The Shetland Dialect
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The Shetland Dialect

Peter Sundkvist

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The Shetland Dialect

Peter Sundkvist

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About This Book

The traditional dialect spoken in the Shetland Isles, the northernmost part of Scotland and Britain, is highly distinct. It displays distinct, characteristic features on all linguistic levels and particularly in its sound system, or its phonology. The dialect is one of the lesser- known varieties of English within the Inner Circle. Increasing interest in the lesser- known varieties of English in recent years has brought a realization that there are still blanks on the map, even within the very core of the Inner Circle. Sundkvist's comprehensive treatise draws upon results from a three- year research project funded by the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation, for which a phonological survey of the Shetland dialect was carried out between 2010 and 2012. This book is a useful resource for those working on historical linguistics and is intended to serve as a comprehensive description and accessible reference source on one of the most distinct lesser- known varieties of English within Britain. It documents and offers a systematic account of the rich regional variation as well as being a reference source for those studying the historical formation and emergence of the Shetland dialect and language variation and change in Shetland, as well as those within the broader field of Germanic linguistics.

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Researching the Shetland dialect

1.1 Introduction

The Shetland Isles, perhaps most commonly associated with ponies, sheep dogs, knitwear, and more recently crime novels and TV series, are a set of approximately 100 islands, 16 of which are inhabited. The isles are not only stunningly beautiful, but also geographically remote, located on the edge between the North Sea and the North Atlantic at a considerable distance from both the Scottish mainland and Norway. They are part of Scotland’s Northern Isles and constitute the northern end of Great Britain. While firmly integrated into modern Scottish society, Shetland retains a distinctiveness which partly derives from its historical connection to Denmark and Norway. The coming of the oil industry around 1980 brought various societal changes whose full implications are yet to be seen, not least regarding the language situation. Despite such changes Shetland has essentially remained a type of community that is becoming increasingly rare in Europe. It is a close-knit and socially cohesive society. While centralization certainly has drawn people and resources into the main town of Lerwick, compared to many other rural communities in Europe, the population is still relatively well distributed across the archipelago, including some rather remote localities. This is partly the result of substantial investment in public services, schools, and infrastructure.
Over the years Shetland has caught the interest of numerous scholars, writers, and students, and continues to do so, for many reasons. Romanticism is at least a contributing factor; despite societal changes and advances in communication, Shetland remains one of the most remote communities in Britain. Among those drawn to the isles by an interest in language, many are fascinated by Shetland’s linguistic history, particularly by the Nordic language once spoken in the isles and its process of demise, which in effect severed a branch of the North Germanic family tree. Linguistic conservatism within the (as yet) living dialect is another major factor. The traditional Shetland dialect, the topic of this monograph, is commonly regarded as one of the most distinctive traditional regional dialects remaining in Britain and a prime example of a relic speech form (Johnston 1997b: 447; Smith & Durham 2011: 197). The traditional Shetland dialect constitutes a form of Scots, which will be defined as the set of distinctive English dialects derived from Middle English and associated with Lowland Scotland. The position and vitality of Scots in Shetland (the Shetland dialect) is commonly regarded as stronger than that of most local forms of Scots in other rural localities across Scotland (McClure 1994). At present, however, there is a both a scholarly debate and lively discussion among Shetlanders generally regarding linguistic change in Shetland. Despite the comparatively favourable conditions for dialect maintenance, there are undeniable signs that the local linguistic situation is unstable and changing. While the precise nature of the ongoing change and its likely effects remain a matter of debate, a sense of urgency for documentation is likely to seize the descriptively inclined and structurally oriented linguist.

1.2 Previous research on Shetland speech

What follows is an overview of previous work on Shetland speech, some of which will be covered in greater detail in Chapter 2. The sources can be grouped by period and theme, although many cover multiple themes. The existing body of work will be divided into historically oriented contributions, dealing with various matters leading up to today’s local linguistic situation, including Norn and the Norn-to-Scots language shift (1.2.1). The second section (1.2.2) summarizes work carried out during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries on the local traditional dialect and on more standardized localized speech forms. Finally, the continuously growing body of work on language change is briefly reviewed in Section 1.2.3.

