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Shetland Identity

Shetland Identity and (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect)

About ten years ago, I was asked to take part in a consultation process for the University of the Highlands and Islands on linguistic and cultural identity. This was an unfortunate accident. Rather than contacting the Arts Trust as he probably should have done, the convener of the working group asked John Goodlad if he knew anyone who could represent Shetland language issues in the UHI alongside Gaelic. Because I had just written two articles for the New Shetlander in my native tongue (a short-lived experiment, as the third was cancelled when the Grahams gave up the editorship) John suggested that I join the UHI working group.

Here I am already running into difficulties. I have been forced to use the phrase "language issues" in connection with Shetland. However, almost anyone will tell you that Shetland does not have language issues because it does not have a language but a dialect. Rather like saying that you don’t have dog issues because the animal that bit you wasn’t a dog, it was a Pekingese. So to avoid the derisive reaction  that status words like "language" and "Shetlandic" elicit from the Shetland media, I will use the interactive phrase (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect). Readers may omit or include bracketed words and letters as they choose.

Though initially reluctant, I attended the UHI working group, which consisted mostly of Gaels, and helped to write a policy for the UHI on linguistic and cultural identity. Much of the emphasis of the policy was on local ownership of local culture and what I inadvisedly called "language". In the event, however, the effort was delegated to Orkney college who drafted in academics from Edinburgh. The policy was made short shrift of, and my former work with a Scots spelling committee made the object of derision in conversation in the bar. It had also become clear that, from a Shetland point of view, the UHI was a poisoned chalice.

Discouraged by this, I even more reluctantly agreed to speak at the dialect conference, Dialect ’04. Here I was surprised when the first speaker, Brian Smith (County Archivist and co-editor of the New Shetlander) used some of my writing from the UHI as a "perfect example" - not of writing in (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect), but of what Willie Thompson had described as a "horrible abortion". The phrase which elicited this comment was "ta lay up ... a university". Brian commented "You maybe lay up a sock, or a collection of riddles, but you never, ever lay up a university."

(The relevant paper, on the ShetlandForWirds website, is here)

The implications of this are clear. "Dialect" is seen as an inflexible medium where expressions like "lay up" are fossilised in certain once-familiar phrases, mostly connected with activities of the past. If you try to adapt any of these words or expressions to modern life, you are creating an "abortion." Ironic, considering that Dialect ‘04 was subtitled "the development of the Shetland dialect."

If Brian and Willie had spent less time with their beards stuck in books and more listening to "Coonty men", they might have heard the bucket of a digger referred to humorously as the "neb" and the mouth of a pipe as the "truinie" - exactly the sort of development that led to Latin testa, an earthenware pot, becoming the modern French tête, head. Even without leaving the library, they might have noticed that all our abstract English words - which Willie considers "dialect" to be incapable of expressing - refer originally to simple things. The Latin comprehend, for example, means basically to grasp - or "yock a had o", as your friendly neighbourhood abortionist might say.

Abstract concepts are expressed either by metaphorically extending meaning in this way, or by borrowing from another language - such as Latin - that has already done so. The only reason (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect) cannot do either is because, being consigned to the Cinderella category of "dialect", it is not allowed to. If it extends it is an "abortion", and if it borrows it is no longer "dialect."

This is exactly the attitude of the Aald Yarl in my fable of Sheltie Prattle. It is not easy to see any conclusion to it other than extinction - which is perhaps why Brian maintains, contrary to the evidence of his and everyone else’s elementary senses, that (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect) isn’t dying out. I suspect that the real situation is better described by Andrew Watt’s comment at the same conference: that dialect in Shetland is now something that "a few people in school still speak and are generally made fun of for doing so." His own more positive view Andrew attributed to growing up in Africa.

The main point of the paper I gave at Dialect ‘04 was that the native tongue used to be called "Shaetlan", with the phrase "The Shetland Dialect" being necessary only when speaking or writing English. Now, however, it is increasingly referred to just as "dialect" -  rather as you might talk about "the wife" rather than using her name.

