Whirling and twirling, the dance of life goes on

Flashing past the Wiltshire village of Fyfield on the old A4 just west of Marlborough, I knew not that  Fyfield down has “the best assemblage of sarsen stones in England, known as the Grey Wethers” (Wiki). Now I know that a sarsen stone is a silicified sandstone block, naturally occurring, favoured by the ancients for the monumental, and called “ sarsen” in Wiltshire dialect from “saracen”, used in Europe to denote folk of the Islamic faith who opposed the crusades. According to the shorter Oxford, the word came to denote any pagan and hence its application to the stones used by the ancient Britons, dimly illuminated and exotic.

It’s given though as sixteenth century, which seems very late to stimulate dialectal usage linked to the crusades, but it can, of course, have kept its head down, crept through the undergrowth of communication, without attracting attention. Knowledge I’m glad to have, gazing soulfully at the downs on my way to take the waters at Bath for my gout.

The ancient also made its presence felt with “polissoir”, a polishing stone or whetstone, dismissed by my inexperienced eye as old stone but in fact not just stone but an artefact with a polished indent where the ancients have sharpened their tools. One such 5,000 year old polissoir has recently been discovered in Dorset. Why the French name I don’t know, presumably some French academic grappling with the grooves in the dawn of science.

And another link with Islam, a reference to Ishmael and learning that he was Abraham’s first son and an important prophet in Islam. Abraham’s other children were Nebaioth, Basemath, Kedar, Mishma, Adbeel, Mibsam, Jetur, Kedemah, Naphish, Tema, Dumah, Hadad and Massa. A fine collection of names. I should like to go through the Dorset church registers and make a note of all the more unusual biblical names used for naming children, although I can’t recall having seen the above.

Champollion, the Faroes and Uppland

Dim light at Carolina Rediviva, friendly for the ancient hieroglyphs, not so for my  less ancient eyes. But I’ve purchased and read the exhibition catalogue “Champollion and Hieroglyphics – 200 years of Egyptology” and know what’s there. Champollion’s (among others perhaps) key discovery was that hieroglyphics could be both a pictorial writing system and phonetic symbols and that most “words” were a combination. As long as researchers thought that they were solely pictorial, they wallowed in the weird and not so wonderful and were  distracted from the meaning by speculative interpretation.  This lonely genius makes good story triggers alarm  bells that history is being prettified (According to the catalogue “The legend says that Champollion, after struggling with different copies of inscriptions, rushed into his brother’s study in Paris – supposedly on 14 September 1822 – and blurted out “I’ve got it”, upon which he fell into a coma”). However, even if the denouement was less dramatic, it’s a good example of how what you know or think you know can block new learning.

Resuming exploration of my new home county after the dead  hand of Covid. It’s taken time to get started again, partly because of my orbiting around Sweden rather than actually living here and then it was too cold and dark and now it’s too hot. But at least I’ve been down to where the river (Fyris) meets Lake Mälaren and to see Champollion and am planning to take the boat in the same direction and further to historic Skokloster.

I’m continuing my exploration of Faroese literature and am now reading another of William Heinesen’s novels “De förlorade musikanterna” (The lost musicians). Not  a great fan of historical novels but I couldn’t resist it after reading Leif Zern’s intro describing Heinesen’s universe as a struggle between affirmation of life and the destructive force represented by the manager of the savings bank Andersen and the temperance association, who does what he can to dampen the friends’ exuberance at liquid gatherings.

I have Heinesen’s unread “Det goda hoppet” (The good hope, inadequate translation) from 1964.

Printed in my first year at university in the UK and pages uncut since then. No library stamp or ex libris, I wonder what the book has been doing since then (all books should have a libro-bio page, recording their fate). It seems somehow disrespectful to cut the pages just like that. There has to be some kind of ceremony; I want to take it to the Faroes with me and make it readable in some spiritual and sombre place in the early morning (the Faroes police are trying to intrude into my fantasy by carting me off to explain why I’m running around Torshavn with a knife in the wee hours. Should I depart from my life principle of never explaining my actions or is that, unusually, the road to perdition?)  And also another author Hedin Bru’s ”Berättelsen om Högni” (A tale about Högni). Finely bound and published by Gleerups in Lund in 1939, borrowed on 28 March 1957 as Mr Green explained the mysteries of multiplying decimals to me quivering on the brink of leaving junior school. But I can read this book, delicately with well washed hands, it doesn’t make me tamper with history with a paper cutter.

