Hello linguonaut! In this post, we talk about a linguistic phenomenon that most earthlings don’t give a damn about: Russenorsk! But if you’re here, it’s obvious that you don’t belong to the majority, so you’ll love Russenorsk and its fascinating story.
What is Russenorsk, a language? Or is it more like a… A Danish metal band? A Häagen-Dazs ice cream, perhaps? 🍨
Well, it could be many things but it turns out to be… a language. Well, actually, a pidgin, which is to a language like what a silkworm is to a butterfly.
And while we’re at it, I’ll kill the suspense right away: it is not a pidgin, but it was.
Russenorsk is already a memory, it exists only on a few documents. No living speakers are left, but there are good reasons to remember it. 🖼️
So, then, I am going to tell you now the epic of a language that could have been and didn’t. An adventure that lasted about 150 years, there in the Big North, where the gods send auroras for humans to stare to the sky and find solace, in that captivating but deeply inhospitable land. ❄️
What creature is this? The name clues us in: a mixture of Russian and Norwegian. The two countries shared borders, after all, at the end of the world in the early 18th century. They still do.
We will not have written records of Russenorsk until 1785, though we have evidence of increasingly intense trade between the Norwegians of the centre-north and the Russians of the same latitudes, for at least a hundred years. 💱
It’s time to open a small parenthesis. I’ve thrown around terms like pidgin and creole and it’s time to specify what they mean.
What’s a pidgin
When two human communities come into contact, they need to communicate: what if none speak the other’s language? What if they do not master any lingua franca? 🤐
In such case, each community simplifies its mother tongue as much as it can, each taking words and characteristics from the other, to end up with a rudimentary fusion that allows speakers to have minimal interactions, satisfying elementary needs: this primitive communication tool is a pidgin.
These phenomena occurred are countless times in history. They are not all documented, as you can imagine, but the phenomenon is well-known. 🤓 Some notable examples are:
- The pidgins of the languages spoken by the labour force that settled in Hawaii;
- Basque-Icelandic and Basque-Algonquian, which developed through the contact between Basque-speaking sailors and local population on their voyages across the North Atlantic;
- the fruits of the interbreeding of the languages spoken in America with those of the African slaves.
But this is where it gets interesting. 😍
An Introduction to Pidgins and Creoles, by John Holm: a 300-page overview of what pidgins and creoles are. The cover is dull but the content is darn entertaining. 😀
What’s a creole
If these communities stay together long enough, it stands to reason that boys from one group will start to take an interest in girls from the other, and vice versa. In other words, babies come. 👶
A baby brings terrific consequences for the parents, but also for pidgins. 🤯
If this is the only linguistic medium available to them, children, growing up, will take their pidgin and articulate it in every conceivable direction: lexicon, temporal markers, subordinate propositions, genders, tenses and modes, everything.
A creole is born. 👏
That’s the end of the parenthesis because this is getting out of hand. Let’s go back to Russenorsk.
We are in the Arctic Circle. Despite the bitter cold, 🥶 there are people on both sides of the border, and as we have just seen, where Norwegians and Russians meet, a pidgin emerges: here, the one we call Russenorsk.
Although pidgins are linguistic phenomena of enormous scientific interest, in my view, Russenorsk has been studied less than it deserves. I can come up with a couple of reasons:
- Few traces have been left;
- linguists skilled in the languages involved here do not abound;
- it is too cold up there and pidgin specialists prefer to do fieldwork about Polynesian pidgins; 🏖️ (kidding)
- Russenorsk, because of its circumstances, could not morph into a creole, thus reducing a linguist’s curiosity.
Having made the introductions, let’s dig a little deeper.
Russenorsk: the history
Take a look at this French newspaper clipping, which speak of the coast of Murmansk, deep in the north-east of the Scandinavian peninsula:
Let’s examine this Russian report sent to the French newspaper La Voix:
(The Norwegians) send a certain number of children every year to fishermen’s families to be initiated into our customs and to learn the Russian language.
On the other hand, our merchants, most of whom are old believers, do not bother to learn Norwegian at all and are obliged to use interpreters in their commercial relations, which is not at all conducive to business.
