Marstrander, Carl (1883–1965), Celtic scholar and linguist, was born 26 November 1883 in Kristiansand, Norway, son of Fredric Marstrander, principal of a local college, and his wife Christiane Brodtkorb Svendrup. His interest in languages was probably encouraged at an early age by a number of works on comparative Indo-European linguistics in his father's library. By the time he entered the University of Kristiania (later Oslo) in 1901 he had developed an interest in Celtic languages. He studied old and middle Irish there and was encouraged by the professor of comparative linguistics and old Norse, Sophus Bugge, and by the professor of Sanskrit, Alf Torp, who both recognised his talent for linguistics. They were so impressed by his abilities that they obtained a scholarship for him to travel to Kerry to learn Irish in 1907. Marstrander was an outstanding athlete at the time and had just been selected to represent Norway in the pole vault at the Olympic games. Nevertheless, he opted for the scholarship, and spent five months learning Irish on the Blasket islands, which he mastered within a short time. Before travelling to the islands, he stayed at the house of Richard Irvine Best (qv) in Dublin. On reaching Kerry he initially stayed in Ballyferriter but finding there was too much English spoken there he moved to the Great Blasket island. Here he made the acquaintance of Tomás Ó Criomhthain (qv) with whom he spent two or three hours every day. He appears to have made a strong impression on Ó Criomhthain, who later spoke of Marstrander with admiration in his autobiography An tOileánach (1929). By the time he left the island, he had achieved a high degree of competency in Irish.
Marstrander obtained a scholarship in comparative linguistics to the University of Oslo in 1908 and continued his Celtic studies there. Two years later, with the assistance of Kuno Meyer (qv) and Best, he was appointed as successor to Osborn Bergin (qv) in the School of Irish Learning (which had been established on Kuno Meyer's initiative in 1903). Amongst his students there was Robin Flower (qv), whom he encouraged to travel to the Blasket islands. Marstrander possessed excellent spoken Irish, maybe due in part to his friendship with Sean Óg Caomhánach (Ó Caomhánaigh) of Dunquin while employed at the school. At the same time he accepted the editorship of the RIA's Dictionary of the Irish Language (a project initiated in 1852 but which had made little progress until taken over by Meyer in 1907) and set himself to work on the letter ‘D’ with a tight deadline for completion (this arose from the Rev. Maxwell Close's (qv) bequest of £1,000 to the Academy which required that at least part of the dictionary be published by August 1913). Marstrander met this challenge: the first part, a fasciculus of 112 double column pages, was published on 14 August 1913. It met with criticism, however, from such scholars as Meyer, Bergin, and Best, who considered Marstrander’s approach too elaborate and ambitious in scale. Marstrander was present in the Academy on 23 October at a stormy meeting of the dictionary's committee, where he defended his work. When the RIA's council subsequently requested him to reduce the plan of the work for its future parts, he refused to do so and relinquished all connection with the dictionary. Meyer's criticisms were published in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie (1915), 361–83, to which Marstrander replied in an article entitled ‘The Royal Irish Academy's dictionary’ published in Revue Celtique (1917–19). Yet Marstrander’s vision largely prevailed; when the Dictionary was completed in 1976 its longstanding editor, E. G. Quin (1910–86), commented that it was Marstrander who had ‘laid down the lines for the arrangement of the material which have been adhered to ever since’ (Dictionary of the Irish language based mainly on old and middle Irish materials (compact ed., 1983), vi).
While teaching at the School of Irish Learning and working on the dictionary, Marstrander was jointly editing Ériu with Meyer and at the same time collaborating with Best on a scholarly edition of Lebor na hUidre. This heavy workload had an adverse effect on his health and by the end of February 1911 he had been diagnosed with pleurisy and forced to discontinue his classes. He underwent a lung operation in Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital and at the end of March went to Monte Carlo to recuperate. By May 1911 he had returned to Dublin but left it again in mid–August for Norway, where he would now spend most of his time. Informing Meyer that he could not combine his teaching duties and his work on the dictionary, he proposed to leave the School of Irish Learning for at least one year and to hand over the editorship of Ériu.
In the summer of 1913 he was appointed to the chair of Celtic philology in the University of Kristiania while still continuing his work on the dictionary. He remained in this chair until his retirement aged 70, concentrating primarily on research, as his teaching duties were minimal. He was an authority on Hittite, Phrygian, Osco-Umbrian, and Proto-Scandanavian, Gothic, and Indo-European studies as well as the Celtic languages. In addition, he was an authority on runic inscriptions and the origin and development of the runic alphabet. He spent three years in Brittany learning Breton and published widely on Manx and the history of the Isle of Man. He greatly extended the body of knowledge on the influence of the old Norse language in the viking settlements in Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Hebrides.
Most of his publications can be divided into three categories: those relating to Celtic studies; those concerned with Celtic contacts with other languages; and the study of the nature and origin of runes. His publications include an account of his visit to Ireland published in Norwegian under the title Lidt Af Hvert Fra Irland (1909). Together with Bergin he co-edited the Miscellany presented to Kuno Meyer (1912) on Meyer's appointment to the chair of Celtic philology in Berlin in 1911. Other publications include Contributions to the history of the Norwegian language in Ireland (1915) and Observations sur les presents indo-européens á nasale infixée en celtique (1924). Between 1913 and 1928 most of his studies on Celtic and comparative linguistics appeared in the publications of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo. In 1928 he founded the Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap / The Norwegian Journal of Linguistics, in which he published numerous contributions.
Marstrander took an active part in the Norwegian resistance to German occupation during the second world war. He was arrested by the Gestapo and interned in a concentration camp at Grinni near Oslo. While in captivity he kept a diary written in old Irish on lavatory paper. He succeeded in smuggling his diary out of the camp to his son Kai, who was also a member of the resistance, but it was intercepted on Kai's arrest and sent to Berlin to be translated. The language experts there were unable to do so and returned it to Norway stating that the only person who could translate it was Professor Marstrander of Oslo.
He returned to Ireland three times. The first visit in 1917 was private. He returned in 1936 to accept an honorary doctorate from TCD. During his final visit in 1959 the NUI awarded him an honorary degree on the occasion of the first international congress of Celtic studies. He was a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and in 1965 was awarded the Manninan trophy by the Cultural Society of Man for his work on Celtic languages and culture.
In 1914 Marstrander married Audhild Sverdrup (d. 1932); they had a son and two daughters. He died 23 December 1965 and the Irish ambassador to Sweden and Norway, Valentin Iremonger (qv) represented President Éamon de Valera (qv) at his funeral.