Category Archives: Language

Parrot Time – Faroese Edition

Norðragøta on the cover of Parrot Time's special Faroe Islands issue.

Norðragøta on the cover of Parrot Time’s special Faroe Islands issue.

This month, my love for the Faroe Islands had an exciting new platform — a special issue of a magazine!

Parrot Time is a linguistic and cultural emagazine published bimonthly by the Parleremo language learning community. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Erik Zidowecki, contacted me based on our conversations about the Faroe Islands to ask whether I would be interested in helping him put together a special issue focusing on Faroese topics. Naturally, I was very excited to work on the project. With the help of four Faroe Islanders, we published eleven articles on subjects ranging from summer festivals on the islands and the new feature film Ludo to the presence of Danish in Faroese life and the Faroese perspective on the whaling controversy. I’m very happy with the way the magazine came together with such a wide variety of pieces and beautiful photographs.

From my article "Coming Home to Faroese" in Parrot Time's special Faroe Islands issue.

From my article “Coming Home to Faroese” in Parrot Time’s special Faroe Islands issue.

Coming Home to Faroese” was my main feature story for the magazine. By exploring the richness that learning Faroese has brought to my life, I wrote about the challenges and rewards of learning a language with a small number of speakers. Here’s an excerpt:

“I remember how it felt to speak Faroese down in Copenhagen, to navigate through the crowded city and yet feel as if I had never left the islands when I heard the language I had learned to love so well. The Danes and other foreigners that passed were none the wiser that something didn’t add up, that I was an imposter, that I didn’t belong. In a way I did. In that moment, I felt I could just glimpse, just taste, that feeling of being a part of something… smaller. Something more intimate. Of what it meant to know just from a language that you were home.”

The readable PDF version of the magazine can be viewed for free at the following address: http://issuu.com/abavagada/docs/parrottime_issue_011/3?e=6771516/9612833

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From Island to Island

Not content with visiting 16 islands and an islet in the Faroes, I planned a long way home, postponing my return to the mainland by two weeks and stops on the islands of Amager and Zealand (Denmark), Great Britain (England and Wales), The Isle of Man, and Ireland. Just as I had done on my way in through Norway, I kept my eyes and ears open for traces of the Faroe Islands in its neighboring countries.

First Stop: Denmark

Copenhagen Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and Faroe Islanders often joke that Copenhagen is the largest Faroese city, since the population of ethnic Faroese there is higher than that of Tórshavn. Logically, then, I expected it to be easy to find the Faroese here. And it was… and wasn’t.

First, I tried to find some Faroese people. This task was much harder than I’d anticipated, because so many of the Faroese residents of Copenhagen were on summer holiday at the time — in fact, most of them were visiting their family back home on the islands!

Still, I found myself joined by a whole Atlantic Airways flight of islanders going the other way — and I even knew many of them personally. And so I had the surreal experience of traveling, for however short a time, with Faroese people and speaking with them in Faroese while the Danes carried on around us, not understanding more than a word here or there. It was an oddly cozy feeling.

Through the wonders of the internet and multi-degree connectivity, I’d also managed to track down two Faroese women currently residing in the city – Heidi and Krista. Heidi invited me to temunn and breakfast at her home, and gave me insight into how she has carried her Faroese identity while living and, to a large degree, assimilating into Danish society. Krista and I spent two fun evenings together while we chatted about her own life and plans. Krista has been in Copenhagen for a far shorter time than Heidi, spends most of her time with the Faroese people living there, and plans to return to the Faroe Islands as soon after getting more work experience in Denmark.

It was also fashion week, and among the other big names being interviewed live and broadcast on a big screen in the city center, I saw a name and a face that was by this time familiar: Barbara í Gongini, a famous Faroese designer.

Aside from the Faroese themselves, there was little in Copenhagen to remind me of the Faroe Islands. The land was flat, the buildings tall, the streets busy, the sky startlingly big and blue after spending time in the misty Faroese mountains. Oh, and it was hot. I broke out pieces of my wardrobe that hadn’t seen the light of day since I’d packed them optimistically into my suitcase in May.