There are contacts up there between Norwegians and Russians. There, to the west and east of the hundreds of kilometres of border, the two peoples live, trade, quarrel, laugh and drink tea together. ☕
The harshness of the environment shapes their characters, as does the nature of their relationships. ❄️ Thus, we have documents attesting to how Norwegians who have gone as settlers to the Murmansk coast are demanding that their government abolish the segregation of fishing permits.
History of Norway, by John A. Yilek: the ABC of Norway. One of the things that will dawn on you will be: gosh, I knew nothing of this shyte.
These settlers are the so-called Kola Norwegians: not from the fizzy soft drink, but from the homonymous peninsula, although it sounds better in Norwegian, which is Kolanordmenn. In particular, they are calling for all fishing grounds to be open to any fishing vessel, Russian or Norwegian: frictions over fish stocks are as old as Big Bang itself. 🐡
You surely noticed that old believers thing: it’s the Pomori, north-west Russians, nicknamed old believers as they are pre-reformists. ☦️
This detail is not trivial: for the most part, the Russians with whom the Norwegians trade belong to the Orthodox minority that rejected Nikon’s 1654 reformation.
Dealings between the two take place in coastal settlements and in inland trading posts. Fish is of interest to the inland Russians, because as good Christians, they often fast, in turn supplying wheat and rye to their trading partners, as they have cereal surpluses. 🌾
The Norwegians deal with the Pomorians, heretics to Christian orthodoxy, but skilled traders and seamen, whose trade flows are powered by −and feed− a good chunk of Russia.
This is what is known in historiography as the Pomor trade: it was of paramount importance. In addition to fish and grain, they moved meat, cheese, salt, minerals, wood, fibres, fabrics, soap, etc. 🧼
Among the Norwegians, there are more fishermen than merchants, and among the Russians, the other way round. Over time, the number of actors involved in this trade will increase, and so the number of traders.
Russenorsk is mostly used during the summer when the weather is more favourable. There are Norwegians, though, who winter in Russia as well as Russians who do the same in Norway.
In the early days, the trade was a bootlegging trade: later, it was made legal, but formal restrictions on trade abounded, at least until 1783, when things began to change.
What happened in the last years of the 18th century?
A Concise History of Russia, by Paul Bushkovitch. If you find it too concise, congrats! You’re up for more of Russia, and in such case, I’ll soon write about that too.
On the western side, the Dano-Norwegian crown realised that the Bergen and Trondheim companies, which until then had controlled the northern trade, were uninterested in the matter, and decided to take over: the Russians are now allowed to trade freely with the Norwegians in Finnmark.
On the eastern side, Russia is expanding geographically and commercially. In other words, times are good. 💰
Several villages are the scene of Russian-Norwegian trade and Vardø that becomes its hub: this is a small cluster of houses around a quay, to which people come from as far away as the islands of Lofoten and Vesterålen.
Now, if you look at it from a world map, it looks like they’re right next door, but if you zoom in and measure distances, you realise that there were Norwegian sailors who travelled some 730 km from further south.
Quite a feat. I wear long sleeves in Valencia even in July and without Google Maps I get lost even in my neighbourhood. 🧭
Those up there are happy that Copenhagen legalised the Pomor trade. For Finnmark Norwegians, Denmark is as remote as Narnia: it’s the Russians next door they can rely on. 🇷🇺
This trade not only gives both communities the possibility to put some money in their pockets but above all, to sell surpluses and avoid famines, which until the 20th century are frequent and devastating. 😔
Good! This, in a nutshell, is the framework in which Russenorsk emerges and grows. Let us now look at some linguistic details of this pidgin.
Russenorsk: (a bit of) theory
Russenorsk is an SVO pidgin, which means, the basic order of the phrase is Subject-Verb-Object, in which we can find phonemes like:
- /x/, as in the Spanish J, as in Javier: it’s missing in Norwegian but present in Russian.
- /h/, as in the English H of to have, unknown in Russian but frequent in Norwegian.
These are, however, exceptions: consonants and sounds that are not found in both languages are either simplified (e.g. Russian mnogo becomes nogoli / mango) or avoided altogether. This is a common feature in pidgins: to go as elemental as possible.
