Faroese

Flag of the Faroe Islands. Wikipedia.

From BBC Travel (hat tip: Pam Wilson):

The Faroe Islands’ 500-year-old fight to save its language

Situated between Iceland and Scotland, the isolated Faroe Islands are in a unique position. For years, their remoteness kept locals out of reach of their Danish rulers.

“The people of the Faroe Islands have been raised in the belief that we can manage our own destiny,” said Magni Arge, Faroe Islands MP in the Danish Parliament.

A long struggle for independence

The Faroes are an archipelago of 18 verdant, volcanic islands jutting out of the Atlantic Ocean between Scotland, Iceland and Norway. With a Celtic and Viking heritage – and a population of about 50,000 – they’re semi-autonomous but still a Danish dependency, having been ruled by both Denmark and Norway for centuries.

The Faroese have had a long struggle for self-rule, which had a turning point during World War II. Denmark was occupied by the Nazis, and it was Britain that provided protection from German invasion due to the islands’ proximity to the Shetland Islands and UK mainland. With no contact with Denmark for five years during the war, the islanders began to forge their own path.

Over the last few decades, many Faroese have been building towards a new wave of independence, including the struggle to not only hold on to their native tongue, but also to help it flourish.

The fight to keep a language alive

The Faroese people have been fighting to keep their language alive ever since it was suppressed by the Danish, when the islands became part of the Dano-Norwegian Kingdom in 1380. With the Reformation, that stronghold was reinforced and Faroese was completely banned in schools. People had no choice but to succumb to the vernacular of the law courts and the Danish parliament.

While Danish dominated official realms for centuries, the wider community continued to speak and sing in Faroese. The written language they use now only formally came into being in 1846, and over the next few decades an upturn in the Faroese economy, caused by sloop fishing and the end of the Danish trade monopoly, further increased national confidence.

With greater links to the outside world in the late 1800s, people began to assert the integrity of their own tongue, and oral Faroese became a school subject in 1912, followed by the written language in 1920. After the establishment of Home Rule in 1948, Faroese was recognised as the official language of government; however, Danish is still taught as a compulsory subject, and all the Faroes’ parliamentary laws still need to be translated into Danish.

Read the whole thing – which is a slideshow; make sure you watch the fourth slide, which is a short video proposing why Faroese, which is related to Icelandic, survived Danish proscription:

“Our own language was very much tied into the way we lived. So each and every bit of a boat has its distinct name, and each tool has its name, and each walk path. Everything had its name tied into the old Faroese language. And if they lost that they probably would lose the ability to live here as well.”

The Faroese passed on their stories through kvæði, ballades that accompany the chain dance.

“Our language has lived through these stories, that have been told from generation to generation. Now we have around 17000 verses. And I think that’s a lot because we should remember it was only 5000 people on these islands at the time. It’s been verses that they have remembered in their heads.”

I was also interested in their attempts at updating their language while avoiding Anglicisms and other loan words:

“We Faroese are a bit puristic, so we like to have our own words, like Icelanders. We think, ‘Why should we all take the English words? We should all make something ourselves! I speculated, ‘What should we call a computer?’ ‘Tel’ is a number. So ‘telda.’ Everybody called it ‘telda’ – computer!”

“When we were kids, we were always thinking this sounded a bit weird. But nowadays, you think it’s weird if anybody says ‘helicopter’ or if anybody says ‘computer’ instead of ‘telda’ and such.”

I applaud such efforts, which you can also see in Quebec and Israel. I actually don’t like how internationally influential English is. The great thing about making up words self-consciously is that you can control for euphony and brevity as well as meaning. “Telda” is just a nicer word than “computer”!

Slide sixteen addresses Faroese political nationalism. I guess that the Faroe Islands are a few steps behind Iceland on this front, which won home rule in 1874, “extended” home rule in 1904, sovereignty in 1918, and compete republican independence in 1944.

The Faroese have a long history of discussion, democracy and government, and Tinganes (pictured) in the capital Tórshavn is claimed by the Faroese to be one of the oldest parliamentary meeting places in the world. The current building inhabits the site of the first Viking parliament that met here sometime after 900AD.

The current drive to write their own constitution is the next stage in the movement towards what many Faroese hope will be self-governance, though it’s a controversial issue for some, given how much financial support is received from Denmark.

Nevertheless, the Faroese are keeping a close eye on how Catalonia’s bid for independence progresses, as well as Britain after Brexit. Separatists feel that independence is long overdue, though for many, the spike in taxes if they were to lose Danish support is more than enough reason to keep some of the ties that bind them. Whatever does happen in the future though, the fight to keep Faroese as a living, breathing language will endure.

Looks like I’ve got another place to add to my bucket list!

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