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(for Shetland words only)

by John J. Graham, from the Introduction to The Shetland Dictionary

The Shetland dialect is an amalgam of Norse, Lowland Scots and English, each element reflecting a period in the islands' history dominated by those respective nations.    

From the ninth century, when the Norse colonisation of Shetland began, until well into the seventeenth century, the Shetland people spoke a variant of the Scandinavian tongue which became known as Norroena (Northern) or Norn.

In 1469 the islands were handed over by the Danes to Scotland as the dowry pledge of the Princess Margaret of Denmark when she was married to King James III of Scotland.  At first, Scottish influence made its mark slowly on Shetland. Then, towards the end of the sixteenth century, after the Reformation, an increasing influx of Scottish clerics and land-hungry freebooters, together with their retainers, accelerated the process of Scotticisation.  By the early seventeenth century Shetland's Scandinavian culture was under direct attack. In 1611 the Privy Council proscribed Scandinavian laws as `foreign' and decreed that Shetland be subject to Scottish laws. The following year the first Scottish court sat in Scalloway under Bishop James Law as Sheriff and Justice of the islands. While laws and procedures which had evolved over centuries were being dismantled, groups of predatory Scotsmen exploited the inevitable legal and administrative confusion which the Shetlander found himself in.  Land was grabbed and large estates built up.  Shetland society was in turmoil and the Shetland people bewildered and insecure.

The Scottish tongue, now used in Church and law court and rapidly becoming the language of commerce, soon supplanted the native Nom which no longer had any recognised status. Shetlanders had no option but to come to terms with their new situation and learn the new language. By the end of the century they were bilingual. A Dunrossness minister, writing in the 1680s, reported that the people of Cunningsburgh '...seldom speak other (than Norn) among themselves, yet all of them speak the Scots tongue more promptly (fluently) and more properly then generally they do in Scotland.' (1)

In making this accommodation they were automatically acknowledging the importance and superiority of Scots and, at the same time, accepting the inferiority of their native speech.  An Unst rhyme, preserved from the eighteenth century, reveals this feeling of inferiority.  A Shetland parent is showing his pride in his son's ability to speak Scots after a visit to Caithness:

De vara gue tee,
when sone min guid to Kadanes:
han can caa rossa mare,
han can caa big here,
han can caa eld fire,
han can caa klovandi taings. (2)

This says, `It was a good time when my son went to Caithness.  He can call "rossa" "mare" and so on.

Apart from its sociological message the rhyme is an interesting illustration of the hybrid state of the Shetland speech at this time.  Certain Norn features such as the pronouns `de' and 'han', the possessive `min' and the verb 'var' have been retained but at the cost of the general grammatical structure which is predominantly English.  The Scottish element is seen in the new nouns the boy has learned, the verbs 'guid' and 'ca', the conjunction 'when' and the preposition 'to'.  The three languages are inextricably intertwined but there is no doubt as to which are the dominant partners.

What made the transition from Norn to Scots all the easier was the fact that the Scots language contained many Scandinavian borrowings and therefore both languages had numbers of identical words, such as O.N. kima/Sc. kirn = churn; O.N. byggja/Sc. bigg = to build; O.N. /hepti/Sc. heft = handle; and O.N. illr/Sc. ill = bad.

The first part of the language to break down under the influence of Scots would have been the grammatical structure, particularly the Nom case-endings which had no parallel in Scots.  For example, in the Fetlar rhyme about the troll-child born in the horn which Jakobsen collected, the line

'My midder kaller o me'

would originally have been in the Norn:

"Min móδir kallar á mik.'

The version which lingered on has lost the Norn possessive `min' but still retains the Norse verb-ending -ar, a form of the old preposition, and the personal pronoun 'mik'.

A number of words retained the old grammatical endings in a fossilised form.  For example, the masculine nominative -r remains in `goger' = a large nail; 'shalder' (O.N. tjaldr) = the oyster catcher; and 'gouster' (O.N. gustr) = strong, gusty wind.

