The Faroese Language


Population and Settlement. The Norwegian colonisation which, probably in the 8th or 9th century replaced an earlier celtic settlement, was to have a lasting importance, also linguistically. The Norwegian population which settled in the Faroe Islands has had contact with Celtic-speaking people. This is shown by the words of Gaelic origin which can be demonstrated in the Faroese language today.

The Norwegian colonisation brought the Norwegian language to the Islands in the same way as in the other areas which were populated from Norway. In the Norse period i.e. - the time from about 800 to 1300-1400 - the Norse language was spoken relatively uniformly in these countries.

Faroese has always been closely related to West Norwegian and today it is still most closely related to West Norwegian and to Icelandic. At an early point in time, the geographic separation led to a development of dialect differences which were further developed and which form the basis of the present language.

Faroese became an independent language with characteristics of its own, be it as regards sound, inflection or vocabulary.

But where as we have good possibilities of studying the Norwegian and Icelandic languages of an older time, thanks to the large written material which is available, the lack of linguistic sources is a major obstacle to the study of the earliest forms of the Faroese language.

Earliest Language Sources. The earliest language records are a couple of runic stones. However, compared to runic findings in Scandinavia, these are not old.

The Faroese law supplement Seyðabrævið with statutory provisions for sheep-breeding on the islands, dates from 1298.

Besides being preserved in the version from the year of issue, it has also been preserved in its entirety in another manuscript from the same period (c. 1310). This manuscript, which is found in the university library in Lund, Sweden, is considered to be written by a Faroese, and it is thus the oldest manuscript with Faroese text that we know. The manuscript shows special Faroese features and the statutory provisions contain special Faroese linguistic matter.

But otherwise the language is Norse as it is known from Iceland and Norway at that time. From the Middle Ages also some certificates (letters) have been handed down, concerning wills or other legal matters. They date from the time shortly after 1400. Here the Faroese language features are so distinct that Faroese must be considered to be developing into an independent language.

Politically and linguistically, the Faroe Islands share the fate of Norway, as the Islands, which constitutionally were a part of Norway, came under the Danish Crown in 1380, and at the Reformation Danish was introduced as the language of the church and the administration. Thus, Faroese ceased to exist as a written language. Danish Bible and hymn book were introduced, and the clergymen became Danish to a great extent. The judicial system became Danish, whereby the Records of the Courts and other official documents were drawn up in Danish, also by officials who were natives of the Faroe Islands.

This left its mark on the written sources from post-Reformation time. These sources consist first and foremost of cadastres (court rolls) and registers of mortgages. But as the contents concern special Faroese conditions the temptation frequently becomes too strong, and terms from the Faroese everyday language (which did continue to live on) crept into the written sources. This showed itself in the representation of the forms of names, place names as well as personal names, which were, of course, abundant in sources of this nature. Attempts were made, as far as possible, to reproduce these names with Danish spelling, and often in partly Danish forms. In this way a lot of peculiar hybrid forms occurred. And these hybrid forms have characterised the Faroese naming custom even up to our time and in a sense, in part still do. The predominant position which Danish obtained in this period was bound to have a far-reaching influence on the entire language. As regards vocabulary in particular, the Faroese language in this period absorbed an abundance of Danish words, which left its mark on the spoken language system as regards sound and inflection.

The Restoration of the Language. Jens Chr. Svabo (1746-1824) must be mentioned as the one who laid the foundation stone to the exploration and restoration of the language. His work did not so much aim at adopting Faroese as the official language again, as at preserving for posterity the last "corrupted remainders" of the language.

In 1781-82 Svabo undertook his well-known journey to the Faroe Islands to collect material for a description of the Islands and here he had excellent opportunity to increase his collections of Faroese vocabulary and ballads.

In his notes, Svabo had to start from the very beginning. He had no tradition of written language on which to build. In other words, he had to make his own written language, his own ortography. This he did with amazing consequence. He chose - not unexpectedly to bring his ortography close to the pronunciation, and consequently this followed the pronunciation of his own dialect from the island of Vágar rather closely.

Svabo's opinion of the possibilities of the survival of the language was pessimistic. In the light of the puristic ideas (both Danish and Icelandic) of that time, he regarded Faroese as a corrupted variety of the old Norse language, which through the negligence of centuries had been mixed with Danish.

In his opinion there were two possibilities: either to go back to the ancient language in order to restore the language to its "lost purity" or to introduce Danish into the Faroe Islands. He considered the first possibility to be impracticable. The most obvious solution would be to give up Faroese and adopt Danish, so that all the King's subjects would speak the same language. However, things were to turn out differently from what Svabo had imagined. At this point, we are approaching the age of romanticism and with it the interest in antiquity and its records awakens, and together with this also the interest in the languages of the peoples.

The collecting of the great treasure of folk songs and legends which lived still on the lips of the people, was started. But as the various recorders according to Svabo's example each followed their own ortography,more depending on the dialect they spoke, it was not long before a need arose for a fixed norm of writing which could include all the dialects.

The Written Language. The problem was solved by dean V.U. Hammershaimb (1819-1909). In 1846 he elaborated that which (with some later adjustments) was to become the modern Faroese written language. In the planning of his written language, Hammershaimb builds on the so-called etymological principle, i.e., he goes back to the ancient language, making it the basis of the present written form.