The syntax is rigid and Russenorsk lacks elements to connect subject and complement, like of, to, at or the verb to be. Personal pronouns and possessive pronouns are identical: with Moja, you say “I” and “my/mine”.
Verbs are conjugated with just the personal pronoun:
- jeg sprēk, I speak
- du sprēk, you speak
- han sprēk, she speaks
in other words, sprēk never changes.
In general, Russenorsk grammar is very Norwegian, even though the fierce simplification typical of pidgins is at work; and that’s due to its solid Norwegian foundations that the very inclusion of Руссено́рск among pidgins is still debated. 🤔
To dumb it down, according to a group of linguists, led by the Dutch superstar Frederik Kortlandt, Russenorsk would be simplified Norwegian with Russian borrowings: in other words, just a variant of the Scandinavian language.
Here is an example, also studied by Kortlandt himself, which I have slimmed a bit.
A History of the Arctic: Nature, Exploration and Exploitation, by John McCannon. A fascinating read for a fascinating portion of the world, we never think as much as we should.
An example of Russenorsk
This is a sample of a negotiation between a Norwegian and a Russian. I transcribed the original sentence with its translation below.
N is a Norwegian speaker, R is a Russian; in green the words with a strong Norwegian origin, in purple the Russian ones, whoever is speaking:
N: Kjøp I seika, treska, tiksa o balduska?
N: Are you buying pollack, cod, haddock and halibut?
R: Da, da – moja kopom altsamma, davai på skip kom.
R: Yes, yes – I’m buying it all, come on board.
N: Spasiba! Har I mokka, har I groppa?
N: Thanks! Do you have flour, do you have wheat?
R: Da, da! Davai på skip kom, brat, på tjei driki.
R: Yes, yes! Come on board, brother, have a cup of tea.
N: Blagdaru pokorna! Kok tvoja betalom for seika?
N: I humbly thank you! How much are you paying for pollack?
R: Pet pudof seika 1 pud moki.
R: Five puds of pollack for one pud of coffee. (Note: 1 pud = 16,38 kg, it’s a Russian unit of measurement).
Las palabras que he marcado en verde son las noruegas y las en morado las rusas, hable quien hable. Podemos también apreciar:
The words I have marked in green are Norwegian and those in purple are Russian, whoever is speaking. We can also notice:
#1 The verbal endings in -om (and that’s it: no tenses, moods or persons) added to the verbal stem;
#2 the po or på, used here as a universal preposition and which already belonged to both Norwegian and Russian (по in Russian, på in Norwegian);
#3 the ending -a which is used with some frequency to mark nouns;
#4 it does not appear in the fragment above, but mention should also be made of the -mann ending to indicate membership of a social, ethnic or national group.
Complete Norwegian Beginner to Intermediate Course: the popular Teach Yourself’s method. It’s an excellent read, whatever you would like to do with your Norwegian afterwards: pursue fluency in it, or switch to stitching woollen scarves.
Is it more Norwegian or Russian?
The above is only a tiny sample, but it illustrates how Norwegian stands out in Russenorsk: lexically, but above all in terms of its fundamental structure.
So, maybe Kortlandt is right in his analysis. If he were to read the summary I’m about to write, he’d get the heebie-jeebies. 😐
➡️ If Russenorsk were a car, the engine, the chassis and the hood would be simplified Norwegian and what is Russian would be specific components like steering wheel, windscreen, upholstery. 🚗
This contradicts the Russian sources I’ve examined, according to which, like the newspaper clipping above, Norwegians were aces in Russian; but if they had been, they would have spoken real Russian. 🇷🇺
Nonetheless, there was not a single Russenorsk, but several, in space and time.
Bye Russenorsk, welcome Russian
It is true that, according to several historians, Russenorsk undergoes a gradual but irreversible change over time.
You have certainly noticed that the negotiation in the example above is a barter: it belongs to the first phase of the Pomori trade. Decades later, as trade increased, professionalisation began: merchants would learn and use Russian, and barter would develop into real money. 💰
Let’s now briefly talk about their lexicon.