1.2.1 History: Languages and language shifts

Work on the linguistic history of the Shetland Isles has centred on a set of core issues. A good amount of attention has been devoted to the languages spoken in the isles during earlier periods, in particular Norn and to a lesser extent its predecessor, Celtic. Secondly, much research has focused on the early language shifts, from Celtic to Old Norse and subsequently from Old Norse/Norn to Scots. Inquiry into the former has been hampered by the limited evidence available for Celtic in Shetland, and the latter remains the most extensively discussed shift during Shetland’s linguistic history.
While several scholars have contributed to the study of Norn, the most significant one is arguably Faroese scholar Jakob Jakobsen. Jakobsen’s aim was to assess the remaining Norn lexis in the Shetland dialect, mainly by collecting words, phrases, and place-names between 1893 and 1895. Jakobsen’s main publications are Det norrøne sprog på Shetland [The Norn Language in Shetland] (1897a) and Etymologisk ordbog over det norrøne sprog på Shetland (1908–1921), the latter published posthumously in English as An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland (1985 [1928–1932]). A limited number of scholars have dealt with the form of Celtic thought to have been spoken in the isles prior to the arrival of the Vikings. However, owing to the lack of evidence, relatively little may be determined about the pre-Viking population and the language they spoke. Celtic also left few traces on the languages subsequently spoken in Shetland (Barnes 1996: 177; 1998: 6, 9).
Old Norse was brought to Shetland by Viking settlers. A local form gradually developed in Shetland, Orkney, and Caithness, which is known among scholars as Norn. Having been the dominant language in Shetland for 500–800 years, the Nordic language was replaced by Scots. Although the evidence is better than that for the Celtic-to-Old Norse shift, it is still challenging to settle conclusively many issues concerning the Norn-to-Scots shift, and various proposals have been put forward over the years. Clearly, the underlying cause of the shift was the cession of Shetland to Scotland, which led to increased orientation towards and immigration from mainland Scotland. Lowland Scots gradually became the language of power and administration in Shetland. The major points of contention concern the nature and time course of the shift. The main published accounts are those by Flom (1928–1929), Marwick (1929), Barnes (1984, 1996, 2010), Rendboe (1987), Smith (1996), Wiggen (2002), and Millar (2007, 2008). These are based on fragments of Norn, Shetland-related documents from the relevant time period written in Scandinavian languages, brief remarks by contemporary observers, and the societal conditions in Shetland at that time and their implications for language shift and maintenance. The most widely accepted view today is that a process of gradually increasing bilingualism, triggered by changing societal conditions, ultimately led to the demise of Norn no later than the period 1750–1800 (Barnes 1984: 354–355; 1989: 25–30; 2010). Among those suggesting an earlier time of extinction are Smith (1996), and among those proposing a later one are Flom (1928–1929), Marwick (1929), Rendboe (1987), and Wiggen (2002). Although most available evidence may arguably be considered to have been well examined by now (Barnes 2010), scholars continue to be drawn to this tantalizing topic (Millar 2007, 2008; Knooihuizen 2005, 2009, 2010) to which we will return in Chapter 2.