Many of the phonetic changes which have taken place in the language in the course of time, thus do not appear in the visual picture of the words. The same applies in the case of the many dialectic differences which had emerged. In this way, the written language was to become the common denominator that could unite the dialects. A consequence of this was, of course, also a wide difference between pronunciation and writing.

This led to criticism, as many people considered the new spelling to be too difficult to learn - a problem which obviously exists - and in the late 19th century other proposals for an ortography were produced, introduced by the philologist Jakob Jakobsen (1864-1918). This led in the 1890s to a vehement ortography dispute, the outcome of which was, however, that the Hammershaimb-normal was maintained.

With the new written language as a basis and concurrent with the national revival in the late 19th century, a modern Faroese literature grew up. Of special importance is the fact that the first newspaper printed in Faroese "Føringatiðindi" appeared in 1890. This was one of the first tangible results of a popular meeting in Torshavn at Christmas-time 1888, at which a programme was laid down for the restoration and development of the language. The greatest importance was attached to introducing Faroese into the schools, the church and the administration. The efforts to restore "Faroese language to its former position", as it was stated after the Christmas meeting, were to cause bitter dispute, politically and culturally, before it was acknowledged officially in 1938 as the language of instruction on the Islands.

With the "Home Rule Act" of 1948 it was legalised as the principal language of the Islands, but in public affairs Danish has the same status as Faroese, and in the schools Danish has to be studied thoroughly. As the language of the church it gradually became more common as the texts of the Bible and the rituals were also translated. The builder first and foremost of a Faroese church language was the dean Jàkup Dahl (18781944), whose translation of the New Testament was published in 1937 (the official church bible was available in a complete translation in 1961). Before then, however, the Plymonth Brethren had a translation made of the Bible into Faroese by the preacher Victor Danielsen (1894-1961) (the New Testament in 1937 and the Bible in 1949). The language of the courts, however, is still mainly Danish, and the laws of the Løgting (the Faroese Parliament) are published with a Danish
parallel text.

Some Characteristics of the Faroese Language. A brief survey of some of the characteristics of Faroese will be given here. As a principal rule in Faroese words, the stress falls on the first syllable. There are a few exceptions in words beginning with a prefix. For foreign words and loanwords the stress often falls on a later syllable, usually as in the original language, e.g. studentur (student), banan (banana), motorur (engine), betala (pay), fortelja (tell). Faroese has to a great extent preserved the system of inflection which was found in Norse, however with some simplifications.

A distinction is made between the three genders. Words have four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive, and singular and plural; and thus, theoretically, a noun can have 8 inflected forms, and if the definite forms are included there are 16 theoretical possibilities (in practice, however, many forms are similar). Of the four cases, the genitive case has a very limited application, especially in the spoken language, where it is usually replaced by paraphrases with propositions. For example, "The man's house" is Húsið hjá manninum.

However, in the written language, and in particular the more elevated style, e.g. scriptural style, the genitive case is often used, and purists have done much to reintroduce the genitive forms.

The Vocabulary. The nucleus of the Faroese vocabulary is of Norse origin and has parallels in the neighbouring languages. As mentioned before, a small number of words (and place names) are of Celtic origin and testify to an early connection with Gaelic-speaking people in the British Isles.

In the late Middle Ages and after the Reformation, Faroese received a large addition of Danish and Low German words (the latter usually through Danish), not least in religious usage (e.g. begynna (begin), betala (pay), bevara (preserve), forráða (betray), gemeinur (common), sannheit (truth), kerligheit (love)).

With the national movement and its efforts to raise Faroese to the status of official language of the islands there was also a puristic tendency which considered that it had to "weed out" undesirable foreign elements
from the language.

This work has been continued to the present time and is regarded by purists as not less important today than it was then. The puristic activities have to a high degree been modelled on similar efforts in Icelandic and, to some extent, in Norwegian, and have been inspired by these. Words have been taken directly from Icelandic, or new words have been formed according to the Icelandic models (e.g. útvarp "radio"), but words have also been designed within the country, or old and partly repressed words have been revived.

The Dialect Norm. The scattered settlement which is a natural consequence of the geographic conditions has, as mentioned already, led to Faroese being split up into a number of dialects at an early stage. This was indeed a stumbling-block when the necessity of creating a common standard of the written language was faced. The archaic spelling allows the various dialect areas to keep their local pronunciation to a large extent.

The development within population and settlement in our century, especially after the war, with people moving from the villages to the capital, and the consequent concentration of population in the Torshavn area, has given this central area a strong position in setting the standard in linguistic respects. The concentration of the higher schools and the mass media in this region contributes to the consolidation of this position, so that there is some tendency towards regarding the Central Faroese pronunciation as a sort of norm, which is often used as a normal reading pronunciation, e.g. in the schools and on radio and television.

Today, these factors exert an obvious levelling influence on the dialectal differences, although the dialects are in principle considered to be equal.

Research and Higher Education. The endeavours to strengthen the position of the Faroese language within all aspects of society, led in the1960s to the establishment of Fróðskaparsetur Føroya - The Faroese Academy. The aim was to create a scientific environment which should be the framework of the exploration of Faroese language and literature and teach these disciplines at university level.