The Shetland dialect – language revitalization or place branding?
(Summary of some of the issues presented on 11 March 2008)
Current efforts to revitalize the Shetland dialect take place within a challenging sociolinguistic
situation. The Shetland dialect, like other dialects of Scots, is losing ground on a daily basis and the
homogenization of language is speeding up. The concept of what constitutes ‘the Shetland dialect’
has changed – when younger Shetlanders today see themselves as dialect speakers they refer to a
variety which differs considerably from that spoken thirty years ago.
Parallel to the decline in language use and, in particular, the loss of distinctive vocabulary, cultural
activities in Shetland have experienced a revival. This paper considers some of the existing views
on the situation of the Shetland dialect and local opinions on how the dialect could be promoted.
This is part of a larger study on Shetland identity and symbolic difference mostly based on
fieldwork in Shetland (involving interviews, questionnaires, informal discussions) as well as on
official documents, convention papers and local press writings.
The Shetland dialect: general background
The Shetland dialect is particularly distinctive as a result of the legacy of Norn, which survived in a
fragmentary form until the nineteenth century. Its influence is still obvious in place names,
vocabulary, expressions and pronunciation. Records of later Norn suggest relatively close
connections with both the dialects of western and south-western Norway and with the dialects of the
Faeroes and Iceland (see for example Barnes 1998, Millar 2007). Shetland was part of Norway until
1469 and it is perceived as culturally connected to both Scandinavia and Scotland.
In Shetland class distinctions were more blurred than in Scotland and this, in addition to isolation,
explains why the Shetland dialect has been more resilient in comparison to the dialects on the
mainland. The modern Shetland dialect includes both direct loans from Norn and indirect
Scandinavian loans. It is difficult to determine the origin of borrowings, because Lowland Scots
itself contains several Scandinavian influences. The types of Scots brought into the Northern Isles
were varied – both in terms of the origin of the speakers and their position in society.
In the 1980s the language situation in Shetland was clearly one of bilingualism or rather
bidialectism. There was either-or choice rather than slight changes along a continuum (Melchers
1985, Macafee 1997).
The local varieties appear to have survived relatively well, often being used until recently as the
primary means of communication in almost all contexts by Shetland natives. To a large extent this
was due to the presence of attitudes found among speakers against knappin, i.e. using a standardised
form of English with locals (for example Melchers 1985). This has traditionally been disliked in the
islands and still raises occasional comments which show its former or current unpopularity. More
recently, however, particularly in Lerwick, the use of a Shetland-accented form of Scottish Standard
English has become widespread, even between fellow Shetlanders (Sundkvist 2004, Millar 2007).
From the 1970s on, Shetland became closely connected to the oil industry developing in the North
Sea. Various activities of the local council and major investments in local infrastructure were
directed towards stemming and even reversing rural depopulation and these led to successful
results. The unprecedented wealth led also to rise in expectations and changes in traditional way of
life. As a result of oil developments Shetland witnessed growth in heritage protection projects and
in official and popular representations of the past and several important cultural initiatives were a
direct result of the oil era.
The use of the Shetland dialect has nevertheless undergone assimilation due largely to economic
and cultural change, the media and the increase in mobility. Apart from objective factors
influencing decline such as changes in the population and influence of education and mass media, it
is possible to identify some important subjective factors as well, notably people’s own desire to
behave in certain ways.
In Shetland, oil-related developments and especially the subsequent influx of incomers are
considered to be important factors for the decline of the dialect, although not by everybody. A
variety of different opinions were expressed during the period of my field work in Shetland in 2006
and 2008 – some people disliked the image of ‘erosion’ or ‘decline’ but rather saw the changes in
dialect as inevitable and natural.
Although in the public mind change is connected above all to the period after the oil boom, the
twentieth century as a whole has witnessed a decline in use of the dialect. During the first half of the
century teachers often saw the local speech as inferior and economic developments contributed to
its image as something “backward and outmoded” (Graham 1999). Since the 1950s Shetland speech
had come to be regarded as important for children’s development as a realisation of its essential
connection to the environment in which it is spoken. This shift reflected in part the impact of post-
war reports on education in Scotland, which emphasised the need for close connection between
local environment and education. The period between the Second World War and the early 1970s
was a period of cultural revival in Shetland – a fact often forgotten against the background of later,
even more dramatic changes. After the 1970s growth in cultural activities, more positive attitudes
towards the local dialect and, for example, the beginning of Radio Shetland in 1977 and
programmes in the Shetland dialect alongside English, although criticised by some at first, seem to
have contributed to a deeper understanding of the value of the dialect as part of Shetland’s heritage.
Language versus dialect debate
The term Shetlandic has been used to describe the Shetland dialect, although not without
controversies – the term itself was insisted upon by some, but strongly disliked by others,
depending on their views whether Shetlandic is a language or a dialect of Scots (Dialect Convention
papers 2004). A small minority has supported the view that Shetlandic should be considered a
language and that standardization should be in the center of revitalization efforts.
However, in the case of Shetland it is possible to question the prevailing notion that standardisation
is necessary to grant prestige to a language (prestige being usually connected with status), because
the Shetland dialect seems to have a relatively high profile in Shetland. The idea of language
planning and language ideology rooted in “purity” have been largely rejected in Shetland, so the
focus of attention and resources is not on standardization and school-based literacy but on a
combination of activities, in which dialect literature, the use of dialect in school, cultural activities
and tourism are all encouraged, and this approach enjoys also support at the official level.
