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No more Icelandic, Old Norse at UCPH

Small subjects — The University of Copenhagen is to shut down its electives in Modern Icelandic, Old Norse and Faroese in 2019 due to a lack of students. The acting dean Jens Erik Mogensen hopes, however, that they will be recreated if UCPH is given a grant from the government.

It is the end of a language-historical era. As part of the Faculty of Humanities cuts, the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) has decided to shut down teaching in Old Norse, Modern Icelandic, Faroese and Old Danish from 2019.

The elective subjects are to be shut down as they do not meet the UCPH requirement that there should be at least 30 students in a class. The closure is a consequence of the government’s so-called reprioritisation contribution and resizing, which will lead to DKK160 million in government grant cutbacks at UCPH.

End of an era

With the decision to close Modern Icelandic and Old Norse, a golden era in language history will come to an end, where UCPH since the 18th century has been the Nordic centre for research on Iceland.

“It was in Copenhagen that the linguist Rasmus Rask, later professor at the University of Copenhagen, published the first Icelandic grammar in 1811. Through the study of Icelandic, he proved that Danish is not a German dialect. In the period 1871-1935, Old Norse was taught in the Danish upper secondary gymnasium school. This is no longer done, even though most students still go through Icelandic sagas as a part of the teaching in Danish. It is an area that has played a major role in Danish cultural history back to the Middle Ages, and the Icelandic language is a key to understanding the Danish and Nordic languages in both the Viking and MIddle Ages,” says Annette Lassen, PhD and associate professor at UCPH.

 

The Icelandic language is key to understanding the Danish and Nordic languages in both the Viking and Middle Ages
Annette Lassen, PhD and associate professor

She is associated with the Arnamagnaean collection, which contains Ancient Icelandic and Nordic manuscripts collected by the Icelandic-born professor and researcher Árni Magnússon until 1730, and which is the largest collection of Icelandic manuscripts outside Iceland.

Popular throughout the world

Annette Lassen says that Icelandic is a popular subject in large parts of the world, and the subject is taught at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the University of Aberdeen, the University of California, Berkeley, and at universities in Canada, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Italy, China, Japan, Australia, Russia and other places. And this despite the fact that these countries do not have large Icelandic manuscript collections such as in Denmark.

It is thought-provoking that you cannot study Faroese anywhere at university level in Denmark, which is linked to the Faroes through its unity of the realm constitution.

Annette Lassen, PhD and associate professor

But, according to Annette Lassen, it is a pity that the elective courses in Old Norse and Icelandic will no longer be available in Denmark, although there are still instructors at UCPH who can, and would like to, do the teaching.

“In the long term, this means that we cannot recruit researchers to Denmark, and it is a subject that is of great cultural importance to Denmark. As a government-funded knowledge institution, UCPH should also be able to have the financial means to carry out instruction in narrower subjects of cultural importance. And it would be paradoxical if we did not have anyone able to research and convey the importance of the manuscripts, which include world literature – sagas which UCPH has held since 1730.”

Annette Lassen also believes the closure of Faroese also sends out an unfortunate signal.

“It is thought-provoking that you cannot study Faroese anywhere at university level in Denmark, which is linked to the Faroes through its unity of the realm constitution.

A frustrating situation

At the Faculty of Humanities, acting dean Jens Erik Mogensen emphasises that it is not the closure of study programmes, but of elective courses: They are just not being offered any more because of too few enrolled students.

The faculty still faces large cutbacks in income. The faculty’s management has therefore introduced a rule that there should be at least 30 participants in an elective course before it is offered. This affects about 40 elective courses, including the ones in Old Norse, Faroese and Modern Icelandic, typically elected by some four to five students a year.

“It is a great pity that there is no financing for, say, Old Norse, which UCPH is known for throughout the world. It is a question of humanities skills that we are losing as a society,” Jens Erik Mogensen says.

I will fight to get a grant for the small language subjects, which will not otherwise be financially feasible.

Associate Dean for Education Jens-Erik Mogensen

He has just joined the government’s Council for Small Subjects which is examining the grants for small language subjects as a part of a larger national strategy. Old Norse philology had previously been given a grant on the budget, but this was taken away in 2010.

The hope is that the small Nordic subjects like Old Norse, Modern Icelandic and Faroese can be set up again if UCPH gets a grant from the government.

“I will fight to get a grant for the small language subjects, that makes sense for Denmark. As the subjects are not financially feasible without it. Many of them are actually research subjects, where it does not make sense to talk about a wider labour market or a large number of student admissions, so they are different,” says Jens Erik Mogensen.

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