Faroese House Copenhagen

The Faroese House in Copenhagen

I made a map of Faroese places and things I might be able to see in the city. There was The Faroese House, a cultural meeting place and cafe; it was closed for the summer holidays. The “Faroese student ghetto” of Øresundskollegiet was likewise empty for the season. I found nothing Faroese in the Danish National Museum, which returned most such artifacts to the National Museum of the Faroe Islands several years ago. A search for Faroese restaurants, or even a restaurant serving Faroese ingredients, revealed only that Tórshavn’s beloved sushi restaurant, Etika, had tried in 2010 to establish a Copenhagen branch; despite some good initial reviews, it had not even lasted a season.

I took a walking tour of Copenhagen, which started outside the City Hall. Our guide proudly told us that the polar bears on the hall’s roof were there to represent Greenland, a Danish territory. As we started walking, I asked her to please point out to me if we passed anything related to the Faroe Islands.

She answered shortly: “No. There’s nothing about the Faroe Islands.”

“Okay,” I began, “Thanks anyw — ”

“In fact,” she continued, “I don’t really know anything about the Faroe Islands. At all.”

Most of the Danes I met were not so abrupt. Still, if my summer plans came up, most didn’t comment at all. Some said it was interesting in a tone that told me they thought it was anything but. There were exceptions. I met another journalist who had been living in Greenland, and we were eager to hear about each other’s work. And one young woman excitedly asked me if I was Faroese — she had spent time in the Faroe Islands, and recognized my sweater.

On the whole, the Danes just didn’t show anywhere near the interest that the Norwegians had back in Bergen, which I found a little bit strange considering the relationship between the two nations.

Second Stop: Great Britain

Cotswolds Islands

I was one degree and ten minutes away from a Faroese man in Oxford. They get around, I’m finding. I met a Cuban man in my hostel, and when he heard why I was in Europe, he threw up his hands in astonishment. “Seriously?” he asked, “I just found out about that place ten minutes ago! I was talking to this awesome Faroese guy at my conference. This is too weird.”

The British occupied the Faroe Islands during World War II and left behind an airport, a strong tea-drinking tradition and Cadbury chocolate. But the cultural exchange was mostly unilateral, and the rest of my connections to the Faroe Islands on Great Britain were comparative. The apologies the locals made for the changeable weather made me smile that one-upping smile. The sea felt so warm. The houses and gardens looked so fine and pretty, even in the small villages of the Cotswalds and the mountains of Wales. The land just seemed so safe, protected, and fertile compared to what I had come from.

A language geek as ever, Welsh fascinated me. I saw more of it than I expected to — just about everything written was bilingual — but I didn’t hear any of it until I reached northern Wales, where I was happy to hear it spoken much more, and by all generations, in Caernarfon. The scarcity still made me a little bit sad. There, I thought, but for the grace of a thousand kilometers of salt water, or some truly commendable island obstinacy, goes Faroese.

Third Stop: The Isle of Man

Isle of Man Faroe Islands

I stayed with a family in the Isle of Man who positively astonished me with their knowledge of the Faroes. They asked me intelligent questions about the political system, showed me an old book with photographs of artist Tróndur Patursson harpooning a whale, and expressed avid concern for the puffin colonies on Mykines.

Now, this family was most likely exceptional in this regard: not only especially intellectually curious but specifically about topics that would pull the Faroe Islands into their view. The two island nations are, after all, linked by many obvious political and cultural parallels, varying degrees of Norse heritage, and, especially intriguing to my host’s father (a part-time ornithologist) large populations of sea birds.

