Academic journal article Scottish Language

'This Unique Dialect': The Profile of Shetland Dialect in a Typology of World Englishes

Academic journal article Scottish Language

'This Unique Dialect': The Profile of Shetland Dialect in a Typology of World Englishes

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

This paper is inspired by the Handbook of Varieties of English (Kortmann, Schneider et al. (2004 [2008])), henceforth referred to as 'the Handbook'. With its wealth of data and strict framework the Handbook can be claimed to be the first sizeable data source for the study of 'angloversals'. Its general usefulness in this respect has already been demonstrated, e.g. in the global synopses contained in the original volumes and in the chapter 'Vernacular Universals and Angloversals in a Typological Perspective' (Szmrecsany and Kortmann 2009). The Handbook contains presentations of comparable data from some sixty varieties of English, representing selected phonological and morphosyntactic features (179 and 76 items respectively). There are no structured accounts of lexical features, but individual contributors were welcome to comment on the lexicon of their own varieties. The Northern Isles are represented in the Handbook by a chapter on phonology as well as one on morphosyntax (Melchers 2004 [2008]).

The general purpose of this paper is to present and analyse the Shetland data in a more detailed way than what emerges in the synopses, and to discuss their comparability with other varieties of World Englishes. In the assessment some attention is given to recent research on the dialect. To some extent the paper should also be seen as an overall assessment of the quality and general applicability of the data collected and analysed for the Handbook. Admittedly, this may seem somewhat circular and narcissistic, but it should be pointed out that although the many contributors to the Handbook were provided with a framework and rather detailed instructions, they worked independently and did not have access to chapters on other varieties than their own; hence a retrospect view is not amiss. Since there are also chapters on Scottish English, however, I was given the opportunity to consult the authors of these (Jane Stuart-Smith and Jim Miller) in order to avoid unnecessary repetition and focus on what I saw as truly significant for Shetland. This inclusion of special chapters devoted to a 'sub-variety' in addition to an exhaustive treatment of its superordinate variety is unique in the Handbook, which can be seen as further support of the main title of this paper.

This title, as it happens, is taken from a characterisation of Shetland dialect on the website of 'Shetland ForWirds', a local organisation promoting the preservation of the dialect, focussing on its lexicon. The 'uniqueness' of the dialect is also often emphasised by linguists, however, notably Catford (1957) in his pilot study of Shetland phonology and, more recently, Millar (2007) in Northern and Insular Scots. In the chapter on the Northern Isles for the publication The Lesser-Known Varieties of English (Schreier et al. 2010) Melchers and Sundkvist state that the local varieties they present 'are unlike any other dialects of English, including Scots', having an archaic character and abounding with Nordic features at all levels of language (Melchers and Sundkvist 2010: 17). Surprisingly, the uniqueness of the dialect is hardly borne out by a scrutiny of the Handbook's synopses, as this paper will demonstrate and attempt to explain.

2. Defining 'Shetland dialect'

The language situation in Shetland is complex and the naming and definition of the variety is neither easy nor uncontroversial. Before turning to a description of the variety as featured in this paper it should be pointed out that Shetlanders today are generally perfectly conversant with a standard variety of English, in speech as well as writing. The speech community can be characterised as bidialectal, with access to a choice of two near-discrete, definable forms of speech: one a form of standard, i.e. Scottish Standard English (SSE) spoken with local accents, and the other a traditional regional dialect, partly reflecting a Norse substratum but constituting a variety of Scots. …

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