On the airship on the prairie
Uffda, this is the last generation that speaks Amerikanorsk
“It’s kind of too bad, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
Verona Thompson, 88, is sitting in a little community hall in Sunburg in Minnesota drinking coffee. She struggles a little to find the right words, because long periods of time can go before she speaks Norwegian.
“I grew up on a farm at Norway Lake. We spoke only Norwegian.”
When she talks about things she did when she grew up, the words come easier. She talks about how they called the cows home in the evening.
“And then the cows came, and we milked them. Mamma and Pappa milked them; we were little. After we had milked them, the cattle went out and ate grass.”
Her dialect is from eastern Norway, with a thick “L,” mixed with American words and grammatical inflections. It’s been many decades since she used Norwegian as her everyday language. But when she was a little girl on a farm in Minnesota, Norwegian was the only language she knew.
Sunburg is little village in Minnesota, with barely 100 inhabitants. On the town’s sign, which is decorated with both a Norwegian and an American flag, it says, “Welcome to Sunburg. Syttende Mai annual celebration.” We’ve driven two hours westward from Minneapolis, a city of millions, and we are really out in the country. Here are waving fields of corn and long, straight roads without end. Almost without exception, the people in these areas were Norwegian immigrants.
The inherited language of the emigrants
Verona belongs to the last generation of those who spoke Amerikanorsk—“American Norwegian”—the language handed down by the Norwegian immigrants who came to the Midwest in the 1800s. The Norwegian settlers put down their roots in clusters with others from Norway, often from the same areas. In this way, Norwegian customs, Norwegian language, and a completely specific Norwegian dialect have kept themselves alive ever since. But there can be confusion when a Norwegian journalist with a Hardanger dialect comes to ask some questions. Verona has more or less only heard her own dialect.
Verona’s one great grandfather came to Minnesota from Leikanger in Sogn in 1868. Now, 150 years later, Verona is able to say in Norwegian that she likes to go to church, that she has a boy and two girls, and that she invites her lady friends for coffee and cookies on the weekends. Her dialect comes from her paternal grandparents, who were from Gudbrandsdalen.
Up until the First World War, it was commonplace for both schools and churches in areas with Norwegian immigrants to use the Norwegian language. After the war, attitudes toward other languages and cultures changed, patriotism was on the rise, and greater value was placed on English as the most important language.
Verona has worked on a farm her entire life, but she has also been a teacher. Now she is a widow and has moved from the farm to her own place in a nearby city. She still drives. She shows us Norway Lake, the area where she grew up. The house has another owner now, but the lake is still the same.
Leslie Ellingson has also been a farmer. He still lives in the house on the farm where he was born over 94 years ago. We are picking him up by car to go downtown Sunburg.
“I don’t have a driver’s license, you know,” he explains.
That’s why he doesn’t get to church every Sunday. Religion is an important part of life for most here.
“When I was young, the preacher spoke Norwegian at church,” he says in pure Hallingdal dialect.
Leslie managed to get a little instruction in Norwegian, including some lessons in preparation for confirmation. That’s why he not only speaks a little Norwegian but can also read it quite well, something unusual among speakers of Amerikanorsk now living.
“But I listen to the preacher on television.”
Most of those who speak Amerikanorsk use English words for modern phenomena. Words like driver’s license and airplane didn’t exist in the Norwegian language they inherited. That’s why Leslie and many other Norwegian Americans say “luftskip” for “fly”—“airship” instead of “airplane.”
Leslie’s house is full of things that testify to both his Norwegian and American identities. A cap promoting the National Rifle Association is lying on an old wooden travel trunk with Norwegian names engraved in it. In the living room, there are records with Norwegian music, an edition of the journal Hallingen is lying on the table, and a piece of embroidery with the word “Velkommen” hangs on the wall.
His wife, who also spoke Norwegian, passed away 20 years ago. His children also know a few words in Norwegian. He says that many of the people he knows speak Norwegian, but the older he gets, the less often he meets up with them.
The home language that disappeared
“Amerikanorsk is a dying language,” says Janne Bondi Johannessen, professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo. She has made many research trips to the Midwest to study Amerikanorsk.
