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Letters / Slow death of the Shetland dialect

I wrote a letter to the Shetland Times and Shetland News in 2015 about the decline in dialect use in Shetland. I honestly thought at the time that things would start to change, but nearly five years down the track its only getting worse by the day as far as I can tell.

It’s like its ok for the older generations to speak dialect but you can’t have the younger ones doing it. Folk speak broad Shetland to anyone old enough it seems and when speaking to bairns they seem to revert to the computerized sounding emotionless voice used to ‘knapp’ that before now was only used when speaking on the phone to ones doon south, away on holiday or other occasions when it was required to be understood.

The biggest shame of it all is part of Shetland’s identity is disappearing right before our eyes, part of our culture, our heritage, our history.

I have worked all over the world with people from all over the UK and other English speaking nations and one thing the UK has which doesn’t really exist in such abundance in any other English speaking parts of the world is dialects and regional twangs which are a great thing, in my opinion, and should be protected and embraced.

At work I currently work with people from the very south of England, right up to the top tip of Scotland, and lots of places in between. And each one of them speaks differently, and it is easily identifiable where they come from listening to them, or at least the general area like the N.E of England, Western Isles, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Fraserburgh etc wherever, each one is identifiable from their accent.

Now I listen to the non-dialect speaking Shetlanders, what do I hear then? Can it be compared to anything else within the UK? The answer to that is No, it’s not even comparable to the posh end of Edinburgh or Aberdeen, it’s not posh English as I would call it (use the Queen or politicians as a reference); the closest you could come to would be a modern version of Stephen Hawking’s talking machine, like Alexa or Siri but without the American accent. It’s a shame and will be a huge loss.

I have two peerie bairns myself and I’m proud to hear them speaking dialect and saying words but with the way the schools are and the way the bairns are being forced into ‘talking’ at school, how much longer I will be listening to them saying Shetland words is up for debate.

I must say our local school is not included in that as they do speak dialect to the bairns but certainly you would be more likely to find someone speaking dialect in Australia (I know of several that do) than you would be in the new AHS now. It’s truly unbelievable and scary to think it has changed so much so quickly.

If the current rate of decline among younger generations continue within the next couple of generations the Shetland dialect will be gone for good.

And that will be the fault of everyone reading this, agreeing with what I’m saying and just saying ‘well nothing we can do now, it’s the way of the world, things change, it’ll be a shame but it’ll just have to go’.

It speaks volumes that they have ‘dialect’ classes in school now; used to be we had English class and part of that was dialect, now the dialect words are getting so underused and unsaid that they are having to be taught to a class of people who have been brought up hearing them but think they sound silly to say.

I know dialects change, I know words and phrases change, as all things do over time but it’s usually a gradual change. What has happened in Shetland is not gradual; in a single generation we have gone from everyone outside of Lerwick and Brae speaking dialect – and that dialect being different in each and every part of Shetland (including a high percentage of those who have moved from here from Mainland UK who have taken it upon themselves to learn it and fit in with the culture) – to now it suddenly not being cool to speak it and the younger generation now speaking like computerized English dictionaries.

I just hope that it’s something that changes shortly; and if not a big part of our culture and heritage may disappear over the next couple of decades, and I for one think that would be a terrible shame.

Robert Laurenson

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021