As long as the concept of Scots is highly problematic, however, it is not necessarily the case that
people see the Shetland dialect in Shetland as a dialect of Scots as opposed to a dialect of English.
In local speech and writing there is usually no need to specify a dialect of what language Shetland
is. The question seems to be irrelevant to some extent as the need to explain further seldom arises.
In most instances the Shetland dialect is seen as an entity closely associated with a specific Shetland
identity, something to cherish and support as part of local life and culture.
Shetland dialect in education
The information gathered through two recent surveys on Dialect in Primary School and in Pre-
School education in Shetland (carried out in 2005 and 2007 respectively) suggest that according to
estimates around half of the children speak the dialect to varying degrees, or are reported to speak
“a mixture of Shetland dialect and English”. Both surveys showed that the attitudes to the dialect
are very positive and at least part of the staff use dialect with children depending on the situation.
One of the main problems is the fact that the Shetland dialect is not included on a regular basis in
the curriculum. The main obstacles to introducing more dialect in Shetland schools have reportedly
been the lack of time and lack of material rather than attitudes. Another important issue to consider
has been the extent to which dialect could be introduced in school - an increasing number of pupils
are children of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.
New resources have been developed with the aim of ensuring that the material is relevant and useful
for the purposes of the local primary schools and pre-school education. The earlier material was
largely considered as being old-fashioned and having little relevance to modern life.
Efforts to promote the Shetland dialect are often expressed in terms of “beneficial cultural
participation”, “the importance of learning and enjoying one’s cultural heritage”, “understanding
place and community” and are generally based on the guidelines of Shetland’s Cultural Strategy.
More importantly, however, the emphasis on local resources and demand of local resources seems
to have grown substantially in recent years.
Shetland dialect in tourism and marketing
Some of my informants expressed the views that “you can’t teach a dialect” and that “as long as
people speak (and write in the dialect) then the dialect is in no need of preservation”. Using the
Shetland dialect rose as an important issue as well as being confident in language use.
Attachment to the Shetland dialect has often been expressed in terms of heritage preservation and
“keeping traditions alive”. Expressions often associated with the dialect are “it is part of our
heritage” or “it would be terrible to lose our heritage”. The dialect is also increasingly commodified
through tourism advertising and place branding.
In my opinion, and in contradistinction to others’ distaste for the heritage dimension of the dialect,
one of the areas which can have a successful outcome for the Shetland dialect is in fact that of
tourism and marketing. One of the tasks which have been seen as desirable among the Shetland
dialect activists is the adoption of an advisory role and collaboration with commercial enterprises
wishing to include the use of dialect sayings and phrases on products intended mainly for
tourists. Local initiatives have the potential to play a significant role in revitalization efforts, and in
particular joint projects between local governmental and non-governmental actors have both the
authority and the resources to make these efforts worthwhile.
At the present time, the Shetland dialect is seen as an expression of identity largely on account of its
cultural value as a dialect – in terms of its charm, expressiveness and authenticity, which might
otherwise be lost. One can see the use of the dialect in cultural activities, tourism and marketing as
“dialect heritagising” and maybe even as a danger to genuine revitalisation. These activities,
however, can be also seen as highly beneficial in increasing opportunities to use the dialect in
modern contexts and adding to its visibility and positive image.
The most optimistic views concerning the Shetland dialect and its future in interviews,
questionnaires and informal discussions were strongly connected to the economy as well as to pride
of place more generally. When the prestige of the local is raised higher, people will perhaps feel
also more comfortable in using more Shetland dialect in speech and writing.
The effectiveness of the contemporary revitalisation measures depends very much on one’s point of
view – if one considers the Shetland dialect as a language variety which could and should be a
language in its own right, then the steps taken so far are not sufficient. If, however, one considers
the Shetland dialect to be merely an essential part of local traditions and the heightened profile for
all aspects of local culture then the situation of the Shetland dialect looks relatively good. Increasing
visibility, raising consciousness in the community and educational involvement can strengthen its
position in modern life contexts.
From the data collected so far it seems very doubtful that a complete “take-over” of Shetlandic is
possible in the future, mainly because Shetlanders as a whole and the vast majority of the people
promoting the dialect feel very differently about it. The approach of mainly aiming at securing the
existing domains and functions may prove helpful because it entails a stable division of domains
associated with the Shetland dialect. The extension of the domains is connected to increasing the
provision of local speech and writing in the media, Internet and in education, changes which are
already under way to some extent.
References in this text:
Dialect. Two days conference & public debate on the developments of the Shetland dialect. North
Atlantic Fisheries College, Scalloway, 26th and 27th March 2004.
Graham, J. The Shetland dictionary. The Shetland Times Ltd. Lerwick, 1999.
Macafee, C. “Ongoing Change in Modern Scots” Jones, Charles, ed. The Edinburgh History of the
Scots Language, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997, 546.
Melchers, G. ‘Knapin’, ‘Proper English’, ‘Modified Scottish’ Some language attitudes in the
Shetland Isles In Manfred Görlach (ed.) Focus on: Scotland. Varieties of English around the world,
volume 5. John Benjamins. Amsterdam/Philadelphia 1985.
Millar, R. M. Northern and Insular Scots. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Note: this text may be published later as part of an article.