23rd April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

New study claims Shetland accent could die out in 30 years

The Shetland accent is in danger of dying out within 30 years, according to a new study by an Aberdeen University student.

James Brown is a language and linguistics scholar with isles connections.

James Brown with his dialect research report.

James Brown with his dialect research report.

He says the Shetland accent is rapidly disappearing and may be gone altogether by 2045.

Mr Brown, whose mother is from Hamnavoe in Burra, examined recordings from a number of Shetland speakers in his research.

He first became interested in the accent change while listening to a BBC Radio Shetland interview about music events at Mareel.

“I have always loved Shetland and the accent and when I heard a girl around my age being interviewed on the radio I was surprised at how similar our accents were.

“She was from Shetland and didn’t have an accent and I grew up in Aberdeenshire but don’t have a strong accent at all.

“Neither of our accents are very broad for where we grew up, and yet we sounded similar despite growing up hundreds of miles apart.

“I found that a lot of Shetlanders feel the accent is changing but aren’t sure why. I wanted to write a paper which proved whether the accent really was changing.”

Shetland linguistics run in the family as Mr Brown’s uncle, John Tait, is also a linguist whose paper on so-called soft mutation, written in 2000, was used by Mr Brown to prove that the accent is changing.

“When Scots say ‘bat’ and ‘bad’ they use the same AH vowel for both words, but Shetlanders say ‘bad’ with something more like an EH sound. This happens for a few other vowels as well. My uncle called this process ‘soft mutation’. My study proves that younger speakers use soft mutation far less than older speakers.”

Mr Brown arranged for recordings of Shetlanders across a range of ages to be made. He then compared the recordings to Scots of a similar age.

He believes the loss of the accent is due to immigration to the isles from Scotland in the 1970s.

“Accents always change for a reason. That girl’s mum wasn’t from Shetland so that’s when I started thinking that immigration after the oil boom in the 1970s was having a noticeable effect on the Shetland accent.

“I believe the accent changed because Shetlanders married non-Shetlanders and had children whose accents were a mix of the two. This continues until the accent disappears.”

Mr Brown intends take his studies in linguistics further, and hopes to examine the Shetland accent as part of a PhD.

“I really enjoyed my dissertation and would love to go back to the isles for more in-depth research. The accent is so musical to listen to and it would be a shame to see it go.”

• The study can be read free online here

17 comments

  1. Robert Laurenson

    Exactly my point in my letter i wrote more than a year ago, its a part of our culture and part of belonging somewhere, once its gone its gone, every part of the uk and ireland has its own sound and dialect in some form, some stronger than others, shetlanders have fallen into a trap of thinking we have to speak the queens english to get ahead but they couldnt be more wrong, losing the dialect is losing shetlands identity and people are just standing by watching it happen quite happy that it is happening in some cases.

    Reply
  2. Melanie Poleson

    I am from “sooth” and married a Shetlander and all 3 children speak with a strong Shetland accent. No mixing up here. The study should also take into consideration the amount of television that children might be allowed to watch nowadays, as well as youtube and such like. They are influenced by accents from all over the world almost from birth. They have access 24/7. Years ago televisions were a rare commodity and watching it was a treat and not used as a babysitter. Now almost every young person has a phone/ipad/ipod. Also, there is a lot more of travel and communication between communities nowadays so the youth are no longer growing up hearing their own dialect for the majority of the time but constantly interacting with other accents and influencing one another until anything discerning becomes blurred. That, however, assumes they are still talking verbally and not just communicating via snapchat etc..

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  3. Brian Smith

    A vast amount of empirical research is needed before it can concluded that ‘immigration after the oil boom in the 1970s was having a noticeable effect on the Shetland accent’. I have a suspicion that such theories are like other theories about ‘immigrants’: ideology. The reader who says that television and other modern media need to be investigated is on the right lines, I believe.

    Reply
  4. ALISON Laurenson

    I married a Shetlander and both my children have Shetland accents although the elder of the two has less of an accent than the younger. We moved to Shetland from Aberdeen when the eldest was4 and the youngest two so maybe exposure to accents at an early age plays its part also.

