The taxi driver was not great at responding to the small road signs to Orkesta church north of Vallentuna in the county of Stockholm. But the signs weren’t good, wrongly angled, which sent us rolling down a dust track to nowhere. He was anyway a  a cheerful accepting man, a solution person not a problem person, only spoiling it at the very end by asking me if I was looking for a particular grave after my having carefully explained the purpose of the trip.

I’m in search of U 344,  not a World War 2 submarine but a rune stone.

It’s near the west door of Orkesta church and remarkable both for the direction of the runes (from right to left) and for it commemorating a Viking who travelled to England and collected tribute. Swedish Vikings generally travelled east and south, while the Danes and Norwegians travelled west to England, among other places.

According to Wikipedia, the message reads “Ulf  collected three tributes in England. Torste collected the first, Torkel the second and Knut the third”. Ulf lived in Borresta in Uppland and was unusual in that he returned home alive from England after every trip. I’m curious about the content of the message, does it mean that Torste, Torkel and Knut handed over their collected tributes to Ulf?

I also wonder how these Vikings got to England – did they sail all around the south of Sweden and then through the Öresund to cross the North Sea? Or did they cross overland to the west coast (I don’t believe Sweden had much of a west coast,  if any, at this time early in the eleventh century). And then perhaps they joined forces with a Norwegian or a Danish raiding party. The prospects for success don’t look bright if they acted as individuals (Hi, I’m Ulf. I’ve come about the tribute…).

Ulf of Borresta is described in one history book as coming back from England to live in Uppland as a magnate, a rich man. His tribute was presumably in the form of money or gold and silver. I wonder about the position of money in England and rural Sweden at this time. We read about the feudal system in England breaking down and the emergence of paid labour and money relationships. The Scandinavian demand for tribute must have increased the demand for money in England and the availability of money in Sweden but this is at least three hundred years before feudalism started to break down in earnest. What could Ulf have found to spend money on and where?

I’m ignorant about the presence (or absence) of feudalism in Sweden and need to read more about Swedish history and the place of money in the economy.

As far as I could see, the rune stone was artistically ornamented but without Christian symbols. At the time of its erection, in the early eleventh century, Christianity was only slowly breaking through in Sweden and Orkesta was not far from the core of paganism at Uppsala.

No name is given for the rune maker but it is thought from the style to be the famous rune master Åsmund Kåresson.

The stone was discovered by Richard Dybeck of Yttergärd who Wiki describes as a Swedish jurist, antiquarian and lyricist (1811-1877). He is, among other things, known as being the author of  the lyrics to the Swedish national anthem, Du gamla, du fria. He was also the maternal uncle of  Amanda Kerfstedt (1835-1920), author, dramatist and translator. Like George Eliot, she started writing used a pseudonym but later used her own name. She was active in the women’s movement (among other activities). Her novel Reflexer (Reflexes or perhaps Reflections) was the first novel in Sweden where the main character was a transvestite. It tells the story of Walter, a respected family father, who furnishes a room in his  house where no one else is allowed entry. He locks himself into the room at 1 pm each day in order to be a woman. His behaviour is explained by tragic circumstances in his youth where his twin sisters (I believe they were twins) drown. He was detected by his wife, who divorced him but creditably (from a description on the net), he seems to have stood his ground. This was a decade before the term transvestite was introduced and it seems the novel was greeted more with puzzlement about what was considered an odd choice of topic rather than moral outrage (at least initially). After a long period out of print, it was republished earlier this century. I must try and find it.

Not wanting the taxi meter to tick into the stratosphere and unwilling to send the taxi away leaving me to an uncertain fate in the back of beyond with only the distant Roslagsbanan railway as a thin thread leading to the world as we know it, I didn’t look at the interior of the church. Had I done so, I would have seen the reconstruction work paid for by C.W. Cederhielm, a founding member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and translator of Voltaire’s Brutus, a man of the enlightenment deep in the bucol.

It’s amusing to think of the people connected in some way with this simple Uppland church gathering there in the small misty hours, Ulf, Torste, Torkel, Knut and Åsmund Koresson, C.W. Cederhielm, Richard Dybeck and Amanda Kerfstedt (and why not co-opt Walter too) to discuss the fate of the world, like some TV breakfast show but in the wilds.


From frog dance to chain dance

Giving up the struggle to make the room into last week’s various resting places, it’s four in the morning not half past six and the lit doorway leads nowhere more magical than my own bathroom.

My head is Faroe full; only four non-travel days but the intensity of memory stacked on memory makes it longer, the initially exotic rapidly becoming familiar.

