Jun 1, 2010 by

To continue with our Scandinavian theme, let’s look at another Scandinavian language today: Faroese. It is spoken by 48,000 people on Faroe Islands (formally, part of Denmark, but self-governing in most matters). Faroese is an officially recognized minority language. Its closest surviving relative is Icelandic, but the two languages are not mutually intelligible in speech (written languages are more similar to each other).

The affinity of Faroese to other Germanic languages and especially to Icelandic can be seen in its vocabulary. You can hear some Faroese words and compare them to their Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, Frisian, Dutch and German counterparts here.

Like other Scandinavian languages, Faroese has descended from Old Norse, which was brought to the islands by settlers many of whom were not from Scandinavia, but descendants of Norwegians settled in the Irish Sea area. In addition, native Norwegian settlers often married women from North Ireland, Orkney, or Shetland before settling in the Faroe Islands and Iceland (results from recent genetic studies confirm that; see Bryan Sykes’ Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: the genetic roots of Britain and Ireland). As a result, Celtic languages influenced both Faroese and Icelandic, although specific examples of this influence are still debated. Another language that developed out of Old Norse of the Viking settlers is Norn, which was spoken in Orkneys and Shetlands as well as in the extreme northeast of Scotland. Norn has been extinct for several centuries but a group of enthusiasts are trying to revive it as Nynorn.

But let’s return to Faroese. Perhaps surprisingly, it has a number of distinct dialects. This diversity is due to the natural topography: most isoglosses cut between islands.

Like Icelandic and unlike other Scandinavian languages, Faroese is an inflected language with three grammatical genders and four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. But unlike Icelandic, Faroese has both an indefinite article (in the nominative case: ein for masculine and feminine and eitt for neuter, plus their forms in the other three cases) and definite article (in the nominative case: tann for masculine and feminine and tað for neuter, plus their forms in the other three cases). Like Norwegian and Swedish (except for the northern dialects) and unlike Danish, Faroese features the so-called double definiteness. Thus, ‘the good child’ in Faroese is tað góða barn-ið — literally, ‘the good child-the’. Note also that the adjective has a different form in a definite versus an indefinite noun phrase: compare góða ‘good’ in tað góða barn-ið with gott ‘good’ in eitt gott barn ‘a good child’. This distinction between “strong” and “weak” adjectives is characteristic of Germanic languages — except English.

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