Simone Kotva’s Sealanguage: Field Notes from the Anthropocene is a look at a particular kind of language use; here’s the abstract:

In the Faroe Islands, long-standing but now rapidly declining practices of tabooing have governed the language of fishermen at sea. Based on fieldwork that combines ethnography with intellectual history, this article explores the continuity of this allegedly superstitious practice within the broad framework of Western secularity. In the 1990s, local practices of naming found expression at a national level with the compilation of the first ornithological handbook written entirely in Faroese. The example of this field guide, in which local names were made to conform to scientific nomenclature, is used to interrogate tensions between orality and literacy. Contrary to the tradition that would oppose folk-taxonomy to classical systematics, it is shown that among field observers both practices of naming are used simultaneously, and, frequently, non-competitively. Through these and other examples it is argued that what is at stake in practices of naming is a habit of paying attention to the environment, premised not on lexical expertise or ideas of knowledge but on a singular hedonism of taking pleasure in the thing named. It is the cultivation of this habit that is proposed as the critical foundation and future purpose of any planetary consciousness.

And here’s part of the discussion of the term súlukongur, so you can see what it’s like:

In the case of sealanguage, satisfaction is achieved when a familiar bird, such as the fulmar or the raven, is made strange by the gift of a new name. One famous example, recorded by Lockwood and still remembered in the Islands, was the incident of a vagrant female black-browed albatross known as the “gannet king” or súlukongur. This bird was seen flying with the gannets of Mykineshólmur every summer from 1860 until shot by a vandal in 1864; during this time it was known as the “gannet king”.

Lockwood was of the opinion that tabooing emerged from a superstitious belief in the direct link between a name and the thing denominated, but súlukongur—being the name not of a bird but of a bird in a configuration of other birds—is a good example of what in classical semiotics is known as indirect or ordinary signification. In semiotic terms, what makes the name súlukongur similar to the female black-browed albatross is not a bird-shaped thought in the head of the viewer, but an experience (or “affection”, to use the classical term) that coincides with the sighting of the bird. The significance of this gloss becomes evident in practical terms when we consider that súlukongur could not signify the albatross directly, because the name would not be generally applicable to all albatrosses. Nor does the name signify directly the particular female albatross that accompanied the gannets between 1860-1864, since in order to earn its name this bird depended on a context of gannets and would not have been called súlukongur if sighted when flying solo. This is because súlukongur is not a proper name, but, like many words in sealanguage, a euphemism or “kenning”, and doubles as a riddle, the full form of which would be: who is the king of the gannets? Like many riddles in Old Norse and Old English súlukongur is constructed around a known answer. In the case of the súlukongur it would be impossible to solve the riddle without knowing beforehand about the event in question. This situation to which the name refers is what enables it signify indirectly, rather than directly, to the bird.


  1. ‘Like many riddles in Old Norse and Old English súlukongur is constructed around a known answer.’

    Since the answer to a riddle is as a rule known to the riddler, I suppose the distinction intended here is that the answer is also known to the responder (riddlee?). I suspect there’s more to it than that, but from the example I’m not sure what.

  2. John Cowan says

    I think the idea is that you have no hope of figuring out the One True Answer. “An eye in a blue face / Saw an eye in a green face / That eye is like to this eye / But in low place, not in high place” (JRRT) depends on knowing the etymology of daisy ‘day’s eye’.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The Tolkien riddle is guessable in theory – you can answer it even if you haven’t seen the specific daisy the setter saw, as long as you know enough about daisies in general.

    The difference with súlukongur seems to be that it’s not – you have to know about the behaviour of that particular bird. If the word did become a (local?) name for all albatrosses, you would still have to go back to that story to find out why.

    But in that case I don’t know why they don’t say ‘a specific answer’. And I don’t really get what makes it a riddle at all – but then I generally don’t get anything to do with semiotics!

  4. As to what constitutes a “known answer,” it was traditional in Norse tales for riddle contests to end with an unfair riddle, the answer to which could not be known to anyone except the questioner. The canonical example is, “What was the last thing Odin whispered in Baldr’s ear before his death?”* but Bilbo’s unintentional example fits the same pattern.

    *The point of that specific unfair riddle is less to stump the opponent than to reveal, without fanfare, that the one-eyed old vagrant asking the question is actually the All-Father.

  5. Thank you very much for this. Absolutely fascinating anyway- I wondered if he couldn’t somewhere, somehow have made use of The Ancient Mariner – I’ve sent it on to my daughter who was until yesterday in the Faroes researching things like this for her master’s thesis. It seems to be the hot place to go (only metaphorically, it’s very cold & windy and the weather changes every five mins) to study unspoilt bits of the planet.

  6. Great — let me know what she thinks!

  7. But Simone is a she. (Don’t know what kind of name Kotva is.)

  8. John Cowan says

    Carroll’s “Why is a raven like a writing-desk” was originally designed as a riddle without an answer known to the riddler (whether you take that to be the Mad Hatter or Carroll). Nevertheless, many people have provided answers, including Carroll himself in hindsight. My two favorites from this Guardian page are “Because there is a ‘b’ in both” (so there is) and “Because they are both used to carri-on de-composition” (note the subtlety of the pun on used).

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    Kotva appears to be a Czech surname; the word translates to “anchor”. The only site I saw with explanatory information seems to claim it was taken from a sign on the house or family crest.

  10. Speaking of ravens and the Faroes:

    The pied raven (Corvus corax varius morpha leucophaeus) was a colour morph of the North Atlantic subspecies of the common raven which was only found on the Faroe Islands and has disappeared since the mid-20th century. It had large areas of white feathering, most frequently on the head, the wings and the belly and its beak was light brown. Apart from that, it looked like the black North Atlantic ravens (C. c. varius morpha typicus).

  11. Kotva appears to be a Czech surname; the word translates to “anchor”.

    Thanks! And kotva is apparently derived from kot ‘cat.’

  12. January First-of-May says

    Because there is a ‘b’ in both

    The version I recall having read was a slightly expanded variation: “Because there’s a ‘b’ in both and an ‘n’ in neither.”

    As far as the “sensible” answers go, the first answer I thought of after seeing the riddle was a simplified variant of the “inky quills” version, but I think I like the “flat notes” version slighty better.

  13. Medieval Mongolian tribal rulers had a tradition of conducting diplomatic relations by exchanging “oral letters” memorized by messenger and composed in difficult to understand rhymed riddles.

    I suppose such practice caused many misunderstandings and not a few wars, but who cares. That’s how wise rulers and brave heroes were supposed to communicate in sagas and folktales, so everyone did.

  14. That was an interesting read – thanks! Helps explain the proliferation of words for “lion” in Classical Arabic, perhaps…

    “‘stones break before the tongue of man’ [Steinur brestur fyri manna tungur].”

    I think that proverb used to have some English cognates…

  15. John Cowan says

    I added a new comment to that Jabal al-Lughat post about the provenance of “The pen is mightier than the sword”, which David M had wondered about.

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    The same idea is in this Irish proverb:
    Níl cnámh ar bith sa teanga ach is minic a bhris sí cloigeann duine. (The tongue has no bone at all but it has often broken a person’s skull.)
    Judging from other Irish proverbs, the tongue and the skull belong to the same person.


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