21st October 2018
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Easy to use dictionary but why only ‘de’?

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Shetland Words: A dictionary of the Shetland dialect by A & A Christie-Johnston and contributing editor Neil Anderson. The Shetland Times Ltd., £20/£16.

From the crew of a fishing boat to a fanciful poet, Shetland dialect is used by some both loudly and lyrically, knowledgeably and creatively. I doubt anyone can argue that when at its best it is a joy to hear, and a cunning choice of communication. I think it is fantastic that people such as Adaline and Alastair Christie-Johnston choose to spend their time (almost three years of painstaking research) studying and promoting dialect.

So what have they got to show for their efforts? I quote from the back of the book: “The result is an easy to use and informative compilation of Shetland words, which for the first time, attempts to differentiate between words believed to be of Norn origin and others … It provides a useful starting point for those interested in the origin of Shetland words and offers comparisons with similar usage in other languages … Over 4,000 separate entries including an addenda of words once used by Shetland’s 19th century ‘haaf’, or deep sea, fishermen – and some quirky ‘modern’ additions to the dialect.”

I am far from an expert in dialect, so resources such as Shetland dictionaries are absolutely necessary to me. In my job as dialect co-ordinator I generally use John Graham’s Shetland Dictionary, my English degree and my own experience.

Shetland Words is certainly easy to use. It is well organised and laid out. The words that the Christie-Johnstons claim to be of Norn origin appear in a bright blue print as opposed to the others that appear in black, and, unsurprisingly to some perhaps, the dictionary is predominantly blue.

How informative is it? Taking an example at random, let’s look at the word “smooriken”. Graham’s entry tells me that it is a noun, and that it means “a kiss”. The entry in Shetland Words is in blue, goes into more detail, and, notice, has been spelt with a second “i”: smoorikin (n) a kiss (presumably a smothering, passionate one). [see smoor] I found features such as this to be quite a common trait of Shetland Words. At many points it appears to be Graham’s book, plus a little extra, or with a little bit altered.

I’ve read through Alastair Christie-Johnston’s introduction to find answers, but there is no sign of why the spelling of “smooriken” has changed. He does go into detail on many of the decisions he made when compiling the dictionary, many of which he makes a strong case for (see his decision to change “affront” to “affrontit” p.xii).

Another change from Graham’s dictionary is the dialect translation of the word “the”. Christie-Johnston explains well that there are three common choices: “da”, “de”, and “d”, and why he thinks it should be “de” and “de” alone (Graham prefered “da”). Why, in the English to Shetland section, does he not list all three examples, as he does for other words? I think it is a poor choice not to, because, as he says himself, a high number of dictionary users will not be natural dialect speakers.

It is interesting to look at this also in the Shetland to English portion of the dictionary and find that while all “de”, “da” and “d” are used as a dialect form of “the”, only “de” is in blue. I found this very confusing. A comment of Christie-Johnston’s on p.xiv of his introduction clears things up: “As a further aid to exploring the source of words, we have used the colour blue to render all words that appear to have a strong connection to Scandinavian languages – Norn if you like.” I am sure I am not alone in being disappointed by this statement. I applaud the Christie-Johnstons for their time and effort in recording each Shetland word as having a connection to a Scandinavian language or not, but having a connection to Scandinavian languages and being of Norn origin are different things, and I am disappointed such a line has been blurred in a text as important as a dictionary.

Shetland Words does have a number of very helpful features. The “tabu” (taboo) words used at sea by the deep-sea or “haaf” fishermen is very interesting, with over 420 words listed. There is also a good list of “colloquial expressions” that I’m sure will be very handy to non-dialect speakers who may wish to nip away quickly and check they understand what is happening should someone appear in their home saying things like: “A’m joost gyaan tae stand on de flör” – said when one visits another’s house and wishes to indicate an intention to remain only a short while and therefore will not take a seat.

Where the Christie-Johnstons have not taken Shetland Words is into new territory in terms of grammar usage. In my capacity as dialect co-ordinator I am very keen that folk such as the Christie-Johnstons and other dialect enthusiasts provide dialect with the scholarly attention it deserves. What nobody wants is for dialect to be relegated to a position somewhere in between modern slang and words that are out of date. Between Jakobson, Angus, Graham, the Christie-Johnstons and others we have wonderful collections of lists of words, but there is more work to be done. I hope that more books such as Shetland Words are funded and published, because, and I’m sure anyone who has ever heard good Shetland will agree, the voice of Shetland dialect can have anyone pricking up their ears to listen.

Bruce Eunson