Snorre Karkkonen Svensson: the embodiment of Nordic-Latvian ties

Norwegian Snorre Karkkonen Svensson speaks perfect Latvian. He studied Baltic philology at the University of Latvia and taught Norwegian at the Latvian Academy of Culture for many years.

Snorre Karkkonen Svensson is someone who literally embodies Nordic-Latvian cooperation. That is, he is a Norwegian with an Icelandic name; he has relatives in Sweden and his mother is Finnish; he lived in Denmark for a year and has now lived in Latvia for more than twenty years.  

Snorre’s life became linked to Latvia while he was still a high school student. In grade nine, he decided to partake in a student exchange program.

“I went away and lived in Ogre for a year. I thus fell in love with Latvian culture and language. I then went on to study at the university in Oslo and then came here to study. They offered me a job teaching Norwegian, so I stayed,” Snorre says in what has been the umpteenth time he has told the story of how he came to be ‘Latvianized’. But it must be said that his ties to the Baltics are not mere happenstance. At the age of fourteen, Snorre was already interested in politics and followed news about the collapse of the Soviet Union. He likewise had a pen pal from Latvia.  

Snorre has a perfect command of Latvian, and he surely knows more about the language than the average Latvian. He studied Baltic philology and has taught Norwegian for many years at the Latvian Academy of Culture. Snorre says that, since he arrived in Latvia, the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Office has played a very significant role in his life. He spent a lot of time there, going to events, perusing the library and teaching Norwegian to Latvians. The Nordic language courses organized by the office were so popular that people formed long lines at the entrance to apply. From 1991 to 2001, one could study all of the Nordic languages at the office, Faroese included.  

Snorre now brings people together at his own House of Languages, which hosts, for example, meetings of the Scandinavian book club as well as other culture events. Snorre established the House of Languages in 2018. The cozy sunlit premises on Avotu Street house a sizable language library, with language club meetings taking place here. They are teaching Norwegian to Latvian speakers and Latvian to Norwegian speakers, developing study materials, working on translations, and working on creating a Language Museum.  

The ‘Latvianized’ Norwegian Snorre is a veritable walking encyclopedia about the ties between Latvia and Norway as well as between the Baltics and the Nordics. “I often call this area of the world – the Nordics, Estonia and Latvia – the gingerbread land, as they treat themselves to gingerbread here at Christmas. The Lithuanians don’t have a word for gingerbread anymore, nor do the Poles and the Russians,” says Snorre, illuminating one of the many ties between the countries. Historically, we share a similar mentality, Lutheranism, and membership in the Hanseatic League. Likewise, our languages have been influenced by German.   

“When I first heard Latvian, it seemed to me to be a mélange of Finnish and Russian,” says a smiling Snorre. “But in truth, the way we categorize things and conceptualize the world is similar in both languages. Low German has affected not only our vocabulary but our entire way of thinking.”  

Snorre had already started speaking and also thinking in Latvian at the time when he was an exchange student in Ogre. At least the pronunciation didn’t pose a particular problem, as the only sounds that Norwegian lacks are Z and Ž. The other difficult consonants – ķ, ļ, and ģ – pose no such problem. Snorre is however frustrated as to the fact that he spoke grammatically incorrect sentences back then. “[Yet] They were all delighted. ‘Wow, you have learned Latvian, that’s so nice!’ Later on, I found it difficult to correct the mistakes I was making.” 

Snorre has translated Jānis Joņevs’ Doom 94 into Norwegian and has just finished translating Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. He has read many works of Latvian literature, from its beginnings to the present day. This includes the literature of Latvian exiles.

“It is specifically in Latvian literature that I’ve read about what it means to be a refugee in an alien country where they don’t accept you. And it is difficult for me to understand how the Latvians, who have experienced such cruel attitudes towards themselves as a nation, can speak about refugees with such intolerance and lack of understanding. This is a paradox,” Snorre says with a note of sadness.  

Asked whether he feels more Latvian or Norwegian, Snorre says that he believes that the many identities of a human being are not at all like different substances mixed in a bottle, with one identity taking up space at the expense of the others. He is a member of the Latvian society who has also preserved an attachment to Norway. He names environmental protection, social justice and an inclusive society as the chief values of the Nordics. “This makes people’s lives happier,” says Snorre.

However, he points out that solidarity between locals is less pronounced in Latvia. “It is so strange to me, as Latvians are supposed to be big patriots. Come November [the season of national holidays], they all pin ribbons with the colors of the Latvian flag to the lapel of their coats. But when patriotism really counts, meaning when you have to pay your taxes and care for the health and well-being of your fellow human beings, all of this seems to vanish in an instant.”  

“The Latvians are afraid that they will perish as a nation. But then you have to think, what are the values we want to preserve?” says Snorre, inviting Latvians to scrutinize their priorities.

“Yes, of course, there’s the language, the culture and the folklore. But these are cultivated only by a rather small part of the public. I think that social values are more clearly defined in the Nordics.”

But positive changes are taking place here in Rīga as well. For example, a neighborhood association has been established in Avotu Street where Snorre works and lives. There are positive developments, with people teaming up to tackle problems and improve the social situation.  

According to Snorre, there is one strong value that the Nordics share with Latvia. “The Norwegians go to the mountains and the Latvians go foraging for mushrooms. A connection with nature is a strong shared trait between the Latvians and the Norwegians. Aimlessly wandering through nature – this is not alien to the Latvians either.”  

Published courtesy of the Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Latvia (Norden).

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