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Should Norn be revived?


Should Norn Be Revived?  

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  1. 1. Should Norn Be Revived?

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People settling in the isles learn to understand our speech, just as they would if going to live in France or Germany.

There's a crucial difference in that an Englishman moving to Germany will not only learn to understand German, they'll learn to speak it as well. An Englishman moving to Shetland will learn to understand Shetland, but is unlikely to learn to speak it, partly because accents are very hard for adults to master, and partly because there is no pressing need, as Shetlanders understand standard English perfectly well.


All true. Nevertheless, I think the reasons people who come to Shetland don't often speak our language are more complex than has been recognised. Anybody could learn Shetland/Shaetlan/dialect and speak it if they chose, regardless of accent - accent and pronounciation is only a part of our speech. The fact that Shetlander's tend to deride 'soothmoothers spikkin Shaetlan' has been discussed on this forum, and this is a factor in non-Shetlanders not speaking the tongue. I think there are reasons for this (perhaps self-defeating) attitude. Modern Shetlanders continue to cast peats, croft etc. when few of them have a real economic need to do so. Anthropologists have noted this apparent 'paradox', and have posited that Shetlanders still practise these activities as a way of not only expressing their cultural identity, but of maintaining cultural 'boundaries' between themselves and others. After all, how many of us have heard the criticisms of the sooth mans paet bank- 'na, na he's no doin yon richt - maist o his paets is athin da greff'. This is part of the same phenomenon as deriding the amateur dialect speaker - an almost subconscious drive to identify, to recognise, and ultimately to classify as Shetlander or 'other'. Whether this is a behavioural remnant of a society bedevilled by oppressive lairds (most of whom, and many of whose henchmen) didn't sound like Shetlanders, who can say? This pattern of isolationist behaviour may be part of a naturally-occurring cultural defence mechanism, but in actual fact is resulting in the rapid loss of that self -same culture. All aspects of a culture must adapt to survive and to propagate, especially if they're tiny in terms of members, and no longer distant, like our own.


Similarly, I can tell myself that my native speech is as good a language as any, but the words of my teachers still ring in my ears -'spik properly boy' (although a lot of them struggled to knapp themselves), and I'm sure this is part of why I still knapp to 'sooth fokk', rather than relying on them knowing my own tongue.


I'd think that many Germans nowadays would speak good English, and there might 'be no pressing need' to learn German if in that country, but few of use would persist in doggedly speaking English if we lived there, even if most Germans 'understood it perfectly well'. It's more a question of attitude. Because of the attitudes of people coming to Shetland, and of Shetlanders themselves, standard English is dominant, and will eventually be the only tongue spoken here.

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I agree with both EvilInky and joenorth's posts above. However, there is another aspect to it.


In the past, it was the case that incomers learned to understand 'Brod Shaetlan' while few of them learned to speak it. They had to learn to understand it, or rather, couldn't avoid learning to even if they'd wanted to, because the vast majority of the population spoke it almost all the time. In a situation where everyone understands a tongue, there's no convincing reason why anyone shouldn't speak it if they want to. This is part of the 'default' situation that I was talking about earlier.


This meant that the Shetland situation was different from that in either Germany or Wales. Because incomers could learn to understand Shetland in a short time, their presence had little or no effect in stopping native speakers from speaking it. In Germany, on the other hand, an incomer would naturally learn both to understand and speak it, because it's a national language and Germans are unlikely to stop speaking it just to suit incomers (although the advance of English might even call this into question - my wife works with someone who worked for years in Iceland and never learned Icelandic.) In the case of Welsh and Gaelic the opposite happened - because the Welsh and Gaels spoke fluent English, and because many English speakers considered that they had a right to understand everything that was being said within earshot, the pressure of English and the monoglot English-speaking attitude swamped these languages. Shaetlan, however, didn't have that problem because incomers could understand it without having to learn it formally or being able to speak it. Perhaps this is why Shetland was never branded with the accusation of inhospitability which the Welsh and Gaels sometimes get for speaking their own language when there happens to be an English speaker within 100 yards downwind.


