Prominent on the BBC’s website this morning I saw a story about the Faroe Islands and their language. Once you have the ability to deconstruct journalism like this and can apply an indigenous lens to the story, you see this as a story about an indigenous people working hard to retain their unique culture despite colonization. We don’t think of Denmark as a colonizing power, but for centuries it has been.
If you are familiar with Ryan Bellerose’s work on why Jews and Judaism are Indigenous to Israel, you’ll know that language is one of the five core components of indigenous identity (the others are blood, land, language, culture & spirituality). In the context of Israel, that is why the revival of Hebrew as a modern spoken language (instead of just for religious observances) was such an important part of rebuilding Israel again.
The BBC story is told in a series of photographs, short texts and a short video. It’s told in a completely apolitical way (this is in the Travel section of the website), here are some highlights.
The Faroese people have been fighting to keep their language alive ever since it was suppressed by the Danish, when the islands became part of the Dano-Norwegian Kingdom in 1380. With the Reformation, that stronghold was reinforced and Faroese was completely banned in schools. People had no choice but to succumb to the vernacular of the law courts and the Danish parliament.
While Danish dominated official realms for centuries, the wider community continued to speak and sing in Faroese. The written language they use now only formally came into being in 1846, and over the next few decades an upturn in the Faroese economy, caused by sloop fishing and the end of the Danish trade monopoly, further increased national confidence.
With greater links to the outside world in the late 1800s, people began to assert the integrity of their own tongue, and oral Faroese became a school subject in 1912, followed by the written language in 1920. After the establishment of Home Rule in 1948, Faroese was recognised as the official language of government; however, Danish is still taught as a compulsory subject, and all the Faroes’ parliamentary laws still need to be translated into Danish.
Banning or suppression of an indigenous language is a vital step for colonization. So much of our culture and values are transmitted uniquely in language: different languages have been proven to make peoples brains work in different ways. It’s no accident that Arabic has replaced scores of local indigenous languages across all the areas it has conquered all the way to North Africa.
The culture is intimately tied to the land (sea) and language: unique words for tools and parts of fishing boats that only matter to Faroe islanders when they’re engaged in the methods of survival they developed to live in such a remote and harsh environment.
Faroese culture, identity and language have been shaped in part by the windswept islands’ harsh climate and far-flung location. The need to work together to survive has given these islanders a strong sense of community and a dogged refusal to let go of a way of life that has sustained them through unforgiving winters, war and disease.
Language is as important to him as it was to his poet ancestor, and he can tell you the traditional name of every fishing and hunting tool on display in the museum.
This part about a local church and knowing where your ancestors are buried is very important. It speaks to the strong connection with the land and knowing where one’s ancestors are buried. That’s what makes Hebron so unimaginably important to Jews.
Inside, most people can point to where they used to sit with their parents as children, and outside to the plots where their parents have now been laid to rest. Many also remember when they had to battle to have any religious services in their own language – it was only in 1961 that the first Bible was published in Faroese.
Buried deep in the story is a an uncharacteristic swipe at the EU (clear evidence this piece of journalism didn’t come from the more political and vehemently pro-EU parts of the BBC):
Locals are proud of being able to determine their own quotas – one of the reasons they have never been part of the EU, despite Denmark signing up in the 1970s.
It’s interesting how they drop in a reference to Catalonia. Of course what’s missing is the best example the world has ever seen of an indigenous revival including the complete re-creation and adoption of an ancient language: Israel and Hebrew.
Nevertheless, the Faroese are keeping a close eye on how Catalonia’s bid for independence progresses, as well as Britain after Brexit. Separatists feel that independence is long overdue, though for many, the spike in taxes if they were to lose Danish support is more than enough reason to keep some of the ties that bind them. Whatever does happen in the future though, the fight to keep Faroese as a living, breathing language will endure.
The story of Israel’s indigenous revival hasn’t been told properly. I think it’s a very important aspect to who we are in Israel which could be stressed more when those of us talking about Israel tell our story. I’m sure the Faroe Islanders wouldn’t know to see the parallels and it would be unthinkable for the BBC to produce a story like this about Israel.
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