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Shaetlan is Daed - Translation

Shaetlan is Daed - Lang live Dialect

Shetlandic is dead - Long live Dialect.

John Magnus Tait

In an article about Scots sociolinguistics, Jim Miller contrasts the Public and the linguistic concepts of dialects - that is, what linguists mean by the word, compared to what people in general think it means. He writes:

According to the public concept, dialects have no grammar or at best partial rules of grammar, possess a small vocabulary, are unwritten, and enjoy a limited range of uses. Languages, in contrast, have grammar rules and a wide vocabulary, are written, and are used in any situation, including those in which dialects are used.

Miller goes on to disagree with this public concept of dialect. However, it seems to me that, whatever linguists might mean by the word ‘dialect’, it’s the public concept of dialect which we have to work with, because if we use the word at all, it’s that public concept which people think we mean. What implications, then, does the word ‘dialect’ have?

1. Dialect has no identity.

Miller points out that the contrast between dialect and language comes about only where one language has emerged as the written standard. In other words, to call a language a dialect is just what you call it from the viewpoint of another, standard form of language.

Now, I can’t remember ever having a good memory, but I do seem to remember that when I was young we spoke Shaetlan - we needed the word ‘dialect’ only if we were speaking English, when we would usually call it ‘The Shetland Dialect.’ When we were speaking Shaetlan, the distinction between dialect and language didn’t arise - it was an artefact of translation, a distinction which appeared only when you were looking at Shetlandic from an English-language viewpoint. The word ‘dialect’ implies that one language is a left-over scrap of another language. It’s a purely relative term, which becomes relevant only when you are looking at a language from an external viewpoint.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed that an increasing number of people use the word ‘dialect’ to describe the Shetland tongue even when they’re speaking (or writing) Shetlandic. Where people once spoke about ‘spaekin Shaetlan’, now they usually spaek about ‘spaekin da dialect’ or even just ‘spaekin dialect.’ To me, this demonstrates a change which has come over how Shetland people regard their native tongue. Whereas when I was young it was Shaetlan - that is, its association was with the place, because it was the language which nearly all Shetlanders spoke - now it’s ‘dialect’ - that is, the perspective seems to have shifted from internal - the local viewpoint - to external - the UK viewpoint, and from being associated with the place, to being assigned to a certain category of language. And where Shetlandic was once the language which Shetlanders spoke, now it’s a dialect which some Shetlanders speak. In other words, from being a dialect from a UK point of view in a national context, it’s now dialect even from a Shetland point of view, even within the Shetland context.

So where the word ‘dialect’ used to be an English description of the Shetland tongue, now it has displaced the word ‘Shaetlan’ as the name - not just the description - of that tongue. This means that, instead of speaking about a Shetland tongue which has a connotation of Shetland identity, we’re speaking about dialect, which has a connotation of primitiveness, even within its own native area.

2. Dialect has no definition.

Miller particularly disagrees with the idea that dialects have no grammar. He writes:

The varieties of English and French (and other languages) that emerged as standard languages did not acquire grammatical rules just when they became standard languages; they already had a grammar. The other varieties did not lose their grammars just because they were not chosen as the standard.

But again, if we use the word ‘dialect’, it’s the public concept of that word which we must work with. To show how I think the word ‘dialect’ differs from the word ‘Shaetlan’, I’m going to give you a few examples of different kinds of speech which you might (or might not) hear in Shetland. They’r all based on what the parking warden might have said.

The first example is “I’ve booked all those folk who were wrongly parked.”

This is just standard English. Of course, technically standard English is a dialect too, but as we all know, that’s not what we mean when we say ‘dialect’.

The second example is “I’m beukit aa dem at wis wrang parkit.”

This is what I would call Shaetlan - that is, what we called Shaetlan when I lived in Shetland. The characteristics which distinguish it from standard English are:

1. The verb ta be instead of to have (or for that matter ta hiv) to make the perfect tense - that is, ‘I’m beukit’ for English ‘I’ve booked.’

2. Syllabic ‘it’ endings on verbs which end with p, t. k, b, d and g sounds. So ‘beukit’ and ‘parkit’ for English ‘booked’ and ‘parked.’

