The Bilingual U.S. – Scandinavian Minnesota

We all know that the history of the United States is one of colonization and immigration, of new Americans arriving from all across the world. These immigrants- our parents or grandparents, or the grandparents of our neighbors- brought many different cultures and many different languages with them.

Harvard Linguist Einar Haugen stated that the U.S. has probably been home to more bilinguals than any other country in the world, and yet that is certainly not the case today. According to Professor Francois Grosjean of the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland, probably close to 20% of Americans are bilingual, compared to about half of the population in the rest of the world. As Haugen stated: “America’s profusion of tongues has made her a modern Babel, but a Babel in reverse.”

Haugen’s own personal history intertwines with the plurilingual history of our nation. Born in 1906 in Sioux City, Iowa to Norwegian immigrants, he spent a few years of his childhood in his parents’ native town in Norway but generally grew up as a Midwestern American. As a young man he attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, an institution founded in 1874 by Norwegian-Americans. In its early years St. Olaf carried out some of its courses in English (Mathematics, English, Geography, Writing, and Music) and some in Norwegian (Universal History and Religion Instruction), although by the time Haugen arrived formal instruction was monolingual.

Norwegian culture has long been an important part of the United States. Between 1825 and 1925 more than 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to America- about one-third of the country’s population! With the exception of Ireland, no other country has contributed a larger percentage of its population to America. The Norwegian presence is particularly notable in the Upper Midwest- of the five million Norwegian Americans living in the US according to the most recent census (2000), 878,744 live in Minnesota (16% of this state’s population).

In coming to the New World, Norwegian immigrants found themselves with some of the same old neighbors; Minnesota became the new home for many Swedish immigrants as well. In some areas, such as Chisago and Isanti counties north and northwest of Minneapolis, Swedish-Americans made up nearly 70 percent of the population in 1910. The Swedes too set up their own bilingual education system; in 1862 the Minnesota Elementar Skola was born in St. Peter, Minnesota. The school offered studies of Christianity, Latin, German and singing in Swedish, while other “more practical” subjects were given in English. Evening programs organized by student literary societies were alternately given in English and in Swedish. Now known as Gustavus Adolphus College, the Skola has assumed a prominent position in relations between American and the “moderland”; Their Majesties King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden will visit the college in October of this year.

Minnesota is no novice in receiving Scandinavian royalty; King Harald Vand Queen Sonja of Norway visited St. Olaf in October of last year, the third time they have made such a visit. The Queen even addressed one group of students in Norwegian.

Mass immigration from Scandinavia to America is an important part of our past- the children and grandchildren of Scandinavians are inhabitants of Minnesota and the rest of the U.S. A renewed interest in bilingualism may encourage many of these to keep their ancestral languages alive and participate in Scandinavian-American groups across the country. The passing on of language and culture from generation to generation is a beautiful process, one that was evidently important for Prof. Haugen, who in 1993 co-authored a book (“Ole Bull”) about a Norwegian musician with his daughter, Camilla Cai, now a professor of German and Scandinavian Music at Kenyon College in Ohio. As Haugen wrote on the invitations to a publication party he once gave- “Eigi enn eru allir Jómsvíkingar dau∂ir /Not yet are all the Jomsvikings dead.”