Editorial: The language question

A recent academic study has concluded that, in the case of young Lerwegians at least, the use of Shetland dialect appears to be on the decline (as outlined by the report’s authors on page 35 this month). This would appear to confirm anecdotal evidence that a generic Anglo-Scots is replacing dialect among young people, particularly in the town.

In a sense this is hardly surprising, and there are many factors to which this trend can be attributed: increased exposure to non-Shetland cultural influences, most notably television (though this is nothing new, and certainly not limited to Lerwick); changes in lifestyle; educational influences; and increased personal contact with non-dialect speakers, at home and in school.

This last factor is what many would class as the most significant element in changing the way youngsters speak, and I would tend to agree (this is probably why regional accents in the UK tend to be stronger in large cities where there are more speakers, and in small communities with fewer residents from outside). But this is also a factor about which very little can be done. There are many people in Shetland who were not born here, or whose parents were not born here, and that number is not likely to decrease any time soon. Indeed, quite the opposite.

Much work has been done, and is still being done, to try and promote dialect use among youngsters, and there is clearly an irony in the fact that older generations, who were forbidden from using dialect in school, are far more likely to speak it today than those young people who are now being encouraged to do so.

But what strikes me as odd, particularly given the level of concern many people feel about this trend, is the degree of hostility that still exists towards the idea of people who were not born in Shetland learning and speaking dialect themselves.

Despite the good work being done by Shetland ForWirds, and particularly Laureen Johnson’s dialect night-classes, there is still a very strong antipathy towards non-native dialect speakers. This is most often manifested in a quiet tutting or cringing when an individual is brave enough to give it a go, but in private many will go further and suggest that it simply should not or even cannot be done (I have heard it said, in all seriousness, that folk without Shetland genes are physiologically incapable of pronouncing Shetland words).

When I was at school we were given dialect poetry to read in class, but those of us who had the “wrong” accents were never expected to fully participate in the lesson. We were never asked to read out loud (perhaps to save us from being ridiculed) and even our comprehension of the text was never really tested. Through a gradual process of quiet discouragement, Shetland dialect became a language that was part of my life, part of my culture, but whose words were never permitted to pass my lips.

I find this sad, both from a personal perspective and because I am sure there are many others like me who suffer this strange disconnection between themselves and a dialect that really ought to be part of their identity.

But it is sad also because so long as there persists an attitude of genetic exclusivity it is difficult to feel optimistic about the future of the dialect. At this time, a siege mentality is not helpful. What is needed is a change in attitude: a new openness. Dialect should not be allowed to retreat into the private world, it must remain a public language. Youngsters should be encouraged to speak it more and to knap less. And those who wish to learn it and to use it should be supported in doing so. The tutting and cringing must stop.

* * *

News of the planning board’s rejection of a new abattoir in Blydoit, Scalloway, has been met with incredulity by most folk in Shetland. But there should be some comfort here for opponents of Viking Energy. If councillors are now saying that even small-scale local opposition to industrial activity is reason enough to block development, then clearly the windfarm has no chance of going ahead. Unless there is some discrepancy in the way certain industries are treated in Shetland, of course. But surely no one is suggesting that?

Malachy Tallack


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