still moving a little slowly. On days like this I look for inspiration in an number of locations. First I go to the blog stats and see what folks are interested in reading about (language and food) then I go out into the wilds of the web, looking for content that I think you'll enjoy.

Today's wonderstuff comes from the awesome folks over at My Little Norway, another blog about Norway. I love it because it's written from the perspective of a foreigner living in Norway, so there's lots of interesting topics, which I always find entertaining and worth the read.

Seeing as how many of this blogs readers really enjoy reading about Norwegian language, I thought many readers might be interested in some posts by L-Jay about how the Norwegian Language has affected English. Enjoy and check back late for some original content.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Shared Nordic Heritage = Fryktinngytende!

I don't know about you, but I LOVE any news story that starts out "In a scene reminiscent of the Viking age, two bearded men in fur robes and leather armor instructed children in swordplay."

Let's take a minute and break it down. Not one, but two full grown men dressed in leather armor are teaching kids to play with swords. What's the Norwegian word for "awesome"? about...fryktinngytende! Yeah...I think that's right...yeah.

Anyhow, that's not the point. The point is that the link goes to a nice story about a Nordic festival that happened down in Kansas and involved folks from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. I always like to hear about these kinds of festivals because they show how all the Nordic countries can come together in celebration of a shared heritage and common vision of the future.

There are lots of these kinds of Nordic events happening around the country. If you know of one, share it with us in the comments section below!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Since We're on a Historical Kick Lately...

One of my favorite stories, Norwegian or otherwise, is that of the Birkebeiners. It's a story I'm sure most everyone reading this is familiar with, but if not you definitely need to check out the Lise Lunge Larson book about their flight and rescue of a future king.

Basically it goes like this, in Norway during the 1200's there were two groups claiming monarchy over Norway. On one side was the ruling family of King Sverre and on the other side were the Baglers. Battles were fought between them over land, ideals and succession, but in the end the fate of Norway fell to a newborn named Håkon Haakonsson.

Håkon was born in territory which was controlled by the Bagler faction, and his mother's claim that he was a birkebeiner royal son placed them both in a very dangerous position. When in 1206 the Bagler tried to take advantage of the situation and started hunting Håkon, a group of Birkebeiner warriors fled with the child, heading for King Inge II of Norway, the birkebeiner king in Nidaros (now Trondheim). On their way they came into a blizzard, and only the two mightiest warriors, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka, continued on skis, carrying the child in their arms. They managed to bring the heir to safety.

This event still is commemorated in one of Norway's most important annual skiing event, the Birkebeiner ski race.

Maybe its the father in me, or maybe its the romantic, but there's just something about this story that always stirs up strong emotion. Think about it: two men/warriors facing overwhelming odds are entrusted with a helpless infant who, in their minds, represents hope for the future. Its really an amazing story.

That's why I was stoked to read that the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation is searching for two tough cross country skiers to dress as Birkebeiner warriors and ski the 54 kilometer journey from Cable to Hayward, Wis., as part of this year's American Birkebeiner.

If you are interested in learning more, you can contact the American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation by clicking here.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Leif Eriksson Day!

In honor of today being Leif Eriksson...uh...Leif Erick...uh...the True Day North America Was Discovered (TM), we have a great post from Cultural Advisor, Colin. Take it away, Colin!

Today is Leif Eriksson Day, and in honor of the occasion, I thought I’d post some answers to some frequently asked questions I get a lot around this time of year.

How should we spell his name? Leif Erikson, Leif Eriksson, Leif Ericsson, or what?

In Old Norse, Leif’s own language, his name would have been rendered Leifr Eiríksson. Given the differences between Old Norse (the ancestor language of modern Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese) and modern English, it makes sense to tweak the spelling a little to make it intelligible, so really any version of “Erikson” could be said to be correct. Personally I advocate for the spelling “Eriksson” with a “k” and double “s” because it’s the closest to Old Norse. I really see no reason for “Ericson” or “Ericsson” other than the predominance of the spelling “Eric” over “Erik” as a personal name in contemporary America.

Oh, and as for pronunciation, strictly speaking “Leif” should rhyme with “safe” not “leaf.”

Who was he and what did he do?

Pretty much everything we know about Leif comes from two Icelandic sagas, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, often referred to collectively as the Vinland Sagas. The basic gist of the story is that Leif’s father Erik the Red got himself banished from Iceland for murdering some of his neighbors, and so the family picked up and moved to Greenland. Erik built up a farm there and became quite wealthy. As a young man Leif took to the sea to make a name for himself. In Norway he won the favor of King Olaf Tryggvason, became a Christian, and was charged with the task of bringing the new faith to Greenland. Having accomplished that, he later struck out from Greenland to search for a new land ever farther to the west.

Here the sagas differ somewhat. In the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif discovers the new country on accident, when he gets blown off course en route to Greenland. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, more or less the same thing happens to a completely different person, Bjarni Herjólfsson who sights land but chooses not to go ashore. Years later, the saga tells us, Leif Eriksson buys Bjarni’s ship and goes looking for the land Bjarni sighted. Over the course of a summer he finds a place he calls Markland (“forest land” probably the Labrador coast), another spot he dubs Helluland (“flat stone land” probably Baffin Island) and finally Vinland (“wine-land” now generally accepted to be Newfoundland). At the end of the season, he returns to Greenland. Other expeditions follow, notably those of his brothers Thorvald and Thorstein, as well as that of Thorfinn Karlsefni who intended to establish a more permanent settlement there. However, conflicts with the local “skraelings (First Nations peoples) and infighting amongst the Norse themselves put an end to the Vinland adventure.