I argued that this reflects a change in attitude in Shetland society, from seeing the native tongue as a particular entity connected with Shetland identity, to seeing it simply as non-standard speech. I also argued that, in popular (as opposed to academic) usage, the unqualified word "dialect" implies a form of speech which has no identity or definition; can’t be consolidated, taught or promoted; is fundamentally characterised by illiteracy; and is so vague a concept that it can’t even be said to die out.

The conference in fact agreed - or at least, somebody suggested and nobody disagreed - to use the word "Shaetlan" (though they would have spelt it Shetlan.) However, when I return to Shetland, I notice that my friends who are engaged in promoting (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect) still, and perhaps increasingly, refer to it simply as "dialect".

Andrew Watt’s fresh viewpoint and immunity from Scottish prejudices enabled him to see another obvious point - that "standardisation of spelling and grammar for the whole Shetland dialect would have to take place before it could be properly taught." Faroese professor Jóhan Hendrik Poulsen had already explained how a common orthography, rather than killing off dialect variation as Scottish literary dogma teaches, actually enables the various Faroese dialects to flourish. He also explained that this depended on using a cross-dialect spelling rather than allowing one local dialect, such as the one around Tórshavn, to be seen as a default standard. Following the conference, I submitted some thoughts on Shetland spelling to the new dialect group. Fortunately perhaps, this has escaped the opprobrium earned by my Scots spelling involvement by being ignored entirely.

So what does all this have to do with Shetland identity? Isn’t it just an embarrassing, self-pitying diatribe (or pleepsit roed, as I would call it if I wasn’t afraid that somebody would use it as a bad example) by a misguided sad old expatriate purist prescriptionist fart?

Certainly Shetland popular opinion would seem to suggest so. Typical comments from people who knew I was interested in (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect) have been: "Hit’s deein oot, an hit’s laekly a guid thing"; "If you teach it dat’ll kill it aff" and "Weel, I’m no sayin I’m wantin it ta dee oot, bit..." Many people find only the dialect of their own immediate area acceptable, and object far more if their children pick up pronunciations from other parts of Shetland than if they speak only standard English. Some still object to the use of dialect on Radio Shetland, but nobody seems to object to SIBC which, I am told, has a non-dialect policy. Overall, the message is clear. Whether we are better off without it or not, it’s not something we want to make an unseemly fuss about. In the UHI, I argued for local ownership of Shetland culture, and if this is what Shetlanders want I have no right to object.

Perhaps it is precisely the idea of Shetland identity which has become unacceptable. In the UHI, one staff member described the cultural and linguistic identity effort as "Balkanisation". This is echoed in the "Save us from dialect fascists" comment elicited by the Arts Trust literature report. And in the most recent New Shetlander, Jim Mainland writes a story where ShetlandForWirds, starting off as a "moaderit bunch", is infiltrated by extremists who create a Shetland-speaking police state where "knappin" is forbidden. The existing monolithic linguistic culture is so ingrained, and its prejudices so immune from critical examination, that any attempt to promote a smaller one can be represented as being at one remove from Mussolini.

At any rate, the embarrassment - sometimes barely disguised anger - which surrounds the idea of promoting (The) (Sh(a)etlan(d(ic))) (D/dialect) is often palpable. Perhaps increasing use of the unqualified category word "dialect" is an attempt to avoid this reaction by acknowledging its inferiority. As the wicked sisters in Sheltie Prattle say, we call her Di-a-Lack because she has a lack. What will we call it when even "dialect" doesn’t seem subservient enough? "Slang", perhaps, would be regarded as cooler by young people. But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that.

Perhaps if Shaetlan had been given a kirsen strood and called by name at some point in the relatively recent past, then what now manifests itself as embarrassment would have become enthusiasm. But we will never know. As it is, without the focus of either a written or cultural identity, it is difficult to see why Shetlanders in general should want to be associated with anything as vague and nameless as "dialect" any more than we should take an interest in stamp collecting or crochet.

As for this sad old fart, he’s moving with the times. I’ve taken up flight simulation.

J.M. Tait, July 2007

(This article was originally commissioned by Shetland Life magazine.)

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