Nowadays, however, the situation is completely different. I've already quoted the case of the English resident in Lerwick who commented that 'polite people speak to you in English.' In other words, with the general decline in Shetland speaking among the population, it's no longer necessary for incomers even to understand traditional (as opposed to drastically diluted) Shetland speech, and this increases the idea that it would be rude to speak it to them, or when they're within earshot. This isn't a distinction between incomers and others, either - many younger Shetlanders whose lineage goes back to Ragnar Hairybreeks or whoever (I claim that mine goes back to Jan Teit of bear fame!) may not be able to understand it very well either.


One result of this is that speaking Shetland on the radio, pioneered by Mary Blance, has become little more than a joke in my opinion. The concensus seems to be that it's OK to sprinkle in the odd Shetlandism as long as it doesn't interfere with things being understood by someone who has just stepped off the boat. And the fact that the (alleged) non-dialect policy of SIBC is not only tolerated but probably not even noticed by Shetlanders speaks for itself. You can talk all you like about dialect groups, dialect officers and gaer boxes - the fact that the one and only local radio station in a place with a declining language (calling it 'dialect' is just an excuse) is not only allowed but encouraged to function entirely in English demonstrates the derisory regard that Shetlanders in fact have for their native tongue.


The nub of the problem is failure to make a distinction between English on the one hand and something called Shaetlan and/or Shetlandic on the other. The characterisation of the native speech as a dialect of something - it doesn't much matter whether it's English or Scots - means that it can be patronised in areas where it doesn't do any harm (like this forum, or 'peerie hirnek' as I think it was called by someone) and excluded from or diluted out of significance in any area which is regarded as being of any importance.


To return to the Nordic theme, I have heard tell of Faroese, who know perfectly well that we have a form of speech which is radically different from standard English, being amazed that we don't use it on the radio. It's not the Norn language that we need. Reviving Norn would be the equivalent of the English reviving Anglo Saxon - except that there's a lot known about Anglo Saxon. It's the attitude of the Welsh and Faroese to their own, living languages that we would - when it was still possible, maybe as little as twenty years ago - have needed to have even a ghost of a chance of stemming the death of the midder tongue.

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I think that if a particular form of speech can't find a 'cultural carrier', to give it relevance to younger people (be that specific cultural practices, or popular adoption as a worthy indicator of identity) it will inevitably die.

I suppose this is not about the 'cultural carrier' - as DePooperit has shown elsewhere, you can translate practically any text into the dialect. Writing about nuclear physics or relativity theory in the dialect (or even Norn) is technically possible, just create a few new terms and here we go. There are examples of minor languages being spoken beside a bigger one(s) and acquiring all the modern terminology (the closest example is Faroese) provided that neither the 'dat auld dirt' attitude is prevailing towards the language nor is its usage discouraged by the educational system (i.e. subjective factors). You will hardly find a young Faroeman who thinks his grandparents' language isn't cool, even despite the fact he will go abroad to study in Danish or English and these are the languages most of the mass/web media he gets are written in. He speaks his mother tongue to his relatives and friends, writes newspaper articles in it, composes songs etc, maintaining its area of usage.


Or may be the problem is that your young people don't consider the dialect their grandparents speak to be a parallel form of speech, perhaps they perceive it as a rural socialect (or say, slang): f.ex. in their minds "peerie" would refer to sheep and "little" to bikes and cellphones?


I haven't met any young Shetlanders who think the language of their grandparents is cool. Few Shetlanders today need to use traditional words to refer to traditional activities. The lack of the 'great Shetland novel' has been debated on this forum. Our tongue has no relevance to many young Shetlanders - it has no popular cultural media to sustain it.

Hasn't John Graham published a few novels in the dialect? Or they were not great enough ;)

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I'm interested in Norn;


Thing is... take Cornish as an example. Cornish has a greater wealth of historical literature than Norn, but the modern Cornish isn't the same that was spoken in 1500. A large number of words have been adopted from English, and other languages, to bring Cornish up to date.