3. ‘aa’ for English ‘all’

4. ‘dem’ instead of English ‘those’. Notice that there are two differences here. Firstly, the phonology of the word is different from the English ‘them’; and secondly, there’s a grammatical difference in the way the sentence is put together.

4. ‘at’ for English ‘who’.

6. ‘dem at wis parkit’ for English ‘those who were parked.’ In other words, a singular verb with a plural subject.

7. ‘wrang’ used adverbially for English ‘wrongly.’

Most of these characteristics are recorded in Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect (GUSD for short - or FLAN* as we would say) and you can see them in writers of traditional Shetlandic like J.W. Leask. This is how I spoke when I was a child, how I still speak, and what I would have called, and would still call, Shaetlan.

(*FLAN - my attempt at a joke. Flan is a Shetland word which means ‘gust of wind.’)

The third example is “I’ve booked aa those wha wir wrongly parked.”

This is grammatically exactly the same as the first, standard English, one. The only differences are ‘aa’ for ‘all’ and ‘wha wir’ for ‘who were.’ In other words, the differences are only in the pronunciation. Yet I suspect that most people would still say that this was dialect - and here we’re coming closer to what we actually mean when we say ‘dialect’. What we mean is, in effect, anything which is obviously closely related to English, but different from standard English.

The fourth example is “I’ve booked aa dem fock whit wir wrong parked.”

This has two characteristics - ‘dem’ before ‘fock’ and ‘whit’ as a relative pronon - which are neither traditional Shetlandic nor standard English, though they are common in other kinds of non-standard English. But again, I suspect that most people would say that this was dialect; and maybe - because of the pronunciations of ‘dem’, ‘fock’ and ‘whit’ - they would say that it was Shetland Dialect.

You’ll notice, by the way, that none of these examples, including the one which I’ve called Shaetlan, contains any non-English words. This is not because I don’t think that words are important. It’s to emphasise the fact that grammar is just as important a characteristic of the Shetland tongue as words are.

Koen Zondag makes this same point in an article about bilingualism in Friesland. He says, “Lexical interference only damages the surface of a language, whilst morphological, phonological and syntactic interference attack its very roots.” In other words, as long as the skeleton is whole you can always put a little more flesh upon it, but once it’s maimed, all you’re left with is an impoverished, lame person who can scarcely limp between the bed and the fireplace.

3. Dialect can’t be consolidated.

If we were speaking here about something called Shaetlan, which we might translate into English as Shetlandic, and if we believed that this tongue was dying out, then we would be busy identifying the characteristics of Shetlandic, and coming up with structured teaching material so that they would be passed on to children. In other words, we would be strengthening the skeleton, as well as feeding the body.

But of course we’re not - we’re speaking about ‘dialect’. And as we know, in the public concept of the word, dialect is like a jellyfish - it has no bones, no grammar.

Ton Morton illustrates this public concept of dialect in one of his ‘Nippy Sweetie’ articles in the Shetland Times. He writes:

How much of a gesture is Shetlandic, to give the varying forms of dialect a jarringly jargonistic name? It will never be a consistent set of grammatical rules and pronunciation. It is not and never has been, though there have been various attempts to control it, to render it in some kind of set form.

This statement does a lot to reinforce the public concept of dialect.

Firstly, it denigrates any attempt to use any word except ‘dialect’ to describe the Shetland tongue. This means that any examples from other places in the world where mother tongues have been revitalised - such as Faroe, Catalonia, Friesland, Wales - are seen as being irrelevant, because they are languages, and Shaetlan is a dialect. And if you try to escape from this vicious circle by using the word Shetlandic, everything you write can be dismissed as ‘jargon’.

Secondly, it points out that ‘dialect’ consists of ‘varying forms’. The word ‘dialect’ here is like a collective noun - a word like ‘water’ or maybe better ‘mist’, which refers to uncountable things which all run together, and which you can’t get a hold of.

Thirdly, since dialect doesn’t have any consistent grammar and pronunciation, then any attempt to write this grammar and pronunciation down - such as in Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect, or on my own website, or the appendices to my Guid Unkens efter Mark, or in my article ‘Some Characteristics of the Shetlandic Vowel System’ in Scottish Language 19 - all this must be (in Morton’s words) to ‘control’ it, to ‘restrict’ it, or to ‘invent their own versions of it, as part of a reclamation process.’

