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Annual column for Shetland Life

It's January - that means it's time for my annual column in Shetland Life. 


It was great to be ‘hame’ in Shetland in May. It’s the first
time I’ve been in the islands since 2011. Then it was February, the days were
short and the weather coorse. In May it was warm and as the clouds broke the
blue North Atlantic light revealed the many and varied beauties that Shetland can
offer. I and my colleague from the Scots Language Centre were in Shetland for
three days. We had a packed schedule. We met volunteers from Shetland ForWirds
at the Shetland Museum, attended a meeting of the campaign group in Lerwick and
enjoyed a dialect concert at the Garrison Theatre. One of the highlights of our
trip  was a visit to Voe where we
saw Bruce Eunson give a dialect lesson to pupils in the primary school
there.  Interestingly many of the
pupils were not local but that didn’t stop them from engaging with the dialect,
speaking it and writing in it.  A
new initiative by the Scottish government to appoint Scots language
co-ordinators in schools should enable the excellent work carried out by Bruce
to be extended to the rest of Scotland. 
   

 

The Shetland dialect is alive and well, that much is
certain. There’s nowhere in Shetland that you don’t hear it – or for that
matter, read it. It’s in shop names, house names, signs and even in the lavvies
at Sumburgh airport due to the success of the Bards in the Bog initiative which
I’m pleased to hear is being revived this year. The visibility of Shetland dialect
in what experts call the ‘linguistic landscape’ is evidence of the vitality of
the dialect because in order for shop signs and so forth to be effective you
need to be certain that people seeing them can understand what they say.  When a sign in a shop declares, ‘Haein
a foy, hing oot da bunting.’ you need be sure that potential customers can
understand what's being said.

 

The prevalence of dialect in the linguistic landscape
confirms the data that was released in September about the responses given in
the 2011 census.  It indicates that
there exists in Shetland a large and active community of speakers. The census
results show that Shetland has the highest proportion of ‘Scots’ speakers of
any local authority in the country. Moray, Orkney and Aberdeenshire were the
communities with the next largest percentages of speakers. None of this is
unexpected of course. After all these are the communities where we would expect
to find large numbers of Scots speakers (in the case of Shetland this means
Shetland dialect speakers and Scots speakers who have moved there from other
parts of the country). So it was disappointing that the National Records for
Scotland undermined their own professional reputation by pretending that the
census results were not credible.  The
opportunity to develop policy on the basis of detailed information is now at
risk because NRS has attempted to hide the data and call into question the
validity of the statistics. It’s not as if the NRS position represents a novel
view, mind. Scots speakers have been told for centuries that their language
doesn’t exist. We can only hope NRS takes on board the criticisms of academics
and language experts because to miss out on using this data purposefully and
for the benefit of Scots language communities would be unfortunate and a misuse
of unique and exciting statistics.

 

This year Shetland ForWirds is organising a Year of Shetland
Dialect to celebrate the widespread use of the speech form in the islands.  The census and the visibility of
dialect in the linguistic landscape tell us how prevalent it is. That’s what
the Year of Dialect is intended to mark, the everyday use of the language all
over Shetland. There will be more information about events on the Shetland
ForWirds web site. Shetland ForWirds celebrates its tenth anniversary this
year. The volunteers who have given time and energy over the years to the cause
of encouraging the dialect have made a huge contribution to the culture of
Shetland. It’s great to be celebrating their successes this year.

 

Of course 2014 is a historic year not only because Shetland
ForWirds is ten years old. In September voters in Shetland will take part in
the Referendum on independence. Culture and language won’t be at the top of the
politicians’ agendas but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make a case for support
for linguistic diversity. Any new constitutional settlement must make provision
for linguistic minorities and communities remote from the main centres of
population. At the time of writing the Scottish government has set out its
plans in November’s White Paper. Would an independent state starting from
scratch give us the chance to accord language a more secure position? What do
the anti-independence parties have to say on the subject and will their plans
stand up to scrutiny? Let’s hope we hear more over the next nine months.
History beckons, this is a year none of us will forget.