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Ethnolinguistic identities and language revitalisation in small society: the case of the Faeroe Isles

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Under the threat of Danish, the Faeroese language faced extinction in the nineteenth century. Today, the language is no longer considered ‘corrupt’ and is instead spoken by nearly the entire population as a first language. The reasons for its survival can be explained by a number of factors, including: the important role of oral heritage, the manner in which these traditions were practiced in Faeroese culture and the fact that a Faeroese identity was based upon them. The influence of this oral literature on the overall language was disproportionately significant as the Faeroese did not develop a written tradition until the nineteenth century. Faeroese was never a minority language as such and survived the onslaught of Danish as an oral form and as the ‘low’ variety in a diglossic, bilingual environment. The use of Faeroese was restricted to the homestead (and farm) where the tradition of oral literature continued to flourish. It turns out that this sociolinguistic context and specifically the introduction of an unphonetic orthography made a significant contribution to the survival of the language, albeit perhaps at the cost of the oral traditions.

In the face of changing interaction between language and culture, the Faeroese have managed to maintain a sense of linguistic identity and produce a model of linguistic survival in the context of social change. The example of Faeroese shows us that given the right circumstances a language can survive with a minimal number of speakers for a sustained period of time and that provided there is a strong ethnolinguistic identity and the will to preserve the language, a minority language can in fact prosper.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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