In other words, you mustn’t call Shaetlan anything except a dialect, and anything which you do with a language which is known as a dialect, other than leave it alone, must be artificial. This is an inevitable consequence of the public concept of dialect.

4. Dialect can’t be promoted.

If the word ‘dialect’ has inherent in its meaning the idea of non-standardness - and it does - then that means that many of the things we say about it don’t make sense. For example, in the literature report we get phrases like “standardised system of dialect”; “standard Shetland dialect”; “dialect policy”; and “dialect strategy.” I don’t know whether these phrases came from Alex (Cluness, the author of the report) or his sources, but to me they sound like contradictions in terms. Because if you standardise a dialect, then it’s not a dialect any longer - it’s a language. The word ‘dialect’ has the effect of making the possibility of policy, strategy, spelling, standards, or anything systematic to do with Shetlandic sound out of the question before they can even be spoken about.

5. Dialect is infinitely variable.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that, when people don’t speak about ‘spaekin dialect’ they speak about ‘spaekin Burra’ or ‘spaekin Whaalsa’ or similar. This is what I call micro-dialect. You can break down the word ‘dialect’ as far as you like - East Burra, West Burra, South West Burra, North West Burra, Hamnavoe. I’ve heard it said that teaching Shetlandic would kill it off, because if - for example - you have a Burra teacher speaking Burra dialect to children in Whalsay, that would kill off the Whalsay dialect. We put up with all kinds of different pronunciations of English words - English, Scottish, American - yet we can’t put up with Shetland pronunciations from other isles. This is because we don’t have a concept of Shetlandic as a whole. And while we try to preserve our micro-dialects from other micro-dialects, standard English is killing them all off.

And then there’s what I call macro-dialect. As well as being able to narrow down dialect as much as we like, we can widen it as much as we like. So while we cry about Burra teachers spoiling the Whalsay dialect, children at school are reading The Steamie and Tom Leonard. (Both Glasgow dialect)

In other words, for lack of a consolidated entity which we can call ‘Shaetlan’ - or ‘Shetlandic’ when we’re writing about it in English - we’re really speaking about anything, or everything, or nothing. In computing they speak about GIGO - ‘garbage in, garbage out’ (or ‘bruck in, bruck oot’ as we might say if we could speak about modern things like computers in dialect.) In an educational context, what children learn about dialect can only be AIAO - anything in, anything out.

6. You can’t teach dialect.

If the word ‘dialect’ can include everything except standard English, then it can never be wrong. And if it can never be wrong, then you can’t teach it. You can’t mis-spell a language which has no spelling. You can’t make grammatical mistakes in a language which has no grammar. And you can’t use the wrong word in a language which has no vocabulary. I might consider that the phrase ‘I’m gotten a staenloopen i mi luif’ is Shaetlan, and ‘I’ve got a blister on my palm’ is English; but ‘I’m got a blister on mi palm’ is no doubt dialect. If I come across the phrase ‘no very muckle’ written in a context where it’s obviously supposed to mean ‘not very big’ than who am I to say that that’s a mistake, because muckle meaning big is never used predicatively, and therefore ‘no very muckle’ always means ‘not very much’? It can’t be a mistake, because you can’t make mistakes in a grammarless dialect. If someone spells ‘plaet’ as P-L-I-T, as if it rhymed with ‘bit’ instead of with ‘baet’, what’s wrong with that? It’s dialect, and you can write it any way you like.

In an article ‘The Demography of Scots’ in Scottish Language 19, Dr Caroline Macafee writes

The idea of ‘bad’ Scots (parallel to ‘bad English’) has generally been rejected outside narrow activist circles as educationally damaging and out of step with progressive, sociologically-informed thinking.

This may sound very progressive in a footnote in an academic journal, but what it means in practice is that, if you correct children’s English, you’re helping their education, whereas if you were to correct their Scots or Shetlandic, that would be damaging them educationally. This allows English to be taught just as it always has been, but prevents Scots or Shetlandic from ever being taught. It means that it’s still wrong to put Shetlandisms in English writing, but all right to put Anglicisms in Shetland writing. It ensures the sacrosanct status of standard English as not only the standard, but the only form of language that has any standards at all.