The same is true of Breton, where a large number of Welsh words were adopted.


So, I don't think it really matters whether or not Norn would bear 100% resembelance to the historic language. Personally, I think there is enough data to revive the language, and there does seem to be a lot of interest, at least, more than I expected.


I believe that this would have a lot of advantages for Shetlanders. They could, for example, read all the other Nordic languages with little difficulty, which is a tremendous skill. Imagine being able to read articles and books in Swedish, Faroese and Danish, that's something which most British people do not even think of.

One might argue that one may as well learn Norwegian instead of Norn, although I can't see the point in this, as, in essence they are both dialects of the same ancestor, Old West Norse, and Norwegian was never spoken in Shetland.

This would also enable Shetlanders to connect with their culture much easier, in the same way that Gaidhlig allows its speakers to do. It would also make learning other language easier.


The dialect issue comes to mind however. The fact that the dialect has already replaced Norn, would mean Shetland does essentially already have 'two' languages, although unfortunatly the Shaetlan language is apparently, and in my opinion, wrongly called a 'dialect'. If Shaetlan was encouraged in School more, used in signage, literature and was purified a bit more, then maybe Shaetlan would serve as Shetland's official language instead of Norn. I'm a bit undecicive as to whether Norn or Shaetlan would be better :D



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  • 1 month later...

I thought this might be of interest to some and it's the first translations of Genesis Ch1 and Matthew Ch1 into Nynorn.


I have to say it's very, very good even though I'm no expert!. There are one or two small things I'm not too happy with, for example they have "dee"(you) as "dor" for some reason. Why it couldn't just be dee and du like we use....




Now why couldn't this language be taught in our own schools someday?.

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  • 1 month later...

Folks, the Gaelic looks to be heading the same road as Norn. Despite millions of pounds thrown at it, terminal shrinkage looks irreversable. The youngsters are reluctant to use it and Urban Gaelic schools, with kids bussed in is an artificial situation. The kids are returned home and can speak Gaelic to nobody. Learning a language, whilst a good thing in itself, should surely be of some use. Eire, I think, has the same problem. wullie m

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Folks, the Gaelic looks to be heading the same road as Norn. Despite millions of pounds thrown at it, terminal shrinkage looks irreversable. The youngsters are reluctant to use it and Urban Gaelic schools, with kids bussed in is an artificial situation. The kids are returned home and can speak Gaelic to nobody. Learning a language, whilst a good thing in itself, should surely be of some use. Eire, I think, has the same problem. wullie m


Eire mostly does but the Aran Islands on the west coast still speak gaelic. It was the first time I had met people whos first language was gaelic. They all speak it and I went to a beginners class but everyone there could already speak quite a bit and they were learners so I didn't bother, lazy perhaps but still know a few phrases.

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  • 4 weeks later...
Radio Scotland programme "Norn But Not Forgotten: Sounds of Shetland" which was broadcast earlier today - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00thpw1/Norn_But_Not_Forgotten_Sounds_of_Shetland/


Programme info - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-11111965

Has anyone downloaded it? I missed the program and now it's no longer available on that link.

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  • 1 month later...
Should we revive pictlandic?

Go ahead crofter: http://alexmidd.co.uk/kaledonag/index.html :)


while u're at it, why not try cumbric and 'ancient british' as well?




or even (New-) Norn http://norn-english.webs.com/learnbasicnynorn.htm


Obviously, dead languages are in these days :roll:

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  • 3 weeks later...

Hey guys, I'm back! I can't believe this thread is still going!


Sorry for not being around, but I was in China over the summer, and university work kept me away from Norn for the last month.


I finished the paper earlier this summer. If you guys want, I'd be happy to post it here.


So right now, I'm trying to get funding from my university to come to Shetland and do a sociolinguistic study of Shetland dialect use vs. attitude toward Norn. Hopefully, someday soon, I can talk to some of you in person--it would be an honor!

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