Why do we celebrate Leif Eriksson Day?

In the 1800s Norway was swept by a great tide of national romanticism. The new, nearly-independent nation had emerged from a 400 year-long “union” with Denmark and was striving to define itself on its own terms. As Norwegians began pushing more and more for complete political independence, they also agitated for cultural independence in language, literature, music and many other areas. A side effect of this was renewed popular interest in Old Norse sagas, which connected the Norwegian people to a proud history.

As thousands of Norwegians left Norway for America, they brought their love for the sagas with them. The story of Leif Eriksson, a brave, pioneering (grand)son of Norway who had set foot in North America five hundred years before Columbus, became especially popular. Like many immigrant groups, the Norwegians faced some hostility from native-born Americans; the notion that a Norseman had gotten there first imparted on the Norwegians the “right” to be here. Leif Eriksson became a folk hero, not only to Norwegians but to all Scandinavians in the New World.

This did not sit well with a number of other ethnic groups, particularly Italian-Americans, who had similarly venerated Christopher Columbus. Groups representing each side, including Sons of Norway, competed for years for official recognition of their hero as the original “discoverer” of America. Books and magazines of the time were filled with debate and conjecture about the accuracy of the Vinland Sagas, the location of Vinland, and of course the legitimacy of the Kensington Runestone. As evidence of this, take a walk around the Minnesota state capitol building in St. Paul. About a block away in one direction, there’s a huge statue of Leif Eriksson, with the inscription, “DISCOVERER OF AMERICA.” A block in the other direction, there’s a statue of Columbus, also bearing the inscription, “DISCOVERER OF AMERICA.”

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the first Leif Eriksson Day. By this time, the history of Norse activity in North America had been established as an archeological fact. Interestingly, the day selected, October 9th, had no connection whatsoever to Leif Eriksson, Vinland or the Vikings. Instead, October 9th had been picked because on that date in 1825, the first immigrant ship from Norway, the Restauration, arrived in New York. I can’t help but feel that it also had something to do with pre-empting Columbus Day, which falls on October 12th.

Did he really exist? Are the sagas accurate?

People have argued for hundreds of years about the historical value of the Norse sagas, which were passed down orally, in some cases for generations, before being written down hundreds of years later. But conclusive proof of Norse settlement in North America came in 1960, when Dr. Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian archeologist, discovered a Norse encampment at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad performed excavations at the site throughout the 60s, finding many obviously Norse artifacts, carbon dated to the year 1000, the same time frame presented in the Vinland Sagas. According to Parks Canada’s excellent website on L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site was occupied by people who must have traveled a good deal in the area, perhaps as far as New Brunswick and the St. Lawrence River. Regardless of to whatever degree the sagas are historically accurate, they attest to a short period of exploration and colonization by Norse people in the New World, all of which is very well supported by the archeological evidence.

What happened to the Vinland colony? Why didn’t the Norse come back?

Vinland was a vast, unknown country on the very furthest extremity of the known European world. It was explored by people living in Greenland, itself a small, remote outpost accessible only by a perilous sea journey. In time, the Greenland colony would fade away and die.

The mystery of Vinland has inspired a lot of interesting theories over the years, both before and after the excavation of L’Anse Aux Meadows. Besides the Kensington Runestone, the less famous runestones in Oklahoma, not to mention the Newport Tower, the Beardmore Relics, the Westford Knight and the Maine Penny have all been advanced as further evidence of Norse presence in America and all of which - excepting the last named - have been rejected by mainstream scientists. There’s also a whole family of theories based on the idea that the Norse stayed in North America and blended in with Native American tribes. A classic of this line of thought is the 1940 book, in 4 volumes, entitled The Viking and the Red Man, which postulates that the Algonquin Native American languages are descended from Old Norse. Most recently, Myron Paine, Phd, has advanced a theory that the Greenland Norse walked across sea ice from Greenland to America.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

BREAKING NEWS: New Sons of Norway CEO Announced

I just got off the phone with International President Dan Rude and now have some exciting news! Dan was pleased to announce that Sons of Norway has a new CEO!

At 11 a.m. today Eivind Heiberg was offered and accepted the position of CEO. Eivind, a native of Halden Norway, has been with Sons of Norway since late 2002, when he stepped in as a fresh-faced Fraternal Director. Since then, he has been instrumental in the growth of the Fraternal Department as well as the programs and benefits offered to members.

Earlier this summer he assumed the position of Interim CEO when the former Sons of Norway CEO, John Lund, retired after a decade in the position and nearly 30 years of total service to Sons of Norway. Eivind will now assume the role full-time as the chief of our 114 year old organization.

On a personal note, I'm very excited about this announcement. I've had the pleasure of working with Eivind since he first joined the headquarters staff, and he's always been a reliable, innovative and balanced decision-maker. It's going to be strange not having him back in the Fraternal Department anymore, but the upside is that I think Sons of Norway has a bright future ahead of itself with Eivind at the helm.

If you'd like to leave a congratulatory note for Eivind, please do so in the comments section below.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Norsk Hostfest: Children's Choir