Bodø, linguistic landscapes in the Arctic, by Nayr Ibrahim

Not so long ago Bodø did not exist in my world. Anything above the Arctic Circle was a cold, dark, inhospitable place in a National Geographic documentary. Bodø is now my home. The capital of Nordland county and the second largest city in Northern Norway, Bodø was recently given the unique honour of becoming the first Arctic city to be awarded the European Capital of Culture in 2024.

Yes, I live between a fjord and the arctic forests, where the splash of colour from above (fluffy pink candy floss clouds and fiery red skies in the winter and the ephemeral palette of greens, yellows and lilacs of the Northern lights) are a constant source of wonderment, where elg (moose in Norway) wander into your backyard and reindeer stew is a mundane dish on restaurant menus, where lutefisk reminds me of bacalhau and koselig  rhymes with cosy-like! Yet, the apparent unfamiliarity of the location overlaps with my experiences of lives lived on different latitudes and languages learnt in classrooms around the world.

This pull between the familiar and the unfamiliar is evident in the linguistic landscape of the city. Looking at it from the perspective of a newcomer, the connections I was able to make to my existent language repertoires helped me make sense of my new surroundings and reduced that initial feeling of strangeness and isolation. Firstly, the linguistic landscape highlights the Germanic underpinnings of my education. It accentuates the basic German I learnt as a student in South Africa; Afrikaans, in sleep mode for so long, has been reactivated as it is now of relevance; the historical influences of Old Norse on the English language have become real and palpable and comparisons between English and Norwegian make for interesting discussions in the language classroom; and the presence of English in the environment or intermingled with Norwegian builds a cross-linguistic bridge, facilitating understanding. This Germanic family draws me in with promises of intelligibility, leaving crumbs of familiarity along the way. Yet, just like Hansel and Gretel, it sometimes leaves me in the forest, where the written word is decipherable but the sounds keep me in the dark! Written Norwegian, together with visual support in the environment, help overcome the maze of multiple dialects, where pronunciation is a moving feast and difficult for a learner of Norwegian to pin down! In addition, the multimodality of the linguistic landscape, where the image communicates meaning together with the word, enhances my attempts at intercomprehension.

The photos of the shop windows below are an excellent example of intercomprehension, translanguaging and multimodality in the Bodø linguistic landscape. After looking through the windows of a number of hairdressing salons, I quickly deduced that the word ‘frisør’ was the Norwegian equivalent for hairdresser. However, the word only appears once in the pictures below. The shop window on the left is written completely in English, with a play on the words air/hair, based on the title of the 1978 song by John Paul Young. The second one mixes English with Norwegian, ‘Drop-in’ indicating that an appointment is unnecessary. The name of the shop on the right is, I’m assuming, 7th Heaven, ‘himmel’ being the same word in Norwegian and German and very close to the Afrikaans equivalent, ‘hemel’. The star lights in the window add a festive note to the visual landscape of the Christmas season.

Bodø has a wide range of restaurants, cafés and bars, creating that warm, køselig feeling during the dark winter months. The three cafés below, once again, reflect this mixing of languages or transparent cognates. Afrikaans definitely played a role in understanding Melkebaren or The Milk Bar, ‘melk’ being the exact same word for milk in the two languages. Babel does not indicate anything edible or drinkable, but it is an invitation for long chats with friends over a strong espresso, perhaps in multiple languages? Café Mineral is a quirky café-cum-gemstone centre in Bertnes, a suburb of Bodø near the university, hence the subtitle, Bertnes Geo-senter. Not only is café written à la française, with é, but the word ‘mineral’ takes all of its meaning when you walk inside and have your coffee and home-made cakes among the gemstones.

In the centre of town, Glasshuset, or the Glass House, is the pedestrianised glass-covered stretch of Storgata or High Street (btw, ‘gata’ / gate, of Germanic origin, is still visible in place/street names in the UK today, for example, Stonegate in York or Aldgate in London). The transparency of this word is evident, where ‘glass’ does not need a translation, and hus is house, huis in Afrikaans, haus in German.

A walk along the harbour attests to the importance of the fish industry in a very simple sign selling fresh shrimp. In this case, the meaning of the sign only becomes evident with a little knowledge of basic Norwegian: Ferske = fresh; Reker = shrimps; Sleges = sold; her = here.

Of course, this is 2020-2021 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Inevitably, the linguistic landscape includes signs and information about COVID-19. The sign below, on the revolving doors of the local shopping centre, City Nord, displays information in Norwegian and English, with the visual support of illustrations.

It is interesting that none of the Sami languages are present in the list above, yet Bodø’s location in Northern Norway places it in the land of the Sami people. I may not be able to distinguish Sami in the environment, but it has a special place at the university. Nord University has the national responsibility for supporting and teaching Lule Sami and Southern Sami. Hence, the name of the University in three languages displayed at the main entrance.

Sami National Day is on 6 February and the university dedicates a whole week to Sami culture and language each year. This included a visit from the president of the Sami Parliament in 2020, and the music students’ evocative performance of the mystical, other-worldly yoik. Besides this event, that all students are required to attend, Sami is spotted in and around the corridors and lecture rooms of the university. For someone who is always looking for opportunities to discover and integrate different languages in education, the three posters below offered a visual feast of multilingualism and intercultural learning in pre-schools.

The posters include, from left to right, information about the Sami peoples in English, a glossary of children’s clothes in Lule Sami, and a description of pre-school Sami resources and arts and crafts in Norwegian.

So, a focus on the linguistic landscape of Bodø shows how Norwegian, together with English predominates. Most noteworthy is how Norwegian already exists in the DNA of my linguistic repertoire, in the history of my language learning, in the biography of this Germanic family, rendering the words and spellings of this new language comprehensible. It will be interesting to see how the linguistic landscape evolves in the lead up to the year 2024, when the world might just be descending on this quiet arctic city to discover its cultural and natural beauty.

Nayr Ibrahim, February 2021, Nord University, Norway

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