Conjunctions, pronouns, common verbs and abstract nouns would have gradually disappeared, while nouns, particularly those describing everyday objects and phenomena, would have tended to persist.

The weak masculine nominative -i has also been preserved in words such as `hegri' (O.N. hegri) = the heron; 'skori' (O.N. skari) = the gull; and caavie (O.N. kafi) = dense snowfall.

It was the eighteenth century, however, which saw the final disintegration of Norn as a language.  The Rev. John Brand visited the islands in 1699 and commented that `English is the Common Language among them (the Shetlanders) yet many of the People speak Norse or corrupt Danish, especially such as live in the more Northern Isles, yea so ordinary it is in some places, that it is the first Language their Children speak.’  (3)  Although still going strong in the remoter isles the language was obviously breaking down in the Mainland.

This process was accelerated by the growing influence of church and school.  After Brand's visit the Presbyterian system was more firmly established.  He and his Commission from the General Assembly found that  'In the matter of God and Religion the Body of the People are said to be very Ignorant' and gave instructions to the clergy to set about putting their house in order immediately. To this end a series of presbyterial fact-finding visitations was ordered. These visits produced a mounting catalogue of derelict buildings, irregular celebration of communion, immorality among the people, and a complete absence of schools beyond the very few established privately for the education of the children of ministers or gentry.

Presbytery began to take active steps to improve this ramshackle organisation so that, as the century progressed, the Church gathered more and more strength.  And as the Church grew strong so did the influence of English - the language of the pulpit, Bible and Kirk Session records.  In the schools, reading was the main preoccupation.  The Word was central to all Presbyterian teaching; the ability to read the Word was of the greatest importance; and it so happened that the Word as presented in the Bible was in English.

Presbytery petitioned for and obtained schools from the Society in Scotland for the propagation of Christian Knowledge, the first of these being opened in Walls in 1713. (4)  These schools were really support organisations for the Presbyterian Church, their main aim being to promote religion through an understanding of the Bible and Catechism.  The general impact of this campaign can be gauged from the attitude of a Walls man who, in 1737, requested the Kirk Sessions (5) to provide him with a Bible so that he might instruct in reading two fatherless children fostered upon him.(6)  A remarkable change from the picture drawn by Brand a generation earlier.

English became increasingly predominant as the formal and, by implication, the more correct mode of speech.  A mixture of Nom and Scots words, some Scottish grammatical constructions, and a distinctive pronunciation persisted, but the overall pattern of the dialect became more and more English.  The S.S.P.C.K. schools had much to do with this.  In 1774 the Rev. George Low reported that in Orkney `their (the Orcadians) language (is) the Norse... and disused only within the present age, by means of the English schools erected by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge'.  It was an oversimplification for Low to make the Society schools entirely to blame, but they certainly helped to accelerate the process of anglicisation already at work through other agencies in local society.

The following year, Low found in Shetland a similar state of affairs although, in places, he discovered that the Norn tradition had not quite faded out.  In Foula, he found that Norn `is much worn out... yet there are some who know a few words of it; it was the language of the last age, but will be entirely lost by the next'.(7)  Whilst in Foula he was fortunate in recording a Norse ballad Hildina which he copied down from the recitation of William Henry of Guttorm. Hildina is a unique remnant of an oral literature plucked from extinction by the chance recording of an old man whose memory retained thirty-five verses of a ballad handed down to him by his parents in a language he could not understand.  The first verse, as phonetically rendered by Low, is:

Da vara Jarlin d'Orkneyar
For frinda sin spir de ro
Whirdi an skilde menn
Our glas buryon burtaga.

(There was a Jarl in Orkney who asked advice from a relative whether he should rescue a maid from her difficulty, from the glass fort.)