Unwished images of the pilot whale hunt intrude – the blood red sea, the panic of the pod when pressed into the shallows, the flashing of the knives of the multitude, bureaucratic procedure as the haul is recorded, dissected and distributed. I don’t remember where the memory comes from. I’ve read the Faroese author Hedin Bru’s bloodstained description of “grindjakt” but it’s very visual, from you tube perhaps. I find it distasteful, I wouldn’t want to be there or to eat the meat or blubber. But I can’t protest – this is a country where little grows, perhaps potatoes not much else; five per cent of the land is cultivable, if that. They have to live, we have to prioritise our own species and the slaughterhouse of commodified death is hardly better, although concealed from the casual eye. But I do have a right to my way of being although I know I wouldn’t be viable there. I wouldn’t do the right things to put people at their ease and their hearts would harden against the refusal to integrate.

I felt this when we visited the island’s even smaller second “city” Klaksvik, with much more of a “frontier feel” than Torshavn, which was remarkably city-like for a settlement of 20,000. But Klaksvik was the odd mix of the suburban and the frontier, which I recognise from my sojourn in northern Sweden, where many practical folk gathered to discuss and arrange practical doings and I would be an unviable form of human life.

Other memories beside the carnage, the towering hills everywhere, even closely around settlements; an underwater mountain range, the peaks being the visible Faroes. And vigorous in my youthful West England life, I remember very occasional climbs, how you could go up and up with increasing difficulty and suddenly discover that you were no longer on a steep slope but hanging perilously above a long drop, and edging back to safety in the days before squeamishness kept me away from cliffs, domes and towers.

The country is more populated than the mute emptiness of the Scottish Highlands, although sheep density seems similar. Here I have found no trace of pleasure-seeking deerstalkers seeking to clear the land. I don’t know either how the wool industry is organised, certainly commercial rather than subsistence but I know very little about scale or ownership. The transition from subsistence agriculture and fishing to commercial fishing seems to have travelled a different path than in the Outer Hebrides, although perhaps Shetland, unknown to me, would be a better place of comparison.

I eventually found a bibliography of literature in English about the Faroes in a book from the 1990s in the University of Faroe Islands library. I hope it will help me find material that can answer my questions. I suspect much can be found in my local academic library in Uppsala, Carolina Rediviva, although I need the magic “signa” before the doors to the treasure chamber will open.

The small population makes its presence or non-presence felt; there is a good local bookshop/cultural centre in Torshavn but no Faroese-English dictionary on sale (just Faroese-Danish). (Bumping against the frontiers of my knowledge, I wonder whether the Latin plural of “signum”, signa is used in Sweden or whether “signums” is used. Here’s material for me to earn a few eccentric old man points next time I’m at the library. I have a feeling too that, while signum exists that it’s not used as a synonym for shelf mark in the Anglo world and that needs to be sorted out before that area feels harmonious and at peace with itself…..).

I’d hardly thought about Faroese before going there; it was fascinating to discover a new Nordic language, especially one that had its roots in the West Nordic family with Shetland’s lost Norn and Icelandic. The loss of Norn was important for the developing Faroese nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I discovered Jakob Jakobsen, the first person from the Faroes to obtain a Ph.D. He dedicated much of his life to studying the many traces of Norn in the Shetlands, in place names, dialect words etc. Without his contribution, we would know far less about this dead Nordic language whose last speaker was probably born around 1700. The loss of Norn was a cautionary tale for Faroese nationalists, who initially struggled in a country, first a colony and then a county of Denmark where the educational system, legal matters, the state church all pursued their activities in Danish and Faroese was a lower status spoken language of the unestablished people, referred to various non-conformist groups, including the Plymouth Brethren to worship in their own language.

I found the revival of Faroese remarkable (revival in inverted commas, as inward Danish migration to the Faroes was apparently low (unlike the situation with Scots in Shetland) and Faroese remained strong as a spoken language).

Faroese remained a spoken language until the nineteenth century when Hammershaimb, among other others worked hard and successfully on its orthography. Perhaps unfortunately, he worked on etymological principles and gave Faroese letters from Icelandic, which (as I understand it) have little bearing on how Faroese is pronounced. Jakobsen worked hard to try to reform Faroese spelling but his efforts as a solitary intellectual were in vain against the strong tide of nationalist opinion, which wanted not just to preserve and develop Faroese but hoped to restore lost sounds to bring the language closer to its roots (their success in other respects doesn’t seem to have been replicated in this latter area).

