If you lived in a place where there were only 125 days in a year – where the sun rose only 125 times and set only 125 times in a year – would you think of it as having a long year or a short year?
How about if the year was exactly the same length, in hours, as any other year (6360 hours, except in leap years), but it had 145 days, and one of those days had almost 3095 hours of sunlight, and one of the nights was almost 2688 hours without sunlight? Do you feel differently about that now?
In Longyearbyen, the northernmost settlement of more than 1000 people in the world, the sun sets at 12:54 pm on October 26 and doesn’t rise again until 11:42 am on February 15, and after it rises at 1:31 am on April 18 it doesn’t set again until 12:19 am on August 25 (ending the day of August 24).
Those of us who live in relatively boreal latitudes – which is more people than you might think – can feel like the year is dragging quite a bit in the dark, cold days of December and January. But imagine going nearly four months without any daylight at all. (And imagine going more than four months without any night!)
Not that that’s why Longyearbyen has its name. No, it has its name because it was (and still is, but only a bit) a coal mining town.
It’s not that being down in the mines makes night out of day, and all that stuff. It’s not that every year mining in a place at 78 degrees north is like two years anywhere else. No, it’s just that the mining company that set up on the island of Spitsbergen in 1906 was run by John Munro Longyear, and he named its company town Longyear City, because of course he did. And eventually, in 1926, a decade after the company was taken over by a Norwegian company, the name of the town was changed to Longyearbyen, because in Norwegian byen means ‘the town’ or ‘the city’ (by ‘town’ + en ‘the’).
Which, by the way, resolves what is probably the most vexing issue of this place for language freaks like me: how to pronounce it. You see, in Norwegian, the letter y is pronounced like German ü (in other words, like English “ee” with the lips rounded), and for quite some time after first seeing this town’s name and learning that it Norwegian, I wondered if the y in Longyear was a Norwegian y. Well, it’s not. But the y in byen is. So if you want to say the place name as accurately as you can (disregarding Norse intonation), it’s like “long year bü en” (with the “en” basically like as in “broken”). But if you’re just a regular English speaker who wants to say place names with sounds from the spice jars of English vowels, say it as “long year bee-en.” Anyway, don’t say the by like English by.
You probably won’t have that many reasons to say it at all, admittedly. Longyearbyen is a small place (not quite 2400 people, but more than that many snowmobiles, and far more than that many polar bears in the suburbs). But it does have one thing that might lengthen our years on this earth: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, which stores seeds from around the world to insure against loss of biodiversity in the world’s plants. It’s located in what was formerly a coal mine.
But, by the way, what is the deal with this surname Longyear? Well, John Munro Longyear was the son of US Representative – and later district court judge – John W. Longyear, who was descended from one Jacob Longyear, who was born as Jacob Langjaer in the Netherlands. And this family name Langjaer in turn appears to come from Geman Langjahr. Which, if you know German – or if you know historical variations in Dutch – will tell you that the family name actually means… ‘long year’.
Yeah. That took the long way around to end up in the same place. And why were they called that? I don’t know. Maybe if I had a year – a long one – to do some research, I could find out.
But don’t you like the digging, as in coal mines? And don’t you like how every little bit like that plants seeds for future discovery?
If you want to know more about Longyearbyen, here are some videos about it, showing the different ways you can present the same not very large place: