Trond Engen wrote me:

I thought I should make you aware of the new series “Beforeigners” for HBO Nordic. The basic premise is that people from three distinct eras in the past have turned up in Oslo. The show takes place a few years later.

You don’t read Norwegian, but here’s an interesting interview from the online science magazine with the professional linguists working on the language of each of the three distinct periods of origin.

Here’s an interview in Variety with the show’s “co-creator”, Anne Bjørnstad.

Sounds like fun; I’d love to hear from anyone who’s watched it. (The original title is Fremvandrerne; does that have any cute puns comparable to the English version?) Thanks, Trond!


  1. Trond Engen says

    As I also said in the e-mail, I haven’t started watching it myself yet. I’m trying to get my wife interested.

    Fremvandrerne is not a cute pun. A direct English translation might be “promigrants”. Forward-wanderers. The form frem marks it as Riksmål, by the way. If used in Norwegian Bokmål officialese it would have been framvandrerne with an a. I don’t think that means anything special — it’s probably just the personal preference of the author — unless it’s a point that the word was coined by one of those coming from the 19th century.

  2. Not a cute pun but there’s more to it than that, Trond. (Frem is Riksmål, but fremtid is ‘future’ in Bokmål.) For Norwegians vandre is poetic language, like a wanderer, lonely as a cloud, is in English. Laksen vandrer opp i elven for å gyte: the salmon wanders up the river, or upstream, to lay eggs. However, I’m guessing that the person who wrote the English pun was thinking of innvandring, which is immigration, always in the news, and that’s where the ‘foreigners’ comes from. I think the Norwegian means, loosely, Wandering into the Future.

    I don’t have HBO so I can’t watch it.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Fremtid c. is Riksmål, framtid f. is Bokmål, but you are correct in that I think more people will use the Riksmål term for a book-concept like “future” than for an adverb of direction like “forward”, so it’s more present in the colloquial. Come to think of it, some may actually make a distinction between a concrete fram used for directions and a metaphorical or abstract frem used for time and concepts. If so, you may also be right that frem was chosen for that distinction. Since I don’t make it, I didn’t think of that.

    But I’m pretty sure that the Norwegian title is a simple extension of the system made by the pair innvandrer/utvandrer “immigrant”/”emigrant” to fremvandrer “promigrant”. The more poetic uses of vandre aren’t immediately present. But the series could well make a point of that. We’ll have to see.

    I don’t have HBO either, but my wife has. Meaning that she subscribed and I haven’t bothered to find out how it works and what I have to do to watch it. Hence the campaign to make her want to see it herself.

  4. I’m sure she just has to press a button, and at no extra charge you’ll have it too. I bow to your native expertise on most of this. Is promigrant actually a word? I suppose pro migrant implies being in favour of those who wander.

    I just watched a series in German available on Netflicks called Charité, about the Berlin hospital of that name during WW2. There’s a lot in Episode 1 about contemporary inventions and techniques for leg amputations, so if you happened to be a surgeon (say), you might find it interesting. There was a famous surgeon there called Sauer-something. He’s the main character.

  5. Trond Engen says

    Don’t bow too deep. My vast expertice is built on a solid foundation of unchecked introspection. That’s why it’s fun to discuss Norwegian with you. You see it from a very different angle and make me think about things I wouldn’t otherwise have known were there to think about.

  6. Trond Engen says

    No, I don’t think promigrant is an English word any more than fremvandrer is (Damo-)Norwegian. At least that’s part of why I chose it. I didn’t think of the “pro migrant” association. But you can fremme* vandring in Norwegian too. That’s what the Hiker’s Association does.

    *) With regular native e. Nynorsk fremja. Frem has its e from the comparative and superlative. This happened in Danish, and Norwegian Riksmål adopted it.

  7. No OED entry for promigrant and only a handful of Google Books hits, all of them obvious typos for pro-migrant, which is certainly what I thought of and I think most (sufficiently reflective) anglophones would think of.

