A common theme in many European languages is that differences between dialects are becoming smaller. There are several in which this can happen: the strengthening of standard languages, frequent contact between people from different places (“dialect levelling”), or the spread of the dialect from an influential centre to other places. In many well-studied languages, these processes are difficult to tell apart because they interact and have been going on for a long while. But if we look at smaller languages, where these processes are more recent, we can find out more about the role of the different processes in dialect change.
One such language is Faroese, a Scandinavian language spoken by some 50,000 speakers in the Faroe Islands between Scotland and Iceland. The islands have known rapid social change after World War II, with improved transport links and Faroese-language media and education — three developments that map onto the processes of levelling, dialect spread and standardisation, respectively. There is evidence that dialect differences are decreasing in Faroese and that a more standard version of the language, called “Central Faroese”, is on the rise.
This study looks at a collection of recordings of spoken Faroese to chart the change in two linguistic variables, to see which mechanisms best account for the change. One variable is phonological (the pronunciation of the -ir and -ur endings which occur frequently in the language), the other is morphological (the occurrence of -st verb endings). Importantly, each mechanism would suggest a different course of change for these variables, which would allow us to tell the processes apart. We looked at two kinds of variables because Faroese language education focuses on ‘correct’ grammar, but no model pronunciation is taught in schools.
The analysis of the recordings confirms the geographical variation that we know exists in the language. However, there are very few differences between older and younger speakers from the same location, suggesting that there isn’t much language change going on. Speakers also don’t speak differently in informal conversations than they do in more formal interviews, where we would expect Central Faroese to appear. This is probably due to the close-knit Faroese society: because “everyone knows everyone”, there is less reason to use very formal speech styles and changes in these styles progress more slowly.