The language and culture of the Faroe Islands

Of interest in W.B. Lockwood’s “The Language and Culture of the Faroes Islands”

– There are a large number of words in Faroese to denote different kinds of waves and currents in the sea

(like the Sami in northern Scandinavia and Finland with their large number of words for snow)

– The orthography of Faroese constructed in the nineteenth century on etymological principles helps those familiar with Old Norse to read Faroese but “is often a nuisance to the Faroese themselves”, making it difficult to teach children to spell properly

– Apples don´t grow in the Faroes and were an exotic fruit until the last century. The potato got to the Faroes first; they took over the Danish word for potato translated literally into English as “earth apple” (jordepli with accents and a letter I can’t reproduce) and then simplified it to “epli”. This made things complicated when apples started to arrive so they are referred to as “surepli” (with accent), sour apples.

– Most Faroese people recognise far more birds than we would. They have no general word for gull but call different birds in the gull family by separate names, thus “gneggjus” for common gull, “rita” for three-toed gull and likka for lesser black-backed gull.

– They mix the words for sun (sol) and moon, Traditionally the moon was thought to exercise a baleful influence and its name became taboo, Thus the sentence “Tarvitrin matti ikki drepast i avtakandi sol” (“The bull had not to be slaughtered in the waning sun”). The sun, of course, doesn’t wane, it’s the moon that does that. However, as mention of the moon is thought to be unlucky, the superstitious replace the word for moon by the word for “sun”, which can be confusing for the uninitiated.

Lockwood also has some interesting information about the persistence of communal customs, how a large amount of essential work such as bird-catching, sheep-tending, fishing, whale and seal-hunting, milking, clearing paths and building houses was done by communal labour. There are still remnants of this, in, for instance, the whale hunt. On some islands, even as late as the last century sheep were owned in common by the whole population and in other places when bird eggs were collected, a portion called a “land part” was distributed freely to the whole population regardless of whether they had participated in collecting the eggs. Deep sea fishing, attracting away the young and vigorous for months at a time in return for individual cash wages has intensified the trend away from communal pursuits.

Source: Saga-Book, 1946-53, Vol 13 (1946-53), pp 249-268 published by Viking Society for Northern Research

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