    In-migrant, it turns out is AmE officialese for someone who arrives from another part of the country rather than from another country: NYC has many immigrants and in-migrants. Out-migrant bears the same relationship to emigrant.

  8. Trond Engen says

    Norw. innflytter vs. utflytter. Oslo har mange innvandrere og innflyttere..

    “Promigrant” wasn’t a good choice. I’m not enough of a latinist to make an informed suggestion. I think illimmigrants from Lat. illim “since” has something going for it, but hardly available in English without explanation.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    “Promi” is the pop. German abbrev. for “prominente Person”. It’s the equivalent of “celeb” in English with respect to meaning and register. So briefly, until I sorted out my wires, “promigrant” looked like a subsidy for people in the news.

    Arsed by the parse.

  10. Trond, I’m afraid you can’t use “illimmigrants” here, because to a native speaker it immediately expands to “illegal immigrants”. Not that I have a better suggestion.

  11. Trond Engen says

    That’s actually one of the things I thought it had going for it. The problem is that the intended ambiguity with the latinate meaning is out of reach.

  12. Don’t bow too deep. My vast expertise is built on a solid foundation of unchecked introspection. That’s why it’s fun to discuss Norwegian with you. You see it from a very different angle and make me think about things I wouldn’t otherwise have known were there to think about.

    That’s very generous of you. It’s fun for me because you know a lot more about the language and its relation to other languages than anyone I know.

  13. So, what language do the people from the Stone Age on the show speak?

  14. Trond Engen says

    A completely made up language. The linguist who developed it says he chose traits from Caucasian languages and a stress pattern like Hebrew to have it sounding completely foreign. Also, if I understand it correctly, the actors playing stone age people are Finns and Lithuanians, to avoid a Norwegian accent.

    I just finished watching the first episode. Not much stone age language spoken so far. Some good (to my ear) Old Norse by Icelanders, some less so by presumably Norwegian extras. The 19th century speech could really annoy me if I let it.

  15. From the interview with Anne Bjørnstad that Trond links to:

    > […] Then Eilif had this idea… what if refugees arrived not from a different location but from different times! […]
    > The concept is highly original, but you used a conventional crime story as a main engine…

    Not entirely original; the same concept is the premise of Matthew Johnson’s 2008 short story “Another Country”. In that story they’re called “prefugees”.

    Incidentally, “Another Country” appears in Johnson’s 2014 collection Irregular Verbs and Other Stories. That collection doesn’t seem to have ever been mentioned here, but if you like sci-fi and fantasy short stories with good world-building, I recommend it.

  16. Thanks, I’ve added it to my wish list.

  17. Promigrant is a very good translation of the pun.

    When it’s pronounced as [‘pɹɔmɪgɹənt], it immediately brings to mind the old rhyming slang “pomegranate” for “immigrant”. This word, shortened to “pom” is Australian slang for an English person.

  18. Awesome conlang idea!

  19. Trond Engen says

    The Stone Age part or the Hebrew-Caucasianism or something else? I’m sure it’s not a full conlang (yet), but they do say that one should be able to pick up hints of a grammar as the show moves on.

  20. Trond Engen says

    Today I read an interview with Bjørnstad where she said that they “built the Stone Age language from scratch”, whatever she may mean by that.

  21. They started with the Big Bang, allowed fragments of rock to coalesce into planets, and encouraged the development of speech among advanced primates when they evolved.

  22. Not entirely original; the same concept is the premise of Matthew Johnson’s 2008 short story “Another Country”.

    South Park in 2004 had something similar, but travellers from the future.

  23. I’m a sucker for the genre of speculative conlang, usually with exotic traits, that could have existed in reality at a known time and place, what’s known as a lostlang in conlanging jargon.