A strange experience for me, where I understand large chunks of the language from Swedish and my familiarity with Northern modes of expression. But interspersed with the unknown or dimly grasped. I would like to learn more although I’m aware that I’m seriously promiscuous when it comes to language, becoming infatuated, even when the prospect of a long-term relationship is utterly remote.

It’s now really half past six, time for porridge and to make my usual optimistic list for conquests of the day, July’s accounts and soon future travel being high on my list. Writing my blog will hopefully lull the storm of Faroese associations sufficiently long for me to chip a little at my hoped-for daily doings.

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.

Dawntime and the gentle elves

Satisfied to find in my Geologisk Ordlista (Glossary of Geology), that the longest geochronological unit is an eon followed in descending order by an era, a period and an epoch. In pre-digital times, it made sense to accumulate glossaries to avoid spending a day travelling to Stockholm to find a few obscure words related to whatever arcane corner of human endeavour I was plunging into. Now with the mighty Google, it’s hardly so, even less for me a twilight translator sated with more of yesterday rather than wild ventures into budgerigar cage terminology. I should purge my library so that I no longer have books about Kabbalah tumbling from my kitchen cupboard on to my Meissen breakfast cup (poetic licence). But I find it hard to part from my companions of the labour of decades.

Geology is a special case; every time I come to the Dorset coast and read about greensand and sandstone and gooey blue liais, I want to learn more  (when the day finally arrives that I move on from Dorset churches). I’d better keep that one for the time being, for another eon or so.

Otherwise, I’ve dabbled with place names. Around the midsummer table, mention made of Ulva kvarn, an old mill from the ancient. The many place names beginning with Ull have attracted my interest and I have a doctoral thesis “Gudarnas Platser.  Förkristna Sakrala Ortsnamn I Mälarlandskapen” by Per Vikstrand (Pre-Christian Sacral Place Names in Central Sweden). A long section on ”ul” names where he discusses whether ”Ull” was the Svears’ foremost God and hence the names or whether some place names were hydronymic. It has been suggested that “ull” was associated with the early Swedish “vaella”, to bubble up, flow, perhaps “well up” (as with tears).

If correct, it would seem an appropriate name for a mill. However, I can’t find a mention of Ulva Kvarn in Vikstrand’s thesis, Calissendorf’s Ortnamn i Uppland (Place Names in Uppland) has Ulva Vad (Vlfawadh 1344), a place where wolves waded across the river.

I am suspicious of picturesque names of this kind, ever on the look out for popular “back formations”.

We have a prime example in the town of Trollhättan in western Sweden, literally translated as “the troll’s bonnet”. It was supposed, when you looked down at the rocks in the water from on high, that they resembled the tips of the hats of fallen in the water trolls. More prosaically, Trollhättan was as far as you could navigate on the water and here boats had to be dragged (tragen) over the rock (hättan) that blocked the water way. Mundane but credible.

I don’t know about wolves fording the river at Ulva. I could look at the map and inspect the area and make some kind of reasonability assessment but this just might be an area where I must tolerate the dark of unknowing.

I’m mostly reading about the Faroes in my less serious moments. I’ve making my way slowly through William Heinesen’s Gryningssvindar, written in Danish and only later translated into Faroese.

Gryning in Swedish is Dawn so it would be Dawntime (the Dawn of Time is more mellifluent but leads thoughts astray). He takes us to a Faroes where the old traditions live on, the culture of songs important for the preservation of the Faroese language. And with a large cast of characters, which allows him to mention many major themes in island life – the increasing importance of fishing and later fish processing, religion, the missionaries and the stricter versions of protestantism, the difficulty of travelling from island to island and the freedom offered by the motor boat. Alcohol, where the Faroes had prohibition for many years. It was rumoured that he was a candidate for the Nobel prize in 1981 but said that he wrote to the Academy to withdraw his candidature as he wrote in Danish and not Faroese.

Also started to dabble in life as well as literature and I came across the following motto for the University of the Faroe Islands, which amused me:

“Mildar veittrar tendraðu ein vita føroyum stjørnuleið frá øld til øld” translated as “Gentle elves set light to lead the Faroes on the starry way from age to age”.

In my rambling around the groves of academe, I’ve yet to come across an academic who self-identified as a gentle elf. It sounds pleasantly Hobbityish.

Islands of the sheep and paradise of birds

After two months of wandering, urgent matters took time to attend to; I’m still some way off being able to operate seamlessly from my important anywheres. But now I’m settling and my fast-breeding projects are becoming more disciplined and chaste.

Among my more light-hearted occupations, I’m  preparing for a trip to the Faroe Islands in early August.

Knowing Swedish, it’s just about possible to stagger through written Faroese on familiar topics.