1.2.2 Shetland speech in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries

While published just into the twentieth century, Jakob Jakobsen’s work merits recognition in this category as well. Although Jakobsen’s main contributions are to lexicography, his work contains information on the pronunciation of the Shetland dialect. His analytical approach and presentation of information have received a fair amount of criticism for a lack of systematicity, as will be discussed further in Chapter 4. To some extent, this stems from the fact that his work predates the phonemic principle. In many of the lexical entries in his etymological dictionary, generous amounts of phonetic information are simply listed. In Jakobsen (1897a) and (1985 [1928–1932]), a brief outline of Shetland phonology is provided using a diachronic approach whereby contemporary reflexes of older forms are presented. Additionally, he includes comments on regional differences in pronunciation.
The Linguistic Survey of Scotland (LSS) included Shetland, and the results of its phonological part are presented by Mather and Speitel (1986). The phonological survey aimed at establishing the inventories of contrastive vowels in phonological positions defined by the following context, referred to as polysystems by Mather and Speitel (1986: xi). Additionally, the LSS sought to offer detailed phonetic information about the vowels in each polysystem. Ten Shetland localities, each represented by one informant, were included. The elicitation utilized direct questioning (Chambers & Trudgill 1980: 24), whereby the fieldworker asked the informant ‘how do you pronounce [word]’? A number of publications on Shetland speech have sprung from the LSS, most notably Catford (1957a, b, c) and Mather (1964). In his landmark paper (1957a), Catford presented a classificatory system for the vowel systems of regional dialects of Scots. In Chapter 5 this is reviewed in detail and expanded to accommodate additional intra-Shetlandic variation. Catford (1957b) is devoted entirely to the Shetland dialect. It contains significant suggestions regarding the Shetland dialect syllable structure and its relation to Norn, which is discussed in Chapter 5 and investigated acoustically in Chapter 7. Furthermore, Catford proposed regional subdivisions within the dialect’s vowel system, which are reviewed and assessed acoustically in Chapter 6. Despite the paper’s limited length and scope, Catford (1957b) managed to pinpoint many of the salient local pronunciation features and provide important detail on regional variation. In Catford (1957c) a brief, albeit useful, commentary on the language situation in Shetland was offered. Mather (1964) picked up where Catford left off, and his paper is devoted to additional suggestions on regional variation and subdivisions within Shetland and Orkney. In the present author’s opinion, Catford’s half-century old, relatively short papers remain the most accurate, succinct, and systematic accounts of Shetland phonology and regional variation, whose limitations derive mainly from their restricted scope. Paul Johnston Jr has made proposals for handling the data in Mather and Speitel (1986) which is less accessible owing to the phonological framework adopted by the LSS (Johnston 2000). Johnston has also made major contributions to the study of Scots historical and synchronic phonology, including aspects of the Shetland dialect (1997a, b), based on data from the LSS.
Gunnel Melchers of Stockholm University and Arne Kjell Foldvik of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology received funding in the early 1980s for a project entitled The Scandinavian Element in Shetland Dialect (Melchers 1983). One of their stated aims was to obtain denser regional coverage than previous research, and the ensuing fieldwork involved much of Shetland including Foula and Fair Isle, with local informants recruited through a network model (Melchers 1983: 21). On balance, the merits of the project include the better regional coverage and greater number of informants compared to the LSS, and the generally relaxed atmosphere in the recorded interviews (Sundkvist 2012a). Among its weaker points is the paucity of controlled speech material, which makes it difficult to examine structural aspects of the dialect as the LSS did. The project spawned many publications by Melchers on lexis (1986, 1987b, 1992a, 1995), grammar (1987c, 1992b), dialect spelling (1987a), the local language situation (1981, 1985), as well as phonology (1984) and regional variation (1996). Others have also utilized the data for research on lexis (Nässén 1983, 1989), pulmonic ingressive speech (Sundkvist 2012a), and for the construction of a text corpus (Oreström 1985).