  24. In that case… I can say that the languages become more prominent in episode 2

    Without giving away anything, there are long stretches of dialogue in ON (though I think the Icelandic comes through at times, which is natural when it’s dialogue rather than one-liners). The episode also starts with a flachback to the 11th century, with a meeting between the female protagonist and Sami nomads. I couldnn’t hear the expected heavy Sami accent in the Old Norse of the Sami, and I don’t think the Sami language itself was projected a millennium back. There’s obviously limits to the efforts they can go to to produce authenticity, Towards the end there was a short passage showing a reciting skald. I said to my wife that the syntax of his poem seemed too modern, but it’s probably a safer bet that the author knows better than me. In other minor gripes, the English phonology of the ON speakers is too good.

    I begun to understand what they meant by “hints of a grammar” in the Stone Age language. There’s not much of it spoken yet, but the substrate is shining through in the syntax of the Norwegian of the Mesolithic characters. The main Mesolithics characters so far are played by Norwegian actors, though, so other substrate features are harder to convey,

  25. David Marjanović says

    The main Mesolithics characters so far are played by Norwegian actors

    With a recent migration background from southern India and blue contact lenses?

  26. Matthew Johnson quotes the story opening on his website: the word he uses is prefugees, which seems pretty good to me.

  27. I had wondered if Stone Age in this case meant hunter-gatherers or early farmers. (I always forget which -lithic is which, but having refreshed my memory) if it’s really mesolithic, the characters should be swarthy, blue-eyed Western Hunter-Gatherers. If neolithic, then Early European Farmers, in which case it would make sense to hire Sardinian actors.

    Would blackface be considered offensive if the point is that the actor is portraying a Western Hunter-Gatherer? I’m guessing yes, but good luck explaining to a Martian why.

  28. Blackface is inherently offensive; if you want black faces, hire black actors.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Blackface is inherently offensive in the US and in the Netherlands. Elsewhere, the only case of people painting their faces black that I can even think of is this, where often one gets a black and one a light brown face to symbolize that all three continents have come to worship Baby Jesus.

  30. Oh, it’s inherently offensive. Surely the Martian can’t fail to understand that explanation.

    I’m afraid all the Western Hunter-Gatherer actors have been dead for thousands of years, so hiring them isn’t an option. I don’t understand at all the logic that requires hiring unrelated actors on the basis of also having dark skin tone.

  31. Talk to an actor with dark skin tone sometime and ask them how they feel about white actors getting not only all the white parts but dark-skin-tone parts as well. There are many things a Martian can’t understand, but you (I presume) are not a Martian and should not have as much trouble with the concept.

  32. I’m afraid I do find this almost as confusing as the Martian would. Surely that isn’t the main reason blackface is offensive, that it hurts the casting prospects of black actors. How many instances of offensive blackface even involve paying (or otherwise desireable) acting gigs?

    By this logic, we’d expect it to be offensive if a person of African descent was cast as a Western Hunter-Gatherer because—although he finds it more difficult to find good roles than a white actor would, you know who has an even harder time of it? Australian Aborigine and Papuan actors. Why should they be excluded?

  33. Why Asians dye their hair blonde? Isn’t it racist?

  34. Oh for god’s sake. I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth about this; if you’re genuinely interested in why blackface is offensive, here are a couple of links:

    If you read those and still want to go “But…,” I can’t help you. You’ve got plenty of company, but I’m not sure it’s the company you want to be in.

  35. In addition, blackface is essentially a variant of the whiteface many clowns use, and a number of African-American performers used it in minstrel shows, essentially mocking their own people. Nobody could mistake it for a natural skin color however dark; it is visually as well as socially a caricature.

  36. The black clown mask used for old-fashioned stereotyped parodies is a very different issue from that of white actors putting on make-up to play “black” roles, though of course I understand that they are intertwined, perhaps inseparably, in American discourse. The first is racist by default, the second is not inherently racist, anymore than that of blond actors putting on a red wig or blue-eyed actors wearing brown lenses, even though the reason to prefer a white actor over a black for a black role could be anything from racist as hell over insensitive to a long history of discrimination in the arts to unhelpful in addressing the structural problems that make that sort of choice “necessary”. I think we’d all like to live in a world where we didn’t have to worry about that and skin colour was just another piece of wardrobe in the actor’s cabinet, like wigs and lenses. If this is possible today in societies with a lighter baggage of racism than the American, it’s not clear that anything is won by importing American taboos.

