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Shetlandic

In older articles on this website - mainly those taken from my former website - I often used the word 'Shetlandic.' However, I consider that what I used to call “Shetlandic” - in the sense of a common perception of the Shetland dialects - can now be definitively said not to exist.

The reason I say that “Shetlandic” does not exist is because that term is not accepted, and indeed is actively resented, by most people in Shetland, including many of those who see themselves as proponents of “dialect”. As both the term “Shetlandic” and the native term “Shaetlan” (for which 'Shetlandic' is the only practical English translation) have fallen out of favour, being replaced by the unqualified term “dialect” I think it is fair to say that the concept they embodied (that is, a concept of the Shetland tongue as a whole and in contradistinction to other forms of speech) does not exist, because the loss of the terms suggests that that concept no longer exists in the apprehension of Shetlanders.

A fairly typical comment by a well-known Scottish broadcaster (Tom Morton) living in Shetland is as follows:

“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 clearly states the position of the established Shetland/Scots Anglophone hegemony - that “dialect” is simply “varying forms”, and that any suggestion that it might have a distinctive grammar or pronunciation is the attempts of purists and prescriptionists - such as myself - “ to control, and by implication, stifle it. (This is more or less an echo of the views of the most prominent proponents of Scots, although they continue to use the term “Scots.”) Linguistically this is, of course, nonsense; but as mythology it serves the purpose of making certain that the speech forms of Shetland can never rise to a level which would threaten the total and absolute domination of standard English - which, of course, is the area of competence of Scottish broadcasters living in Shetland.

Some comments from the Shetlink forum:

“I also despise people calling the dialect “Shetlandic”. I don”t know why, I just don”t like that word. One of my flatmates is from Turriff and told me she”d heard someplace that this was the “proper” word for it - to which I replied that no one I know refers to the dialect with this term.”

"Shetlandic is a bit offputting because it's so obviously a political term."

Question:

"I've seen suggestions (also on this forum in postings from 2007) that many people find "Shetlandic" be problematic. What I'm trying to ascertain is really how problematic. Is it so offensive that it would keep a person from buying a book? Say, if Wind and the Willows were translated and the front cover said "Translated into Shetlandic by William Burgess"—would "Shetlandic" mar the book irretrievably?"

Answers:

It would elicit a groan, in much the same way that calling the islands 'the Shetlands' elicits a groan from locals.

And:

"Were any book on offer having "Translated into Shetlandic" on the cover, while it might not stop me from buying it, it would certainly strongly discourage me from doing so, on no other grounds than if the translator was happy for their work to be put on sale with a description of that particular wording on the cover, I would have serious doubts of their knowledge and understanding of the language, and the contents wouldn't be of any particularly worthwhile quality."


And from the Readers' Views pages of the Shetland Times, 19th Jan 2007:

"As a non-local, local and having lived in Shetland for 26 years I have always been interested in the local dialect and I read with interest Neil Anderson's letter on Shetland dialect in last week's Shetland Times.

"I...was interested in his referral to us as "Shetlandic". Does this mean people from Scotland are now Scotlandic or is the correct term for us "Shettish"? If people from France are French then maybe we are all "Shetch."
...

"Please note all the underlined words are the ones my computer underlined in red as it didn't know them - maybe a new Shetlandic version of Microsoft Office could be comisioned by the SIC allowing us to write our letters to The Shetland Times in local dialect.

"Instead of defragging our hard drive we could have a Muckle Redd Up icon. I'm sure that would make for an interesting meeting for all the local councillors. Maybe a trip to Microsoft head office in Seattle on expenses is required?"

The tone suggests that the writer can assume a readership that will share his view that the 'reductio ad absurdum' which he is attempting proves the use of the term to be ridiculous, derisable and objectionable. The fact that this 'non-local, local' (sic) felt the urge to write such a comment on the appearance of a single letter containing the word 'Shetlandic' in the press demonstrates the aversion - one might almost say, fear - which it engenders, and suggests why it is not more widely used.

