Dialect Endangered (Robert Laurenson)

Something needs to be said about the changes which are affecting the way we as Shetlanders speak.

I’ll start from when I started school in the late eighties. I was in a class in the Hamnavoe primary school with around a dozen other bairns my age.

Out of all of them, from that day till the day I left secondary school in 2009 in Scalloway, there were none that didn’t speak Shetland dialect (Even the ones that were fae sooth learned it). The dialect spoken varied even between Burra and Scalloway and other parts of Shetland. And as far as I can tell, at least 10 years after I left school, this was still the case on a broad scale.

Now what is happening is frightening. I feel that we will lose a big part of our heritage and identity if we lose the dialect along with the variations in the dialect by place/island – maybe not in this generation, but certainly in the coming one or two.

I’ll go back to when I was at school again. For instance, there were English classes taught by mostly Shetland born teachers, there was no requirement to speak to the teachers in what the young ones now seem to think is the proper way of speaking.

Nowadays, I hear there are Shetland dialect classes in schools. Now what a turnaround that is in 20 years.

There are several misconceptions I keep hearing from the younger generation when I speak to them on this subject.

I’ll mention a couple of them and explain the reasons that they are misconceptions rather than fact.

1,”If we don’t speak like this then our friends won’t understand us”. Well, when I and my peer group and older were young, we spoke the way we spoke and anyone from elsewhere just had to learn the dialect and get on with it. Most of the people who came to Shetland then just learned the dialect and most speak it to some degree, but all understand it.

2, “We need to speak like this to get on well when attending university, college or work on the mainland.” Wrong again, I myself and many of my friends can and do both – speak broad Shetland dialect when at home and, for want of a better way of putting it, speak to be understood when away.

I could keep going on and listing the reasons people don’t want to speak Shetland but there are many reasons to keep speaking it, in my eyes, and I hope that there are people left in Shetland with the same sense of pride in their heritage that are willing to keep it going. Also I feel it is stimulating for children’s learning, your “first language” could be Shetland dialect. Then the second language is English.

Shetland dialect is recognisable all over Scotland, the UK and the world. From personal experience in my years of working all over the world; when people ask where I’m from they usually can guess Shetland from the unmistakable dialect coming through.

If Shetlanders carry on to speak the way I hear most of the younger generation now there won’t be the distinguishing accent any more. I have worked with people from Lands End to John o’Groats, and no one speaks in any way close to the mongrel tongue the younger generation of Shetlanders seem to be using.

I keep hearing “we are speaking proper”. Well, no, to be brutally honest you’re not. There is no similarity between the accent being used and any other accent in the home nations, especially a so called “proper” accent from southern England. It is as I say, a mongrel accent and has been born from the older generation’s way of knapping to their bairns.

It doesn’t matter where you go in the UK and Ireland – every place has its own distinctive accent and dialect. This is evident to everyone who lives in the British Isles. But in a couple of generations people from Shetland won’t have a dialect and just as easy could be mistaken for an English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh person depending on which teacher or TV programme they have picked up their accent from. Now, anyone who wants this I feel, needs their heads looked at. People from Shetland are proud of their heritage and identity, so why lose one of the main parts of it, and probably the most distinguishing part.

As a final note I’m sure a lot of people will find some way to be offended through this and good luck to them. But at the same time, I’m not directing this at anyone; I just think the arguments for keeping the Shetland dialect far outweigh the ones for the mongrel tongue in fashion at the moment.

Robert Laurenson



Add Your Comment
  • Robin Mouatt

    • January 24th, 2015 15:19

    Du wid need tae join Shetland Forwirds Robert! http://www.shetlanddialect.org.uk

    I’m noticed ower da past twartree days Tattie written several places, when exactly did folk stop spelling it Taatie? maybe its just cause I’m fae da isles dat da spellin seems obvious tae me as you need da double A tae get da aw sound an da hard A sound o da toon folk has led tae folk thinkin dat the emphasis is upo da T. Whitiver da reason its fairly annoyed me tae see.

    Knapin is hard wired ita most o wis an braaly hard tae stop yourself fae doin, but spik du awa ita dy dialect Robert and if someen doesna keen whit du’s saying den tell dem and wi can aa mind each idder o most particular Shetland wirds.

  • Lesley Turner

    • January 24th, 2015 16:35

    Please please please do not lose your dialect. It is the most beautiful one in the whole of the UK. It echoes the islands with the softness of the sounds a reminder of Sheltie sunshine and the gentler breezes. It has a language and a form of its own that is unique. It holds your heritage and history in its very making. It is music and it is beautiful.

