Monthly Archives: June 2014

Cultural Background: The Faroese Language

My first taste of anything Faroese was the language itself, when a friend sent me Týr’s Ormurin Langi, a heavy-metal recording of an old Faroese ballad, almost a decade ago. Later, I would come to know the landscapes, the culture, and the people as well, but part of me fell in love with just the words themselves.

In a way, that’s very fitting. Language is a hugely important part of cultural and national identity. You’ll find it at the heart of many a nationalistic movement. The Faroese language and its use played an important role in the movement towards Faroese autonomy, and continues to be a factor in negotiating distance from Denmark and concepts of what the Faroe Islands should be today.

The Faroese language is very important to most Faroese, for whom it is their mother tongue, inextricably tied to the culture and proof of their need for independent recognition. In “Cultural Rhapsody in Shift,” Faroese Anthropologist Firouz Gaini writes that “the language, first and foremost as a semantic system and an oral tradition, has dominated the scene and been widely recognized as the jewel of the Faroese culture.”

Until the mid-20th century, Danish was used in official matters, education, literature, and religious institutions. Even today, because of the size of the community, a huge variety of imported products and media are not translated into Faroese. The Faroese TV station, when it runs out of Faroese material, switches to whatever it can get from Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and American programming, generally subtitling in Danish if at all. The cell phones are Danish, and if you want to text in Faroese you’ll have to turn off the auto-correct and switch over to the Icelandic keyboard every time you need the letter ð (edh). Despite the huge push to translate all sorts of things from all parts of life, children still have to use many Danish textbooks and sometimes even take their exams in Danish. At a minimum, the Faroese are bilingual with Faroese and a local variety of Danish called Gøtudanskt, but many also speak good Danish, are trilingual with English, and even multilingual with other foreign languages on top of that.

Comic about Faroese and Danish

One could spend twenty minutes just explaining the history of Faroese in conjunction with the other Scandinavian languages, but, in an attempt to make things brief, Faroese is descended from Old Norse, just like Icelandic and Norwegian. Danish and Swedish developed in a rather different direction, but Danish then had a huge effect on Faroese and especially Norwegian when they were under Danish rule. The result is that Faroese and Norwegian can be considered the most central of all Scandinavian languages, with Faroese retaining more grammatical complexity and similarity to Icelandic and Old Norse. The Faroese are in fact the best in the region at understanding all of the others.

Faroese is a highly inflected, highly irregular language with an inconsistently phonetic writing system.

When I say Faroese is highly inflected, I mean that they love “bending” words – or conjugating their verbs and declining their nouns. Verbs take different forms depending on who does them and when, and nouns are even worse. There are three different noun “cases” – Nominative, Accusative, and Dative, depending on whether the noun is acting as the subject, object, or direct object or according to its place within a certain idiomatic expression. Nouns come in three genders, and within each gender there are several possibilities for how the words within that gender can be bent. Then, of course, you also have to think about definite vs. indefinite nouns, because the definite marker goes at the end of the word and affects the bending. If you’re keeping track, that means each noun has 12 forms – not counting four genitive ones which are now rarely used.

Emergency Exit Row instructions in Faroese on at Atlantic Airways flight.

Emergency Exit Row instructions in Faroese on at Atlantic Airways flight.

When I say Faroese is irregular, I mean that, despite all of these rules, you’ll find almost as many words that vary from the rules in at least some small way as you will words that follow them exactly. You’ll also find alternative ways to say all sorts of things – head, for example, can be høvur or høvd, or even heysur or knokkur.

Faroese also has some rare and strange vowel sounds, much as English does. This has been really hard for me to get used to, even though it’s not that different from my native language, simply because I’ve gotten so used to purer, simpler sounds in every other language I’ve learned. So you have to get used to that sort of irregularity.

The Faroese writing system is one of the biggest headaches for both native and foreign learners. I’m constantly asked here if I can also write Faroese. It would be very easy for someone learning the language by ear here to be completely illiterate. The relationship between the letters and the sounds is quite irregular, like in English or French, and takes a lot of getting used to. The reason for this is that when the written language was developed, and quite late at that (1854), the primary goal was not phonetic fidelity but rather etymological clarity. The written language is so clear about its roots that I can basically read Icelandic and Old Norse now, even though the spoken language has diverged greatly since that time. A secondary advantage of this writing system is that it avoided privileging any specific Faroese dialect (yes, that’s right – in a nation of less than 50,000 people, there are several dialects). That latter is what I’ve been told, anyway. From where I’m standing, it seems to me that that’s true only because the written language is so out of touch that it works equally poorly, and thus equally well, with every spoken dialect.