I should explain that the late John J. Graham (regarded as the “doyen” of Shetland dialect promotion) used both “Shetland dialect” and “Shetlandic” in his writings on the subject. Many past (eg: Haldane Burgess: Rasmie's Büddie - poems in the Shetlandic) and current (eg: Robert Alan Jamieson, Christine de Luca) writers have also used the term 'Shetlandic'. In this collection of Shetland poems there is a poem from a former era in the demise of the Shetland tongue by Rhoda Bulter (who has been called 'the Queen of Shetland Verse') with the title 'Shetlandic.'  But public opinion has clearly rejected the term 'Shetlandic', with its connotations of status and identity, in favour of the umbrella term “dialect” (now often used without any qualification such as “Shetland dialect” or even “the dialect”) with the opposite connotations. So I often see or hear simply “talking dialect.” Of course, you don”t hear anyone referring to the use of standard English as “talking language.” English has a name and identity, “dialect” does not.

The term “dialect” has also taken over substantially in speech from the native term “Shaetlan.” Interestingly, at a dialect conference I attended in 2004, the only speaker I can recollect using the term “Shaetlan”, apart from myself, was a young incomer from England who had learned to speak it very well. She had probably learned the term as used by native speakers in Yell where she lived, and - perhaps because she was not involved in the machinery of dialect promotion and its association with mainstream nomenclature - had not made the transition to the ascendant and more politically correct 'dialect'. I have even heard people say “Sh-dialect” - ie, starting to say “Shaetlan” and then altering to “dialect” in mid-word - presumably starting off with the natural term and then switching to the one now perceived as being more acceptable.

It seems to be that, whereas the natural term 'Shaetlan' lingers on in the sticks among more traditional speakers, the word 'dialect' has been adopted almost wholesale by ShetlandForWirds. From one of their communications:

- We previously agreed to give a prize for the best dialect performance at this year”s Schools Music Festival to be held 8-12 March
- X explained that some time ago Visit Shetland had approached SFW with a view to producing items with dialect texts
- X will update the Action Plan for the dialect project accordingly.
- Most heritage centres have shops and would probably be pleased to stock dialect items
- The web address will be either shetlanddialect.org.uk or shetlanddialect.co.uk...the fact that X is a dialect speaker is a big advantage.
- X is scheduled to hold an evening class this winter on Writing for Bairns in Dialect, suitable for 8-14 year olds

With regard to the general apprehension of “dialect” as a written medium, the following comments were made by Drew Ratter, a well-known public figure (native “dialect” speaker and PhD in a literary subject) in the Spaekalation column of the Shetland Times, with regard to why Shetland has never produced a prominent novelist (Orkney has produced at least two, and at least one prominent poet.)

“And it is not really suitable for writing, the Shetland dialect....writers in dialect irritate. X can make it readable, by some magic, but most add unjustifiable emphasis and archaisms, and in any case, English is our written tongue, the one we are trained to read.”

With this comment, the writer was dismissing by implication a number of highly regarded (not only in Shetland) Shetland dialect writers - unless, that is, they were also possessed of the “some sort of magic” which enables dialect writing and which is out of the reach of ordinary irritating mortals, or were exempted owing to being dead. The fact that there were no replies to this in the letters page next week, and the only article in reply concentrated on the literary aspect and scarcely mentioned “dialect”, demonstrates how widely this view of written dialect is tacitly accepted in Shetland.

This illustrates the value of the unqualified term “dialect” to the mouthpieces of the prevailing Anglophone hegemony. Because it is “dialect” and not “language” it can be exempted from all the characteristics of “language”. Not only does it have no grammar, but if a writer in it is found to be irritating, this is attributed to the medium rather than the writer, because “dialect” is per se unsuitable for writing. And if someone is found who does not irritate, then, as this cannot be attributed to competence because written competence in a medium which is not suitable for writing would be a contradiction in terms, it must be attributed to “magic.”

As, then, the term “Shetlandic” is offensive in the common perception of Shetland society, as reflected in the unchallenged comments of its intelligentsia; and the native term 'Shaetlan' appears to be falling out of use and being replaced by 'dialect', I take the view that the concept embodied by these terms - that is, an identifiable speech form characteristic of a place called Shetland - can fairly be said not to exist.






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