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.

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.

Farmer and landowner Jóannes Patursson is the 17th generation of his family to live in the village of Kirkjubřur. Part of his home doubles as a museum, which is testimony to the ancient ways of life still practised here, such as fishing and animal husbandry. His great-great-grandfather was the poet and nationalist of the same name, and like his forbears, Patursson continues to strive for a society that puts locals in charge of their own future.

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. His house backs onto St Olav’s church, and he serves as a warden here for the monthly Sunday service, ringing the bell and greeting parishioners in his national dress.

Academic Jóhan Hendrik Winther Poulsen’s identity is firmly rooted in Kirkjubřur soil. From St Olav’s he can see across the water to Skopun, the small village he grew up in. And it was to Kirkjubřur that he gravitated, marrying his sweetheart Birna, and becoming a stalwart of the community and raising four children.

He may have started life in a small village, but Poulsen’s name will be writ large in the annals of Faroese history. Now retired from his life of academia, he is best known as the man who produced the first-ever Faroese-to-Faroese dictionary, gaining him the nickname Orđabókin (Dictionary), and his children the monikers sonur Orđabókina (son of Dictionary) or dóttir Orđabókina (daughter of Dictionary).

In the late 1960s, academic and poet Christian Matras asked Poulsen to return from the US, where he was teaching Scandinavian languages. Matras had written a Faroese-to-Danish dictionary in 1961, and wanted Poulsen to create one that only used Faroese meanings for Faroese words. Such a dictionary was the vital next step for the Faroese to retain their own tongue. And so, for 30 years, until the dictionary’s publication in 1998, Poulsen worked with a team of linguists at the University of Tórshavn to complete it. "You see, we Faroese are a bit puristic, so we like to have our own words,” Poulsen said.

But to compile the dictionary, Poulsen needed new Faroese words to describe things – such as modern technology – that were not in existence when Danish became the islands’ official language.

He came up with new words by using connections to an older, pastoral way of life – like skiggi for computer screen, for example, an old Faroese word that describes the sheep’s gut once used to keep rain out of chimney holes; and flöga for CD, which derives from the practice of flattening harvested hay bales.

During his work on the dictionary, Poulsen presented a radio show that discussed issues surrounding the Faroese language. When he asked listeners to send in any Faroese words that had fallen out of common usage, he was astounded at the enthusiastic response. To this day, people stop him in the street with a new word, and he’s sometimes credited with words that came into existence long after his retirement – like geymi for a USB drive.

Before there was a dictionary, however, the Faroese had other ways to keep their language and culture alive. While their own tongue wasn't spoken in court, churches or schools, the islanders continued to converse amongst themselves in Faroese. Like the Icelanders, they have a strong oral tradition, and a legacy of ballads and epic tales that are a source of national pride.

Originally coming from France and other parts of Europe in the 13th Century, the ring or chain dances survive to this day. They enabled islanders to get together, link hands as a community and tell tales of their beginnings – and of a life before language was written down, of harsh weather and gathering inside in the warmth with a fire and food.

And while some of the ballads, or kvćđi, are in Danish as well as Faroese, the islanders have imbued them with so much of their own dialect and intonation that a Dane would be hard-pressed to recognise some of their own words.
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