Contrast Koen Zondag’s comment on bilingual education in Friesland:

If a child makes a mistake in Frisian in grades 1 to 6 (ie, from 4 to 10 years of age), the teacher has to correct the word and/or sentence by repeating it in the correct way.

When we read that teachers in Friesland in the late 1800s spoke about ‘That insufferable Frisian dialect’ which ‘puts so many obstacles in the way of instruction in the Dutch language’, we can see the contrast in approach between places where people are making a serious attempt to revitalise their own tongues, and the precarious ideologies which influence how we think about ‘dialect’ in Shetland. What is progressive language policy in Friesland would be ‘narrow activism’ in Scotland.

The SOED paper on English Language states,

Far from diminishing the significance of English, an understanding of the operations of dialects will enrich awareness of the need for a standard form of language.

That ‘standard form of langauge’ is, of course, standard English. In the Scottish educational system, learning about dialects is just another way of reinforcing the existing position of English as the only language which you can identify, define, promote, read or write fluently, or teach actively.

7. Dialect can’t die out.

In the same ‘Nippy Sweetie’ article, Tom Morton writes:

There will always be a Shetland dialect, just as there will always be some form of distinctive Ayrshire speech, Caithnessian usage, Lallans or Doric.

Tom Morton can say this without fear of contradiction, because ‘Shetland dialect’ is such an unclear and misty term that it can mean anything. So you could always claim that there was a ‘Shetland dialect’, even if it consisted of phrases like ‘I seen all dem fock whit done da burglary.’ (Note: the grammar in this phrase is neither traditional Shetlandic nor standard English. It raised a chuckle from the audience.). The public concept of dialect means that it has no identity, and so any variation from standard English can still be called ‘Shetland dialect.’ So when what I call Shaetlan is dead, you’ll still be able to say - long live dialect.

8. People who speak dialect needn’t be able to read or write it.

There is one aspect of the public concept of dialect with which Miller does agree. He writes:

In a given country the language is the variety used in both speech and writing...Dialects are typically used only in speech in domestic conversation, at the workplace among the blue-collar workforce, or in local shops.

Someone once said that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. I would argue that, in practice, we think on a dialect as a language if it has a recognised written form. On the other hand, we think on a language as a dialect if it has no written form.

In the same ‘Nippy Sweetie’ article, Tom Morton speaks about the problems of writing in dialect.

There is the temptation to render the dialect thought in the English that may not come naturally in speech, but certainly does when written or word processed. Writing in dialect is forever dealing with the tension between the sound of the words and how to put them on the page. And with the temptation to write for the sake of the dialect form rather than for emotional, intellectual, poetic content.

I should probably say here (or perhaps I shouldn’t) that Tom Morton praises one of my own poems as being one where ‘the joins between thoughts, speech and the printed words are mostly invisible.’ Ah, but you see, I cheated. I practiced writing Shetlandic beforehand.

If Shaetlan was a language, rather than a dialect, then what Morton is describing here would be called ‘illiteracy’, and there would be an outcry for something to be done about it. But literacy in a dialect would be another contradiction in terms. So this problem of the tension between the spoken and the written word can never be addressed under the public dialect concept, because that concept rules it out.

I used to argue with Shetlanders that we should give Shaetlan a working orthography. I’ve long since given that up, because the argument always went the same way.

To begin with, people would argue that you couldn’t give Shaetlan a standard spelling because that would mean that you were standardising the dialects - in other words, you would have to base the spelling on one dialect - a central Mainland one, say - and that one would come to be a standard which would do away with all the others.

Then I would go on to show then that this wasn’t the case - that, in fact, having a standard spelling could have the opposite effect, if only it was properly designed in the first place.

The best example of this is the double AA spelling. I write this in words like baak, baarn, taaties, faa - all words in which some Shetland dialects have an ‘aa’ sound, and others an ‘aw’ sound. This means that the double AA spelling could be a standard spelling for words which are pronounced ‘aa’ in some dialects and ‘aw’ in others, and that would mean that you would only need to have one book printed for children in all parts of Shetland to be able to read it with their own pronunciation.