“Most of those who learned Norwegian at home as children are now well over 80 years old, and they’ve passed on the language to their children only to small degree.”
She talks about the first time she advertised in American newspapers looking for Norwegian speakers in the United States. She got about 30 or so responses. Most of those who answered were relatives or neighbors of the Norwegian speakers. But one man from North Dakota wrote a letter on his own behalf. He wrote that he spoke Norwegian and added his phone number. Johannessen called and talked to him. The conversation took place in English. When after a while she asked him how much he actually could speak Norwegian, he did a linguistic about-face: “Well, you have to try then!” he said in Norwegian.
“I was quite surprised. He spoke fluent Norwegian with an unmistakably Norwegian dialect. I had expected something completely different—maybe broken speech, hesitation, or an American accent. It was really astonishing.”
Since 2010, Johannessen has met several hundred people who speak Amerikanorsk and recorded examples of the spoken language. Several thousand recordings are now available for research on the university’s website. But it is the meetings with these people that the professor remembers best.
“For some of the older people we’ve met, those of us with our project have come like a spirit from the past. The language has lived inside them since their childhood, but they have not spoken Norwegian for many years. It is a very powerful experience to see children and grandchildren sitting there with tears in their eyes when they see their grandfather or grandmother switch over to Norwegian, their home language.”
But there are some Norwegian Americans who have started to learn the Norwegian language as adults. One of them is Ed Huseby. He is well into his adult years, but, just the same, he can be counted as one of the young speakers of Norwegian.
“Believe it or not, as a youngster, I rejected the idea that I was of Norwegian heritage. I thought it was old-fashioned, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” says Ed with a smile. On his head, he wears a cap with the text “NORWAY,” and in his pocket, he caries a little Norwegian-English dictionary.
“My grandmother came from Norway, but she always said, “We are in America; we speak English.”
As an adult, he understood that his Norwegian roots were important for him, so he started taking classes in Norwegian.
“I think it’s a natural process. Young people usually don’t think so much about history, genealogy, and roots. For me it was turning point when I took a trip to visit Norway as a 60-year-old. I met relatives there.”
In contrast to those who learned Norwegian at home, Ed doesn’t have any particular dialect. He speaks standard Bokmål with an American accent. For Ed, Norwegian is a way to get back to his roots.
“It’s a part of me that’s made me who I am.”
Both Ed and his sister Jane Huseby Norman have been involved in the Norwegian-American environs around Sunburg. Jane is the primary force at a community center called “Kultur Hus,” where they have Norwegian activities, such as language classes, and sell an assortment of souvenirs. And Jane sews bunads that look reasonably authentic.
Jane shows off a costume from Gudbrandsdalen that she has made herself. Her roots are in Koppang, but she has also made several other bunads from other areas.
“You should have been here on Syttende mai,” she says.
It is the end of June and well over 86 degrees. The homespun garment was not her first choice today.
“I got it all organized… uffda,” she says, while she straightens her cap that doesn’t want to sit quite right. The word “uffda” is a frequently used expression in the Midwest, also among those who don’t speak Norwegian. It carries about the same meaning as at home in Norway.
Ski jump and Uffda
In the town of Westby in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, they even have their own “Uffda Shoppe” that sells Norwegian-inspired souvenirs. Eighty-eight-year-old Sam Bakkestuen stands in a parking lot. He is in a bit of a rush, but he shares that he had relatives from Gudbrandsdalen and spoke Norwegian as a little boy.
“I remember I went to New York as a young man. But I couldn’t get lefsa there!”
In the vicinity of Westby is Coon Valley. The Norwegian American immigrants came here already in the 1840s. The valley is perhaps a little reminiscent of Norway. If not exactly the mountains and valleys of western Norway, it wasn’t unlike the landscape of eastern Norway, where most of the Norwegians came from. Many in the regions lived by growing tobacco, and the Norwegians were considered to be skillful tobacco farmers. During a road trip through the valley, we see Norwegian flags painted on older buildings and Norwegian names on the gravestones. In the distance, we can also see a ski-jumping ramp.