The Isle of Man is much bigger than any of the Faroe Islands, and it’s only the one. It was hard for me to buy, comparatively, the word “isolated” describing any of the Manx settlements. The people of Man have a few towns that could reasonably be called cities, albeit small ones, with multiple pubs and Chinese and Indian carry-outs… and lovely, brooding castles. They’ve also got much larger expanses of flat, fertile land as well as trees and forests. Despite some resistance, English has almost completely overtaken their Manx language.

But when I stood on the shore, the strength of the wind took me by surprise and the crashing surf revealed the fury of the full force of the Atlantic, even on a mild and sunny day. And I thought, yes, these islands are close cousins, after all.

Fourth Stop: Ireland

Ireland Faroe Islands

Once I read a long scholarly article that promised to examine the historic cultural relationship between Ireland and the Faroe Islands. It basically concluded there wasn’t any… and wasn’t that strange? Okay. So I didn’t spend much time looking in that direction.

Irish Gaelic, which seems to be doing okay, gave me yet another reminder of how amazing Faroese is doing for such a small language. For my next visit to Ireland, I think I better head to the Aran Islands, which I was able to glimpse not too far off the coast of the Burren. They’re as Gaelic as Gaelic comes, everyone says — that little bit of saltwater separation having a powerful preservative effect.

The Irish landscape was broader and flatter and more forested than the Faroese, once again (it doesn’t take much.) To give credit where it’s due, I experienced more changeable weather in Ireland than anywhere else I’ve ever visited, including the Faroes. So many of these Northern European countries tell the same jokes — “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” But only in Ireland did I really experience, within the hour, sunshine turn to black skies and driving rain and back again.

The Cliffs of Moher, apparently Ireland’s second most visited tourist attraction, were lovely. But I’d seen just as good in the Faroes and not had to share them with hundreds of Chinese and Midwestern American tourists. And the Irish are going around claiming they have the highest sea cliffs in Europe. You can Google it and see.

“As high as the Cliffs of Moher (217m) are,” our guide said proudly, “they are not the highest in Ireland! For that, you’ll have to go to Sliabh Liag (601m), which are the highest sea cliffs in all of Europe!”

Now, I happen to know that the Faroese Cape Enniberg, which also claims that lofty title (they discount Norway’s Hornelen for not being vertical enough for proper cliffs) rises 750 meters above the sea. When I questioned the guide on the matter while the rest of the bus was going to the bathroom, he sort of deflated.

“Maybe my facts are wrong,” I offered. “I’m not very good at remembering numbers.”

“No, no, you’re probably right,” he said. “This is just what we learned in school…”

I doubt he’ll change his rehearsed speech on the matter. After all, how often is someone going to know enough about some little nowhere islands to call him on it?

The Halfway Point / By the Numbers

Time for just a quick update:

I’m about halfway through my Faroese summer, and nowhere near ready to leave. Right now, I’m wandering around in a bit of a midsummer haze. My days and nights are flipped almost completely upside down. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed before 4 am or got up before noon… I think it’s been a week. Mostly to break the cycle, I’ve planned a trip to Tórshavn and Nólsoy tomorrow, so I have to get up in time to take the 8 am bus.

I think it’s time to say I’ve learned what I’ve needed to learn and met the people I’ve needed to meet in order to really do the bulk of my work here. Of course I could still keep learning and practicing and preparing forever, but the halfway point is a good time to wake up and realize that I need to really get started on serious formal interviews, writing, and such.

In three weeks, things are going to start getting really crazy here. My last few weeks in the Faroe Islands are going to see the G! Festival in my home village, the Ólavsøka national day and festival in Tórshavn, and my best friend here taking off work for a few weeks so that we can travel around and see as much of the country as possible. So I’m going to try to get some of the work done now, before the summer really lights on fire…

Foggy Sunrise

Here’s what my halfway point looks like, by the numbers:

Days spent in the Faroes: 34
Days left in the Faroes: 39

Photos taken: 8,814

Faroese words I know: 2,000+ (ability to speak badly, unlocked!)
Manual gears acquainted with: 5 (ability to drive badly, unlocked!)