    As for SFR’s example of Asians dying their hair blonde: An action is never racist, but the motivation is (though there are actions that hardly would happen unless motivated by racism). And the sinisterness of an action is very dependent on the purpose. Koreans and Japanese internalizing (or playing with) the European beauty ideal is quite different from a stereotyped parody. And using a stereotype to punctuate your compatriots’ internalization of the European claim to superiority is different from laying the ground for genocide.

  37. I think we’d all like to live in a world where we didn’t have to worry about that and skin colour was just another piece of wardrobe in the actor’s cabinet, like wigs and lenses.

    Yes, that would be lovely.

    If this is possible today in societies with a lighter baggage of racism than the American, it’s not clear that anything is won by importing American taboos.

    I’m not sure “lighter baggage of racism than the American” (talk about a low bar) is equivalent to “so free of racism that there’s no problem whatsoever.” Every society I’m familiar with is racist to some extent.

  38. Sure. All societies know racism. Racism is an absolute evil. Perpetration of racist tropes in this day and age is unforgiveable. Still, since the American history of race is special, the sensibilities needed to handle race in America could be equally special, and the reasons to avoid the grey areas much more compelling. In other countries racism can be more about invisibility or exclusion in a society that has not yet fully accepted that it’s become multi-ethnic, about a self-image that is not updated. In such cases it may be better to see the inclusion of racial characteristics in arts and popular culture as essentially neutral and free of original sin, even benevolent if done with talent and care.

  39. If the racial minorities in those societies are fine with it, then I’m fine with it. But I strongly suspect that such debates would be carried on, as usual, by white people arguing from first principles rather than the people actually affected by it.

  40. Are Western Hunter-Gatherers “minorities”? They’re the ancestors of the current majority population in Scandinavia. I don’t understand what minorities have to do with it in the first place.

  41. I’ve seen Mongolian version of “Otello” with lead singer in blackface.

    I have real trouble believing that this is a racist mocking of the African race.

    Maybe there is a real shortage of black opera singers in Mongolia…

  42. I have real trouble believing that this is a racist mocking of the African race.

    I presume nobody involved was doing it to mock Africans, but why use blackface? The audience doesn’t have to see a black face to believe the character is African, any more than they have to see actual stone to believe they’re looking at a castle. People are eager to believe what you tell them and they have great imaginations. It’s just a stupid tradition.

  43. Unless you’re Al Jolson (and you’re not, since he died in 1950), wearing blackface in America is going to be interpreted as mockery of African-Americans. The disappearance of blackface is no loss. On the other hand, I do bewail the loss of the word “minstrel” in polite discourse.

  44. Unless you’re Al Jolson (and you’re not, since he died in 1950), wearing blackface in America is going to be interpreted as mockery of African-Americans.

    I don’t think anyone’s disagreeing with this (at least I hope they’re not); the pushback seems to be against the idea that the rest of the world should be dragged into America’s political correctness. And I’m pushing back against that, because even if it’s not as repellent in other circumstances, it’s still not great, and there’s zero need for it (see my earlier comment about theatrical convention).

  45. I don’t think anyone here had advocated for blackface in an American context. However, I have encountered people (who did not just seem to be inveterate edgelords) who claimed that white performers wearing blackface was fine if it was done without any intent to mock—as an intentional homage to black performers, the way Jolson apparently meant it. (Of course, Jolson, were he alive today, would almost certainly repudiate his own use of blackface.)

  46. However, I have encountered people (who did not just seem to be inveterate edgelords) who claimed that white performers wearing blackface was fine if it was done without any intent to mock

    As have I, and this is one of the things that annoy me about my fellow white people (many of whom are fine individuals!), this need to defend things that offend and/or upset other people from a purely logical/intellectual perspective. “Well, actually…” Bah! And I say this as a reformed White Male Explainer (when the whole “niggardly” controversy blew up, my first reaction was to mock those who were upset by it and point to the dictionary, as if that were at all relevant).

