I’ve been in Lerwick for a week, researching Scots language dialects for a new performance provisionally entitled Building a Nation which aims to look at the growth of a city (Glasgow) against the backdrop of inter-country migration from various parts of the country, and the impact that has had on our language(s) and ability to communicate, as well as exploring ideas of class, judgement and the infamous Cringe.
Last week, in Orkney, my eyes were opened at the vast difference and complexity of the insular Scots tongue (as it is categorised here) – of how it differs from island to island and how, from generation to generation, there is a sense of erosion and loss.
However as soon as I arrived in Lerwick I felt that there was a linguistic charge in the air. The Shetland dialect is alive and well and it is brilliantly inescapable. Much of this pride and intuition exists in no small part to individuals and groups who actively promote and encourage the use of Shetland dialect in everyday use – one such group being Shetland ForWirds.
The group, in their wirds, aim to ‘foster and promote the use of written and spoken Shetland dialect as a valued and essential element of Shetland’s distinctive heritage and culture.’ I witnessed first hand this incredible devotion in person at a regular meeting conducted entirely in dialect, and was overwhelmed at the interest in my own project. Many members of the group volunteered to have a recorded conversation with me about the story of their voice, and I was welcomed into their homes where I listened to their experiences of growing up speaking a mixture dialect and English, and the impact that has had on them and their understanding of the self.
There were common themes: not being allowed to speak dialect to elders or at school; realisations that one way of speaking was not as acceptable as the other; learning to code switch; influences from the rest of the UK and abroad on the islands; and the future of the dialect. I was amazed at the breadth of experience and insight coming from these participants, and value the importance that these stories have on our understanding of our identities today.
Mary Blance, broadcaster with the BBC, was one of the first professionals to speak dialect on radio, and it was not welcomed with open arms. However, over the years, her efforts have had a positive impact on the representation of Scots language in the mainstream, and this has contributed to the sense of pride that people on Shetland have regarding their midder tongue. Now you’ll hear other broadcasters in Shetland (and Orkney) speaking in dialect and very often councilors, local politicians, business people and commentators will regularly – and confidently – speak on air in their dialect.
I was interested in how this pride in dialect could be fostered for future generations and so I started hanging out with Bruce Eunson, who is Scots language coordinator for Education Scotland and uses his Shetland knowledge to create learning techniques and to promote Scots in schools. One very real issue for teachers around the country is the nebulous state of the language, and how to manage this in the classroom. Bruce advises that ‘Each pupil can choose to codify Scots any way they like as long as they consider it and remain consistent. And then the question of it’s consistency is no different to the lessons of how to spell in English - it reinforces literacy.’
When I asked if this can provide a gateway to enhancing learning, Bruce told me of a recent experience he had in a Sandwick school. Liz Lochhead – outgoing Makar – was visiting Shetland and some pupils had written poetry to show her. Liz instantly picked out a poem written in Shetland dialect and asked if the pupil could read it out. The boy was absent that day, and so Bruce did the honours. He noticed how well written it was: the spelling, the layout, the alliteration, imagery, and narrative. However it transpired that this particular pupil was what Bruce might call (in education terms) a reluctant learner, but one – they realised – who has a real talent for poetry which has manifested from his use of dialect. Or to be more specific: a talent that has transpired because of the opportunity to be allowed to write in dialect.
This pupil came from farming family, and used this to full effect in his poem perhaps because many Shetland dialect words are connected to land, animals, the sea, nature etc (which could also be reason for the decline in these words) but Bruce insists that there is ‘something about the language that resonates with voice: pupils can be more expressive and that’s what I’ve learned from travelling across Scotland. Boys in particular perform better and show increased levels of attainment. Their literacy is re-engaged and so many of them never have the chance to find that because so many teachers don't investigate it. An untapped element of Scottish education is self expression and creative writing and Scots lends itself to that.’
Another connection to Shetland ForWirds, arts worker and playwright Jacqui Clark is also testament to this type of linguistic intervention. Jacqui grew up in a Shetland household and was exposed only to the language of her family. But her early school life in the eighties coincided with the surge of new oil workers from every part of the UK who settled in Shetland and had children, resulting in the growth of non-Shetland teachers. On entering primary school, Jacqui was instantly different from her peers and teacher, and attended extra lessons three days a week to learn to speak proper.
‘I always mind it making me feel like an outcast and it had a big impact on me. Oil workers would come and go and the children were constantly changing. I would have Shetland spoken to me at home but at school I would be hearing anything fae the north of England, Wales, Scotland. So I geographically decided to pitch my voice somewhere in the middle: so I picked Glasgow. And at twelve my dialect was watered doon fae when I was peerie. That changed what my midder tongue would be. Whereas noo I put my hands up in horror at the very thought that that was what I did.’
Bruce has also seen this first hand: ‘There is enough anecdotal evidence to show the language used at home should be utilised more in school as it would be the best one for pupils to express themselves confidently and creatively. There is a wealth of vocabulary that is not currently explored in the classroom to its full potential.’
I wondered about this self-editing, and if this has an effect on confidence and social interaction. Jacqui notes that this experience still leaves her tongue tied when it comes to speaking certain words, especially the choice between the English th and Shetland d.
However, she also notes there is a confidence that comes with bilingualism and the ability of switiching tongues for different situations. Jacqui also talks of her writing:
‘Secondary school English teachers encouraged me to write in the dialect, and I’m Glad they did. It’s the midder tongue that comes to you at the moment of inspiration when writing – it’s more natural but it’s also easier to be creative. Work and study was always English. It’s a different voice – it’s a work voice.’
Bruce and I spoke at length about the question of standardising Scots for the classroom, which again brings up the question which Scots? ‘I’m happy with the idea that someone could take a careful in-depth approach as to how we can standardise Scots but I am not in favour of accepting central belt Scots that mostly gets published getting called Scots language - to me that would be a death nail between relations between regions. Why do we need to have one way to say something?’
Listening to Bruce and Jacqui and Mary; and Tom from Orkney; and Michael from the Scots Language Centre; and all the people I have visited lately – Colin, Christian, Anne, Laureen, Douglas, Jean, Margaret, Billy…one thing they have all presented is a quiet resolve that is entirely unaffected by any political or national(ist) motivations. While hopping from house to house I would regularly check Twitter and see the mock outrage that was unfolding because one newspaper dared to publish a column in Scots. The resulting fallout, the name-calling, the bigotry, the ignorance all pales into insignificance when you hear first hand accounts of the effects of enforced monolingualism on individuals and communities. But here it seems most people are quietly and happily unaware of central belt stooshies on how people should speak. I have not met one person who is banging a drum, who is demanding equality or who is erecting walls. But they are still enforcing change: by continuing to talk in their own way.
I’ll leave it at that. Actually, I’ll leave it to Bruce: ‘Scotland’s pupils now are the generation who can grow up in a world where their local dialect of their home or their Scots is something they can use to their advantage. They can use it in the classroom if they’re a teacher, in a business environment, or an arts environment. The opportunity for them to fully reach their potential is there.'