Christine De Luca is a poet who writes in Shetlandic, which is spoken in the Shetland Isles off the north coast of Scotland. We asked her about the dialect.
What is Shetlandic?
Shetlandic, or Shetland dialect, could be described as Old Scots (which is related to Middle English) with a strong Norse influence. It's a waageng (aftertaste) of Norn, an extinct North Germanic language spoken in Shetland until the 18th century.
It is arguably the most distinctive variant of Scots, reflecting the islands' history. Shetland and Orkney were part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom until 1469, when they were pawned by the Danish king to the Scottish crown as part of a marriage settlement. Scots, with their legal system, influential merchants and lairds (and language), gradually moved into the islands. Their influence was stronger in Orkney, because Shetland was considerably more isolated.
While there were movements in Western Norway and Faroe in the late 19th century to standardise the written form of the spoken tongue, Shetland was somewhat laissez-faire. Today, most Shetlanders probably consider their mother tongue to be a dialect. Most of their writing is in English.
Does a dialect need protecting?
In terms of spoken language, there seemed little need to steward our dialect until relatively recently, after the developments onshore in the 1970s following the discovery of North Sea oil. I grew up in rural 1950s Shetland and, at that time, it was widely spoken by all sections of society. English was the language of the classroom and of formal occasions, but most people were comfortable speaking their mother tongue in the community. It was, in terms of the spoken word at least, a largely bilingual environment. However, there were few fluent readers and writers.
Today it is fascinating to discover how Scandinavian writers I have met perceive the Shetland tongue – they see it as a cousin language, recognisable yet strange. While their own languages are to an extent mutually comprehensible, they sense both something very familiar and yet different in Shetlandic. They also consider there to be more difference between Shetlandic and Standard English than between their own languages.
Is it a dialect or a language?
I tend to use the words dialect and language interchangeably, to reflect what seems at times a somewhat arbitrary distinction.
How similar is it to other northern European languages?
Even beyond Scandinavia, through the Germanic route, I am often suddenly amazed by the almost exact replication of sound. On Facebook, a Frisian friend labelled a photograph of his daughter as I might have, ‘Myn jongste dochter’.
The sound patterns in Icelandic also seem familiar, muscular and evocative. For comparison, here is the opening stanza of an Icelandic translation of a poem I wrote in Shetlandic, Dore Holm affa Aeshaness, with the translation by Aðalsteinn Ásberg Sigurðsson:
a shield o skerries
headbutts da Atlantic
Da holm oppens a door
on ta St Magnus Bay
A sword trowe da heart.
Here's the Icelandic version:
skjöldur af skerjum
Hólmurinn opnar dyr
út að Sankti Magnúsar-flóa
Sverði lagt hjarta.
Norwegian too, Bokmål and Nynorsk, also has that affinity, particularly in sound. Here’s a small extract of a simple Shetlandic poem, in which a lobster fisherman is admiring his creels:
A’m med forty creel da year
till me haands is harned.
Stackit apö da pier der
a wirk o art. A’ll pooter oot da voe
eftir mi day’s wark, set dem
roond da skerry an Burwick Holm
mark dem wi bowes.
I’ve made forty creels this year
till my hands are calloused.
Stacked upon the pier they are
a work of art. I’ll chug out the sea loch
after my day’s work, set them
round the reef and Burwick Holm,
mark them with floats.
And in Norwegian (Nynorsk translated by Odd Goksøyr):
Eg har laga meg førti korger i år
til fingrane mine dovna.
Stabla på moloen er dei
eit kunstverk. Eg dunkar ut fjorden
etter at arbeidet er gjort, set dei
rundt skjera og Burwick Holm,
merker dei med bøyer.
These versions have a compactness and directness which is quite different from translations into Romance languages like French or Italian.
How has the dialect changed over the past 50 years?
Shetland was ill-prepared for the linguistic onslaught of the 1970s and 1980s, which accompanied the economic upturn following the discovery of North Sea Oil. The proportion of mother tongue speakers became lower and schools became almost dialect ‘no-go’ areas, as teachers arrived from south. Local parents started talking to their children solely in English, probably thinking they were helping them. This was misguided, as bilingualism is a positive aspect of education. In the language policy vacuum of this period, a group of volunteers set up a forum called Shetland ForWirds, which took action to stem the dialect's decline and raise its profile.
Why is writing in dialect important?
Shetlandic is still a living spoken tongue, but we cannot take that for granted. Many people write in dialect on social media, but generally, English remains the medium of written communication. A written literature is therefore crucial in retaining, reflecting and extending the dialect's power. It is a struggle to be consistent with spelling without many online resources; but we should not let writing conventions get in the way of extending the levels of literacy among children growing up in Shetland.
What do you find distinctive and beautiful about Shetlandic?
Many Shetlandic words are onomatopoeic: the sounds and movements, moods and feelings stirred. It is also good at ‘tone’: verbs such as ta fyaarm (to fawn), ta kyoder (to show fondness with an edge of insincerity) or nouns like frimse (a display of peevishness); or the adjective pleepsit (always complaining).
Sounds are evocative, like snyirk (noun and verb for 'creak'). I love the sounds in my mouth; the long vowels, percussive consonants, and sinewy diphthongs. I also love its intimate, familiar form of ‘you’, and its directness and immediacy. There are no abstractions: for example, Hit’s göd ta lay you doon in your ain calf grund means ‘it’s good to be home’ or, more profoundly, ‘it’s good to feel comfortable in your identity’.
What are the challenges of writing in a dialect like Shetlandic?
There are several problems when it comes to publishing in Shetlandic. It can be seen as a niche market – just for local people, with small, unprofitable print runs. There are low literacy levels in Shetlandic, little funding to create resources for children, and not enough specialist help in schools. Most mainstream publishers see it as marginal. However, the joys of writing in Shetlandic far outweigh the difficulties. And with a little help, non-native speakers of English can usually understand Shetlandic quite well when they hear it.
Christine will attend the Reykjavik International Literary Festival from 6 to 9 September 2017, supported by the British Council.