The S.S.P.C.K. continued to establish schools in Shetland during the eighteenth century and, from 1765 onwards, parochial schools were set up.  Money for educational provision was slow in coming from the landowners but, with fairly constant pressure from the Church and an obvious enthusiasm for learning on the part of the people, the standard of literacy in English increased dramatically.  In 1826 a survey (8) of seven of the twelve Shetland parishes revealed that 76% of all persons over eight years of age could read. Such predominance of English as the officially recognised form of communication could only mean a corresponding decline in the status of the dialect.  In the Hebrides, where Gaelic was still the first language of the people, the survey found only 30% literate in English.

The establishment of the Board schools throughout Shetland, following the passing of the first compulsory education act in 1872, further weakened the dialect.  Most of the new schools were staffed by teachers from outwith Shetland who had little or no knowledge of the local speech and, more often than not, tended to regard it as a threat to their educations ideals of formal English and a broadly based culture.

Newspapers, parochial libraries, cheap books and improved communications all rang the knell of the old culture. Laurence Williamson, a scholarly crofter from Yell, states in a letter written in 1892:  'More generally I would say that it ever broods over my mind and heart that such mass of lore belonging to our native Isles, folklore, linguistic matters, traditions, living historical matter, enough in the hands of some genius to form a small literature or wealth of poetry, should be year by year slipping into the grave.  This is a transition time such as never was before.  The old Northern civilisation is now in full strife with the new and Southern one, and traditions, customs, which have come down from hoary antiquity, are now dying for ever.  The young don't care for their fathers' ways.  I mean what was estimable in them.  The folklore and family traditions and picturesque stories yield fast to the People's Journal, Glasgow Mail, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday and such like.’ (9)

This Shetland in transition that Williamson was describing was the Shetland that the Faroese scholar, Jakob Jakobsen, came to in 1893.  He too saw the symptoms of decline: 'What is to be done must be done now; for the last ten years have destroyed more of the old material than the preceding thirty.’ (10)  But, even so, he enthused over the riches still to be found:  'The view, supported by various authors, that the Shetland dialect is merely English with some few Norse terms for tools and objects in common use is quite false, for there (is)... a whole mass of words which penetrate the whole language, in every case the language of the older generation and those who live away from the main centre.'

Jakobsen's exhaustive researches from 1893-95 produced 10,000 words of Norn origin still extant, although half of them were not in general use and known only to older people or in remote corners of the islands.  From this collection Jakobsen produced his Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland, a monumental piece of scholarship which places every student of the Shetland dialect in his debt.

The words and expressions he found were mainly, as might be expected, nouns describing objects of everyday life, types of weather, and the state of the wind and sea.  Many of these words, part and parcel as they were of the lives of crofters and fishermen, survived well into the present century, and some are still current.  For example, the various types of wind: 'pirr' - light wind in patches; 'laar' - light wind, more diffused; `flan' - a sudden squall; 'bat' - a slight gust of wind; 'guff' - a strong puff of wind; 'gouster' - a strong, gusty wind; and 'vaelensi' - a strong gale.

Another sizeable class of words found by Jakobsen described whims, ludicrous behaviour, unbalanced states of mind and generally the less attractive aspects of the character.  These included 'glafterit' - boisterously jolly;  'halliget' - wild; 'himst' - huffy, touchy;  'perskeet' - prim;  'raamist' - peevish;  'snippm' - surly;  'traachie' - cantankerous;  'traawirt' - perverse;  'trumskit' - sulky;  'uploppm' - impetuous;  and 'vyndless' - clumsy.

An intriguing category of words, now completely obsolete but still in circulation at the close of last century, dealt with the fishermen's superstition that certain things were taboo at sea and alternative descriptive terms had to be used.  In looking for synonyms to describe a taboo object, the nineteenth century fisherman had a ready source in the old Norn words which had been thrust out of everyday use by their Scots or English equivalents, and in their state of linguistic limbo had acquired an aura of the remote and mysterious.  These fishermen obviously regarded any reference at sea to the Christian religion as offensive to the pagan spirits of the deep.  The minister was referred to as 'da upstaander' and the church as 'da benihoose' (bön-hoose = prayer house).  Names of domestic animals were taboo at sea.  The cat was referred to as 'da footin' or 'da skavnashi' (nose-shaver); the cow was 'da boorik' (bellower); the boat was 'da faar' (conveyance); the mast was 'da stong' (the stick); and the sail was 'da skegga' (clout).  To sharpen the knife at sea was to 'glaan da sköni'.

