Thursday 10 May 2012

I got oot of the car and I gied inside this tiny, peerie hoose! *

The Shetland Islands provide an interesting site for studying dialect death

What is happening to the Shetland Islands dialect? Is this distinctive dialect dying out along with many other traditional dialects as research on British varieties in recent years has indicated? Researchers Jennifer Smith (University of Glasgow) and Mercedes Durham (University of Aberdeen) conducted a sociolinguistic study in order to test such claims as they relate to the Shetland Islands, focusing specifically on the main town of Lerwick, the commercial and industrial centre of Shetland.

The Shetland Islands are situated in the North Sea, between Norway to the east and Scotland to the south. The Vikings invaded Shetland in the 9th Century and while the dialect is described as a variety of Scots, there are still traces of the Viking language, Norn, in evidence. The dialect has a number of features which are unique to the Shetland Isles but also others which are used more widely throughout Scotland.

Thirty adults were sampled in the study (15 male, 15 female), divided equally into three different age groups - 17-21 years, 45-55 years, and 70+ years old – to represent three generations of speakers. The study used spontaneous speech, elicited during sociolinguistic interviews lasting 1-2 hours conducted in each participant’s home.

The researchers report on six features. The first two are lexical items, peerie (a Shetland-specific word to mean small, tiny, little as in the title above) and ken (a Scotland-wide word to mean know). The second pair of features are grammatical structures: the Shetland-specific use of the verb Be as in ‘they were been coopers as well’ where standard English would have the verb Have i.e. ‘they had been coopers as well’, and secondly, the more Scotland-wide use of yon to mean that, as in the example ‘what’s yon?’ Finally, the researchers consider two phonological features: the Shetland-specific use of [d] to replace the <th> in words such as that, then, those and the use of the more Scotland-wide feature of pronouncing words such as all, ball and call as a’, ba’ and ca’.

The results of the analysis of all six features reported on in this paper showed that there is a steady decline in the use of the local, traditional forms in favour of more standardised forms across the three generations of speakers. The results therefore seem to confirm reports that the local dialect is disappearing in the Shetland Islands. However, there is an interesting twist in the tale. The speakers in the two older generations of speakers all seem to pattern in the same way but the younger speakers show a sharp divide; some of the younger speakers show high rates (in some cases even higher rates than the older generations) in the use of local forms while other young speakers have very high rates of the newer, standard forms. The researchers considered all kinds of reasons why this might be the case, for example gender, networks, time spent away from the island and attitudes towards Lerwick and the Shetland Isles generally but none of these influences seemed to provide the answer as to why there was such a split among the young speakers. These results highlight the fact that a complex array of factors are involved in the process of language change and dialect attrition and the change does not neccesarily follow a regulated or gradual pattern. More and more, sociolinguists are focusing on the use of language by individuals in the community and this study would seem to highlight further need for this kind of close investigation. In fact, the researchers suggest that future research by way of a more in-depth ethnographic study of the Shetland Isles may reveal the reasons for the split among the younger age group. It would also provide close monitoring of a dialect undergoing attrition while it is actually happening.

* The title of this article can be glossed as ‘I got out of the car and I went inside this tiny, little house’
Smith, J. and Durham, M. (2011). A tipping point in dialect obsolescence? Change across the generations in Lerwick, Shetland. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 197-225.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00479.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox


  1. As a native born Shetland speaker in 50's I would render the title as "I got oot o da car an gied atil dis peerie mootie hoose"

  2. Does mootie have a similar meaning to peerie?

  3. Peerie is small, mootie is very small. They are usually used together in the phrase "peerie mootie".

    There is an online Shetland dictionary here

  4. Mootie means very small. It is always used togetether with peerie to give the phrase "peerie mootie" ie very small.


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