Due to Svalbard’s version of gender identity politics there will no longer be a Sysselmannen (translation: “governor”) as of Jan. 1, with Norway’s government recommending the person/office presiding over the archipelago be referred to as Svalbard Syssel (translation: “Svalbard state” – more or less).
The new name for the office/person – which serves administrative rather than political functions – is being recommended by The Language Council of Norway in a letter to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, which has administrative oversight of Svalbard. The government began seeking suggestions months ago due to a mandate the titles of all government entities be gender neutral as of the beginning of the year.
“We need the very best heads to work in the state – whether they are women or men,” Nikolai Astrup, Norway’s minister of municipal and modernization, said when the request for new names was announced. “It is both old-fashioned and outdated that the title of the position is linked to what gender one has.”
General reaction among locals to the new name recommended this week seems to range from disdain to ridicule about both the name and the government’s fixation on implementing gender-neutral language. But one of Svalbard’s longest-lived and most knowledgeable historians, Per Kyrre Reymert, lobbied the government for the new name after suggesting the title for the office in media interviews in September.
He notes the Svalbard Act of 1925 refers to the “Syssel Om Sysselmannen.” He also suggests the title of the person presiding over the office should be changed to Sysselmeister (“master”).
“Then the governor is gender neutral, which is intended with the full name change,” Reymert said in an article published by the Norwegian Polar Institute, where he serves on the naming committee for polar towns. He is also the curator at Svalbard Museum, written numerous books and articles about Svalbard’s history, and served numerous other cultural/historical roles during the past 45 years.
The Norwegian version of Wikipedia (yeah – gritted teeth – we’re using it for simplicity’s sake since the original source material is a lengthy and dense historical tome), refers to “syssel” as “a mostly historical administrative area in Norway that was headed by a governor.” Its origins in Norway and neighboring countries/territories date back to the 12th century, and while largely outdated it’s still in use in the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
Meanwhile, Birger Amundsen, another longtime all-things-Svalbard expert as a journalist and author since the early 1970s, offered a more succinct and skeptical opinion about the renaming and its lengthy process in a lively debate this week on a local Facebook page.
“State nonsense at a high level,” he wrote. “And this is what drives those bureaucratic minds and efforts.”
One of the practical criticisms of the process was expressed by Tommy Vigestad Rogne, a local aviation employee.
“There are no reasons to spend tens of millions changing to gender neutral names of government organizations,” he wrote. “At the end of the day taxpayers have to pay for this waste.”