The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #11 September / October 2014
Coming Home to Faroese
The Why and How of Learning a Small Language
by Miranda Metheny
September / October 2014 | 

Since I first became interested in learning the Faroese language, I've heard a lot of two questions from friends and family: "Why?" and "How?"

It was bad enough with Norwegian. They used to laugh and say, "Wow, that's useful! Now you can talk to a whole five million people, in one country, who already speak English!" They've stopped laughing, and now they're just confused. Faroese, with its 65,000 speakers mostly gathered in a remote archipelago and a small district of Copenhagen, makes Norwegian look dead useful in comparison.

A child plays on the Johanna TG 326 during the celebration of the boat’s 130th birthday in Vágur, Suðuroy. Although children in the Faroes start learning English in primary school, I was still grateful I could speak Faroese with the youngest ones.

But that's not why I learned Faroese. I don't deceive myself that Faroese is going to unlock job opportunities for me, or help me to travel wide swaths of the globe. I'm not going around recommending it to any friends. But that doesn't mean it's been a waste of time – far from it. Faroese has enriched my life, and I can't ask for more than that.

Choosing any language has to come down to personal motivation. It all depends on what you're looking for.

When I first heard Faroese, I liked the sound of it. I was thrilled by its echoes to the older form of Norwegian, intrigued by the chanted melodies of the ring dance, amused by the vocalic offglides and consonant clusters. Yes, it started out as a purely linguistic love affair.

It was as if by saying "Hvussu hevur tú tað?" I was actually saying, "I'm one of you, though not by birth. I know something about this place and I'm eager to learn more, I love this country and I respect you all."

I wouldn't judge anyone for learning a language just on the merits of liking its sounds. What people do with their free time is up to them, and I can't see how learning even a random language is more wasteful than spending just as many hours catching up on Netflix. But as I delved a bit deeper into Faroese, and realized that it was a pretty tricky language – highly inflected, highly irregular, loads of inflections – my motivation waned. I didn't know when or how I'd ever do more with the language than study it out of the dusty, outdated books I'd found in the university library. So as the going got rough, I shifted my attention to other things.

Then I visited the Faroe Islands. My curiosity, and my correspondence with a Faroese friend online, had outlasted my studies and compelled me to spend a long Easter vacation there. I love it. The islands were beautiful and exotic and wild, just mountains rising from the sea, with cirques and hanging valleys and other features my Midwestern vocabulary didn't even have words for. I loved the cozy, modern homes tucked under brightly painted concrete and turf-roofed exteriors, the drying sheds stocked with wind-cured meat, the undauntable sheep crossing the highways... and most of all, the people. I have received warm welcomes in many countries, but no one could ever outdo the Faroese. I have never felt so safe or so welcome. During my short stay, I was invited into so many homes for tea, cake, and often, gifts of woolen slippers and scarves, that I completely lost count.

Wearing the Faroese national dress on Ólavsøka was an amazing experience that I will never forget. It was beautiful – and heavy! – and really made me feel a part of the culture and celebration.

If love of the language had not been enough, falling in love with the land and the people themselves proved much better for my motivation. I made plans to return to the Faroes for a whole summer, and set to work learning the language in preparation. In the intervening time, a modern textbook and grammar book had been published, and an excellent dictionary made available online. I also collected a few Faroese books and movies, started reading the news and followed various Faroese Facebook groups. Once I really got going, I was able to find all the resources I needed.

Though at first I could only speak slowly and poorly, I developed enough of a knowledge of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar that when I arrived in the Faroe Islands and immersed myself, I was able to progress rapidly. I was having halting conversations within the week, and managing a certain sort of rough fluency after a month.

Those who argue that a language is not worth knowing when "everyone already speaks English" are, I think, missing part of the joy of learning a language. Sure, most Faroese speak English to some degree, and all speak a more general Scandinavian language I can understand through Norwegian. Simple communication, therefore, would hardly compel me to learn their language.

I met these lovely ladies outside of the Faroese government buildings, and they told me stories about their time working there as secretaries. When they heard me speak Faroese, they opened up to me right away.

But not everyone is equally linguistically talented, or linguistically bold – especially in older generations. Speaking to such people in their native language puts them at ease, makes them feel more comfortable expressing themselves. Young children, who haven't yet been to school, would have been a complete mystery to me had I not learned Faroese. Proficiency also made me more independent and informed in every aspect of my life there – I could read signs, listen to the radio, and watch performances without demanding and waiting on translations.