  • John_Hayward

    • January 24th, 2015 18:57

    What a bunch of nonsense. There is not a single language or dialect on earth that has not undergone changes throughout its history. The spoken word changes because people and the society at large change! This is called progress. I see nothing wrong with the fact our children and grandchildren are accustomed to using a more neutral accent.

    • Robin Barclay

      • January 25th, 2015 13:13

      I think folk are confusing dialect (the words we use) and accent (the way we say them) – and I see a lot wrong in the trend towards a more “neutral dialect” in that with that we lose language and heritage. We already lost Norn as a true language over maybe 3 generations, and it would be pretty miserable to let our dialect heritage with its residual Norn words (and its various local accents) slip away in Shetland when other UK languages (celtic such as Welsh, Irish/Scots Gaelic, even Cornish) and many dialects of Scots and English are stoutly defended and even show revival. Hardly nonsense – except maybe to an incomer lacking our heritage or who can’t be bothered to assimilate. They shouldn’t be deferred to by speaking English to them, far less listened to if they protest the use of dialect as that is the thin end of the wedge. Do we want a bland “received pronunciation” the length and breadth of the UK?
      My grandfather (a sailor) met and married my grandmother on Tynside then brought the family (back) to Shetland around 1905, so some of my older aunts/uncles were born on Tynside, the rest in Shetland. Some of the Tynesiders had English accents like my grandmother, others Shetland accents, but all used Shetland dialect. One who used both Shetland accent and dialect was John Barclay, who became one of the better known dialect poets of his generation (wrote Isles of Gletness – and lots besides, maybe needs to be got out in print?).
      Living as I do “Sooth” most of the time, it is easy enough to speak English as I need to do most of the time – but hard to lose the accent. However whenever we meet fellow Shetlanders we all speak dialect, and our non Shetland friends (and relatives and spouses) all understand it – and are known to use the occasional dialect word (when it is more appropriate then a sentence in English
      As for writing in the dialect – dats aesy aneoch but whaa decides fu du maun spell hit?

  • Haydn Gear

    • January 24th, 2015 19:30

    I think that the foregoing comments are a bit too fearful though I certainly understand what has given rise to them. There was a time when “received ” pronunciation was deemed to be the be all and end all but TV personnel now speak with a wide range of accents. I find weather forecasts boring but not when Carol Kirkwood delivers it!!! I strongly dislike southern English whines not to mention so called glottal stop estuary English —–Essex and Kent on either side of the Thames estuary. When I was a student in London many moons ago the Welsh were often mocked. We , being in the minority, had the last laugh by making subtle gestures towards the English whilst speaking in Welsh. THAT floored and infuriated them! As far as Shetland is concerned, try to maintain its distinctive flavour. I’ve heard it spoken and I’ve read quite a lot of it —– not always easy !! The problem is, we live in a “shrinking” world in which “proper” English is dominant.But pockets of resistance remain healthy.In parts of north and west Yorkshire true Tykes sound foreign.”It were reight fair goyin t’ut ginnel frae fud”. Even in south Wales accents vary when only a few miles apart and are distinctively different and identifiable. Cardiff, Newport, Pontypridd,Ebbw Vale etc—-chalk and cheese! So, don’t despair. If necessary do as the Cornish have done and organise Shetland Classes. Go for it!

  • Julie Johnson

    • January 24th, 2015 20:23

    I remember my first day at Scalloway Junior High School in the early 80’s and yes there was a myriad of different dialects. Back then you could still tell where a person was from because of their dialect; whether you were from Burra, Nesting or Gott. But I also remember that my dialect wasn’t as strong as my parents and my grandparents. Some of the words they used I had no idea what they meant.

    I have now live in Auckland, New Zealand for 20 years and, although their accent is quite bland, the city and country is a melting pot! Just walking down Queen Street or going into one of the malls you are confronted with a barrage of different languages… it’s amazing!

    Within two weeks of coming to NZ I learned very quickly that no one knew what I was saying. People would be nodding their heads when they should be shaking them. At work it was even worse. I was employed as a receptionist and when you have an accent that is really strong it can be quite difficult for people calling up. In business it can be quite tiring and some people get really impatient and irate if they don’t understand you.