  47. I will first make very clear that I don’t speak about an American context. But also: Actors do wear costume. They use fake teeth for caricature, dress to convey social class, and accents to convey education or pretention. They wear a stick when they play blind, and they use wheelchairs when they play physically disabled. Hell, they even imitate without props at all. They stunble and stammer, bow like the Japanese and shake hands like Americans. None of this is necessary. I’m sure you can play Marie Antoinette without a wig and a dress or a stuttering character without actually imitating stuttering. But it helps. Sometimes it’s just to give a tiny background to the character, other times it’s a point in itself to expose the stereotypes and prejudice of the audience, yet other times it adds nothing to the character but is there to make a believable setting for the piece. There may even be a character in a wheelchair for no artistic reason at all, just to make the appearance of wheelchairs on stage or on screen normal.

    Blackness is generally best played by black actors, but generally isn’t the same as always. In the case of early Scandinavian hunter-gatherers you may want somebody with black skin and “European” facial features — not beacuse they necessarily had those facial features, but because they lived far away from Africa and would be even more different from modern Africans than from modern Europeans. Another case is comedians like e.g. Catherine Tate, who plays all important characters in her shows herself. I don’t know if Ms. Tate plays any black or brown characters, but it is sad if she can’t, because that means that large parts of the British population are excluded from being part of it. You can say that the solution is to run other shows with black comedians playing all black roles, which would be great, but which also would mean a de facto segregation in an important part of British TV, so a black comedian playing both black and white characters would be even better. Anyway, making blackness the only element of human appearance that can’t be imitated in the visual arts turns it into a taboo, and when something is a taboo, it means that doing it is invoking a sickness.

    And now I will speak of an American context: When upholding the public taboo is a good thing in the U.S. — and I will make clear that I believe it is — it’s because of the history of racism, and its political power, and because Black Americans still suffer the consequences of it. It’s clear to everyone that the sickness behind the taboo is the pervasiveness of systemic racism, not blackness. Or maybe the racist disease is such an evil that the collateral cost of risking to turn blackness itself into a disease that can’t be spoken of is negligible, since that’s already a given for far too many people.

    Now I will speak of a non-American context again. The world is coming together culturally and in political discourse. What this means is that we all watch American TV and relate to American popular culture and politics. Young people all over the world grow up internalizing American values, good as well as bad, and choose their friends and peer groups after American cultural faultlines. Far from perfectly, and often parodic to an American eye, but meaningful to those who live it, and ever closer in imitation for each cohort. This means that also the American taboo on black make-up is spreading. I mourn that, and resist it, but after a decade I will probably say that it’s necessary to uphold it, since breaking it by then will have the same ugly connotations as it does in America.

  48. I also meant to mention that while I was writing my previous comment, I looked to see if the OED had an entry for edgelord, and apparently it still does not.

    Urban Dictionary has it, of course, but that site is—strangely—losing its charm, as its recommended definitions become more prosaic, without the outlandish descriptions and outright fakery that the site used to be known for. Actually, the early days of Urban Dictionary were pretty terrible too, but apparently there was an intermediate stage at which the site was offbeat enough for me to find it entertaining (in a sort of gestalt kind of way) without it being totally useless or just pointlessly obnoxious.

  49. Back to Beforeigners: I’ve realised that I misrepresented the cast. The femaie lead with the good Old Norse is actually Finnish. The actor playing her female friend and fellow fremvandrer is an Icelander. Most other Old Norse and all Mesolithic characters so far are played by Norwegians. Not a Lithuanian in sight.

  50. Trond: Your points are, of course, well taken, and I have no problem with them. I can’t help reacting as an American, but I don’t demand or expect that everyone in the world will share my reactions — I’m not that kind of an American!

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