The vocabulary of Russenorsk is based on the environment of its speakers, i.e. it covers cereals and flour, fishing and marine species, navigation and geographical features. In other words, it would be difficult to find a treatise on Arabic astronomy translated into Russenorsk up there.⭐
Approx, four hundred words have been counted in Russenorsk:
- 47% from Norwegian,
- 39% from Russian,
- and the rest, a mix of Dutch, Low German, Saami, Finnish, English, Swedish and even French.
Just as the most known Spanish phrase is Dos cervezas por favor, the most popular Russenorsk sentence is possibly Moja kopom fiska, i.e. “I buy fish”. 😅
Analyzing Russenorsk is more difficult than it seems. Not only because of the scarcity of evidence but also because of the astonishing linguistic variety up there: you look at the map and think that there can only be walruses, icebergs and three crazy fishermen, especially when there were no modern conveniences (the telegraph will arrive in Vardø around 1870). But… well, no. It’s not like that.
This region, Finnmark, is home to a variety of ethnic groups, trades and languages hard to conceive. 🤯
According to various sources, it may also have been used by Saami, Finns and Dutch in their dealings with the Russians. But let’s look at a few more phrases, without getting bogged down in theoretical analysis.
Get Started in Russian – Absolute Beginner Course, by Rachel Farmer: this is what you need if you want to get your feet wet with Russian but do not dare to go big right from the beginning.
Some phrases in Russenorsk
Strāsvi / Drāsvi: Hello.
Gammel go ven på moja: my good old friend.
Kak tvoja lēvom?: How are you?
Basiba / Spasiba: Thanks.
Tvoja fisk kopom?: Are you buying fish?
En voga mokka, så to voga treska: one våg of flour, two våg of cod (Note: våg is an ancient Norwegian unit of measurement, between 18 and 23 Kg).
Kak pris?: What is the price?
Mangeli kosta?: How much does it cost?
Det er meget dyrt: It is too expensive.
Deta māla: This is little.
Nokka lite pian kom: I got a little drunk.
Hvor har du stoppet opp?: Where did you stop?
Grot stoka på gāf: Strong storm in the sea.
Snart pa kjaida slipom: I’ll die soon (lit: soon to church sleep).
Kak sprek? Moje niet forsto: What are you saying? I don’t understand.
Tvoja lygom: You are lying.
Han ikke sănfærdi sprēk: You are not telling the truth.
Moja slipom: I want to sleep.
Tvoja vrēd: You are angry.
Anton sprēk på moja, tvoja grōt rīk: Anton told me you’re very rich.
Russenorsk hasn’t grown into a creole, 😒 which would be the second stage in the formation of a new language: a couple of necessary circumstances are missing, which we will see in a minute.
Is there any Russenorsk left today? Is there any speaker? Do Norwegians and Russians on the northern coasts have exchanges, and if so, in what language?
Well, nowadays, all that remains of Russenorsk is history. 😔 Nobody has spoken it since the 1920s: the adoption of Russian as lingua franca had already marginalised it; then the situation precipitated it.
The following events took place:
- the First World War (1915-1918), which destroyed Russian trade all across the country;
- the October Revolution, with the Bolshevik capture in 1920 of Archangelsk (the largest city there), which brought the whole area to a standstill;
- the Stalinist collectivisations in 1929, which dealt the final blow. 💀
In our time, Norwegians and Russians in the deep North, when trading or meeting, are likely resorting to English.
Little interest in Russenorsk
I have no idea.
Some linguistic phenomena are analysed by scholars all over the planet, yet in the case of Russenorsk, only a handful of locals have studied it.
Outside of 🇳🇴 and 🇷🇺, almost no one. Why? Lack of materials? Ouch, nothing disappears without leaving a trace. We must have missed something: Arctic communities involved in Russian-Norwegian trade, at this time, also relate to central and southern Europe. ⛵
Just a couple examples: from the port of Tromsø ships set sail for Archangelsk on one side and Bordeaux on the other: it would not be unreasonable for written evidence to exist in archives far from the great North. 📜
Then, before the invention of the smörgåskaviar, in the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of ships from the north of Norway reached Brittany to export hake roe, coveted by Breton fishermen as excellent bait for sardines. 🎣
We are not on the Pomor route, but if we found Abbasid dinars in Karelia and Budda statuettes in Telemark, it is not unreasonable that something in Russenorsk had landed far from its birthplace.
