Terms for Fish in the Dialects of Scotland's East Coast Fishing Communities: Evidence for Lexical Attrition

By Millar, Robert McColl; Barras, William et al. | Scottish Language, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Terms for Fish in the Dialects of Scotland's East Coast Fishing Communities: Evidence for Lexical Attrition


Millar, Robert McColl, Barras, William, Bonnici, Lisa, Scottish Language


1. Introduction

In communities dedicated to the fishing trade it is almost inevitable that a wider range of words for different species and kinds offish should be found in the local dialect than would be the case in a community which only purchases and consumes the product. This diversity is undoubtedly due largely to practical concerns: some fish are good to eat, while others are not; similarly (although by no means identically), some fish may be more readily attractive to buyers, while others may not. Although it would be possible to make and perpetuate these distinctions without having separate terms, it is easier for separate terms to exist for different fish species or types. By the same token, it is also necessary (at least with some fish) to have different words for different stages in their maturity process. If, for instance, you land a fish which is not sexually mature and do not throw it back, you are in a sense cutting your own throat. Again, knowledge of what to look for in this respect is largely visual rather than linguistic; having contrastive terms is likely to help maintain the distinction, however. (1)

In the case of the fishing communities on the east coast of Scotland, previous surveys (of which more will be said below) have recorded some sense of this diversity. It must be recognised, however, that the surveys involved are now rather old (the now in entries for the Scottish National Dictionary and its offshoots refers, for instance, to the 1950s at the latest) or are geographically limited (such as Downie 1983 or Lawrie 1991); others demonstrate somewhat questionable methodologies (such as Schlotterer 1996). This patchy coverage has to be viewed in relation to the unprecedented change and contraction which has affected the Scottish fishing industry over the last fifty to sixty years. Much that was once central to the inhabitants of fishing communities is now relatively detached from everyday experience. It was felt necessary, therefore, for a new survey of the dialect lexis of the present and former fishing communities of the east coast of Scotland, informed by recent dialectological and sociolinguistic methodologies, to be conducted to give a sense of knowledge and use of individual words and phrases and of semantic fields in these communities.

Although information on the loss and use of lexical material in a range of different semantic fields was assembled, for the purposes of this essay the concern is with knowledge of terms for fish of different species and at different stages in their maturity cycle.

These aims need to be viewed within the framework of linguistic attrition. A number of different viewpoints in relation to this concept are possible, from the language attrition of L1 in an L2 environment (as discussed by Schmid 2011) through to the semi-speaker continuum described and analysed by a number of scholars in relation to the process of 'language death' (Dorian 1981; Sasse 1992). Less developed, although a growing field, is the discussion of what happens to highly distinctive traditional dialects, in particular as largely phonologically distinguished regional koines appear to be replacing them (see, for instance, Hinskens 1996, Watt 2002, Ferrari-Bridgers 2010). Even on those occasions, however, lexical attrition has rarely been touched upon (exceptions to this include Agutter and Cowan 1981, Macafee 1994, Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1995: 702, Hendry 1997, McGarrity 1998 and Britain 2009:124-5; it is striking that a number of these resources deal with Scottish situations).

The fishing communities of the Scottish East Coast: an overview

Only an idea of the complexity and diversity of the fishing communities of the Scottish east coast can be provided in this brief space. They differ in size, in vitality and in religious connections. What was (and occasionally is) fished from particular ports also differed considerably. Communities were genuinely affected by what fish species were fished and landed, with inshore and deep sea fisheries making different demands upon individual fishermen, their families and the greater community. …

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