Native Shetlander John Magnus Tait has authored papers on phonology, orthography, the language situation, and language policy; he has also produced both poetry and prose in the Shetland dialect and translated parts of the Bible into it. Most of Tait’s language-related papers concern or stem from the overarching goal of dialect preservation. Tait argued that an orthographic system specifically adapted for the Shetland dialect was a necessary part of revitalization efforts, and developed one based on classic phonemic principles (Pike 1947). The system is outlined in Tait (1999, 2000) and is applied in his translation of The Gospel According to Mark into the dialect (1999). Tait sets out detailed criticism of various aspects of previous analyses of the Shetland dialect vowel system by the LSS and Johnston (1997b). While quite commonly voiced by native Shetlanders during conversation, Tait appears to have published the first explicit suggestion that current language change, at least in Lerwick, involves a complete shift from a traditional (Scots) dialect to a (standardized) form of Scottish Standard English (SSE) (Tait 2001).
Around the turn of the millennium, a number of academic linguists were working on the Shetland dialect. Dianne Jonas published on synchronic and diachronic aspects of the verbal syntax (Jonas 2002), based on written texts and grammaticality judgement tasks administered during fieldwork. Klaske van Leyden investigated prosodic aspects of Insular Scots. Inspired by Catford’s (1957b) suggestion, van Leyden (2002) examined durational traces of Norn complementary quantity in a comparative study involving the dialects of Shetland, Orkney, and mainland Scotland, as well as Norwegian. The results were overall supportive of Catford’s claim for Shetland and discussed in terms of degrees of Norn trace and in relation to Norn’s time of extinction. Chapter 7 of the present book returns to this topic and addresses it from an intra-Shetlandic regional perspective. In a second study, van Leyden (2004) turned to the under-researched area of regional intonation variation. The comparison between Shetland, Orkney, and mainland Scots provided experimental support for the contention that the intonation of the Shetland dialect is perhaps somewhat ‘unremarkable’ (Melchers 2008a: 46; Melchers & Sundkvist 2010: 29; Graham 2009: xx). Additionally, it provided further insight into the pitch contour associated with the characteristic Orkney ‘lilt’ or ‘singsong’ intonation.
Sundkvist (2004) is based on a judgement sample of middle-aged, middle-class speakers who were born and had lived all or nearly all of their lives in Lerwick, and who were all frequent, yet highly localized, speakers of SSE, and at the same time clearly bidialectal. The speakers displayed a phonemic inventory and in many ways lexical distribution towards mainland SSE, while on the phonetic level, however, they maintained many of the salient, localized Shetland features. Much of the original analysis presented in this book stems from a research project on Scandinavian features in Shetland phonology, which was completed in 2012. In addition, the author of this study has carried out research on pulmonic ingressive speech in Shetland, the phenomenon of speaking while simultaneously inhaling. The inquiry focused on languages and language varieties spoken around the North Sea and North Atlantic, partly with the aim of obtaining objective documentation for a feature whose existence, with the exception of the Nordic countries, remains supported almost exclusively by written sources and personal testimonies. Evidence in the form of audio recordings was found for both Shetland and Orkney. Chapter 5 returns to ingressive speech and offers acoustic illustrations.
More recently Ragnhild Ljosland at the University of the Highlands and Islands has initiated The Orkney and Shetland Dialect Corpus Project Scoping Study, and has published on the grammar of the Shetland and Orkney dialects, including grammatical gender (2012/2013) and the be-perfect construction and its possible origin (2017). While limited information is available at the present time, Viveka Velupillai of the University of Giessen has launched a project focusing on language change and typology, based on archival, oral history recordings and contemporary Shetland speech (2019).
A number of more popular publications have made important contributions and also benefited the academic study of Shetland speech. The introduction to John J. Graham’s The Shetland Dictionary touches upon several matters including regional pronunciation variation and proposals for a Shetlandic orthographic system. Since its first publication in 1979, Graham’s wordlist has served as a resource for those working on the dialect, for instance in the construction of elicitation material. Additional resources include the more recently published Shetland Words: A Dictionary of the Shetland Dialect (2010, revised 2014) by Alastair and Adaline Christie-Johnston and Mirds o Wirds: A Shetland Dialect Word Book (2014).

1.2.3 Current change

The issue that undoubtedly has attracted the greatest attention during the twenty-first century is current language change. Commentary on this topic is plentiful in the local press, internet forums, and daily conversation. The discussion commonly involves a perceived decline or even extinction of the traditional dialect. While various...

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