On the Migrant CD by the Shetland band Shoormal, there’s a song called Bohus. Freda Leask, who sings this song, has a lot of ‘aw’ sounds in words like faa (fall) and maas (seagulls), but in the cover of the CD, these words are written down with a double AA. She seems to have no bother reading these words out with her own pronunciation. Furthermore, she has no ‘ch’ (voiceless velar or palatal fricative - [x] or [c]) in words like dicht (wipe), fecht (fight) etc; yet these words are written with a CH in them, even though she doesn’t pronounce it. But if I suggest that we should follow this practical example, and write words like baak (beam, balk) with a double AA whether we say them ‘aa’ or ‘aw’, and words like fecht with a CH whether we say the ‘ch’ sound or not, everybody always agrees with each other, and against me, that that would obviously be silly. What we accept without thinking about in a language - for example, the different pronunciations of words like ‘more’ and ‘there’ in Scottish and English accents - we cringe away from when we’re speaking about dialect.

(Note: the -ocht and -echt combinations are pronounced variously ‘owt’/’eyt’, ‘echt’/’ocht’ and ‘eytht’/owtht’ in different parts of Shetland.)

What I eventually realised was that people don’t argue against this because they really think that it can’t be done. The fact is that they don’t want it to be done, and you can’t argue against that. Most people who want Shetlandic to live on seem to want it to live on as a dialect - or rather, a lot of different dialects - that is, without any of the status which we associate with language like Welsh, Gaelic, Faroese, Catalan, Frisian - or anywhere else where speakers are revitalising their mother tongues by giving them a decent suit of clothes. I would like to see any evidence from anywhere that this idea that dialects can be revitalised as dialects is anything other than a fantasy.

Of course, the irony is that children would have no bother with any of this. They would have no problem pronouncing T-O-C-H-T as ‘towt’ or ‘tocht’ according to their own dialect, any more than Freda Leask does. They would have no problem saying B-A-A-K as either ‘baak’ or ‘bawk’, or H A E L as ‘hale’, ‘hel’ or ‘heel’. It would take just one generation of children to establish literacy in Shetland. But under the public dialect concept and the Scottish anti-orthographic ideology, that can never happen

I’ll probably have to say something here about this Scottish anti-orthographic ideology, because I suspect it lies behind much of how we think about this in Shetland. When Faroe revitalised her mother tongue, she had the example of Iceland to follow. We, on the other hand, are obliged to follow the example of Lowland Scotland. Of course, there are many different opinions about Scots in Scotland. Derrick McClure has argued for Scots orthography and language development for decades, and both he and John Law were on the same Scots spelling committee as I was. But the view of most of the academic and literary establishment is that written Scots has a place in creative writing, but English must be used for everything else. This is of course the opposite of the approach which has been effective in places like Faroe.

One of the most influential figures in Scots Language circles just now is James Robertson, and this is what he has to say about spelling:

One argument against a standardisation of Scots spelling is that one of the language’s very strengths lies in its flexibility and its less-than-respectable status: writers turn to it because it offers a refuge for linguistic individualism, anarchism, nomadism and hedonism.

In other words, Scots is to be kept in an untidy state not for the sake of those who speak it, but for the sake of a minority of writers who want to exploit its ‘less-than-respectable’ status. This attitude to language is sometimes called negative prestige. The best known examples of this are of course Tom Leonard and Irvine Welsh. Tom Leonard in particular writes what I would call ‘up yours’ language - deliberately spelt so as to suggest this down-town, anti-establishment attitude.

It’s a good question how many people who actually speak like this read Leonard’s poems. In any case, it’s certainly ironic how this kind of thing has become fashionable among mostly middle class English speaking literary people, in what has been called a ‘literary love of squalor.’ I would leave it to you to consider whether this is the kind of example we want to follow for our mother tongue.

The idea that orthography and creative writing are incompatible is a myth which seems to be ingrained in the Scottish academic and literary psyche. In an article called ‘Lea the Leid Alane’ (Leave the Language alone - a warning directed at those like myself who want to meddle with the Scots language by giving it an orthography) in Lallans 57, Dr Caroline Macafee writes,

But wad creative writers walcome a monolithic Staundart Scots? Tak tent at this wad mean giein up experimental ‘phonetic’ writin, likes o Tom Leonard’s; shockin ad hoc rendeitions o urban slang, likes o Irvine Welsh’s; an faithfu, feckfu writins in local dialecks, likes o Sheena Blackhall’s. Ah hae ma douts.