    So, of course, I did the sensible thing and changed my accent. It’s not an easy thing to do and I’m sure that a lot of people thought something was wrong with me because it would take me so long to answer a question. What I was actually doing was translating the answer in my head in English before I said it so as they could understand what I was meaning. It’s second nature now and quite often people think I’m from Ireland or, dare I say it, England. That is until I tell them, “No, I’m Scottish”. They then generally tell me that I haven’t lost my accent and I answer with, “Well this is me trying to speak English so as you can understand. I’m actually from Shetland and if I spoke in that dialect you wouldn’t know what I’m saying”. Usually at this point I’m asked for a demonstration and they are always amazed at how different my dialect is to how I speak on a day to day basis.

    People grow and change – new words come along and others become obsolete. The way I spoke when I was younger was considerably softer compared to people a generation or two older. I talk to my friends and family back home on Facebook in my dialect, when I call my mam and sister I talk to them in my dialect and sometimes when, I feel like having a laugh, I’ll talk to my flatmates (Canadian, English and Kiwi) in my dialect. I am all for keeping the dialect and think it’s fantastic that they have classes in school but if these words aren’t used on a day to day basis then, unfortunately, they will die out. I hope with all of my heart that it doesn’t happen.

  • steven cooper

    • January 24th, 2015 21:34

    Whit wy did du no right yun in shitland dialect?

  • Malcolm Hall

    • January 25th, 2015 8:17

    When my family moved to Shetland at the beginning of the 1970s , and I joined the Central School in Lerwick, no-one made any attempt to speak any differently when talking to me.
    At Anderson High I came across further sub dialects as school kids would bus in, or stay over, from other areas.
    By the time we left Shetland my Tyneside accent had lost it’s edge and I was using the words and expressions that I still hear today, when I come up and meet my friends.
    I was glad of the experience and felt that I had almost become part of your unique community.
    Now, when I visit, I am saddened at the way that some talk.
    Yes, time moves on and things change but accents \ dialects define the various cultures and regions of these Isles, and the world, and it is important that they continue.
    Whar is du frae?

  • David Spence

    • January 25th, 2015 12:26

    John H, there is a big difference in what you say to this of people being forced to use another language on the basis on that country enforcing its way upon a people of a different nationality (in Shetlands case, Scandinavian languages) and culture.

    As the people of Scotland, especially the West and North/West, Wales and Ireland have found out to their great cost an invading oppressors will and determination to enforce and wipe out anything that exists of that culture and way of life, and for it to be replaced by an invading forces way and culture.

    As well as this, another reason for this dramatic change is usually based on commercial and trading requirements, much, in many ways, to the detriment of the indigenous people…………North America and much of the countries of South America have experienced.

    • Ali Inkster

      • January 25th, 2015 13:20

      The people of the west of scotland are the invaders David, in fact the Scotii came from Ireland.

      • David Spence

        • January 25th, 2015 15:20

        That may be so Ali, but their languages were very similar…………and the Irish did not enforce the complete eradication of the language and/or the way of life and culture due to the strong similarities that the Scottish and Irish had given the small distances between them.

        However, we are, I presume, talking of more modern times compared to what I have just mentioned, and the impact of an invading force has on the indigenous peoples of another country and the invading countries determination to erase all forms of what those indigenous people may had in terms of culture, way of life and language.

        As an historian once said to me ‘ The best way to kill a culture is to kill the language. ‘.

      • John Tulloch

        • January 25th, 2015 17:28


        What language did the Picts speak before the Scots arrived and eventually changed everything to their way?

    • Steven Jarmson

      • January 30th, 2015 16:19

      Quite alot of the damage done to Gaelic was by the low-land Scots who didn’t like the rebellious nature of the Highland Scots.
      Everything gets blamed on the English!
      I don’t know why?
      Perhaps its easier to perpetuate a myth than it is to look at why people have a chip on their shoulder and a serious inferiority complex?
      Perhaps its just being a bit uneducated?
      Who knows? Either way it shows the kind of person you are.

  • John N Oakes Manchester, England.

    • January 25th, 2015 15:59

    Local dialects and written word changed gradually due to standard English being spread across the kingdom. Even the dialects we use today, are the gentler version. To retain the dialects and the written word you need to reverse nay close the door so to speak’th. As I doff my cap and bow to the guardians of their language, the question is “where’th will thou be in yonder year to come”. We in England reformed from Anglo-Saxon with Dane speak and a pinch of Salt of Normans. Recognisable English was the third language by the farmers, villans and commoners. Chaucer is the master for the English written word who read to the king and court. Otherwise French and Latin would be the argument. I remember reading the most confusing comical book ever written by Stanley Baxter explaining the Glasgow dialect. Yet when I was posted to Kinloss Scotland, a fellow chap I knew from a few years back at Stafford England, who hailed from the broadest Glasgow left myself stump by his accent. Yet when we met up in Kinloss and I had been there a few years and he spoke I could understand him clearly. But with each posting I went around Scotland and eventually Shetland I struggle but learned as an English man to learn the patter and slowed down to understand.