To give just one – although admittedly particularly egregious – example of the spelling nonsense, consider the letter ð (edh). Students of linguistic notation, Old English, or Icelandic will think they know this friendly character. It normally makes a voiced th sound (like in “then” or “there.”) Not in Faroese, though. In Faroese, it means whatever it feels like. Usually that’s some sort of semi-vocalic glide, like a W, V, or Y. But sometimes it’s a G. In exactly one word, it’s a D. I only wish I were joking.

"Gjógv" is the name for this village and the Faroese word for Gorge. Think it's pronounced Jogv or Gyoegv? Think again. It's more like Jeggv!

“Gjógv” is the name for this village and the Faroese word for Gorge. Think it’s pronounced Jogv or Gyoegv? Think again. It’s more like Jeggv!

All of this makes Faroese quite a bit harder than the average Indo-European language to learn. But I also find it also incredibly rewarding because it has such a tight and fascinating connection with the culture here. It’s lovely to see how much people value and take an interest in their own language — that enthusiasm makes the learning process, even if slow and slightly painful at times, an adventure I’m happy to embark on.

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A Weekend in Suðuroy

Sheep graze beside Skúladepilin í Suðuroy, which serves as the island's high school and a  school for health professionals. The school opened in 2009 and has been a rare new construction on an island that continues to experience population loss.

Sheep graze beside Skúladepilin í Suðuroy, which serves as the island’s high school and a school for health professionals. The school opened in 2009 and has been a rare new construction on an island that continues to experience population loss.

I spent my first weekend in the Faroe Islands on the island of Suðuroy, the southernmost island in the Faroe Islands. Suðuroy interests me because it is on track to become the only large island not connected to the others by undersea tunnel. Getting to Suðuroy still entails, and may always entail, a helicopter or a two-hour ferry ride. Largely due to its isolation, Suðuroy has been losing population for several years and has now fallen below 5,000 inhabitants.

I went to Suðuroy for the 70th birthday party of a relative of my host family. I was also able to visit a small local festival in honor of a 130-year-old fishing boat and go out to the local pub one evening.  It was great to have such an intimate look at the island’s special culture.

Vágur: A child plays on the Johanna TG 326 during the celebration of the boat's 130th birthday.

Vágur: A child plays on the Johanna TG 326 during the celebration of the boat’s 130th birthday.

Tug of War is serious business at a boat's birthday party in the village of Vágur on Suðuroy.

Tug of War is serious business at a boat’s birthday party in the village of Vágur on Suðuroy.

Holding a heimalamb, a lamb raised at the farmer's home because its mother didn't want it. Cute, right?

Tvøroyri: Holding a heimalamb, a lamb raised at the farmer’s home because its mother didn’t want it. Cute, right?

People from Suðuroy have a distinctive accent and are known for being loud, friendly, and a little bit provincial. In my experience, the first two were definitely true. As for the third, well, I can only relate that when I went to a gas station and asked to use the bathroom, they answered “Yes, of course, if you don’t mind going down some stairs…” and promptly opened a trapdoor with a ladder leading to a toilet in the basement!

Suðuroy’s nature is a little different than that in the rest of the Faroe Islands. To my eyes, there are fewer mountain peaks and more sheer seaside cliffs. Suðuroy is the only one of the Faroe Islands to have had coal mines, one of which is still active. Basalt rock formations can be seen in several places, and the waters around Suðuroy wash no fewer than 262 islets and skerries. In addition to the picturesque villages, visitors often come to Suðuroy to visit its caves or the scenic point at Eggjarnar, from which there are astonishing views of sea-cliffs both north and south.

The sea-cliff view from Røðin.

The sea-cliff view from Røðin.

A lamb sleeps on Suðuroy, in view of seacliffs and the island of Lítla Dímun.

A lamb sleeps on Suðuroy, in view of seacliffs and the island of Lítla Dímun.

Tvørgjógv and Ásmundarstakkur in the north of Suðuroy.

Tvørgjógv and Ásmundarstakkur in the north of Suðuroy.

Hálsgjógv and tidal pools near Tvøroyri.

Hálsgjógv and tidal pools near Tvøroyri.

