Thursday, March 15, 2001

Somebody found me. I have been writing this for only a few weeks, and mainly to answer that eternal question: "so how's your work going?". And already they have found me - made me into a part of a wider context, a Norwegian voice in a web that covers the world. I am flattered, of course - but also terrified. The first thing I meet when looking through the blogs on that net is the discussion about language, what language we should write or not.

Language is identity in Norway. Four million people and we have three languages, two of them so close that if you write with all the permitted dialectic variations there's really no difference, while the third is the Sami language, one of an ethnic minority. My father was a Sami. I didn't know until the year I turned 30 - my husband, the historician, checked the old records of the family from before World War II. In these records they were registered as Sami-speakers, but after the war they had all re-registered as Norwegians. There was this thing about my father - he would always start a sentence and then suddenly he'd lack a word. I'd supply it for him, and he would speak on. I never noticed until I started learning about immigrants, and what happens to children of immigrants when they are forced to learn Norwegian, and can't learn to read and write in their native language. They displayed the same language patterns. I started asking around, and found that my father, who had been to a Norwegian-language boarding-school, like most Sami children, had been functionally illiterate until he was 25. I still remember him moving his lips as he reads the newspaper, asking me what this and that word means.

Norwegian robbed him of his language, and of his ability to communicate. He was for ever the wild man, the foreigner among strangers, even with his own people. Norwegian does not have my blind loyalty, but language does. The importance of being given access to the language you speak, to be taught to write and to think in your own language before you are forced into an other is to me not just a political statement, but also the heartbreaking memory of a man I loved and admired, who spent an hour every morning while I prepared for school, mumbling his way through the newspaper in search of words.

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