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The Poet Who Traveled the U.S. Speaking Only Faroese

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There is a tiny cluster of islands in the sea between Norway and Iceland where sheep roam green meadows, puffins swoop over, in, and out of fjords, and people speak a language close to the Old Norse spoken there by Viking settlers 1000 years ago: Faroese. The Faroe Islands is a self-governing nation that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and while Danish (as well as English) is a common second language for the inhabitants, not everyone speaks it. Or at least Steinbjørn Jacobsen didn’t. He was a poet, author, and agitator for secession from Denmark who spoke and wrote in nothing other than Faroese. So in 1978, when the U.S. State Department brought him over for a tour (something they did then with various political activists in order to win them over in case they needed them later), they found themselves in a bind when trying to get him an interpreter.

They called on Eric Wilson, who spoke no Faroese but had studied Old Icelandic, and whose essay (from the New England Review, posted at LitHub) about the experience of escorting the poet around the U.S. is a gripping and hilarious tale of communication and miscommunication with university professors in fancy offices, coal miners’ sons in Appalachia, Latino farm workers in California, and hikers in the Grand Canyon, all filtered through layers of historical Nordic linguistics. This is how they first meet:

I knocked loudly, but there was no response. Reluctantly I let myself in. The air conditioning had been set at arctic. The floor was littered with tiny liquor bottles from the mini-fridge, as well as wrappers from Oreo cookies, Mars Bars, and Snickers. In a corner I saw a figure slumped down on the floor, leaning back against a wall, apparently sound asleep. All he was wearing was a colorful pair of paisley Faeroese skivvies.

I knelt down and shook his knee; slowly he opened his eyes. They were an amazingly piercing blue, but at this point too bleary to pierce much of anything. I told him my name and that I would now be his escort-interpreter. I was here; I would stay with him. I said this in my dodgy Danish, which he didn’t appear to understand. I tried again, pronouncing all the Danish sounds that are normally slurred or silent. Finally I sensed he was absorbing what I was saying.

Pulling him up by both hands, I was able to get him to his feet. I was surprised at how short he was. As he tried to bring me into focus, his eyes filled with tears. I put my hands on his shoulders, trying to steady him. I wasn’t ready for any of this. Although this assignment still seemed preferable to KATKINS für die Katze, I knew I was out of my depth.

Trying to keep him upright, I asked if he wanted something to eat. I used the Danish word “spise” and then the Swedish word “äta,” miming lifting a spoon out of an invisible bowl. He shook his head no. I heard “sove” as he mimed tilting his head down into his folded hands. So I led him into the bedroom.

I watched him crawl onto the rumpled unmade bed. Then, lying on his back, he stared up at me and broke into a smile before he closed his eyes. He didn’t say goodnight. All he said before he fell asleep was, “Eiríkur.” My name in Faeroese.

My instincts told me to call State immediately and tell them I couldn’t do this. But then they had already been stranded once. And I had given them my word.

Many more liquor bottles are emptied and many more communication barriers are broken—or at least peered over—before the end of the trip. Read the rest of the crazy story at LitHub.

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How to Properly Use 'Who' vs. 'Whom'
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by Reader's Digest

“Who” gets to have all the fun. Who gets to be on first. Who is responsible for letting the dogs out. Meanwhile, “whom” is sitting in the corner, being perceived as pretentious by plenty of English speakers.

But whom isn’t neglected due to any flaw—not at all. Whom is neglected because plenty of people just aren’t quite sure when the time is right to use it in a sentence, kind of like figuring out when it is seasonally acceptable to start wearing boots. It’s important to know, though. Now, with some help from Grammarly, we clarify the official who vs. whom rules.

In plain terms, whom is meant to be used to refer to the object of preposition or verb, while who should refer to the subject of the sentence. Here are two examples of proper usages:

  • To whom should the letter on the importance of grammar be addressed?
  • Who is responsible for making this delightful crockpot lasagna?

 
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A useful trick to make sure that you’re using each one properly requires you to do a quick substitution: Slide in he or him or she or her into the place of the who or whom. Now, let’s review the above-listed examples with the added in substitutions.

  • I should address the letter on the importance of grammar to him. (Whom was properly used.)
  • He is responsible for making this delightful crockpot lasagna. (Who was properly used.)

Now you can go out into the world and impress every grammarian you encounter. Sadly for whom, who will always play first fiddle, always relating to the subject.

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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