Losing Your Language

Another book I looked through today was a fascinating memoir by a Osvald Harjo Moskva kjenner ingen tårer (Moscow knows no tears). Harjo was raised a Communist in northern Norway. Even before World War II his family often housed Russian intelligence officers and helped them transmit intelligence back to the Soviet Union.

During the war Harjo, who spoke both Norwegian and Finnish, worked with anti-German communist partisans in the north and continued to help Russian radio operatives and other spies get their intelligence back to the Soviets. Another captured partisan gave up Harjo and his father’s name to the Germans. He was arrested, tortured and interrogated for weeks by the Gestapo before finally escaping thanks to the help of a sympathetic Norwegian policeman. Harjo then fled to the East with partisans and eventually crossed into Soviet controlled territory.

This is where the tragedy of Harjo’s memoirs begin. He had the audacity to send Stalin a letter early in 1943 with some minor complaints about the conditions in the North, suggesting that there were perhaps some administrative problems he might want to look into. Very soon after Harjo was arrested and accused of being a German spy. Later charges were brought against him for leading the Germans to a Russian radio operative, which Harjo claims in his memoir was impossible since he had not worked with the operative he was supposed to have given up.

The rest of the book traces the more than a decade Harjo spent in Soviet camps until December, 1955. It seems as though pressure from the Norwegian government, including pleas from labor party prime minister Einar Gerhardsen during his visit to Moscow in 1955 were instrumental in his release. He tells of his final meeting with a Russian officer who asks him if he was “dissatisfied with his experience in the Soviet Union.” Harjo writes that he replied, “I have sat in prison camps for 13 years, convicted of crimes I did not commit.” The officer says that upon review of his papers, he realizes that the conviction was a mistake but that Harjo should never have admitted to the Gestapo (under torture) that he had spied for the Soviet Union and that he hoped that Harjo would only tell the truth about the Soviet Union upon his return to Norway.

The book was unique among the Norwegian war memoirs I looked through but was nowhere near as eloquent or powerful a work as some of the other memoirs of Soviet gulag experiences I have read. Clearly the horrors of the experience gave him deeply bitter feelings about the cause he dedicated his life for until he was imprisoned and this does come through clearly. Harjo notes in his final chapter how, in contrast to the active support he received from the anti-Communist labor party in power then (as now), the Norwegian Communist Party had no interest in helping him.

There was one short passage in the book that interested me more than anything else and it doesn’t really have anything to do with the books main themes. Harjo writes that one day in the “grey monotony of camp number 14″ he suddenly met with a surprise:

Jeg våknet og satte meg opp i køya. På gulvet framfor meg sto det en kortvokst, lubben kar. Han spurte på russisk hvem jeg var. “Jeg er nordmann,” svarte jeg. Da kom det på syngende Finnmarksdialekt: “Æ e’ også fra Norge, æ e’ fra Kiberg”. Det var Otto Larsen. Jeg hadde ikke sett en nordmann siden 1944. Vi snakket litt sammen på norsk, men vi hadde vanskeligheter med vårt eget språk, så vi gikk over til russisk…”

Harjo had woken up one day to find himself face to face with a new cellmate. The man asked him, in Russian, who he was.

Horjo answered, “I am a Norwegian.” Then he replied in a singing Finnmark dialect “I am also from Norway, I’m from Kiberg.” It was Otto Larsen. I had not seen a Norwegian since 1944. We spoke together a little in Norwegian, but we had difficulty with our own language and switched over into Russian.”

I have posted previously about my fascinating with code-switching, or switching between several languages in daily communication, not the least because I do it frequently myself. What is described in the above passage, the loss of full command and comfort in the use of one’s native language is another phenomenon I’m interested in. I first encountered it with my first girlfriend in college. I met her upon her return from several years of living with a German family in Germany, and for a number of weeks she had trouble putting her thoughts into normal English sentences, even though English was her native tongue. My mother, who is a native Norwegian speaker also sometimes switches into English when we speak Norwegian together either because she feels more comfortable with English or finds speaking Norwegian tiring.

Here we have another example of this phenomenon. Two Norwegians from northern Norway meet in a Russian prison camp and after briefly speaking to each other in their native tongue switch into Russian because of “difficulties” with their native tongue.

One thought on “Losing Your Language”

  1. Someone left a comment on this posting when it got put on agoravox.com:

    This phenomenom is known as “Language attrition” and is studied by linguists and psychologists.
    The younger the age of transplantation to a new language environment, the deeper the loss of the native language, it seems. For example, I have documented that Korean children adopted in France when they were between 3-10 years of age do not even identify Korean utterances: See the papers at

    http://www.pallier.org/papers/Pallier_cerebralcortex2003.pdf and http://www.pallier.org/papers/

    In adults, there is not always a big loss but word finding difficulties seem common.

Comments are closed.