skip to main navigation


(for Shetland words only)

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

The many district variants in Shetlandic pronunciation have produced a bewildering variety of spellings in dialect writing.  Writers have attempted phonetic representations of their own pronunciations with the result that the reader is confronted with a confusing picture of how the dialect should look in print.

Spelling is at best a compromise, an endeavour amid the shifting sands of pronunciation to establish a fairly stable symbol for the word.  The task of communicating the word from writer to reader is the all-important one in literature, and it is through the written form, the spelt word, that the first vital contact is made. It is obvious that ease in communication will depend on familiarity with the spelling convention used.  When there is no established convention, reading becomes laborious.

If it is agreed that the writer has an obligation to the reader to make communication as free as possible from superficial barriers, then the present state of private enterprise in spelling must place itself under some restraint.  The following suggestions are not intended as the rigid rules perhaps implied by the previous statement, but as suggestions leading towards a greater, if not complete, uniformity.  Consistency is not necessarily a virtue; but without it spelling becomes an end in itself rather than a means to the real end which is communication.

If the written dialect is to be easily read, then:

(1) An attempt should be made to base its spelling on the convention most familiar to the reader, which for most Shetlanders will be English.  An English word with a local pronunciation only slightly different need not vary from the normal English spelling.  The reader will immediately identify it, and knowing that he is reading dialect will apply his own local pronunciation.  It should be unnecessary, for example, to change `calm' into 'kaam' or 'kaum', `fixed' into 'fikst', or `come' into 'kumm'.

(2) Outlandish forms, used perhaps in a misdirected zeal to emphasise the non-English character of the dialect, should be avoided as far as possible.  In this respect the habit of doubling certain letters to emphasise the heavy consonantal quality of the dialect, as in 'winnd', 'kann' and 'bakk' seems unnecessary.

(3) Use of the apostrophe to indicate a letter or letters omitted should be reduced to a minimum, and confined mainly to indicating where a letter has been omitted from the normal Shetland usage - not the English.  After all it is the Shetland speech which is being used.  The present participle in Shetlandic ends in -in, which makes the final apostrophe in words such as 'gyaan', 'rinnin' and `buskin' rather pointless.  The Shetland conjunction being 'an' not 'and' should make it unnecessary to write "an' ".

When, however, the written form is a contraction of a Shetland word or words, the apostrophe is necessary, e.g. 'I'm', 'gie'r', 'du's' and 'whaar's'.

The following are suggestions applying to sounds which lead to the greatest spelling variants:

ö - crö, dö, pöl, wör.  ö is preferred to ü as, etymologically speaking, the sound represented is a modified o sound.  Thus English 'poor', 'good' and 'swore' became 'pör', 'göd' and 'swör'.

k - not to replace c in words with English cognates; not to be used with s for 'xt'.  Thus 'mixter' is to be preferred to 'mikster'.

y - rather than j when following initial consonant, as 'byock', 'gyaan', 'hyook' and 'nyoag'. Also used for 'i' sound in 'bite', as in 'mylk' and 'wysh'.

back on top