Russenorsk: A Unique, yet Simple Language Made for Trade

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE

By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

A pidgin language often forms as a result of trade. One example of this happened in the 1700s, when Russian traders began to travel to Norway on a regular basis. The interaction between these two different language speakers gave rise to a pidgin language that is now called Russenorsk by linguists. So, what were the features of this unique pidgin?

Painting of the port of Archangelsk, the center of the Russia-Norway trade
In the 1700s, Russian and Norwegian traders would interact, leading to the development of a pidgin. (Image: Unknown author/ United States Library of Congress/ Public domain)

The Need for a Common Language

In the 1700s, during the summer, the Russians would bring timber and the Norwegians had fish from the fjords to trade. But, they had very different languages. And, as their trading visits to Norway became longer—about two to three months—the Russian traders felt the need to communicate better.

However, no one from Russia had any reason to learn Norwegian, and Norwegians certainly were not going to deal with mastering Russian. But they did have to communicate— that, too, for the whole summer. Thus, they came up with a cross between the two language. It is now called Russenork by contemporary linguists.

Moja Po Tvoja

But, of course, no one at the time called it that. They called it moja po tvoja, which, in the pidgin they spoke, meant ‘me in yours’. Let’s take an example of how they mixed the two languages. There was a phrase in Russenorsk: ‘there’s a dog on my ship’ which went, ‘sobaku po moja skib’. ‘Sobaku’ comes from the Russian word for dog. It’s actually marked as an object, but no one bothered with that in the pidgin. Then, ‘skib’ is Norwegian for ‘ship’.

So the ‘dog’ is from Russia and the ‘ship’ is from Norway. The ‘moja’ is from Russian, but it’s something that a Norwegian wouldn’t have any trouble understanding, as these are both Indo-European languages where words for ‘I’ and ‘my’ tend to begin with ‘m’ and are followed by a vowel. So, ‘my’ is going to be something like ‘my’, ‘mine’, ‘mein’, ‘moy’, ‘mo’—that’s something that anybody in Europe can kind of recognize. Then ‘po’ is something which has a vaguely prepositional meaning in both Norwegian and Russian. Speakers of either one can recognize ‘po’ as meaning something like ‘at’, ‘on’, or something along those lines.

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Russenorsk: A Simple Language

A Russian port.
Russian traders would spend most of the time in the ports with each other, only using Russenorsk for the actual trading conversation. (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA/Public domain)

Russenorsk was a very simple kind of language. There are only about 300 words in it. In other words, it was what you needed to have basic, jocular conversations with the people you were spending the summer with, especially when you were probably huddling with your own kind most of the time.

As it was a pidgin, Russenorsk had no articles. Norwegian language has articles; Russian doesn’t. Also, Russenorsk did not have any tense markings. Certainly there was no gender, neither were there any case markers nor verb conjugations.

There seems, based on the topics that most of the material in Russenorsk that remains behind, to have been a lot of alcohol involved in these settings. That probably decreased the coherence and the nuance of the conversation. So, really, you only needed about 300 words.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

‘Po’: The Hard-working Preposition

Russenorsk was a very typical pidgin—in not being a real language. It did not have any kind of real structure. For example, the preposition—this ‘po’ mentioned earlier—was a double-, triple-, quadruple-duty preposition. Any kind of preposition you wanted to render was ‘po’. So, ‘at my house’ was ‘po moja stova’; ‘to Archangel’ was ‘po Arkangel’; ‘on the land’ was ‘po lan’.

Russenorsk wasn’t completely word soup, there were some tendencies—not necessarily rules, but some ways of speaking Russenorsk that sounded more normal than others. For example, the all-purpose preposition ‘po’. Norwegian has many prepositions, so does the Russian language. And there are all sorts of words that you could take from Norwegian or Russian that could have that all-purpose sense, including some that would make a certain sense to the speakers of both. But it so happened that ‘po’ was chosen. Russenorsk speakers couldn’t use any old preposition—it was ‘po’.

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The Birth of a Pidgin

A researcher once decided to watch a pidgin being formed by giving a bunch of students a few hundred nonsense words for very basic meanings and seeing what kind of grammar happened.

There was one word for ‘bag’ and, oddly enough, the students started using that word for bag as a way of turning other words into a noun, especially when the noun is something that is being used. There was no word for ‘car’ in the original set, so when they started wanting to talk about a car, they talked about a ‘go-bag’. So the ‘bag’ is what made it a vehicle.

Again, there was no word for ‘television set’ so they started calling it a ‘see-bag’. This was just something that happened. One person did it. It was kind of cute. Then somebody else started doing it, and pretty soon that was just the way they used ‘bag’.

That’s how a pidgin coalesces. Of course, this language is not the one in which you could write the Preamble to the Constitution, but it did have this way of making something into a noun, using the noun ‘bag’.

The Russenorsk Split

So, that’s how pidgins go. Russenorsk is one where it split the difference between languages to about 50/50—there was Russian, and there there was Norwegian. Usually, most of the words in a pidgin come from one language—the dominant language. Pidgins usually form when the people of one group try to communicate using the language of a dominant group that they encounter frequently.

Thus, as we can see from above, Russenorsk was quite unusual in that it developed from a situation in which there was a strong element of mutuality, as expressed in the name for it—‘moja po tvoja’ or ‘mine in yours’.

Common Questions about Russenorsk

Q. Who spoke Russenorsk?

Russenorsk was spoken by Russian and Norwegian traders in the 1700s when they traded logs and fish during the summer months.

Q. How many words were there in Russenorsk?

Russenorsk was a very simple kind of pidgin. There were only about 300 words in it.

Q. What prepositions were used in Russenorsk?

There seems to have been just one preposition in Russenorsk, which was ‘po’, which was used with any noun in the language.

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