These picturesque fossils of an ancient language have now gone, and with them many other words and expressions which Jakobsen heard being used daily as he moved around Shetland.  The twentieth century has seen a rapid increase in the decline of the dialect.  As society and our material culture change so does language have to adapt to keep pace with the changes.  Shetlanders no longer live in thatched houses and fish the far haaf with sixerns, and inevitably the words which described these conditions have become obsolete.

Other factors conspired against the dialect, chief amongst them being the educational system.  During the first half of the twentieth century, teachers deliberately set their face against the local speech as being a crude and inferior mode of expression.  'To speak proper' was to speak English, and conversely Shetland speech was 'improper' and to be avoided if one wished to get on. In the bleak economic climate of the 1920s and 30s, when virtually the only way to get on was via the educational ladder, this was a particularly insidious doctrine.  In the eyes of many Shetlanders the dialect came to be associated with all that was backward and outmoded.

But a mother tongue is not easily eradicated.  Although unheard in the classroom, in public utterance or on official occasions, it still persisted in the playground, the home and in social groups. Shetlanders cultivated a bilingualism which enabled them to communicate on two levels, although in social terms there was no question but that the dialect was on the lower level.  While the use of English to strangers was justified ostensibly as 'good manners' this custom was undoubtedly a tacit recognition of the socially inferior role to which the dialect had been relegated.

A rough estimate of the rate of decline during this period can be obtained by comparing what Jakobsen found with the state of the dialect at later periods.  If we take H-words as fairly representative, we find that he collected 720 words of which, by his own estimation, approximately 360 would have been in common use in the 1890s. In 1949 - fifty years later - I counted 107 words with which I was familiar.  In 1979, a twenty-one-year-old Shetlander brought up in the central Mainland could identify 65 words.  This suggests that, contrary to common assumptions, the rate of decline has been less during the past thirty years than in the previous fifty.

In fact, it is only since the 1950s that the Shetland speech and speaker have acquired a measure of respectability.  The important post-war reports on education in Scotland emphasised 'the fundamental truth that education must be rooted in reality, finding its material and its starting point in the environment of the child.'  And what more fundamental part of the environment is there than the language heard and spoken since early childhood?

In response to a request from local teachers, Zetland Education Committee published two books for use in Shetland schools, Nordern Lichts, an anthology of Shetland verse and prose, and The Shetland Book, a compendium on local history, geography, flora, fauna, geology.

In the late 1960s an upsurge in the fishing and knitwear industries created a new feeling of confidence and self-respect in Shetland.

The advent of Radio Shetland in 1977 gave an added boost to the dialect.  In its programmes the Shetland tongue is regularly heard alongside the English, demonstrating that it is not only socially acceptable, but a valid and vigorous means of communication.  It is ironic that in the late 1970s when the dialect has lost much of its basic vocabulary it should have found a status it has not had for at least a century.

The continued vitality of any speech depends on the extent to which it is used in everyday life.  As long as it is found to be a natural and effective vehicle of communication it will survive.


(1) Description of the islands of Orkney and Zetland, Robert Monteith of Eglisha and Gairsa, edited by Sir Robert Sibbald, 1711.

(2) An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language, Jakob Jakobsen. London, 1928.

(3) A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, etc. 1701, Rev. John Brand, Edinburgh, 1883.

(4) S.S.P.C.K. General Committee Minutes, 1/1/1713.

(5) Walls Kirk Session Minutes, 4/7/1737.

(6) A Tour Through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland, George Low, Kirkwall, 1879.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Moral Statistics of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness, 1826.

(9) Laurence Williamson of Mid Yell by Laurence G. Johnson, Lerwick, 1971.

(10) Jakob Jakobsen: Letter to Dimmalaetting, Torshavn, 29/8/1893

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