”Samgongan hevði mist meirilutan, um løgtingsval var nú. Tað vísir veljarakanning, sum talgilda blaðið hjá Portal.fo, Vikuskifti, kunngjørdi í gjár”.

I love the ancient letters which were used in Old English and now still appear in Icelandic and Faroese. Icelanders and Faroese may be able to understand one another at a very basic level. The sound system of Faroese is, I believe, closer to Norwegian than Danish but the course of inter-Nordic communication would hardly run smooth.

The language was very much a spoken language used most in informal family contexts until at least the latter part of the nineteenth century. Danish was the language of the law and education and children were at least discouraged from using Faroese at school (reminiscent of the treatment of those speaking Tornedal Finnish in northern Sweden).

Jörgen-Frantz Jacobsen wrote his internationally known novel “Barbara” in Danish, later translated to Faroese, as did William  Heinesen with Gryningsvindar among other works.

The situation reminds me of Malta, where Maltese is widely spoken in everyday, familiar use but where English dominates in commercial and formal use.

In the nineteenth century, much work was done by on the orthography and grammar of Faroese and its status has gradually improved since then. According to Wikipedia, Venceslaus Ulricus Hammershaimb and the Icelandic grammarian and politician Jón Sigurðsson published a written standard for Modern Faroese in 1854, which still exists.[10] They set a standard for the orthography of the language, based on its Old Norse roots and similar to that of Icelandic” and “In 1937, Faroese replaced Danish as the official school language, in 1938, as the church language, and in 1948, as the national language by the Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands”. 

The islands were occupied by the British in the second World War, which spurred hopes for independence (like Iceland). It also apparently led to the Faroese developing a taste for fish and chips and Cadbury’s chocolate.

There was a referendum in 1947, just over 50% being in favour of independence from Denmark. The numbers involved, however, were small, the total vote count being just over 11,000. The Danish government didn’t recognise the referendum result but, after a further general election, gave the Faroe Islands an autonomous status but still within the state of Denmark and with the Danish King as head of state. This status has allowed the Faroes Islands not to be part of the European Community and its habitants, while being Danish citizens do not have the right of freedom of movement in the Schengen area (they can, however, move freely within the Nordic countries by earlier treaty).  I believe the Faroese political parties are split on the independence question. The Faroese are culturally, linguistically and economically distinct from the mainland Danes but the total population is only just over 50,000 and presumably many  younger Faroese value the ease of access to the Danish education system provided by common statehood.

I’d like to find out more about the trade relationship between the Faroes and the EU.

I hope also to find out more about ownership of the Faroese economy. Fishing (and presumably fish processing) have been the most important industry by far although attempts have and are being made to diversify. Russia has been one of the most important countries for Faroese exports. Foreign ownership of Faroese concerns (fishing-related presumably) has been an issue and there is apparently a deadline (in about 25 years,  I believe) when it is to be ended, although that deadline has recently been pushed further into the future.

I’ve recently read and enjoyed Jacobsen’s Barbara and am now reading William Heinesen’s Gryningsvindar. The fine old paperback (published in 1935) is a pleasure in itself with its inscription “Lilla morfar, God Jul” från Ingrid. I see it was translated by Elsa Thulin (1887-1960) whom I had never heard of before but who was a highly regarded literary translator and who also worked hard to improve the poor payment offered to literary translators. Looking for information about her, I find a list of Swedish literary translators (Svenskt Översättarlexikon) and am struck by my only recognising a couple of names on the rather long list. Another gap in my knowledge of Sweden,,,

I’ll probably try and buy a copy of Barbara in Faroese when I’m in Torshavn and work my way through a chapter of two with the aid of a parallel text in Swedish. I´ve done that before with some success with German literature although the novel I read was too interesting and I wearied of the plod and sped ahead with the English translation.

But if I managed to read Barbara in Faroese, it would be a step in learning about the history of Scandinavian languages, which I would like to do.

Tombland, lych gate and the Dane Law

Near our hotel is the church of St George Tombland. It’s not, however, as one might think a quirky mediaeval way of describing the graveyard; the word “Tombland” is older originating from the Old English/Anglo-Saxon word for an unused (vacant or empty) plot of land, “tom”. Many words of Germanic or Nordic origin would have been lost by the Middle Ages and replaced by Norman French. The “b” was probably added to make sense of the “tomland” (in fact making nonsense of it). This makes immediate sense to a Swede where the word “tom” is alive and kicking and means exactly “empty”. I treasure these moments when my Swedish helps me better understand what just looks quirky in English.

