What’s in a word?

How often do we take the time to consider the words we use to communicate? What do they reveal about our own history, and cultural heritage? Can one dialectical nuance yield all our secrets?

There is a little-known collection within the National Folklore Collection UCD that seeks to shed some light on these complex questions. The Melberg Collection, comprising 9 archive boxes, speaks to the work of Norwegian linguist Håkon Melberg (1911–1990) who was a regular visitor to Ireland between 1933-1957. During these visits he travelled across the country studying the diverse dialects of the Irish language, as part of a broader study on the development and interaction of the Celtic languages. This would result in the publication of his own treatise, Origin of the Scandinavian Nations and Languages: An introduction, in 1953.

'Origin of the Scandinavian Nations and Languages'

Front cover of the ‘Origin of the Scandinavian Nations and Languages’.

The materials within the Melberg Collection offer us just a flavor of the creativity, diligence and dedication required of a linguist working in this field. They also allow shades of the author’s own personality to emerge; in turns studious and consummate, whimsical and free-spirited.

Melberg’s handwritten notebooks reveal a prolific consumer of language. His copious notes record the Irish books he reads during his visit and the vocabulary he acquires therein. Each newly discovered Irish word is carefully written out, alongside an English translation, and perhaps any correlations he recognizes with Welsh or Brittanic French as well (two of his other fields of interest). All in pursuit of identifying shared bloodlines, and their linguistic offspring. Having studied and excelled at languages and linguistics at the University of Oslo, Melberg was considered at that time, in the words of the celebrated scholar Carl Marstrander,

to be one of the most promising young linguists we have had at the university during the last 30 years. All who have learned to know him deeply regret that he is leaving the university.”

Unfortunately, it is seems that Melberg left Oslo before completing his degree; a decision that would have consequences for his subsequent academic standing.

He was however awarded a gold medal for a Latin and Indo-European research treatise in 1932 and received a scholarship to study English in London. Further recognition came in the form of the research funding from the Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities that allowed him to undertake his aforementioned period of study in Ireland (and Wales, Scotland and Brittany).

Whilst in Ireland Melberg grew to be a prolific lecturer, speaking at events across the country, from Waterford to Donegal, on the etymology of the Irish language, and what he believed to be the depth of information concealed in the richness of its dialects, its oral tradition, and its material culture. This same conviction that a nation’s language reveals something of its soul, its history, and it relationship with the wider world finds expression in his notebooks, as he combs through various facets of Irish culture looking for hidden clues. No topic is thought without merit – he looks at the vocabulary associated with Irish botany, Irish maritime culture, our poetry and proverbs, as well as our narrative tales.

Some of his most interesting extracts see him transcribe phonetic copies of old tales. By breaking down the very structure of the stories, and taking them word for word, sound by sound, we see him searching for correlations and divergences within dialects, as well as asking what relation if any can be seen between the language and it European relations. Such methodologies no doubt also helped him improve his own vocabulary and grasp of the language for the work to come. His respect for the Irish tongue and broader culture is evidenced in his correspondence to prominent activists in the field, notably Séamus Ó Duilearga, director of the Irish Folklore Commission, in which he conveys both his fears and optimistic wishes for the future.

Melberg’s later career would take on various colourful hues. During the Second World War, and the occupation of Norway, he would act as one of the leaders of a spy organization known as XU Pan, passing secret German information to London. This experience was recalled in his book Dobbeltspill – Nazilensmannen som lurte tyskerne in 1988, written with the author T. Brynildsen. His work and interest in the study of the Celtic languages continued after the war, but he and his wife would find an additional outlet for their energy and empathy towards the end of his life through their work with children and young people in his hometown of Halden in Norway.

But still there remains within the National Folklore Collection a testament to the enthusiastic young scholar who loved language, and saw within each word the potential to answer long forgotten questions.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.

Leave a Reply