Origin of the name Kven

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The origin of the name "Kven" is unclear. The name appears for the first time in a 9th-century Old English version, written by King Alfred of Wessex, of a work by the Roman author Orosius, in the plural form "Cwenas".

Today, however, the name Kven refers to Finnish speaking people who have migrated to northern Norway in relatively recent times, with no connection to the Cwenas/Kænir mentioned in the sagas.

Norwegian background[edit]

Main article: Kvens of the past

All ancient references to Kvenland and Kvens seem to be from Old English and Icelandic sources (9th to 13th centuries). Furthermore, most of them seem to have been connected to a certain geographical area in Norway in one way or another:

  • Ottar, the source used by King Alfred of Wessex, was from Hålogaland
  • Orkneyinga saga described how Nór travelled from Kvenland to Trondheim
  • Egil's saga described how Thorolf travelled from Namdalen (north of Trondheim) to Kvenland
  • Writer of the publication mentioning Terra Feminarum was especially familiar with Trondheim and also mentioned Hålogaland
  • Kvens were mentioned 1271 to have pillaged Hålogaland

This might indicate that the term "Kven" was originally used in Norwegian dialects around a rather compact area ranging from Trondheim to Hålogaland.

Theory one: "Swampy land"[edit]

Widely accepted is the view first presented by Jouko Vahtola[1][2] that "kven" etymologically originates from Old Norse "hvein," meaning "swampy land".[3]

Theory two: "Woman"[edit]

Whatever the origin of the name "kven" is, it effortlessly translates to "woman" in Old Norse. Proto-Germanic "*kwinōn, *kunōn; *kwēni-z, *kwēnō" for "woman" had developed into "kona; kvǟn, kvān, kvɔ̄n; kvendi; kvenna, kvinna" in Old Norse.[4] An example of this is that Kvenland was most likely translated to Terra Feminarum ("Woman Land") in a Latin text from 1075 CE. Another reference to a north-bound land of women is from an Icelandic manuscript from the 14th century that describes a kuenna land ("Woman Land") north of India that would only have women with both reproduction organs.[5]

Theory three: Sami background[edit]

Similar sounding words to "kainuu" also exist in the Sami languages. In North Samic, Gáidnu is a rope made of roots for boats or fishing nets. Gáidnulaŝ refers to a clumsy person and Geaidnu stands for a road or a way.[6] In the early saami dictionaries Kainolats/Kainahaljo had the meaning Norwegian or Swedish man while Kainahalja had the meaning Norwegian or Swedish women, it could also have the meaning peasant. Helsing-byn close Torneå was referred to as Cainho.[7]


  1. ^ Vahtola, J. (1994), Kvenerne – vem var de ursprungligen? In: Torekoven Strøm (eed.), Report from the seminar ”Kvenene – en glemt minoritet?” 14.11.94 at the University of Tromsø/Tromsø Museum.
  2. ^ Vahtola, J. (2001), Folk och folkgrupper inom det nordliga rummet över tid. In: Tedebrand, L.-G. & Edlund, L.-E. (ed.), Tre kulturer i möte. Kulturens frontlinjer. Papers from the research program Kulturgräns norr, 27. Published by Johan Nordlander-sällskapet, 23. Umeå.
  3. ^ Etymology of hvein.
  4. ^ Etymology of kwen.
  5. ^ Manuscript "AM 764 4to". See also entire text in Icelandic.
  6. ^ Álgu-database
  7. ^ Lexicon lapponicum, Erik Lindahl, Johann Öhrling, Typis Joh. Georg. Lange, 1780"