The “Lost” Language of Faroese

Yesterday I found a lovely reminiscence by Eric Wilson of his time with Steinbjørn Jacobsen, a Faroese poet, and his experience with the language. Wilson was asked to escort Jacobsen around the United States on a trip. The State Department had invited Jacobsen, thinking that he was a political activist who the US wanted ‘on their side’ in case the Faroese bid for independence from Denmark was successful. (It was successful of a sort. The Faroese voted overwhelmingly for independence and the Danes opted to ignore this.) Reading his memoir of mis-adventures reminded me of my slight adventures with the Faroese language.

In October of 2012 I awoke one morning, in NYC, and realized it had been too long since I’d been on a ferry. I prefer to ride northern sea ferries and winter was setting in, so the ‘ice permitting’ clause started to be invoked as the ferries stop running. I bought a ticket for the Smyril line that goes from north east Iceland to the Faroe Islands to northern Denmark. It would take four and a half days. There was a stop in the Faroe Islands that would give me enough time to see Tórshavn but not much else.

I had 6 connections to be made to arrive to the ferry dock on time, a rather ridiculous number, and this trip, like many, happened by chance and luck and kindness. I have found, in ferry travel, that everything that can go wrong does, and new wrongs appear that have never been envisaged. I find it a most deep type of meditation, to simply flow with in the direction I need to be going, and accept that it will be. I took a car to a train to a train to a plane to a bus to a plane to a bus to the ferry. I cross NYC, the Atlantic, and Iceland, arriving in a deep, dark, cold, snow whitened landscape shadowed by an enormous ship with festive lights on the open deck/bar on the top.

The boat left late in the evening, and I wandered the decks and the interior spaces and revelled in my absolute inability to understand any of the languages being spoken. I was reasonably certain I knew which languages they were, a mix of Icelandic, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish with a smattering of Polish and Romanian. I sat on the deck in the dark of night in an adirondack chair drinking cheap wine from a tap and listened to the languages swirl around me. Cacophany of a sort, but the tones and sense, the affection, and the structures created a cocoon and I was happy. In part it is rare that I don’t understand anything spoken, so it was an opportunity to soak in something else, something visceral.

Occasionally people would stop and speak to me, with their flat clipped scandinavian vowels, wondering what I was doing on a boat like this. The men all wore beautiful knit sweaters and proper boots. There was a scent of oil and fish and cigarette smoked mixed in with the beer and camaraderie.

Sailing in to the Faroe Islands

The day we spent in the Faroes I took a long walk to the highest point I could see, the light slanting across the oceans and the pyramidic islands with the familiarity of northern Scandinavia, a color with a slight yellow undertone and a deep warmth which turns to a bluer shade in the evenings and always makes me want to stay.

Keeping an eye on Denmark

Back on the boat evening dropped in to place with the darkest curtain of night I think I have ever seen; the stars were swallowed by the sea. The rains picked up and the boat shoved its way across this massive sea, cocooned in the endless dark. It was terrifying, this dark. I’ve never seen a dark swallow all the light with so little effort. The grand seas and the scent of diesel make me at ease, and the evening settled in to my listening of languages and watching of peoples.

I stopped in to a bar inside the ship and a man and a boy were playing music and singing songs. They sounded like torch songs to me, though I understood nothing, and the relationship between man and boy was unclear. The crowd was transfixed and swaying. I felt a bit like I’d happened upon Barry Manilow in an alternate, ocean-borne universe. I couldn’t, however, categorize the language, it didn’t match the sounds or patterns and I listened and listened and finally leaned over to the young man next to me to ask what I was hearing. “Faroese,” he said. “These are the songs we all grew up on.” He floated away for a moment, lost in his own world, then returned, and began to translate for me.

The next night we sat on the deck and exchanged words. We pulled out my notebook and spelled out our names and our words and their sounds and meanings. We took pleasure in how little sense we made to the other. We spoke of languages for hours, the history of his, the structure, how it existed when he was a boy and how it exists now. For the remaining 36 hours, we talked, drew pictures, shared words, and he told me the history of his life, his Faroes, his Faroese.

We caught each other’s eye as we disembarked, but no acknowledgement was made, and we went our ways, to our worlds.

writer. reader.