Texas in Norwegian

people-in-norway-are-using-texas-as-slang-for-cra-2-28065-1445536485-5_bigI’ve been familiar for some time with the small German-speaking community in Texas, centered around towns in the Texas Hill Country, particularly Fredericksburg and New Braunfels (home to a very nice German restaurant). Unfortunately, the Texasdeutsch dialect is dying out. The clip below describes the dialect – note the opening scene in the wonderfully named town of Weimar.

But apparently, Norwegians in Texas are doing fine, according to a recent article in The Guardian, about Clifton, the “Norwegian Capital of Texas”, although it’s not evident that the Norwegian language has survived there.

The piece was prompted by an article in Texas Monthly about the use of the word “texas” as an adjective in contemporary Norwegian, meaning crazy or wild. The article cites a number of articles illustrating the use of “texas” in spoken and written Norwegian. It most commonly appears in the expression, “det var helt texas”, describing something wild and chaotic. In a report from the BBC, the use of the word is traced back:

[The use of texas] became part of the language when Norwegians started watching cowboy movies and reading Western literature, according to Daniel Gusfre Ims, the head of the advisory service at the Language Council of Norway. ‘The genre was extremely popular in Norway, and a lot of it featured Texas, so the word became a symbol of something lawless and without control,’ he says.

Ims mentions in the interview that Texas is not the only US state that is used in this kind of metonymy (a thing or concept being called not by its own name, but by another name which is associated with it): “Norwegians also use the term ‘hawaii football’ to describe an ‘out-of-control’ match”.

The Guardian actually asked people in Clifton if they had heard of the “texas” adjective use in Norwegian – no one had.

Norway’s joy

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

World chess champ Magnus Carlsen

If you happen to be in Oslo this week-end, don’t try to buy a chess set – they’re likely to be sold out. Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has defeated the defending champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand, to be crowned chess world champion.  In Norway it’s not just a personal triumph but a heroic achievement that a small country would produce such a champion. It’s what small Iceland dreamed of when it almost made it to the 2014 Soccer World Cup, but was upended this week by Croatia, which got the ticket to Brazil instead. For Norway, it’s a bit of good news to displace the story that still haunts the country known for tolerance and slow TV, the mass murders committed by right-wing extremist and Islamophobe Anders Behring Breivik, who was sentenced last year to 21 years in prison for the murder of 77 people in 2011.

Norwegians were glued to the TV to watch the deciding chess match.  It must have been a welcome bit of excitement compared to other Norwegian TV fare such as real-time knitting or firewood stacking.  It’s so rare that we in the U.S. get any news from the Nordic countries and when we do, it does make the way of life there seem quite different from ours.  The only other big story this year from Norway in the U.S. media has been about the village that installed a huge mirror up on a mountain so that they could have at least a little reflected sunlight in winter. More evidence that Norwegians and other Scandinavians have to adapt to an environment that doesn’t always make life easy. It may not be surprisingly that Greenland has the world’s highest suicide rate.  All the more reason for the Norwegians to celebrate their chess hero.

Heavymetal fans: Go learn Finnish

made-in-finland-2008I’ve been working for a number of years to get to the point in Russian that I can read one of my favorite authors, Leo Tolstoy, in the original. For stylistic masters like Tolstoy or Proust, a lot gets lost in translation.  Apparently for some fans of Finnish heavy metal band Hevisaurus, it’s just as important to learn the language to appreciate the subtle nuances in their lyrics. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the popularity of Nordic heavy metal bands has led a number of young people to learn Finnish or Norwegian, the native tongues of many heavy metal bands.  According to one U.S. fan cited in the article, Michael Brown,

Finnish bands perform with a “dark woodsy resonance” that he has come to love, he says, and “the poetic and obscure nature of the Finnish tongue really gave it a unique wave.”

It’s not that Finnish is an easy language to learn.  It’s not part of the Indo-European family of languages but rather belongs to the Uralic group, along with Hungarian and Estonian. As a consequence there are fewer recognizable cognates for English native speakers and the grammar has a notoriously steep learning curve, being heavily inflected, with its 15 (!) cases. Norwegian (an Indo-European language), in comparison, is a piece of cake, with a very simple grammar, similar to its Scandinavian cousins, Danish and Swedish. Heavy metal fans would be well advised to keep that difference in mind and try to find Norwegian bands to like.

The article speculates that there is a connection between the often apocalyptic nature of heavy metal lyrics and Nordic culture:

Olivia Lucas, a Harvard doctoral candidate who is working on a dissertation about Nordic metal, said people “simply want to understand what the culture is like that has produced this music.” It doesn’t take long, she said, to draw a parallel between the melancholy and gloom that underpins Finnish metal and the wider Finnish psyche. “Finns are comfortable with this feeling, and don’t feel pressure to be cheerful all the time,” Ms. Lucas, 25, said. Their music “embraces this view of the world.”

According to the article, Norwegian “black metal” is even darker in tone and was long tainted by an association with violence.  Nowadays, however, it has gone mainstream, with the Foreign Ministry of Norway giving its trainees seminars on black metal because there are so frequently questions about it raised at Norwegian embassies throughout the world.

The article brought to mind for me an interview earlier this year on NPR with a black woman, Laina Dawes, a fervent heavy metal fan, who wrote a book on her struggle to find acceptance as an African-American woman in the mostly male and white heavy metal scene.

Norwegian wood

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood" & inspired a TV program about firewood.

Lars Mytting wrote “Solid Wood” & inspired a TV program about firewood

There have been several stories in the media (NT Times: Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians) recently about a cultural phenomenon that may strike outsiders as very foreign, the importance of how firewood should be stacked. The stories were inspired by the enormous popularity in Norway of a book about firewood (Solid Wood by Lars Mytting) and also of a prime-time TV show on the same topic.  The TV show focused on chopping and stacking wood and was watched by over a million viewers (out of a total population of 5 million), but it also caused considerable controversy – a number of viewers contacted the station complaining that how the wood was being stacked was all wrong.  It turns out that there are strong feelings in Norway about how the stacked firewood should be oriented in reference to its bark, whether the bark should face up or down, so as to aid in faster drying.

The TV special was actually 12 hours long, with the first 4 hours showing and discussing wood cutting and stacking, with the final 8 hours showing live a fire in a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse.  Through the hours, one could see wood being added and sausages being roasted on sticks, but no sounds were heard other than the burning of the fire.  One comment reported by NY Times article: “’I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited’, a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper Web site. ‘When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher…I’m not being ironic,’ the viewer continued. ‘For some reason, this broadcast was very calming and very exciting at the same time.’”  Such sentiments were not universal, however, as the article reports: “On Twitter, a viewer named Andre Ulveseter said: ‘Went to throw a log on the fire, got mixed up, and smashed it right into the TV.’”

The last time Norway was in the news was for something diametrically opposed to the program’s images of peace, calm and simplicity, namely the deadly rampage by Anders Brevik in Oslo in 2011, resulting in 77 deaths. The popularity of the firewood book and TV special may be related to the aftermath of this event, which caused considerable soul-searching in Norway.  Wood burning stoves and the cultural practices that surround their use have a long tradition in a country with long and severe winters.  Firewood culture harkens back to a traditional Norwegian way of life, free from the violence and political strife of the world today.