Academic journal article Scottish Language

Orkney English Phonology: Observations from Interview Data

Academic journal article Scottish Language

Orkney English Phonology: Observations from Interview Data

Article excerpt

This paper is an exploratory overview of the accent used in Orkney. The study focuses on the 'English' end of the dialect continuum that can be found throughout the Northern Isles and the Scottish Lowlands. The use of qualitative data from semi-structured interviews helps unearth a number of features that have received little or no attention with regard to any L1 accent in the British Isles, among them the use of ejectives and an unusually fronted hesitation particle. Most of these features are illustrated by examples from an audio file that is available as part of the Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech (SCOTS).


The Orkney dialects are one of the Tight grey spots' on the dialect maps of Britain. Van Leyden (2004:5) remarks that the 'linguistic literature dealing with the dialects of the Northern Isles generally focuses on Shetland, while Orkney is either dismissed briefly or ignored', and Millar (2007:138) points out that '[i]n comparison to Shetland, the dialects of Orkney are not at all well covered' (for similar remarks, cf. Melchers 2008a:40; 2008b:287; Melchers and Sundkvist 2010:23, 28). Apparently, most researchers who wanted to trace the Scandinavian influence on modern Scottish dialects seem to have concentrated on the more northerly of the two archipelagos.

Even though the Orkney dialect is fairly under-researched, it has in fact received some attention. There are studies on the Norn element in Orkney (e.g. Marwick 1929, Barnes 1998, Heddle 2010, Millar 2010), a dictionary of present-day Orkney (Flaws and Lamb 1997), and a number of descriptions of current Orkney grammar and phonology, particularly by Gunnel Melchers and associates (Melchers 2008a, 2008b; Melchers and Sundkvist 2010). In addition, van Leyden and van Heuven (e.g. van Leyden 2004, van Leyden and van Heuven 2006) have carried out instrumental studies of some prosodic aspects. Tamminga (e.g. 2008, 2009) has dealt in detail with the accent spoken in Westray, a small Orkney island with a population of about 550. The studies that probably come closest to the present investigation are Orton 1991 and Melchers 2008a. Orton is a Master's thesis on the Kirkwall accent, albeit restricted to segmental phonology. Melchers provides a synopsis of Orkney phonology as part of an overview of the accents in both of the northern archipelagos. All three studies, however, are different in focus (cf. table 1). The most important difference is that this study relies entirely on qualitative data. As a consequence, this paper, besides giving a general overview of Orkney phonology, also aims to highlight those features of the Orkney accent that have received little or no attention in the literature so far, such as the question of rhoticity, the use of ejectives and the realization of the hesitation particle, as well as a fresh look at the intonation patterns.


The data of the study consist of ten semi-structured interviews I conducted in Orkney in 2005. The purpose of the interviews was to gather information on the linguistic identity of the Scots in general (cf. Schmitt 2009). With the data being qualitative in nature, it is not possible to establish the exact distribution of words across the lexical sets. There are, however, distinct advantages of this approach. First, as there is not much data on Orkney English phonology available, there is a need to unearth basic categories and features in the first place. To do this, an 'open' qualitative approach is more appropriate than a quantitative one with pre-defined elicitation patterns. Second, since the topic of the interviews was not concerned with phonological aspects but with the socio-psychological side of the Scottish dialects in general, the informants' attention was not drawn to their own speech; in other words, the Observer's paradox could largely be avoided, resulting in more natural (albeit somewhat formal) data. Third, due to the length of the interviews, there was a fair chance that each phoneme would occur in a number of different contexts. …

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