A momentous year
Posted by Michael Hance
The following article appeared in Shetland Life January 2012.
This has been a momentous year for Scots and for the Shetland dialect. For the first time ever respondents were asked in the national census to say whether they could speak Scots. Previously there had only been estimates about the number of Scots speakers – including Shetland dialect – but in coming months we will have at last the results of the 2011 census showing where Scots speakers live and which demographic groups they fall into.
Before the census took place at the end of March the Scots Language Centre led a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the question, providing information about its meaning and working with local groups to generate interest across the country. In February I was the guest of local campaigning group, Shetland ForWirds. As well as visiting and giving interviews at Radio Shetland and the Shetland Times, I took part in a meeting of the group itself. Of course the questions caused a little controversy in Shetland with some feeling reluctant to describe the unique local dialect as ‘Scots’. However, there was no question that campaigners and policy makers felt that collecting data could only be helpful in making the case for improved support for dialect. It will be interesting to see what the results reveal and I am hopeful that the data from Shetland will indicate the existence of a substantial dialect using community. Anyone visiting the islands can hear the dialect in the streets, shops and pubs – let’s hope it shows up in the census too.
It was heartening too to meet members of Shetland ForWirds and to hear about the many and varied activities in which the group has been involved. At its January meeting the group had heard from staff at BBC Radio Shetland about the corporation’s attitudes to the dialect. In Scotland as a whole the BBC tends to act as if the entire population speaks Scottish accented English and there is little of the colour and diversity of speech that one hears in the Lowlands and Northern Isles. The situation in Shetland is probably better than in the South but it troubles me that BBC Shetland seems not to have any official policy aimed at promoting, protecting and encouraging the dialect. This is quite the opposite situation from Gaelic where the BBC uses many opportunities to sustain and aid the language. Why can’t we have cartoons for bairns, for example or pages on the BBC web site that provide information and resources in and about Shetland and other Scots dialects? Sadly, Shetland is not alone in this regard and it must be considered a cultural scandal that the dialect of the North East amongst others is so neglected by the state broadcaster.
This year has been historic for other reasons too. In May the SNP was returned to power in the wake of the most extraordinary election in modern times. The party promised in its manifesto to support Scots and to develop a network of dialect co-ordinators which would have the job of encouraging and promoting Scots dialects including Shetland in schools. The proposal arose from appreciation of the work carried out by Bruce Eunson, the dialect officer at Shetland Islands Council and demonstrates yet again the central role Shetland has had in acting as a model of good practice where support for local language and culture is concerned. The Scots Language Centre has encouraged the government to take account of Bruce’s work in developing policy for the rest of the country and we hope that the Shetland model will be extended to local authorities in other areas of Scotland soon. While the government continues to express enthusiasm for Scots and its dialects we know that it also faces hard choices as a result of the budget cuts that have been made by the UK government. We must hope that funds can be found to support the projects it has announced and work to make sure that Shetland receives its fair share of what is being spent. The government has also indicated its interest in developing closer relations with Scotland’s Nordic neighbours. Those of us who support linguistic diversity must encourage the SNP to examine the ways in which the Nordic states and island groups like Aaland and Faeroe encourage local dialects and languages. Finland, in particular, has legislated in favour of support for its many indigenous languages and there are some signs that, for example, the various Sami dialects are benefitting from the state’s positive approach. Shetland occupies a pivotal position geographically and culturally between Scotland and the Nordic countries and it would be heartening if the generally encouraging policies of the Nordic countries were developed here.
Our relationship with the Nordic countries took the form of a new study into Shetland identity and language which was published in the autumn by Åbo Akademi, the Swedish language higher education institution based in Turku, Finland’s second city. The book is the result of various studies undertaken by Helsinki based academic, Atina Nihtinen, who visited Shetland on a number of occasions to undertake her research. Nihtinen’s thesis examines Shetland identity in relation to language and to Scots identity in general and makes a number of comparisons with identity in Åland and in the Finnish speaking areas of north Sweden. It is a fascinating and at times controversial view of this subject and it is to be hoped that it will be reviewed soon in Shetland Life.
As international and local relationships continue to change, as existing notions of identity and ‘place’ are challenged, let us take this opportunity to protect and preserve our distinct cultural forms and most especially the language in which those cultures are expressed.
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Scots Language in Scotland's Census 2011 | Shetland and Orcadian Scots dialect | Caithness Scots dialect | North East Doric Scots dialect | East central Scots dialects | Angus and Tayside Scots Dialect | Galloway Scots Dialect | West Central Scots Dialect | Borders Scots Dialect | Ulster Scots Dialect | Scotch language | Scots leid | Scottish Language | Ulster Scots Dialect |