At any rate, good as far as pushing back the frontier of unknowing. I now know what  a “skälmroman” is in Swedish (like picaresque). And Herr Andersen’s temperance association is oddly called after Idun. Idun seems a friendly goddess, providing apples to keep the other gods and goddess immortal (they start to go grey when Idun is kidnapped). Between my home and Old Uppsala, all the roads are named after Gods and Goddesses. Idunvägen is just around the corner and amusingly many houses have apple trees in their gardens. I walk past them sometimes to get home when I’ve been reading on the bus and get swept past my stop. I’ve yet to clamber over the fence to taste one of the apples and see whether my bald patch (or rather bald sahara) shrinks. I’m not sure about immortality – it’s a heavy responsibility to steer David Kendall around the world and he might begin to pall on me after a century or so. Immorality is probably more fun…

More words, sarsen and polissoir, Ishmael and Fyfield Down, but I’ll save them for another time…..

Bits and bobs

I’d heard of ”La Dame aux Camelias” but didn’t know before that it was originally a novel by Dumas first published in 1848.  According to Wiki, La Dame aux Camélias is a semi-autobiographical novel based on the author’s brief love affair with a courtesan, Marie Duplessis. The camellia comes from her habit of wearing a red camellia when menstruating (and a white otherwise).

And after reading an, in my opinion, a not so successful “follow up” to Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, I wonder why Hardy chose the name Bathsheba for the main female character. In the Bible, Bathsheba had an affair with King David and became pregnant by him. Her soldier husband refuses to accept the baby as his and the king has him slain in battle. While a soldier, Sergeant Troy, gets murdered by another of Bathsheba’s suitors, I can’t work out how Hardy was thinking when he chose the name.

Otherwise, I have again understood the difference between the often confused English words for the Swedish spice words Spiskummin and kummin. Spiskummin is cumin in English and Kummin is carroway. Hopefully, I shall remember it this time!

And a linguistic term “substrate”. According to Lund Language Diversity Forum Blog, a language substrate “is a language that seems to have influenced another language that was somehow more dominant at the time of contact”. An example is the Old Irish word “adarc” meaning horn, which closely resembles the Basque “adar” horn, while the words in  other Indo-European languages are vastly different (English, horn, Latin, cornu etc.).

I’ve wondered about “paragon” which derives from the Old Italian word “paragone”, meaning touchstone, ultimately from Greek parakonan (from para, alongside of and akone meaning whetstone). I hadn’t consciously noted before the range of meanings of the prefix “para”,  which at least in Latin means to protect from (from parare, to ward off). Not sure whether it has that meaning in Greek as well.

And about “flabbergasted”, the etymology of which is uncertain but (according to Wiktionary) may come from a Suffolk dialect word from flabby or flap (to strike) + aghast or possibly from Scottish where apparently flabrigast means to boast.

Then there was “grifter” slang for a non-violent criminal, like a confidence trickster and “swathe” with its roots in Old English words meaning track or trace and cognate with German Schwade. And “deliquescent” which feels familiar although I can’t think why unless it is some distant memory from O level chemistry that’s been lurking around in a cerebral nook (or possibly cranny). It refers to a substance that absorbs liquid from the air, eventually becoming liquid itself.

Finally “anabasis” which apparently, as well as being an autobiographical (historical? ) work by Xenophon also means moving inland away from the sea (perhaps in a military context). This word from a novel by Linklater, which is partly set in the Faroes (although it wasn’t the description of the Faroes during the British occupation that I hoped for, when I relieved the secondhand bookseller of this relic from the 1950s). I doubt that “anabasis” is going to become part of my active vocabulary. Let’s walk away from the sea to get out of the wind feels simpler than can we anabase.

