By John J. Graham, from the Introduction to The Shetland Dictionary.
The Shetland dialect speaker today uses a form of speech which is recognisably distinctive by its vocabulary, grammatical structure and pronunciation.
The vocabulary, as has already been pointed out, is predominantly English with a proportion of Scots and Norse words dependent on the age and district of the speaker. The grammatical structure is also mainly English, but the dialect still retains certain patterns of speech inherited from its Norse and Scottish antecedents.
In common with any recognised form of speech, the Shetland dialect has a consistent pattern of usage - a grammatical form which exists in everyday speech and in dialect writing. Those who regard the Shetland dialect as `broken' or 'corrupt' English will no doubt dismiss the notion that it can have a grammar. They usually subscribe to the idea that there is one 'correct' version of speech based on a pre-ordained grammar, any deviation from which is 'slang' or, in this case, 'bad English'. But grammar is descriptive and not prescriptive. Speech developed in a particular area over a period of time will naturally acquire distinctive patterns and fairly consistent forms of usage. Some of these patterns and forms are as follows.
The definitive article is 'da', as in 'da day' 'da lass', 'da boat' 'da wadder'.
As in Scots, it is used with a number of nouns where in English it would be omitted. For example, 'gyaan ta da kirk/da scöle'; `gotten da measles/da caald'; `I winder if da denner/da tae is ready'.
Nouns: The plural form of nouns is, as in English, generally formed by adding -s, but there are several old forms, such as 'kye' - cows; 'een' - eyes; 'owsen' - oxen; and `shön' - shoes.
Pronouns: The second personal pronoun has two forms: one of respect - you' - and one of familiarity - `du'. The familiar is used so widely that in most areas it becomes quite automatic for the speaker to switch from `you' to `du' as the occasion demands. A child will, for example, ask a teacher, 'Will you please give us the ball?', then turn round and say to his friend, `Is du comin to play?'
The familiar `du' is used (a) when addressing a friend - 'Whaar's du gyaan da day?'; (b) when speaking to someone younger - `Will du tell dy midder I'm coming'; and (c) when speaking to animals - `What's yun du's aetin, dog?'
The familiar takes the singular form of the verb, as 'du is', 'du tinks', 'du comes' instead of 'you are', 'you think', 'you come'. In recent years the distinction between the two forms has become blurred, so that today `du' is often used indiscriminately by younger people.
The possessive pronoun ‘dy’ is, in its various forms, similar to English ‘thy’: dy, dee, dine = thy, thee, thine. “I hoop dy bairn is as göd ta dee as my ane has bön ta me.”
The relative pronoun is ‘at’ instead of English ‘who’, ‘which’ or ‘that’ – ‘Yun was da boat at rescued da man’.
Verbs: The auxiliary verb ‘ta be’ is used instead of the English “to have’. For example, instead of ‘I have written’, ‘we have finished’, the Shetlander will say 'I'm written' and 'Wir feenished'. This may be a relic of the O.N. use of the auxiliary verb `to be' as in 'ek em kominn' - 'I have come'.
The auxiliary verb 'to have' takes the form 'a' in the dialect when used with 'could', 'hed', 'micht', 'most', 'sood' and 'wid'. For example, 'I could a come yesterday', 'If it hed a bön me, I wid a gien an met her' and 'Hit micht a marackled him'.
One can still hear the old Scots usage by which, in making a statement, the verb ends in -s. This occurs (a) when the subject is a noun - 'Brunt bairns dreeds da fire', 'Aald folk is twice bairns', 'Far fled fools (birds) has fair fedders', 'Da bairns comes hame neist week'; (b) after a relative pronoun - 'Dey lang at lippens', 'Dem at comes first'll be weel aff' and (c) when the subject is a pronoun separated by a clause or phrase from the verb - 'Dem at comes last jöst gits da sam'.
The form 'der' is used for both 'there is' and 'there are'; and 'dey wir' is used for 'there was' and 'there were', as in - 'Der far owre muckle noise', 'Der a lock o fock here', 'Dey wir a coarn o sun eftir denner', and 'Dey wir twartree bairns playin ida burn'.
This form may well have its origin in O.N. usage. 'Der' could be a contraction of 'der ir', the 'de' coming from the O.N. pronoun de = it (as in the first line of the Norn fragment) 'De vare gue ti' - 'It was a good time'. The modern Norwegian 'Det er' = there is/are has obvious associations.
Many verbs are used reflexively, as in: 'Lass; set dee doon' (an invitation to be seated), 'As a man maks up his bed sae lays he him doon', and 'Lay dee doon, dog'.
The auxiliary verbs and a number of monosyllabic verbs can be made negative by adding -na, as in - 'canna', 'couldna', 'dönna', 'didna', 'soodna', 'haena', 'tellna', 'saidna', and 'tochtna'.
As in English, the past tense and part participle of verbs are formed by adding -ed, but some verbs take -t or -it, as
fill filt filt
hock hockit hockit
A number of verbs are conjugated differently from their English cognates and follow the Scottish pattern. These include:
If vocabulary gives body to a language and grammar shape, it can be said that idiom provides its distinctive character. These clusters of words, usually combinations of verbs and prepositions, have a long history, and several in the Shetland dialect go back to Norn and old Scots origins. Because of their origins in language with different syntaxes from English they are out of phase with contemporary word order and are, therefore, not readily translatable. For example, a literal translation of 'wi dat sam' into English "with that same' is meaningless. Its meaning - `at that moment' - is identical to the Norwegian 'med det samme'. The invitation `Come dee wis in trowe' is a survival from the earlier English and Scottish 'come thy ways', an expression common in Shakespearean English. A glance in the dictionary at verbs such as 'cast', lay', 'set' and 'tak' will show how variations of preposition can ring a variety of changes on a common word.