It would be also unlikely that for long periods of time various human beings would be side by side and entertain exclusively commercial relations. There would have been a multitude of weddings, birthday parties, toasts, Christian masses, gifts. 🎁 Life, in short.
There must be, for example, priests hanging notices outside their church doors in Russian for old believers and in Russenorsk for passing Norwegians. ⛪
If many Norwegians settle in Kola and there are more Russians in Vardø than in Marbella, there could be documents somewhere, waiting to be taken out from the oblivion. We have to remember that, especially in the 19th century, you could hear Russenorsk from Novaya Zemlya to Lofoten, which is 1,600 km at least. 🤯
Be that as it may, Russenorsk no longer exists. There is a bit of uncertainty about the date of its official passing: the one on his death certificate, attributed by the Sanhedrin of Slavists and Scandinavists, is 1923.
So, 1923 should be the last year we have proof of its use, though… 🧐
… I stumbled across this podcast: Moja på Tvoja is a twenty-six-minute episode of a very interesting series on Norwegian history.
If you speak Norwegian, good! You can enjoy the whole thing; if you don’t, with some Russian, you might be able to pick up here and there the samples of Russenorsk scattered throughout the podcast. If you don’t speak either and are too lazy to make it to the end, enjoy the first eight seconds, which is pure Russenorsk. 🎧
This is Captain Fritz Goldmann. His family, from Hammerfest, when he was nineteen in 1909, sent him to Russia to learn the language and he worked for quite a while on a Pomor ship. The audio excerpt was recorded in… 1964! 😮
So, no native speakers now, but maybe somewhere some words, proverbs or grammar structures have remained. Who knows.
Quirks about Russenorsk
Pidgins don’t usually last that long, and canonical linguistics attributes about a hundred-fifty years of life cycle to Russenorsk. The matter is debated, but to simplify the majority position: a pidgin either creolizes and becomes a language, or it goes pushing daisies.
According to several scholars, including Kortlandt, it is possible that Norwegians at the time were convinced to speak Russian, and Russians to express themselves in Norwegian. 😂
I laugh, but it really is likely to have happened: I’ve accumulated a good collection of analogous cases myself elsewhere.
It’s a seasonal language: mostly, summertime.
#4 Russenorsk was in good company
Russenorsk is just one of the many pidgins in the Great North. We know of several: Sino-Russian, Anglo-Russian, Saami-Finnish, Saami-Swedish. Some may even play a role in the development of Russenorsk, although it is difficult to say for sure.
#5 Language of equals
Russians and Norwegians trading with each other have nearly the same social status. Russia and Norway are already strong nation-states and their languages prestigious: otherwise, the one of the dominant one would have prevailed − which, on the other hand, happened.
This is one of the things I love most about sociolinguistics, but as it’s a huge theme, I’d better keep it for another post. 🤐
FAQ about Russenorsk
❔ Shouldn’t I be proficient in both Russian and Norwegian to delve into Russenorsk?
A: If you knew one of the two, fine. If you knew Norwegian and Russian, ever finer. 👏 If you ignore both, it’s still worth keeping an eye on it, as pidgins tell us a lot: about the human brain, the genesis of languages, history.
Yep: languages can provide evidence and clues that are beyond the reach of archaeology. For example, we know that the coastal communities of the Arctic Circle had contacts with Saami reindeer herders also because there are Saami features in Russenorsk.
The Sami Peoples of the North: A Social and Cultural History, by Neil Kent: this is an outstanding introduction to one of the people less understood on earth.
❔ Is there anything like the Pomor trade there in the White Sea today?
A: There is some, but nothing like the trade we’re talking about here. Besides, the Norwegian side is overwhelmingly more developed than the Russian.
On the one hand, the climate is less inhospitable in Norway; on the other, governments play a major role. Oslo beats Moscow by a landslide when it comes to quality of life and management of all things Arctic.