Sandvík, the northernmost village on Suðuroy and the spot where saga hero Sigmundur washed up from the sea to meet his death.

Sandvík, the northernmost village on Suðuroy and the spot where saga hero Sigmundur washed up from the sea to meet his death.

I hope to return to Suðuroy during the course of my project. The island is of great touristic interest for its lovely, unique nature and the way it represents a throwback to life in the Faroes before undersea tunnels connected “the Faroese mainland.” In addition, Suðuroy is still home to about a tenth of the Faroese population, and, as I know some people there now, I think it will be a good place to get to understand the lives and perspectives of the women living in more remote parts of the Faroe Islands. This weekend was a good first visit and I look forward to returning.

Passengers doze off on Smyril, the two-hour ferry that connects Suðuroy to Tórshavn.

Passengers doze off on Smyril, the two-hour ferry that connects Suðuroy to Tórshavn.

Learning to Drive in the Faroe Islands

The sunset from the Old Mountain Road from Gøta to Leirvik.

The sunset from the Old Mountain Road from Gøta to Leirvik.

We parked on the old mountain road, where sheep and lambs frolicked beneath us as the sun set on the sea between the islands. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to enjoy the view. I was there to learn to drive.

As I processed that information, the scene seemed to shift from idyllic to terrifying before my eyes. The narrow road angled down, steeply to my eyes, and with a slight but definite curve on top of that. To the left of the road was mountain, to the right, a little guardrail all that stood between us and the sea. I felt dizzy just thinking about getting behind the wheel — and that wasn’t even factoring in the obstacle course: a couple walking on the side of the road, the lambs crossing here and there at will, the trawling lines laid out for reorganization just a bit farther ahead.

Trawling lines laid out for reorganization on the Old Mountain Road between Gøta and Leirvik.

Trawling lines laid out for reorganization on the Old Mountain Road between Gøta and Leirvik.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “Isn’t there some place flatter?”

“What?” said my friend Uni. “This is flat!”

“…”

“This is where I learned to drive!” he continued.

“Great, you are a superior human being,” I said, swallowing my pride for once in my life. “I can’t drive here. Not the first time.”

The harbor, then. Late at night. The closest thing the Faroes had to the huge, flat, empty church parking lot where I’d first learned to drive automatic almost a decade ago. Here, there was just barely enough room to get up to third gear before having to turn before we went into the ocean. Perfect.

Bitstrips Driving

Silly Foreigner Miranda

Being a foreigner is a lot like being a child. Everything is fresh, new, exciting, fun… and humbling. Here in the Faroe Islands, all I do is learn; sometimes at the level of a preteen, sometimes a toddler. I don’t know how to speak their language, drive their cars (especially on their mountains and through their rough-hewn, one-lane tunnels), or knit a scarf (much less a beautiful Faroese sweater).

Everyone here is incredibly kind and patient. They’re willing to speak to me slowly, switch to Danish or English at my slightest hesitation (btw, guys, I know you’re doing that with good intentions, but it doesn’t always help), spend hours explaining everything to me and even let me practice stalling their car in the harbor.

Bitstrips Cliff

They worry about me, this stranger in their strange, treeless world. Sometimes their concerns are well founded. Sometimes, like when I’ve been told for the thousandth time that if I take one vertical step up a mountain in bad weather, I will fall off a massive cliff and die, I feel a little bit patronized. Then I hear that that happened to a Faroese girl, just last week. So I shut up.

I’m still getting used to the weather here. The wind sometimes sounds like it’s trying its hardest to take down the house, late May is still not summer, 55 degrees is considered a heat wave, and there are a hundred kinds of fog — with different words for all of them. There’s dark, gloomy fog and fog as white and bright as snow. There’s fog mixed with rain and fog that parts to let the sun shine through in patches. There’s fog so thick I can barely see up the road, fog that seals in the top of our valley like a tupperware lid, fog that decorates just the peaks of the mountains like cupcake frosting.

Bitstrips Fog

Though most of the time I feel a bit like a child, I do have my moments of triumph. I’m an exciting travelling hillbilly, after all, redneck accent in the ready for entertaining at parties. I can cook exotic and delicious dishes. My time in Norway made me into a reasonably experienced and fit hiker. Despite my feelings of inadequacy, most people here are happy that I can say anything at all in Faroese.

And last week, although I was a little late to the pier-jumping party, I’d like to think I did America proud with my sjóvarlop into the Faroese sea! 🙂