    Reply
    • Robin Barclay

      Interesting. My grandchildren went to nursery in England but had returned to Scotland before starting school. Both retain a lot of the English regional (northwest) accent they picked up at nursery despite not being exposed to it at home (they are now in secondary school). I think there is a strong influence when communicating with their peers at that early age. Maybe it would help if there was a policy to speak Shetland in nurseries there – why no? Maybe Shetlanders need to be a bit more aggressive about defending their culture – take some lessons from the Gaels. Far more of the children attend pre-school nursery now, and maybe it isn’t good for the dialect if those children are expected to converse in English. I never thought about it but I guess being a Shetland dialect speaker might make me bilingual (I’m certainly enjoying re-discovering familiar words on “Wir Midder Tongue”) and it did me no harm (as far as I can tell). Some say it is good for you. Shetlanders who are English-only speakers should respect the dialect and the opportunity for their bairns to pick it up.

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    • Johan Adamson

      I have twins. Pre-school one spoke exactly like the BBC and the other one spoke dialect, strongly influenced by the childminder. Charlie and Lola (Cbeebies) will be forever spoken about with a London accent and without an R. Now none of them speak dialect at all and laugh and me and grannies strange wast side way of saying buits and da fluyer etc

      Reply
  5. David B Spence

    I was attracted to this story because I believe the opposite, in my experience the Shetland Dialect is something younger people today take a great pride in.

    What has happened is that young people are almost bilingual, there is a very toned down “proper english” way of speaking that is used when talking to strangers for the first time, or in mixed groups of people, online, or anywhere non-dialect speakers will be listening.

    Yet when together with local friends (including texting, which just happens to suit Shetland dialect very well), they are as broad as they come.

    So, I wouldn’t say its dying out at all, merely it is evolving to ensure its survival well into the future.

    Reply
  6. David Spence

    There is a saying ‘ Kill the language, you kill the Culture ‘.

    However, I would say, as Melanie has pointed out, there are so many influences affecting how the Shetland dialect is being affected by technology, movement of people, travelling etc etc. One of the largest impacts on the dialect or language has been education, and children brought up to speak ‘ the Queens English ‘, as large parts of the west and north/west of Scotland has proven. This has also affected Wales and Northern Ireland.

    Personally, I wish the education system would accommodate more local dynamics which make such a location unique. Especially in Shetland and its isolation from mainland UK. However, since everything nowadays is strongly influenced by economics, a model of one fits all is the status quo.

    Cultural diversity maybe a positive attribute to have, but where does one draw the line between this changing diversity and keeping hold of what makes Shetland unique?

    Reply
  7. Allen Fraser

    Twang is certainly deein oot – eence you could tell whit perrish soomeen cam fae wi dir twang, noo you canna.

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  8. John James

    What Will Happen If Scotland Go Independent To Sales Of Shetland Ponies To The UK? They Would Have To Be Exported Then Imported At The Border? Will This Turn Buyers From Purchasing Direct From The Islands And From The Sales?

    Reply
  9. Susan Manson

    When I went to school you weren’t allowed to use shetland dialect in the classroom as it wasn’t ‘proper’ english. I only left school about 10 years ago and I imagine the rule still applies today.

    Reply
  10. Neil Johnstone

    Unfortunately the same thing is happening here in Orkney

    Reply
  11. Haydn Gear

    When the English made inroads into Wales (South Wales valleys in particular) strenuous efforts were made to stamp out the Welsh language and school children were punished if they did not speak English even though they spoke Welsh at home.All of this was at the behest of the “powerful and influential rulers in England. The more recent interlopers from England ironically try to learn Welsh in order to fit in. It usually fails dismally and these people bringing their Queen’s English with them with hardly a trace of accent still try to rule the roost by joining various groups in trying to ingratiate themselves. What escapes them is that Welsh was once the language of Britain but things change and evolve for good or bad. Both my late wife and were born and raised in Wales but our children were born and raised in Yorkshire. As a consequence of that they have Yorkshire accents. That said, there are very many localised accents. For example, Huddersfield, Hull, Bradford, Leeds and most other places are instantly recognisable.The world has shrunk and words , verbs and accents shrink too. Personally,I love the variety of Welsh accents and I’m sure that Shetlanders feel the same way about accents too.Even though it will be a sad event, I know I shall hear many accents different from mine when I visit Aberfan on October 21st. I was there 50 years ago.What really matters is what is in your heart and soul , not the sounds that come out of your mouth.