❔ What happened to the Kola Norwegian after the October Revolution?
A: In short: they had a terrible time. Those who a hundred years later still identified themselves as Norwegians, tried to return to Norway when the Berlin Wall fell, although the Scandinavian country did not facilitate it either.
Still, the Russians in the area are proof of the great genius of their people: skilled despite meagre means. A trip to the area is a must.
❔ Is it true that the Norwegians called rye flour “Russian flour”?
A: Yes! Truth be told, rye was grown in Denmark too, but the one that reached Norwegian tables came from Russia.
❔ I already read stuff about Russenorsk but words were spelt differently.
R: Probably, as Russenorsk has not gone through any standardisation. Some linguists filled in their notes with diacritics; others followed different criteria.
Thus, you may come across terms like:
- Moja and Ja for “I”,
- Basiba, sbasiba and spasiba for “thanks”,
- Mokka and Mocha for “flour”,
- Klæba and Kleba for “bread”,
- or with the word “church”, which, depending on the case, is stova på Kristus sprēk (the place where Christ speaks) or simply kjerka.
❔ Where can I find more about Russenorsk?
a: Wow, let’s see. In the works of: Olaf and Ingvild Broch, Jens Petter Nielsen, Robert Hall, Ernst Håkon Jahr, Markus Hirnsperger and the aforementioned Frederik Kortlandt.
Farthest North: The Voyage and Exploration of the Fram and the Fifteen Month’s Expedition , by Fridtjof Nansen: story of the adventure of a larger than life’s man.
❔ Is Russenorsk the Arctic version of the Sabir, used in the Mediterranean?
R: We could say that.
❔ Why is there no consensus on whether it is a pidgin or a variant of Norwegian?
- Linguists do not dislike quarrelling; 😅
- the contours of certain concepts are blurred. Languages, dialects, variants, pidgins… it’s not that easy.
❔ I understand Saami and Finnish, but how on earth did Low German, French or English words end up in Russenorsk?
A: Well, a few miles south, Low German has been for a long time the lingua franca of the Hanseatic League; also in Archangel Bay, for a long time too, the British were trading and living (in fact, an Anglo-Russian pidgin emerged there). Likewise, all over the north, the Dutch moved with agility, presumably using Low German too.
I am not sure about French: maybe it got there through English or naval jargon, a bit like linguistic taxis. The chronicles of the Frenchmen of the time who ventured up there suggest that French was not understood even in the most civilised places.
❔ Why do the people in your pictures look so scary?
A: I’ve asked myself the same question. I don’t know, the Arctic effect?
There are photos of Fridtjof Nansen, the epic Norwegian scientist, that might prove it: the ones taken in Oslo portray him as a Hollywood divo, yet in the ones from when he was exploring Finnemark, Nansen looks like a white walker from Game of Thrones. 😱
Judge for yourself:
❔ Do you really spend time on this stuff?
A: People do weird things, don’t they? Some stuff themselves with chia in a quest for immortality, some enjoy pizza with pesto; some research old forgotten pidgins.
And this is all. ✔️
I’ve simplified the matter of Russenorsk in a way that will make historians and linguists swivel in their chairs, but I wanted to avoid an academic brick. 🧱
Have you heard of Russenorsk before? If yes, and you are not a language scientist, congratulations: you deserve to join the Lost Linguophiles Club. 🏫
Analysing pidgins sheds a lot of light on many things we should illuminate.
Each pidgin is rooted in contact of peoples and individuals: in the case of the Russenorsk, in the meeting of Russians and Norwegians, the encounter of merchants and fishermen, of exponents of two vigorous civilisations but who there, at the mercy of the Arctic, realise that Copenhagen and Moscow are too far apart; that despite different factions, religions and languages, there is a brother next door and understanding is possible. 🤝
And right now, if your boyfriend is about to tell you “You’ve wasted ten minutes of your life reading something useless”, you have my permission to shout at him:
Ja tvoja på vāter kăstom.
In other words: I’m going to throw you in the water ➡️ bonus point if you pronounce it with a strong Russian accent. 😂
Thank you for the time taken to read this.
Your personal linguochronist,