Wednesday 9 March 2011

a Faroese mystery

There’s a mysterious entry in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch (German pronunciation dictionary):
Brú fär. brɨθu

I know very little about Faroese except that it’s a Scandinavian language, related to Norwegian and Icelandic, and spoken by the fifty thousand people who live on the Faroe Islands, halfway between Scotland and Iceland. But one thing I thought I did know about this language was that despite using the letter ð in its orthography it has no dental fricatives — no phonetic ð and certainly no θ.

So how can this Faroese name be pronounced as shown in Duden?

I consulted my colleague Michael Barnes, who until his retirement was Professor of Scandinavian Studies at UCL and is an expert on Faroese. He tells me that Heðin Brú is a pen-name taken by the Faroese writer Hans Jacob Jacobsen.

This pseudonymous surname is a form of the Faroese word for ‘bridge’, which is more usually brúgv brɪɡv. The older form brú is found in Faroese ballads. Prof. Barnes says it would be pronounced roughly bryu, where the first part of the diphthong is somewhere between Norwegian y and Norwegian ʉ. In the reference work Faroese by Höskuldur Þráinsson et al. (Tórshavn: Føroya Fróðskaparfelag, 2004) it is given as brʉu.

So Duden’s “brɨθu” must be one of that dictionary’s very few misprints. It should read “brʉu”. Aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus. And we who live in glass houses mustn’t throw stones.


  1. As an aside, the fact that Faroese uses the letter ð etymologically even though it has no ð sound is well known because modern Faroese orthography was created by Venceslaus Ulricus Hammershaimb, who presumably used such Icelandic-looking letters to distance Faroese from Danish.

    I've always envied Hammershaimb's opportunity to create a beautiful deep orthography for a language that he loved.

  2. So is this ð purely decorative, or does it have any correlates with any phenomena phonetic, prosodic, or whatever, other than a dental fricative?

  3. It can be silent, or it can represent j, v, w or j. Its value is predictable from the context, I think. I imagine it's used where Old Norse had ð.

    There's a good discussion on Wikipedia (which is where I got the above from - I don't speak Faroese).

  4. In the 1990 edition, it appears as brɨŭ.

  5. @Pete,

    Interesting -- I had falsely assumed the ð began as an actual ð, then changed or elided over the centuries. Especially because intervocalically, it is either elided or becomes v--i.e. it either goes the Northern Irish route or the Cockney route.

  6. Pete,
    Thanks for the Wiki stuff. More or less what one would expect, but it did need saying. The no stød was a bit of a disappointment, though. A rough impression of the Wiki article would be that there's not that much predictability, but the glides do give the impression of being epentheses with the ð having no phonemic status. On the other hand /ɡ/ does, and behaves much about the same.

  7. Trawicks - The Northern Irish ð has disappeared word-initially (actually leaving a ʔ-like trace that tends to geminate the preceding consonant), but intervocalically it's become the lateral l. For example father is pronounced 'falr̩.

    There's a jeweller's shop in Derry called Faller's that I've often seen mis-spelt (or hypercorrected) as "Father's".

  8. trawicks,
    The ð can't really be said to go any route if it already had no phonemic status when the orthography was devised. I suppose there may have been collision between [ð] and [ɣ] at some stage before the elision, giving the pretty much phonetically determined epentheses for both that we see in the Wiki article on Faroese. That would look like a parallel with Irish, and I don't think your mention of the Northern Irish elision of ð is off the mark: I get the impression that Derry has the lateral l for it but elision is very widespread.

    The elision trawicks mentioned presupposes there is something to elide, which as I said I don't think is at all clear for the ð, though it is for the /ɡ/. In neither case do we need to assume that the glides are allophones of anything if they seem to appear epenthetically with both orthographic variants, one a phoneme /ɡ/ and the other a non-phoneme ð. Even v can be seen from the examples in the Wiki article to be epenthesized whether either of them is intervocalic in the orthography or not. So rather than an acoustic development parallel to Cockney, that is presumably a development of the w and ʊ that creep in all over the place.

    I see from that article that there are pre-stopped nasals as well as the pre-stopped laterals mentioned for Faroese in the discussion of John's blog entry for Eyjafjallajökull. They represent double n and double l respectively in the orthography.

  9. I had wondered about that entry in the Duden Aussprachewörterbuch as well. Thanks for shedding light on this mystery.

  10. Well spotted!

    The wiki-article is good, w/ good list for further reading... For those looking for a friendly route to Faroese, Adams and Petersen's new language course. Here's an optimistic advertisement on the course from the Faroese University ("2 billion people can now learn Faroese"):

    oh and by the way, the sound tracks are avaliable (for free) online at

  11. And I was just thinking about how no one ever talks about Faroese.

  12. Something on topic


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.