But would creative writers welcome a monolithic standard Scots? Note that this would mean giving up experimental ‘phonetic’ writing like Tom Leonard’s; shocking ad hoc renditions of urban slang like Irvine Welsh’s; and faithful, effective writings in local dialects, like Sheena Blackhall’s. I doubt it.

This is another of the false dichotomies which teem within Scottish writing about the subject. Exactly why the existence of a standard spelling - whether for Scots or Shetlandic - should mean that writers would have to give up experimental writing is far from obvious. In fact, the whole idea is a load of rubbish! Writers who want to record the kind of down-town urban demotic which is in literary vogue at the moment will do that whether there is a standard spelling or not. The idea that a standard spelling would choke (literally: overcome with smoke) experimental writing is just another ideological illogicality. But the lack of a standard spelling strangles literacy in the mother tongue.


Is the Shetland tongue dead then? No, it’s not - not yet. But it’s not full of life either. The idea that the Shetland tongue is already as good as dead (an idea frequently heard in Shetland) and the idea that it’s full of life and energy (an idea frequently expressed by Brian Smith in particular) are both myths to reinforce the same conclusion - that you can’t, mustn’t, needn’t, or shouldn’t do anything serious about it. It’s not dead yet. But if you half-shut your eyes, you can easily see the apparition of death creeping in over the floor, dragging its entrails behind it, like Hosie of Houbinsetter in Lang Lies Lowrie at da Mill (old Shetland folk tale - printed in Shetland Folk Book no. 8))

In The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland, Michael P. Barnes writes:

The reason Norn died ... was because the Northern Isles became more and more orientated towards Scotland ... as ties with Scandinavia ... weakened, the motivation to perpetuate a low-prestige vernacular with no official status or written form disappeared.

A low-prestige vernacular with no official status or written form.” That’s as good a definition of the public concept of dialect as I’ve heard. That’s certainly what Shetlandic is just now. And if no will exists in Shetland to give it that prestige, that official status, and that written form, then talk about ‘preservin da dialect’ is like the corn-dust which the breath of wind blew from the winnowing cloth in Psalm One; and all our deliberations (difficult to translate - literally something like ‘mutterings’) at this conference will carry as much weight as the model boats which children used to carve for toys.

Thank you, and God be with you.

John M. Tait.


Barnes, Michael P. The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland, The Shetland Times Ltd, 1998.

Cluness, Alex. Developing Literature in Shetland, Shetland Arts Trust, 2000.

Graham, J.J. and Robertson, T.A. Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect, The Shetland Times Ltd, 1991.

Macafee, Caroline I. ‘Lea the Leid Alane’ in Lallans 57, edited by John Law, The Scots Language Society, 2000.

Macafee, Caroline I. ‘The Demography of Scots’ in Scottish Language 19, edited by J. Derrick McClure, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2000.

Miller, Jim, ‘Scots: a sociolinguistic perspective’ in The Scots Language, its place in education, edited by Liz Niven and Robin Jackson, 1998.

Morton, Tom, Dialect left them both thunderstruck, du kens, in The Shetland Times, 13th June 2003.

Robertson, James, ed. A Tongue in yer Heid, B&W Publishing, Edinburgh, 1994

Sinclair, G.M. ‘Lang Lies Lowrie at da Mill’ in Shetland Folk Book VIII edited by John J. Graham and Jim Tait, Shetland Folk Society, 1988.

Tait, John M. (trans), Guid Unkens efter Mark - Mark’s Gospel in Shetlandic, 1999.

Tait, John M. ‘Some Characteristics of the Shetlandic Vowel System’ in Scottish Language 19, edited by J. Derrick McClure, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2000.

Tait, John M. Inbuis ta Shaetlan, website at www.wirhoose.co.uk

Zondag, Koen, ‘Issues of bilingualism’ in The Scots Language, its place in education Edited by Liz Niven and Robin Jackson, 1998.