For almost a thousand years the language of the Orkney Islands was a variant of Norse known as Norroena (or Norn in Scots). The distinctive and culturally unique qualities of the Orkney dialect spoken in the islands today derive from this sister language of Faroese, which too developed from Norse brought in by settlers in the 9th century, and from Icelandic. Direct Scots influence on Orkney really began from the 1330's when the earldom passed into the hands of Malise earl of Strathearn. Norn was steadily eroded as a language of governance and the pledging of Orkney to Scotland as part of the dowry of Margaret of Denmark in 1468 merely accelerated the process. There are very few documents written in Norn left. Scots became the language of governance and Norn disappeared very quickly, remaining in the Orkney dialect of today as specific lexical and grammatical features. Awareness of this language has been slowly eroded by the cultural changes faced by Orkney in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The term "Orcadian" is sometimes used but the dialect is more often known as Orkney dialect.
Today's Orkney dialect, like that of Shetland, is pervaded with Norse words and turns of speech. Orkney dialect differs from Shetland in that Shetland follows Nordic stress patterns whereas Orkney has a rising intonation akin to Welsh or Irish - in fact, Orcadians are often mistaken for them!
There are dialectical differences, particularly in pronounciation and vocabulary, throughout the islands.
Some of the main distinct features of Orkney dialect are:
The use of the verb 'to be' as an auxiliary in place of English 'to have', e.g.
I'm just meed the tea. I have just made tea.
The use of the verb 'to be' as a future tense main verb, e.g.
I'll just be. I will just be with you/ I am just coming/ I will just be there.
Usage of a plural for a singular noun, e.g
This feet is sore but the other feet is fine. This foot is sore but the other foot is fine.
The second person singular pronoun thoo is still used in a familiar sense, e.g.
Whit dis thoo mak o that? What do you make of that?
Tak thee tea. Take your tea.
Compound prepositions at the end of a sentence, e.g.
I'm gan oot a luk upbye. I am going out for a look about up the road.
Prepositions generally at the end of a sentence, e.g
Whar's me breeks at? Where are my trousers?
And finally, something which harks back straight to Old Norse - whar means both 'who' and 'where', e.g.
Whar's that? Who's that?/Where's that?
In Orkney name is neem, table is teeble and able is eeble. In some parts, such as North Ronaldsay (North Ronalshee), a hard k often softens to a soft ch so “How are you keeping?” becomes Hoo are thoo cheepin? All over Orkney j and g usually become ch in speech so that German jam is pronounced Cherman Cham. Whereas in Shetland du (you) is used, in Orkney this changes to thoo. Thee is also used in the islands.
Orkney dialect is used throughout Orkney in every situation. Radio Orkney features dialect, there is teaching of dialect in schools and in Orkney College, writers publish in Orkney dialect. A new linguistically based research centre based at Orkney College will help to keep up the momentum! The modern attitude to dialect in Orkney can be summed up by the couplet from local poet Harvey Johnson,
..Orkney's greatest treasure is
By far its mither tongue.
There is a recent list of Orkney vocabulary at:
The capital of the islands is Kirkwall (Kirkwal), while other places include Stromness (Strumniz) and the islands of Rousay (Rousee), Stronsay (Stronsee) and Westray (Westree). Orkney has a rich farming and fishing tradition along with traditional knit ware industry. Writers in the dialect include Christina McKay Costie, Walter Traill Dennison and David Towrie.