This little collection a result of a struggle on my part to bring some order into my collection of notebooks so that I record new words or words I am thinking about in one place and not scribbled on the nondescript.

Norn and Faroese

Two of the West Scandinavian languages have survived, Icelandic and Faroese, while one, Norn, originally spoken in at least Orkney and Shetland (and very possibly, Caithness, the Western Isles and the Isle of Man) is a dead language.  Faroese could well have gone the same way as Norn. For a large part of the nineteenth century, it was a spoken language, the official and educational language was Danish and active efforts were made to promote Danish at the expense of Faroese. Its survival was helped by the isolation of the Faroe Islands, low population “cburn” and that it was still part of the Nordic world.

The Shetlands became part of Scotland in 1472. There is some dispute among linguists as to how Norn declined, whether it was increasingly penetrated by Scottish and gradually deteriorated or whether it remained distinct to the end. The last speaker is said to have been William Sutherland (died 1850) although there are indications of later traces. There are many words of Scandinavian origin in the Shetland dialect.

We would know far less about Norn, had it not been for the efforts of the first man in the Faroes to obtain a PhD, the linguist Jakob Jakobsen (Jakup doctari). He was in Shetland from 1893-95. According to Michael Barnes (Jakob Jakobsen and the Norn language of Shetland), “,,,working with singlemindedness and dedication to record every remnant of Norn, he could find.  Words, phrases, snatches of conversation, proverbs, rhymes, riddles, place names – as well as other less conspicuous items”. As well as his doctoral thesis, Jakobsen also produced “An etymological dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland” (1908-21, English translation 1928-32, reprinted 1985). The death of Norn was a warning example of what could happen to Faroese. Jakobsen and other cultural figures made great efforts to ensure the survival of Faroese, in among other ways, by developing it as a written language and writing literature in Faroese. According to Barnes, “it would not be inappropriate to call Jakobsen “the father of modern written Faroese”. He also points out that, while not detracting from Jakobsen’s contribution, there have been major developments in linguistics since Jakobsen’s time.

Despite Jacobsen’s efforts, we still know little about the pronunciation and grammatical structure of later Norn. There is very little written Norn although we do have a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Norn (date unknown), compared by Wikipedia in its article on the Norn language with (presumably current) versions in Icelandic and Faroese.

To a layman, the version of the Lord’s Prayer seems to show signs of penetration by English (Scots).

Lord’s prayer in Norn, Faroese and Icelandic (source: Wikepedia)


Fy vor or er i Chimeri. / Halaght vara nam dit.

La Konungdum din cumma. / La vill din vera guerde

i vrildin sindaeri chimeri. / Gav vus dagh u dagloght brau.

Forgive sindorwara / sin vi forgiva gem ao sinda gainst wus.

Lia wus ikè o vera tempa, / but delivra wus fro adlu idlu.

[For do i ir Kongungdum, u puri, u glori.] Amen.



Faðir vár, tú sum ert í himlinum. / Heilagt verði navnið títt.

Komi ríkið títt. / Verði vilji tín,

so sum á himli, so á jørð. / Gev okkum í dag okkara dagliga breyð.

Fyrigev okkum syndir okkara, / so sum vit eisini fyrigeva teimum, ið móti okkum synda.

Leið okkum ikki í freistingar, / men frels okkum frá tí illa.

[Tí at títt er ríkið, valdið og heiðurin um aldur og allar ævir.] Amen.



Faðir vor, þú sem ert á himnum. / Helgist þitt nafn,

til komi þitt ríki, / verði þinn vilji,

svo á jörðu sem á himni. / Gef oss í dag vort daglegt brauð.

Fyrirgef oss vorar skuldir, / svo sem vér og fyrirgefum vorum skuldunautum.

Og eigi leið þú oss í freistni, / heldur frelsa oss frá illu.

[Því að þitt er ríkið, mátturinn og dýrðin að eilífu.] Amen.