Faroe Islands Visited: 9
Vágar, Streymoy, Eysturoy, Borðoy, Viðoy, Kunoy, Kalsoy, Suðuroy, Koltur

Faroe Islands Unvisited: 9
Nólsoy, Hestur, Sandoy, Svínoy, Fugloy, Mykines (plan to visit)
Skúvoy, Stóra og Lítla Dímun (maybe not this time)

Blog posts published: 12
Blog drafts sitting in the edit queue: 8 (!)

Formal interviews conducted and recorded: 4
Formal interviews planned for the coming week: 4

Cups of tea consumed: 69+
Containers of garlic cheese consumed: 7
Bags of “chokoflager” cookies consumed: 4

Potatoes peeled in the correct Faroese style: < 2
Potatoes peeled in Miranda’s roughshod redneck style:  > 15
Potatoes eaten unpeeled: > 15

Hours spent watching Dagur og Vika, reading Portal.fo and listening to Útvarp Føroya: 20+
Words in the “Comprehensive Faroese Vocabulary” Memrise course I’m helping create: 1,107

Faroese (and fellow Faroe-phile) Facebook friends: 58
Times mistaken for a Sea Shepherd Spy: 3+

New Definition of “Good Weather”: 10°C/50°F (and not rainy or foggy)
New Definition of “Hot Summer Weather”: 15.5°C/60°F (and maybe some sun)
New Definition of “Grass Green”: #00FF00
New Definition of “Large”: 500-inhabitant villages
New Definition of “Busy”: 8 cars in a parking lot

CJLCQ_7DTWV

Faroese Montage

Montage Comic

Critical Skills Status Update:

My Faroese skills have improved to the point where I can explain my project, however badly and haltingly. This in and of itself feels like cause for celebration! I am also actually driving around, between villages, through tunnels, on mountain roads. Haven’t gone by myself yet, but I feel like I’m improving every time and no longer feel like I’m going to die — just potentially annoy every other driver on the road and maybe stall out the engine (sorry, little white car).

I’ve made a lot of contacts in the last week and feel much more prepared to get started with all the interviews and that sort of work now. Am I totally ready? Of course not. But I never will be. Still, I think things are going pretty well. And even if every day brings new challenges, that’s half the fun — so bring it on, Føroyar!

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.

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! 🙂

Through Bergen, with Love

Bergen as seen from the top of Mt. Fløyen.

Bergen as seen from the top of Mt. Fløyen.

En route to the Faroe Islands, I spent several days in the Norwegian coastal city of Bergen. One does not simply fly into the Faroe Islands, after all. Although Atlantic Airways (the Faroese national airline) is expanding its services pretty quickly, coming from America you still need to connect in one of a handful of European cities. You’ll have to book the flights separately, and, with flights in and out of the Faroes frequently delayed (sometimes for days) its good to have some buffer time in between. That gave me the perfect opportunity for a short stay in Bergen, where I studied abroad in 2012. The plan was perfect — I could stay with friends and even attend the 200th Jubilee celebration of Norwegian Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai.

Bergen's historic wooden wharf (Bryggen), the tallship Statsraad Lehmkuhl and a Ferris Wheel for the Bicentennial celebrations.

From right to left: The famous tall-ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl, a Ferris Wheel for the Bicentennial celebrations, the Haakonshalle and Rosenkrantz Torn medieval buildings, and Bergen’s historic wooden wharf (Bryggen).

Aside from convenience and pleasure, there was also something romantic about the idea of entering the Faroe Islands through Bergen. Norway, and especially Bergen, have long had a tight connection to the islands, which they controlled during Viking and Hanseatic times. When the Danes took over Norway, they took the Faroes as well — and kept them when Norway was handed over first to the Swedes and then, finally, to the Norwegians themselves. Copenhagen long ago replaced Bergen as the “capital across the water” where Faroese goods were traded and religious and political authorities reported. But Norway and the Faroe Islands continue to resemble and remember each other in many ways.

