What’s not to love about mother tongue?

Christine De Luca writes in English and Shetlandic – her mother tongue. She was appointed Edinburgh’s Makar for 2014–2017. She has had eight poetry collections published, the most recent of which, Veeve (Mariscat, 2021), is currently longlisted for The Highland Book Prize.  

Previously, Dat Trickster Sun, (2014), also from Mariscat, Edinburgh, was shortlisted for the UK-wide Michael Marks Award. She also has five bilingual volumes published (into French, Italian, Icelandic, Norwegian and English) and a trilingual pamphlet of poems of Eugénio de Andrade (Portuguese, English and Shetlandic). She is a member of Shore Poets, Edinburgh.

Christine enjoys collaborating with musicians – most recently with jazz composer Tommy Smith – and artists, most recently Victoria Crowe. 

Besides that, she has also written stories for children and a second novel will be published later this year by Luath Press. 

Shetlandic / Shetlan/ Shetland dialect

That subtitle could bog us down in the dreaded question: ‘Is it a language or a dialect?’ And ‘what should it be called?’ Let’s not go there. Shetlanders just say ‘we’re spaekin Shetlan’. 

Leaving the politics of language aside, Shetlan or Shetlandic is somewhat distinctive, a ‘relic’ as the linguist Sundqvist1 describes it in his scholarly book. You will hear much of Old Scots in its strains, but then what else: something distinctively Norse? No wonder, as it’s only 550 years since Shetland became part of Scotland and even then, well, it was rather far away to be linguistically integrated into the rest of the country. At that time the coffers of Denmark were low on gold and so, by way of dowry for his daughter Margaret – pledged to marry the young Scottish Prince James (later James III) – the king pawned Orkney and Shetland to the Scottish crown. Thus, we became Scottish by default in the late 15th century.  

At that time Norn was widely spoken in Shetland. Gradually however, the Scots tongue arrived with its usurping landowners, merchants, ministers and law men. The last snippets of Norn were remembered in remote communities like the island of Foula as late as 1775.  

Education can be a two-edged sword: the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) started opening schools in the early 18th century and English became the norm for education with the Bible its major text. How I wish the Bible had been translated into Shetlandic before that date!   

So, the Shetland dialect (yes, I use ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ interchangeably) of my childhood upbringing was a rich blend of Old Scots and Norn, full of idiom and irregularity; it was inclusive and descriptive. We were bilingual and spoke English well enough, but Mother tongue is always closer to the heart, linking one to parents, grandparents, extended family and community.

My father taught himself Norwegian and was fascinated by languages. I wish I’d listened and learned. Where we stayed on the west side (in Waas) we often had Norwegian fishing boats tie up at the pier over da helly (the weekend) and he loved to engage with them, invite them along and made lasting friendships with some of them. They were amazed at the linguistic similarities. Our birds almost all had the same names as their birds; our crofts and landscape features had been named by their forebears. Later holidays in Denmark, Norway and Iceland would bring that home to me. Place names came alive when I understood the meaning and when I saw a similar name in say, Bergen, I felt my dialect had come back to its roots.  

Here’s da Gaet ta Finnegart and the Road ta Nort Ness:

So, what might you notice that was different other than bird names and place names?

Grammatically we might get so friendly that I addressed you as du instead of the polite ‘you’. (It’s rather like the French ‘tu/ vous’ distinction.) That’s one threshold to cross. But if I invited you in, I might say Come dy wyes in trowe, takk aff o dee an set dee in’. It’s a long-winded invitation, very reflexive, but no less warm! And if the children hadn’t tidied up their toys, they might whinge but wir still playin wis.

I don’t think of Shetlandic as particularly long-winded but sometimes we have to go the long way round to get at the meaning of abstract notions – like faithfulness, honour, justice – or we might just use the English word. It’s a mongrel dialect, and we don’t worry about that (although stoor-sooker might be a fine substitute for vacuum-cleaner?) By the way you don’t have to remove your shö, shön (shoe, shoes) to step across da treshel-tree in my house.  (Plurals can be irregular.)

I remember the joy of hearing a new saying from my niece some years ago and being reminded that of course many nouns are gendered. The weather is masculine. She said, as we pootered (that’s the engine’s noise in the boat) up Clift Soond, with the raag (wet mist, almost drizzle) hanging low on the hills and a dampness on our hair, He’s offerin ta rain. Lovely! Not an expression I had heard but then she’d been brought up in Burra Isle. Which reminds me – there’s still so much regional variation in vocabulary, expression and pronunciation. What’s not to love?

I could go on and on, boring you with linguistic differences – the richness of adjectives like replete (stappit, stentit, stuggit); hungry (fantin), ravenous (black-fantin, blöd-fantin); and verb endings and agreements some of which are similar to Scots and some distinctively different; and yes, more irregularity in verbs like geng, göd, gien (go, went, gone) and how we use the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ instead of ‘to have’, for example, A’m read da book. Oh dear, it is odd, but it sounds most horrid fine to me!  (Pronounce that ‘mawst hawreed’ and you’ll be almost there.) Nor should we forget the adverbs; here’s one category (of degree): just how good or how loud was it?  – braaly (very), maistlins (almost, nearly), odious (extremely), owre (excessively).

And typically, we fling in more than our fair share of articles like doon da stair; da Gaelic, da voar, da hairst (Spring, Autumn) when they wouldn’t be used in da English. Strange though, you’d think all this would clutter up the sound, but it seems to work and often I find my poems written in Shetlandic are tighter sound-wise than those I write in English. Icelandic seems to have a similar tautness.  

Much of the vocabulary is onomatopoeic – you can guess the meaning easily. The consonants, that ever-present ‘d’ sound, are percussive as they dirl along. I particularly enjoy the vowel sounds and how they change and lengthen from district to district: the typical ö sound and dipthongs such as æ. Once you get to the island of Whalsa, you’re on your own: it has a very distinctive way of speaking … and fewer definite articles to boot.  

So, Shetlandic is alive and kicking. Older people (ah, those Autumn voices) perhaps are the repository of its riches, but young people increasingly use it in the context of social media.  Which reminds me, I should join Twitter … those bird names would offer splendid handles …

Christine De Luca

Christine writes in both English and Shetlandic, and her numerous works of both poetry and fiction have been translated into many languages. You can find her here: 

  1. Sundkvist, P.  The Shetland Dialect, Routledge, Abingdon, OX14 4RN, 2021

Our monthly flash theme for February was Love Languages

Our flash competition this month honours our ‘love languages’ theme. If you are aged 60 and over, and want to write a short piece about your own love of language, we’d love to hear from you! This could be a poem, flash fiction or flash memoir about any language at all (that might even include computer languages!). We’re especially keen to hear from you if you are an older person new to the UK, and have learned English or one of the UK’s other spoken languages for the first time. We’re also keen to hear from people who have discovered a love for learning languages for the first time as a person over 60.

Entries will be accepted until midnight on February 28th, and the winning entry, chosen by Autumn Voices, will receive a copy of Chuckies Fir The Cairn. This is a collection of poems in Scots and Gaelic, edited by Rab Wilson and kindly donated as a prize by Luath Press.

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