Most importantly, perhaps, Faroese people speak Faroese amongst themselves. To do otherwise is unnatural and uncomfortable for most. Not learning the language, then, sets you apart from social gatherings, lively discussions, and even Facebook conversations. Learning it means you can slip right in. There is also the simple matter of respect – of not expecting or wanting everyone in your host country to pander to you and your linguistic limitations at every turn... no matter how willingly.

Most of the above is true for any language on earth. But small languages, for all their extra challenges, also come with extra rewards. The Faroese are fiercely proud of and interested in their language. Linguistic topics occur with astonishing regularity in their television programs, debates and everyday conversations. Even with a translator, a non-speaker would miss out on a full understanding of this whole element of their culture.

Those who argue that a language is not worth knowing when "everyone already speaks English" are, I think, missing part of the joy of learning a language.

And languages are, of course, intimately tied to culture and place. Faroese is so well adapted to its own tiny, beautiful world that even translating it for my friends back home can be a struggle. Eiði is isthmus, but I didn't use that word once growing up – in the Faroes, it featured frequently in directions and place names. Bøur and Hagi, infield and outfield, mean just that – but so much more. The bøur, the field near the village, is fenced in, safe, almost home. The hagi is beyond... wild, rough, even mysterious – the realm of the mythical "hidden people."

At trola in Faroese means to trawl, in a fishing boat out at sea. They also use it for the act of running after girls. The Faroese word for perspective is sjónarmið, where sjón means sight, and mið means fishing ground. This baffled me, until I came to understand that mið are small fishing grounds, in sight of land. To make sure he's in the right spot, a fisherman depends on taking his bearings on features ashore – the view from his perspective. What a joy to discover all these little things!

The Faroese speak of "at fara niður" (to go "down" – to Denmark) and "at koma heim" (to come "home" – to the Faroes), and that doesn't only apply to locals. I had to smile the first few times I was asked when I would be going down and whether I would be coming home again soon.

A mother and child walk up from the natural harbour of Gjógv, on Eysturoy.

I discovered that speaking Faroese, even badly, worked as a sort of shibboleth on the islands. Though the Faroese are welcoming to start with, I couldn't help but feel as though it opened even more doors for me. It was a conversation starter par-excellence, and a sign that I was taking my work there seriously. I found that I could wave off a wide range of concerns – that I might not know how to walk safely on the seaside cliffs, that I might be a hassle to deal with, that I might be an undercover anti-whaling activist (a major concern) – with just a short demonstration of my Faroese speaking abilities.

It was as if by saying "Hvussu hevur tú tað?" (How are you?) I was actually saying, "I'm one of you, though not by birth. I know something about this place and I'm eager to learn more, I love this country and I respect you all. "

Had I not learned Faroese, I imagine my summer in the islands would still have gone well. I could have done my work, though maybe not as thoroughly, not with such a diverse group of informants. I suppose the bird cliffs would have been just as high and majestic, the cured lamb just as delightful, the music just as hauntingly beautiful in the cool blue mist of midsummer nights. I would have made some friends and had a nice time, undoubtably.

A small concert in Tutl, the main Faroese record company, during the Faroese culture night.

But Faroese is there, in many of my fondest memories. I remember walking downtown one summer night, and a man bursting out onto his balcony as we passed to belt out the first stanza of the ballad, Ormurin Langi, and how it felt to be able to join in the singing as we sang the next few stanzas back and continued singing all the way down to Tórshavn. I remember evenings spent with my Faroese family, laughing about the news and world events and my life there, how nice it was to catch most of the jokes and how happy they were to explain the new ones to me.

I remember how it felt to speak Faroese down in Copenhagen, to navigate through the crowded city and yet feel as if I had never left the islands when I heard the language I had learned to love so well. The Danes and other foreigners that passed were none the wiser that something didn't add up, that I was an imposter, that I didn't belong. In a way I did. In that moment, I felt I could just glimpse, just taste, that feeling of being a part of something... smaller. Something more intimate. Of what it meant to know just from a language that you were home.

"Why would you learn such a tiny language?" they ask.

"Do you have sixty thousand friends?" I reply.

"Uhhh.... no?"

"Well, to speak Faroese is to feel that you do..."

Coming Home to Faroese - The Why and How of Learning a Small Language
Writer: Miranda Metheny
Miranda Metheny is the Petite Polyglottal American, who travels the world in search of language, culture, and interesting stories.
Miranda Metheny: Miranda on rock (title); child playing on boat; Miranda in native costume; lovely ladies; mother and child at harbour; small concert; natural harbor; fishing boats

Miranda Metheny retains all copyright control over her images. They are used in Parrot Time with her expressed permission.

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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