Academic journal article Scottish Language

'I'll Cross Dat Brig Whin I Come Til Him': Grammatical Gender in the Orkney and Shetland Dialects of Scots

Academic journal article Scottish Language

'I'll Cross Dat Brig Whin I Come Til Him': Grammatical Gender in the Orkney and Shetland Dialects of Scots

Article excerpt


The purpose of the current paper is to investigate possible remnants of a grammatical gender system found in the Orkney and Shetland dialects of Scots. The fact that Orkney and Shetland dialects have something of a grammatical gender system has long been established. Its origin, however, is disputed. Robert McColl Millar (2007: 67) remarks that

   In Shetland dialect, a number of nouns can be referred to using
   sex-specific pronouns, so that sun can be referred to as he, while
   kirk, 'church', can be referred to as sho, 'she'. Whether this is a
   relict of the Old Norse grammatical gender system, or is an
   extension of the habit found among all English speakers to
   personify certain objects considered affectionately or used
   regularly, referring to them as she, is beyond our scope [...].

Similar uses of the pronouns he and she can also be found in Orkney dialect. This usage does not, however, amount to a full grammatical gender system visible in nouns and adjectives. Hugh Marwick (1929: xxix) and Jakob Jakobsen (1928-32: xxxvii) both find, in their respective studies of Nom substrate in Orkney and Shetland dialect, that the Old Norse inflectional system is mostly lost in the nineteenth and twentieth century dialects they were studying. However, both observe that Old Norse morphology survives in fossilised form in certain nouns (Marwick 1929: xxix, Jakobsen 1928-32: xxxvii-xli). For example, the strong masculine nominative--r is fossilised in blouster ('strong gale', ON blastr); the weak masculine nominative--i in flackie ('straw mat', ON flaki); weak masculine accusative -a ending as--o in klavo ('strap for horse collar', ON klafi); and the feminine nominative--a as--o in berg-gilto ('the wrasse', ON gylta), along with numerous other examples listed by Marwick and Jakobsen. The question is whether it is possible to detect any remnants of a grammatical gender system in the Orkney dialect apart from this type of fossilisation. Marwick (1929: xxx) notes:

The old differentiation of gender in the Orkney Nom is extremely difficult to discover to-day, when the former habits are so overlaid by Scottish usage. In a few connexions, however, the older genders still persist.

Of those 'few connexions,' Marwick (1929: xxx) mentions that weather and time phenomena are spoken of in the masculine, while fish are generally referred to as feminine. He then adds that '[i]n general, concrete objects, e.g. gun, nail, & c., are spoken of as feminine, and that is very common even yet' (Marwick 1929: xxx).

The purpose of this paper is to address some of the questions that Millar (2007) does not have the scope to address. Firstly, it seeks to address the question of whether the Orkney or Shetland system shows any sign of being a relict of Old Norse grammar, which has a fully developed gender morphology in nouns and adjectives. The historical background to this question is the process of language shift in the Northern Isles, in which Scots superseded the Old Norse dialect Norn. This process took several hundred years and cannot be dealt with here (but see Barnes 1998; Knooihuizen 2005; Millar 2008; Ljosland 2012; Millar 2012). However, in order to address the issue fully it is also necessary to consider gender in other forms of (relatively) modern English, as well as in Old English and Gaelic as Nom's geographical neighbours.


This paper investigates not only the workings of a grammatical gender system in the Orkney and Shetland dialects of Scots, but also addresses the question of its origin by comparison to other historical and contemporary varieties of English and Scandinavian. Also, influence from Gaelic, which employs two genders, cannot be excluded for the reason of its geographical proximity to the Earldom of Orkney and because of the possibility that Middle Scots could have carried Gaelic influence before it reached Orkney and Shetland. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.