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  12. Ali Inkster

    “The more recent interlopers from England ironically try to learn Welsh in order to fit in. It usually fails dismally and these people bringing their Queen’s English with them with hardly a trace of accent still try to rule the roost by joining various groups in trying to ingratiate themselves. ”

    Imagine the faux outrage you could express if I had said the like about soothmoothers. 🙂

    Reply
    • ian tinkler

      Good point, Ali, but then you are not Anglophobic. Like most people of Shetland you speak your mind plainly and fairly. Like myself, I hope, you can be just as rude or polite to all, with absolute equivalence, depending on circumstance, without any prejudice whatsoever. Incidentally, the name Inkster is pure Viking. No surprises there.

      Reply
  13. ian tinkler

    Hadyn Gear, I thought you should know the facts about the Welsh language and The Welsh Valleys. You appear to be blaming the English for everything here!! That is sad, especially as your name “Gear”, is actually a Middle English name!! Below are the actual facts, not the invention of Anglophobic!
    “Immigrant workers flocked to the mining areas in search of work. They came from Ireland, the English Midlands and from Scotland. In 1801 the population of Monmouthshire was 45,000. A hundred years later it had increased to 450,000. The flood of immigrants swamped the native Welsh speaking inhabitants and in much of South Wales the ancient language became a distant memory. After the 1890s, many immigrants came from England, particularly from Somerset, Gloucestershire and Cornwall. People also came from further afield, such as Ireland, Scotland and even Australia. In Dowlais and Abercrave, there were communities of Spaniards. In Merthyr, there were small communities of Russians, Poles and French in many of the Valley towns, Italians set up Cafes… (http://www.agor.org.uk/cwm/themes/life/society/migration.asp), (http://www.data-wales.co.uk/valley1.htm), (https://www.houseofnames.com/gear-family-crest)

    Reply
  14. Haydn Gear

    Ian, I’m fairly certain that I do know the facts about the Welsh valleys but thank you for trying to educate me. Not bad for a tinker (Tinkler ) whose ancestors used to mend pots and pans !! Just a few observations if I may:: (1). The name Gear most Certainly does have a number of variants but one significant one does not appear in the heraldic list. Like all names that have travelled and morphed you may or may not know of the number of people called Gear on Shetland, notably Peter and Bryan the famous fiddlers and Councillor Jim Gear of Foula along with many more. (2) In Wales, there is a variation to Gear in the form of Gaer. There is tangible evidence that Iron Age people left behind a spectacular site near Llandeilo, one being Y Gaer Fach and the other Y Gaer Fawr viz the small and the big hill forts. There is evidence to support the belief that Gear is derived from Gaer. I have been recorded as a seventh generation Gear/Gaer in South Wales. Take your pick ! (3) The movement of people is so well known that it barely needs needs to be repeated and South Wales was ands still is the main target area.Going back in time. The iron master Crawshay Bailey was a prime mover in the establishment of the Dowlais and Merthyr iron works which effectively gave rise to the Industrial Revolution. Bailey is buried in St. Faith’s churchyard in my village of Llanfoist. My reference to incomers was aimed primarily at today’s crop who sell up in southern England,buy property in Wales , live off their profits and try to throw their weight around. They can be a pain in the a**e. Finally Ian, I’d be obliged if you would spell my name correctly It’s Haydn not Hadyn and it is the Welsh version of the Celtic Aidan. Pob lwc a lechyd da Ian

    Reply

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