Many languages have two ways of saying you – a familiar one and a formal, polite one. In French we find tu (familiar) and vous (formal, polite). German has du (familiar) and sie (formal, polite). Old English also had this distinction when the plural you was used in preference to the now obsolete singular (familiar) thou. With the loss of thou and thee English was left with one form only. Not so in Shetland however where thou became du and thee became dee owing in part to the continuing Norn influence whereby th is pronounced as d. This pronunciation shift in Norse and also in Germanic languages is referred to as a thorn and is represented by the letter þ.
In Old English this letter led to further complications when printing presses substituted y for þ. The (þe) thus became written as ye (Ye Olde Shoppe).
Shetland usage of du and dee follows the pattern of the familiar forms of tu (French) and du (German). Thus it is impolite to du/dee your elders or to address strangers in this manner. Du and dee are the informal forms and are for use when speaking to family and friends. At all other times one uses you. Interestingly, God (Abba/Father) is addressed familiarly as Du in Germanic usage and according to at least one local clergyman, here in Shetland also (see Charles Greig’s A Shetland Bible: St Andrew Press; 2009). Shetland grammar also changes when du is used. Thus: are you coming/is du comin; were you there/wis du dere; have you received/is du gotten; etc.
At this point it is also worth noting the tendency amongst younger generation Shetlanders (especially when texting) to shorten dee (you) to de. Apart from the fact that this totally changes the phonetics (in Shetland/Norn de is pronounced with a clipped e to sound like the i in hit while the ee of dee has the same sound as see), there is also a very compelling reason to avoid deleting the second e because de (in the opinion of many Shetlanders) is the definite article (the) in dialect.
Despite the late 19th century trend to render the definite article as da, an elementary study of Norn and the way in which it has influenced Shetland dialect up to the present day readily shows that de is a more accurate representation both phonetically and from the point of view of consistency. It should be noted that the transposition of þ (th) to d goes right through the dialect and beyond this – in most cases – the words remain otherwise unchanged. Thus, English words beginning with th are pronounced as if the letter was d (and written accordingly). And so we find dere/ there, dis/this, dan/than, dat/that, den/ then, de/ the (note: not da) and so on. Where the th appears in the middle of a word it is pronounced (and written) as dd. Examples are: wedder/weather; hedder/ heather; bridder/brother; idder/ other; midder/ mother. The rule is so consistent as to be virtually intractable.
Regional Shetlanders seldom agree on how dialect should be pronounced and paradoxically this diversity has proved to be one of the strengths in keeping elements of Norn alive into the 21st century, yet when it comes to writing there is probably something to be said for laying down one or two phonetic ground rules, if only to encourage our school children to feel more comfortable when attempting to write in dialect and to help those less familiar with the sounds to get it right.
It is primarily for this reason that we reverted to using de as the definite article rather that da when compiling our Shetland Words dictionary (The Shetland Times Ltd, 2010) although we made a point of including all three forms (d, da and de) in the listings. Apart from the fact that de adheres more closely to the original phonetics of Norn, it seems to us that Shetlanders have erroneously been lured into writing da and that this, in turn, has led to a further broadening of the vowel sound.
In his Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland (Vilhelm Prior, Copenhagen 1932 and reprinted by The Shetland Folk Society as recently as 1985) Jakob Jakobsen consistently used de for the definite article (he made no reference to da whatsoever) and listening to the spoken word along de street we would argue that there are very good grounds for maintaining this spelling. In fact, it is our contention that if Norn counts for anything in our 21st century dialect we should take steps to reinstate the older spelling.
In a recent series of meetings at which I was invited to speak on the subject of the Shetland Words dictionary, I discovered that the overwhelming majority of those in attendance were of the strong opinion that de (or in some cases simply d) is preferable to da. This is in direct contradiction to the “official” policy to use da in all sign writing throughout Shetland and to The New Shetlander editorial policy to do likewise.
Perhaps it is time to listen to what the people are saying. Personally, I am hearing plain d (as in d-ig) and would not be averse to writing accordingly, although I admit this might end up leading to further confusion. So, d, da or de; I wonder what others think…