Unlike in the rest of the world — and even in the rest of Europe — the Faroes are well known in Norway. Some Norwegians have even been there. The blank stares mentions of the Faroes elicited for me in the United States were replaced with a wide variety of reactions —  “Wow, you’ll love it!” “How intriguing.” “What a crazy place…” “I had a Faroese friend once.” “I love Faroese music.” “I’m applying for a job there.” “I’ve always wanted to go there!” “Their language is so strange, it’s like you can almost understand it, but not quite…”

High above the sea on Damsgårdsfjell!

Rising high over the sea on Damsgårdsfjell!

Hiking on Mt. Ulriken, high above the city.

Hiking on Mt. Ulriken, high above the city.

In many ways, Bergen was a good halfway point between where I was coming from and where I was going. A good place to acclimatise. The mountains and the sea, the rain and cool summer weather, the wool sweaters and smell of fish — these I would find in the Faroes as well. The size of the bustling city, the birch and oak and pine — these I would still have to leave behind. Norwegian was harder on my brain and tongue than my native English, but much easier and more familiar than the more-inflected and less-phonetic Faroese.

Fishing and picnicking on Mt. Sandviken.

Fishing and picnicking on Mt. Sandviken.

I drank deeply of the pure mountain water I had missed so much. I walked so far that blisters broke through my tender flatland feet. I saw friends I had missed for many months, meeting them in bars and cafes, by lakes up on the fells, in cozy homes where the familiar smell of wet wood and the warmth of heated floors nearly brought me to nostalgic tears.

Syttende Mai 1

The Syttende Mai Parade

Syttende Mai was a day to remember. We gathered for the traditional holiday breakfast, with puddings and fenelår sausage and champagne, and walked down to the city along with thousands of Norwegians who had gathered in their Sunday best or beautiful Bunads, the Norwegian national dress that varies spectacularly and colorfully from region to region.

Spectators at the Syttende Mai Parade

Spectators at the Syttende Mai Parade

We wandered blissfully from the parade to a cozy cafe packed tight with the festive air, to the statue of Ivar Aasen to celebrate the linguistic diversity of Norway, to the city’s oldest student bar up on the cliff, down to the wharf for ice cream, back to Årstad, on the other side of the harbor, to grill as the afternoon light shifted into a long, light Nordic evening. And we sang about Norway, in Nynorsk and in Bokmål, sometimes stomping the deck so hard that I was afraid the old boards would break.

After a short break when the French girls sang their anthem and I sang an Ozark ballad (I decided on Matty Groves), my friend Kurt turned to me and sang,

“Vilja tær hoyra kvæði mítt?”

The first words to Ormurin Langi — one of the most famous Faroese kvæði. “Do you want to hear my ballad?”

I answered,

Vilja tær orðum trúgva,
um hann Ólav Trygvason,
hagar skal ríman snúgva.

Glymur dansur í høll,
dans sláið í ring:
Glaðir ríða Noregsmenn
til Hildar ting.

Now that was good fun! Here were cultural roots that ran deeper than the sundering sea. I pulled up the lyrics on my phone so we could all sing along, some tripping over the orthography here and there or interrupting to say, “That’s just like an old word from my region! Like something my grandfather would say!”

In English, the lyrics mean something like this:

Will you believe the words,
About Olav Tryggvasson,
Here’s how the rhyme revolves.

Raucous dance in the Hall,
Dance, form a ring,
Gladly ride Norway’s men,
To Hild’s War Gathering.

Singing Anthems, Ballads, and Kvæði

Singing Anthems, Ballads, and Kvæði

At some point, an exchange student came by to ask Kurt what was going on.

“This is a song that they sing on the Faroe Islands,” he told him. “That’s a little group of islands way out in the sea between here and Iceland. We like the way they sing. And this song is about a Norwegian king; they celebrate him on their national day. This makes us very happy.”