  • Gordon Johnson

    • January 25th, 2015 21:21

    I am 100% a genetic Shetlander but born & raised in Leith Edinburgh where I learned to speak in broad Scots but when I got to school I was told that I spoke English but I did speak it PROPERLY!. I was told that Scots was improper & impolite and Scots words were slang. Once a year I was taught a Burns poem but for the rest of the year I got belted if I used any Scots words. Thanks to the Church of Scotland’s policy of a school in every parish Scotland became the first literate population in the world but they only did this so that we could read the bible and as the bible was written in English so we Scots were educated in English and the more education you got the more English you became. The result was that Scots or Lalands was stigmatised as the language of the uneducated and those who spoke it were looked down apon. It is slowly being eroaded away half the youngsters in Edinburgh can not say Loch and talk about Lock Lomond and Aucktermucktay and we have probably got the English dominated media to thank for that. Fight to keep Shetlandic alive.

  • Laurence Robertson

    • January 26th, 2015 7:38

    We’ve been instucted that we are not use any more dialect in emails at our work. The reason given is that some find them hard to follow. The underlying reason is that the informality irritates our manager, a fluent dialect speaker. We know so, since they’ve said as much (in the past) and it’s not been forgotten. We work for a large local employer, with many local branches and none elsewhere. The employer has operations throughout the Isles. It could be the largest employer in Shetland …. you can probably work out who the employer is from that.

  • John N Hunter

    • January 26th, 2015 20:57

    Nae doot twa hunder year ago da owld eens wir axing whit wye da young eens didna spik da Norn lik dere fokk did. Rayder dey wir spikking dis mirry-begyit half Scots slang dat dey caa “Shaetlan”.

    If du listens tae a film fae da 1930’s du’ll hear dialects naebody spiks noo. Even da
    very Queen dusna spik da sam wye as shu did when shu wis crooned. An I doot du’ll no hear onybody say “Cor Blimey mate Love a duck” upon East Enders.

    I wis at a lecture twartree year fae syne when a man spak aboot dialects in genaral an Shaetlan in particleer. Ee ting I took fae him wis da story o da New Zealand accent. Dey wir recordings made o some o da original settlers wha cam fae aa da erts o da Breetish Isles i da 1940’s. Da settlers spak wi every accent o da UK bit aa dere bairns spak New Zealand.

    Dey ir mony raysons why fokk spik da wye dey do. Pit “sociolinguistics” intae Google an read some o da articles.

  • Robin Barclay

    • January 27th, 2015 21:59

    Ali, David, John T ….
    The Irish (Scots) invaded the west bringing their version of Gaelic – they were the same people (not a case of having similar languages). They pushed out or assimilated the people speaking the “other celtic language”, the Britons, who spoke Welsh (were they Picts?). One language difference is found in what they call a hill or mountain, Ben or Pen. There’s certainly lots of place name evidence in central/southern Scotland where I live for “British” rather than Gaelic being spoken, historically, such as Penicuik, Penpont, etc.
    I don’t think Irish/Scots gaelic is that similar to Welsh (which is similar to Cornish and Breton, maybe even Gallician). I heard (a good while ago) someone put a fair case for Arthurian legend arising in lowland Scotland from the British tribes there. Legend also has it that Merlin’s grave is near Drumelzier, on the Edinburgh – Moffat road.
    Anyway, residual “British” in Scotland were squeezed out by Saxons (if you recall the “Angles, Saxons and Jutes” from history lessons) who in Scotland came eventually to speak “Scots” as their dialect (“English” being another version) of whatever you want to call our language. This is certainly closer to Norse/Norn than any of the celtic languages (the Jutes were Danes, the Saxons German – I’m not sure where geographically the Angles came from).

  • John Tulloch

    • January 28th, 2015 12:56

    Thanks for that, Robin, it was the Welsh aspect of it that I was getting at in my comment to David above. I’ve read the Picts spoke a dialect of Welsh and it seems to be reflected in some of the place names.

