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Not that long ago, in a charity bookshop in Elgin, I bought a book entitled Scotspeak - A Guide to the Pronunciation of Modern Urban Scots by Christine Robinson and Carol Ann Crawford, published by the Scots Language Resource Centre, which had once belonged to a student at the Highland Theological College - part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Investigating (aka googling) further, I found that this book was the only set coursebook, apart from the Concise Scots Dictionary, in a course in Scottish cultural studies which I had helped to set up, and which had been intended to emphasise the languages of the Highlands and Islands, including Orkney and Shetland. The book, originally written for actors, contained samples of speech from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, with notes emphasising important features such as glottal stops. Particularly interesting was the following:

As anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows, strong verbs, the ones that change their vowels to make past tense or past participle, are very difficult to learn. English and Scots have both been making themselves easier over the years. Some strong verbs have become weak like Old English smeocan (to smoke). It used to have hit smeicth (it smokes), hit smeac (it smoked) hie smucon (they smoked) and the past participle was smocen. Thank goodness English is getting easier!

If we compare the Scots past tense and past participle of gi(v)e, which for many speakers are both gied, with the English gave and given, we can see that, in this instance, Scots is just a bit further down the road of simplification.

I gied him the ticket. (Nan)

What Nan is doing in

A never telt big John

is making a weak verb out of tell. Occasionally Scots lags behind. For example, many Scots still use gotten as the past participle of get.

Scotspeak, p. 29.

The statement 'As anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows' is somewhat perplexing, as many foreign, and indeed families of foreign, languages have no strong verbs. That aside, however, it is not difficult to see what is happening here. Not only does a course which was supposed to emphasise the tongues of the Northern Isles have as its set book a text on the urban dialects of Mainland Scotland, that book explicitly states that forms characteristic of the more traditional varieties are 'lagging behind.' So forms like 'I done it', 'I seen it,', 'I've gave them' are progressive ('Further down the road of simplification' than standard English, which, 'thank goodness', is getting easier) whereas traditional Shetland forms like' I'm gotten', 'I'm pitten', and the distinction between the preterite (gied) and past participle (gien) of the verb gie are retrograde.

It is one of the precepts of the postmodern dialect perception that one dialect is as good as another. In this case, this is revealed to be disingenuous, in that the Central Belt pundits who provide the theoretical framework for dialect promotion in Shetland clearly believe that Central Belt Urban is more progressive than the 'lagging behind' varieties still lingering in the sticks. And this, I repeat, is from the set book in a course which was supposed to emphasise the tongues of the Northern Isles. I assume that the authors would be able to find some convincing reason why their criterion for progression and retardation of language does not apply to languages such as German, Icelandic and Faroese, which it would appear at first sight to categorise as severely retarded.

In view of this, the appropriate name for a body which sets out to promote dialect in Shetland clearly ought to be ShetlandBackWirds.

(May 2011)