Almost everyone in the valley is of Norwegian descent. On a sign on a farm, there is the sign, “Tip’s Old Country Carving.” This is the home of the married couple Tilford “Tip,” age 86, and Eleanor Bagstad, 84, who met each other at a wedding celebration in the valley over 60 years ago. They recall that when Tip was going to ask Eleanor’s father for her hand in marriage, it was absolutely essential that Tip was a Norwegian. That is to say, the Norwegians stuck together.
The couple has made a place for themselves in the Norwegian-American surroundings. As a youth, Tip was involved with ski jumping. Eleanor was musical and played the piano. Well into adult years, she debuted as a musician with a record she made with the group “The Norskedalen Trio.” Tip had begun to play the fiddle, and together with a family friend on the accordion, he and Eleanor played Scandinavian songs and hymns at events throughout the entire Upper Midwest. Tip has also been very active with Norwegian style woodcarving.
In addition to running the farm, Tip has had a variety of other jobs. Eleanor has been a teacher. Now both of them are retired, but the house has the marks of an active life, with a great love for traditional handicrafts and music.
Both Tip and Eleanor grew up with the Norwegian language at home up until the time they started school, and their families spoke a dialect from Gudbrandsdalen. They say that they understand both Norwegian and American.
“I guess both,” says Eleanor Bagstad. “When we spoke English to our father, he refused to answer. In that way, we learned Norwegian. Our parents were rather strict. As they should have been.”
She tells of how, as children, they learned to be satisfied with little, and she believes that to be happy and content with a simple life is part of the Norwegian identity.
“How do you feel about the Norwegian language now having disappeared from this region?”
“It’s a shame, but it’s the times that have changed. We weren’t as strict as our parents.”
Tip agrees. The couple taught their two daughters some Norwegian, more than what was usual for their generation, but neither of them speaks it fluently.
“It’s kind of too bad, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“If I hadn’t been of Norwegian heritage, I wouldn’t have done what I’m doing now. My father was a carpenter, and I learned from him. I also learned to be honest and to appreciate life. Now I’m well over 80 and wonder where the time has gone. I’ve had a very good life, with a great wife, children, and grandchildren,” says Tip.
He continues to say that he and Eleanor have been to Norway several times.
“It was very interesting. We spoke Norwegian at home. Bestefar was from Norway. But I never heard Bestefar say anything about life in Norway. Not a single word. I think it was as if he had left it behind him. Maybe it was a hard life.”
All things Norwegian in Flom
The little village of Flom in Minnesota also has people with strong Norwegian roots. Already the name says a lot. The twins Arvid and Aaron Swensson have lived here their entire life, and with the exception of two years of military service, they have lived together. As young boys, they spoke Norwegian. They started with English first at school.
“Do you want to see our Norwegian room?” the brothers ask and lead the way into the parlor. The Norwegian room is really a Norwegian room. A huge rosemaled canopy bed with scroll carvings took up a lot of space. The room was filled with traditional handicrafts. The brothers explain that they have taken courses to learn different kinds of handicrafts: woodcarving, rosemaling, knife making. Over their garage, they have a carpentry shop. Everywhere, there are souvenirs and books about Norway, especially on the Sør-Trøndelag region. Arvid and Aaron’s grandparents came from Tydal, and as children, the brothers had a lot of contact with them.
“On the way home from school, we always stopped in at Bestemor’s. She gave us food, didn’t speak a work of English, and she couldn’t tell the difference between the two of us either. She even always asked who was who!”
Like many in the countryside, the brothers went to a little country school, where the eighth grade was assembled in one room. They remember that that the older kids made fun of them for their Norwegian.
“But everyone who lived in Flom was Norwegian. Maybe not the teacher, because she told us later that Aaron came and asked her for “spicker”—Norwegian for nails—but she didn’t understand what he wanted. Our dad was a carpenter, so he always had nails in his pockets.
That Bestemor couldn’t tell the difference between the two boys wasn’t anything they took badly. Now Aaron and Arvid are around 80 years of age. They are still very similar in appearance, and they get dressed in identical clothes each day. But the language has changed, even with them.
“Do you still speak Norwegian together?”
“No, we speak Norwegian better when we have visitors from Norway or are together with others who can speak Norwegian. We have always been proud of our Norwegian heritage and that we can speak Norwegian. Now there aren’t that many younger than us who can speak it any longer.”
Translated by Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.