    There are a quite a few Scottish place names which contain the prefix “Aber”, such as Aberdeen, Aberfoyle, etc., (c.f. Aberystwyth, etc.), as opposed to the Scottish Gaelic equivalent, “Inbhir”, as in Inverness, etc., and I suspect the same influence is at play in place names like Comrie and Cumbrae which seem remarkably similar to Cymru (“kum-ree”), known to the Romans as Cambria. Presumably, the same applies to the English region Cumbria?

    There’s even a Lhanbryde, just outside Elgin, not sure what it means, perhaps,
    “-bryde” means something to do with Britons?

    • Robin Barclay

      • January 31st, 2015 15:58

      Interesting, John. It looks like the “British” (“Welsh”-language celts) were much more influential in Scotland than the Scots/Irish “Gaelic” invaders would credit. Maybe it was because the early Christians were of the Irish affinity, and they started to write the history, so the Gaels became ascendent in the record? While they do promote their language and culture, recent suggestions that place names (including those in Shetland) should be displayed in both English (Scots) and Gaelic were surely founded on bureaucratic ignorance and were thankfully resisted as not relevant in the Northern Isles (probably not relevant either in the northern mainland of Scotland). It may also be true that alternate celtic names should refer to the “Welsh” rather than “Irish” tradition in other places. It is interesting that most of the islands and headlands in the west of Scotland where I sail often (so have to look at map names) have Norse names, reflecting their settlement by seafaring vikings (and are more meaningful and easier to say and remember, for me, than gaelic names). I am told that just about the only gaelic word in use in Shetland is “parton” for the edible red crab – I wonder how that crept in.
      From another dialect perspective – Shetland has recently been portrayed in the popular books by Ann Cleaves. I had expected to be critical, but I enjoyed them and the second TV series based on them. However, it is a pity she used “Raven” instead of “Corbie” in her place name, as I can think of many examples of place names with “Corbie” and none with “Raven”. Interestingly – “Corbie” is used extensively in Scotland but appears to be close to the French “corbeau” rather than Norse “hrafn” or “hrokr” or Irish/Welsh “bran”. Anyway – I digress – where modern authors get it wrong in dialect matters it should be pointed out, even if it seems like nit-picking, or it further dilutes the dialect.

      • Brian Smith

        • February 1st, 2015 21:32


      • John Tulloch

        • February 2nd, 2015 10:59

        Aye, there are certainly some, Brian.

        I lived in the Western Isles for a year and chanced to notice a few surpirising ones like “selkaidh” (selkay), meaning “seal”, and “scarabh” (scarav) meaning cormorant (cf “scarff”).

        Any place name with “na” or “a” in it, presumably, has, at least, partial Gaelic influence. “Moul” (e.g. “of Eswick”) occurs in Shetland c.f. “Mull of Oa” (islay) which hints at a combination of the Gaelic “Maol (hill) and the Norse “Oe” (u-yea). “Uig” (oo-ick, c.f. “wick”) alludes to Scottish influence in the old pronounciatiation of Norse names e.g. “Ler-ook” which suggests a Scottish influence in the speaking of Norse words?

        I noticed quite a few Gaelic words are similar to French ones like “eglise”, meaning “kirk” and “a”, meaning “at”.

        With the Scots coming into Shetland, place names were bound to change, in the spelling, if nothing else, and many have stuck but I’m sure you’ll agree, it isn’t easy to tease apart the Norse and Gaelic influences without doing a fair bit of research which I don’t pretend to have done and of course, some words in use in the Western Isles likely have Norse roots but have adopted different spelling?

        Do you know if the “bhagh” (va) in “Steornabhagh” (Stornoway) is Norse or Gaelic, it occurs in Shetland in “Scalloway” and probably, also, “Waas” (“bhaghs”?) and anything with “voe” in the name?

      • Allen Fraser

        • February 2nd, 2015 15:44

        Wir Shetlan trang an de Scottish Gaelic trang ir da sam wird an ir osed da sam wye.

    • John N Hunter

      • February 2nd, 2015 16:50

      The Outer Hebrides (along with the Isle of Man) were under Norse rule until they were ceded to the Kingdom of Scotland a result of the 1266 Treaty of Perth. That was when the Gaels moved in.

      The Vikings eliminated Pictish place names the same way they did in Shetland, leaving their ones to be used to the present day.

  • David Spence

    • February 1st, 2015 19:30

    It would be interesting to compare the original place names in Shetland to this of what they are called now (Leirvik – Lerwick) ?

    I also think, although it may not have any relevance, as more and more people learned how to read and write, what baring this may have had on languages/dialects or more localised verbal expressions in terms of language/dialect/accents etc etc. and how this may have been transferred for the sake of the written word.


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