The Faroese Island Names

This post translates the Faroese Island names, but it’s just a translation of someone else’s post. The original article is here (in Swedish), you’ll have to access it with the Wayback Machine. I first started translating this before I knew hardly any Swedish and have never gone back to correct it, be warned..

Place-names are often the first one finds in being introduced to a foreign land. Most of the members in the Sweden-Faroes Association have certainly heard the Faroese island names, or in any case seen them on the map. But what do the island names mean, what do they have for language-forms, and how are they pronounced?

The Faroe Islands

To Føroyar, ”Fåröarna (The Sheep Islands)” connotes nothing today.  In older language, fár (”sheep”) was fær in plural, and the archipelago called Færeyjar (The Faroe Islands), which in Faroese has become Føroyar, pronounced [förjar]. Those who have argued for another interpretation have protested that ”får” (a single sheep) is an East-Nordic (Swedish and Danish) word, while in the West-Nordic languages it is called sauður (Icelandic), seyður (Faroese), and saud (Norwegian).

The word “får” was, however, not unknown in the West-Nordic area in the Middle Ages. It occurs – albeit rarely – both in Icelandic and Norwegian sources, and Historia Norvegia from the 1200’s calls the archipelago Insulæ Ovium, that is to say, in old language Færeyjar has also been interpreted as ”The Sheep Islands”.


Easily-interpreted names

Most of the Faroese island names are easily-interpreted. Streymoy naturally means ”Strömön” (Stream Island), Eysturoy ”Österön (East Island)” och Suðuroy ”Söderön (Southern Island)”. The first parts of the compound words of the names Svínoy, Fugloy and Sandoy are the Faroese forms of  ”svin” (swine), ”fågel” (bird) och ”sand” (sand). The first parts in Kalsoy and Kunoy are the words kallur, ”karl” (man), and kuna (a by-form of kona), ”kvinna” (woman). The next two islands are believed to have gotten their names after their shapes, one long and small, Kalsoy, and the other shorter and wider, Kunoy.

Vágar [vå:ar] (A : after vocals signify that they are long) also Vágoy, have been named after the three ”vågarna (weighing scales?)” Sørvágur, Miðvágur and Sandavágur. (”vág” means gulf in West-Nordic languages). The beginning part of Viðoy is viður, the Faroese form of “ved (wood)”. The name is probably secondarily for Viðvík, a wide gulf, known for having a lot of driftwood.

imageNature and animals in names:

Of the remaining eight island names, Skúvoy and Borðoy are little talked about at any rate. The first part is “skúgvur” (the bird of prey ”Stercorarius parasiticus”) resp. borða has the meaning ”high, flat mountain formation by the coast”. Compare Borðan at Nólsoys southern point with the one from Tórshavn-visible lighthouse from William Heinesen’s “The Tower at the Edge of the World”). Koltur has been named after its form. The island name means something like ”mountain with round top”. Hestur means simply ”häst (horse)”, the name given after the form on a horses’ back. The name Nólsoy has been talked about in various fashions. Some say that the first part would stand for a passage (small beach) with the meaning “small tongue of land”, because the first part has been written so in a 1400’s manuscript. This interpretation is also objective. The name Dímun [dojmon] – Stóra and Lítla D. (Capital and lowercase D.) – have an unknown picture, and the name isn’t Nordic either. It is a Celtic word with the meaning “two tops” and has more parallels in the North-Atlantic area.

Differing takes on the name Mykines

The remaining is Mykines [mi:tjine:s]. The usual opinion is that the first part is from the Old Norse myki/mykr, Faroese mykja, ”dung, creature’s droppings”. Parallels to the Faroese name exist in both Iceland and Norway, there we find, among others, the names Mökenes, Mökjanes and Mykjedal. The apparent background seems to be, that the named places are especially fertile. Christian Matras has suggested the translation ”det frodige næs (the lush isthmus)” for the Faroese island, and Jakob Jakobsen writes: ”Skulde önavnet sigte til guano? (Was the island name referring to guano?)” A bold proposal has been presented by Ulf Zachariasen. He argues that the island name has nothing to do with either mykja or nes, but that it’s created from Celtic word-stems. As a weakness in the traditional translation is, he asserts among others, that no other Faroese island has been named after one of its isthmuses. Here also stands two opinions completely divided from each other, and Mykines can thus be said to elude language researchers to a similar lofty degree as the island obfuscated the Faroers in part of Hammershaimb’s rendered story about Mykines, a floating island which came forth out of the mist and fastened itself after a man from Sørvágur threw up tarvsmykja (bull’s droppings) on the island.

Inflection forms

The name-forms of the Faroese islands that have been given heretofore are the ones one finds on the map, the names unaffected by linguistic coherence, in nominative form. Most often however, the island names are preceeded by the prepositions til (to), í ”på (on/at)” or úr ”from / out of”. The word for “island” is oyggj [åddj] excepting when in compound words, when there we have the shorter form oy, which can be pronounced [åj], for ex. Kunoy [ko:nåj]. The dative form (used after í and úr) are the same as the base form (oyggj). It is thus written í Kunoy [oj ko:ni], í Fugloy [oj foggli] etc. ; oy weakens thus to the open i-sound in natural speech. (Likewise í Svínoy, í Nólsoy, í Skúvoy/Skúgvoy, always pronounced [oj skiggvi]), í Suðuroy [oj so:ri]. But the language usage is more complicated than such. Other island names with -oy usually stand in daily speech namely in line with definite form (the form of the word when it has “the (word)”). Thus they are called í Streymoynni [oj strejmåjdni], í Eysturoynni, í Borðoynni, í Kalsoynni, í Viðoynni, í Sandoynni. The remaining island names have after í and úr, the forms í Vágum [oj våavon], í Hesti, í Koltri, í Mykinesi, í Dímun.

After the preposition till (“to”)

So here we have the name-forms after til. This preposition governs the genitive in front of pronouns and island names, in front of other words it usually governs the accusative. The genitive form of oyggj is oyggjar, but when unstressed is oyar, the last spoken element [ijar] or [jar]. It is then called til Fugloyar [til fogglijar], til Svínoyar, til Nólsoyar, til Skúvoyar [til skivjar] but [oj skiggvi], (til Sandoyar but í Sandoynni!). Definite form after til – which in this case governs accusative! – is the following: til Streymoynna, til Eysturoynna, til Borðoynna, til Viðoynna; oynna pronounced [åjdna]. The remaining island names after til: til Kolturs, til Hests, til Mykines, til Dímunar, til Vágar [vå:ar].

Characteristic for Faroese language usage

The overview which has been given here about the Faroese island names shows a characteristic feature in Faroese language-use: form-variation and unpredictability. We have seen among others, that the word for “island”, oyggj can have the forms oy, oyggjar, oyar, oynni, oynna, according to case, definite or indefinite form, free-standing or as a suffix. And the pronunciation changes still more. We have for ex. the read-pronunciation [sku:våj] for Skúvoy, but we say [oj skiggvi] and [til skivjar], and a read-pronunciation [nölsåj] för Nólsoy changes to in daily-pronunciation [nölsi] after í.