Dakota Datebook

Forced Norwegian

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


The State Legislature passed a law on this date in 1891 that would require the teaching of Scandinavian languages at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Although less than 8% of the student population was of Norwegian descent, the state’s Norwegian minority began clamoring for the bill as early as 1884, calling for the hiring of a Norwegian professor “of their own race,” as they put it. After seven years of campaigning, they found victory in the hiring of a Norwegian professor, the Reverend George Rygh.

Although the 1880 Census recorded fewer than 9,000 Norwegians in North Dakota, the next decade witnessed an enormous influx. By 1900, their numbers had swelled over eight-fold to nearly 74,000, and soon nearly one of every three persons in the state was of Norwegian ancestry. As their numbers grew, so did their influence. The 1880s alone saw the emergence of thirteen Norwegian-language newspapers. Local politicians or political parties controlled many of these papers, hoping to reach their new and growing constituency through their own language. Most of the immigrants, however, learned English very quickly, and the majority were soon fluent bilinguals.

Despite their quick adoption of English and American customs, the Norwegians in the state hoped to preserve their own heritage as well. Passing down Norwegian cuisine and customs to their children, they also hoped to pass on the Norwegian language. To this end, they began lobbying for the bill to introduce Norwegian instruction at UND. Although opposed by the university’s regency, the bill eventually passed, but the Reverend Rygh found little actual interest in the language, and was forced to fill his schedule teaching English and Greek. In one semester in 1893, he had only a single student enrolled in his Norwegian class. He resigned in 1895. However, with the increasing number of Norwegians arriving here, interest grew, and a chair of Scandinavian languages was established in 1900.

Norwegian continues to be taught at the university today, and demand for the subject is growing. In 2005, there were so many students registering for the courses that they had to split into two sections.


Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job



Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1919 Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American History. Liberty Press: New York: pp. 550-552.




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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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