Another favourite of mine is “lych gate”, the covered gate to a churchyard. It makes no immediate sense to a modern English speaker, other perhaps than a very vague association with “lichen” attached to ancient wood. But a Swede would not be surprised to learn that it was the gate through which the pallbearers carried the corpse into the church, “lik” being the Swedish word for corpse.

Here in East Anglia, we are in the Dane Law, the part of England ruled for some considerable time by the Danish King, east of the Roman road, Watling St. Even after the end of the Viking period, a considerable number of Scandinavians remained settled in England. The relevant volumes of the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s massive account of the resources of the conquered country, contains plenty of Scandinavian names, for instance, in Lincolnshire (I’ve not checked Norfolk yet).

But it seems to me as if the history of the Dane Law has been poorly integrated into the history of Britain. Our focus on the period is centred on the Anglo-Saxons, Alfred of Wessex and the resistance against the Vikings. I don’t know so much about the history of history, when the Anglo-Saxons became as it were rehabilitated as England separated from the French and its power grew. But the Anglo-Saxons were admitted to official history, they became “us” and identity with the Normans weakened. The Vikings were also others. But at the same time, there is much evidence that this was anything but a temporary incursion – the large quantity of Scandinavian place names, the impact on the language and the development of the law. I would like to learn more about this but the written record seems sparse, or at least we are not spoon fed with what there is to know as with Alfred and his burnt cakes and other derring do. Perhaps one should look at Danish sources.

My visit to East Anglia has whetted my appetite for exploring this area of England. I’ve been here before but I don’t know it well. First camping beside a main road just west of Norwich, perhaps near Dereham, in my teens when I was immortal so no worries about lorries mounting the verge. But then I flashed straight past Norwich on my way to the coast and south. And then again when I studied at Essex University in Colchester close to the border between Essex and Suffolk. As an active member of the Students Union, I visited the University of East Anglia, another new University, a few times but I remember hardly anything of these visits, neither the city nor the university, just a few scenes from a trip when I was accompanied by my then girlfriend.

And more recently, I spent an enjoyable day exploring the coast between Cromer and Sheringham with a few hours between trains in Norwich on the way home; enough to note that it was a fine city but not enough to see it properly.

This time has been better but I’ll come back and explore more, including the Suffolk coast which has been on my list for a long time.

From nutmeg to ragamuffin and beyond

Waking up at 05.00 in the cathedral city of Norwich, my thoughts turned to the etymology of “nutmeg”, which has reached us from Old Occitan, also known as Old Provencal, closely associated with Catalan or perhaps Old Catalan. I don’t know whether langue d’oc is synonymous with Old Provencal or whether Old Provencal is intermediate between langue d’oc and langue d’oil. The southern French dialects (or languages,,,) should show the imprint of Vulgar Latin to a greater extent than the French referred to as langue d+oil where the Germanic language of the Franks to some  extent overlaid the previous influence of Latin. I would like to know more about this and have a few books on the history of French as well as a Provencal-French dictionary and the more doubtful benefit of Robinson Crusoe in Provencal. This project has not got off the ground as I would like . it would feel very satisfactory to have a project related to the French language.

Weakly remembered sloppy surfing brought me to the “punt volat”; the fly point or middle dot used in Catalan to separate, for example, two “l”s which belong to different syllables. The middle dot has a fascinating, if somewhat arcane, history. It was apparently in use to mark decimals before international standardisation led to the present location of the decimal point (although my source does not tell me why standardisation didn’t succeed in uniting users of the decimal comma and the decimal point).

I learn that at the time of decimalisation in the UK in 1971 the powers that be would have preferred to use the middle dot to separate pounds and pennies but that lower decimal point on the line prevailed, pushing aside official preferences.

I found a book which I almost bought “An introduction to Old Occitan” but couldn’t come to terms with the publisher’s website, probably because my computer is a harsh environment for all kinds of pop.ups. But Uppsala, being the wonderful place it is, there is a copy at the library and it can be read free on the net.

The morning is spent translating, edging back to the protestant work ethic after all my gallivanting. This time I was only back in Sweden for four days before resuming my headlong flight to the nearest border. But when I go back on Monday, I hope to stay for a while to enjoy the habitable part of the Nordic year. Socially it’s been a satisfactory summer but I have read less than I planned. I would like to think of myself seamlessly following my projects undisturbed by location but it’s not been quite like that.

The day ends with “ragamuffin” – I don’t remember how I got there, not from nutmeg anyway. The etymology is probably from Piers Plowman in Middle English where ragamuffin is a devil, presumably clad in rags.

Although in fact it´s not the end of the day as there is a concert at 22,00, which will probably permit me to explore the strange country outside my comfort zone.