Orkney: an interesting case study for historical linguists
In the following, I’ll discuss my passion for historical linguistics and how this discipline is especially interesting in relation to Orkney and the now-extinct language of Norn. Firstly, I’d like to explain briefly what we know about Norn in terms of how it fits in with other language families and then I’ll consider how we know this. Finally, I will discuss some of the implications of Norn’s existence and how they can be applied to contemporary issues.
What we know
Any discussion of historical languages owes a considerable debt to Jacob Grimm who pioneered linguistics as an academic discipline. He was responsible for discovering that many European and Asian languages share a common ancestor in what is now known as proto-Indo-European, and was able to demonstrate how the Germanic languages (separating into North – Scandinavian; West – German, Dutch and English; and East) branched out from this through the first consonant shift p→f, t→th, k→ch. Alongside the Germanic “dialect” there are Celtic, Slavic, Armenian, Albanian, Baltic, Hellenic, Italic and Iranian. Norn, unlike English, belongs to the North Germanic language family and was born out of Old Norse, specifically the West Old Norse of the Norwegian settlers.
Norn, like the current Scandinavian languages today (Norwegian, Danish and Swedish) would have made up a dialect continuum with the Viking world. This means that the languages are mutually intelligible i.e. a Swede and a Dane can meet each other and carry on speaking their own language while still being able to understand one another. However, it was distinct enough to be more than a “dialect”, with its own grammatical as well as vocabulary differences and was spoken in Shetland, Orkney and Caithness, beginning its slow decline in the 15th century after the islands became Scottish (1468-72) (although Scots became the prestige language in the 14th with the Sinclair earls).
How we know it
Because Norn was never a written language what we know of it must be inferred from a limited number of transcribed sources, namely three, from people who were not native speakers. In the 1690s, James Wallace recorded a version of the Lord’s Prayer in Orcadian Norn. Eighty years later, George Low transcribed a Shetland variation, which differs substantially and is perhaps affected by his native Scots or the language’s evolution and incorporation of Scots vocabulary over time. The most intriguing source we have for Norn is the original poem, The Ballad of Hildina, again written down by Low, the story of which has precedents in the medieval German poem Kudrun and other Norse tales.
“I try them with the old Norn words – hraun
Duss, rønis, queedrauns, kollyarun;
they hvarf from me in all directions
Over the hurdifell – klett, millya hellya, hellyina bretta […]”
from On a Raised Beach by Hugh MacDiarmid.
Norn matters in the sense that it provides a historical case study of how Norse mutated in relative isolation into a separate and dominant language of the common folk, and how it died out due to a lack of written record, thus giving us vital information on how to keep languages alive. It still survives in a diluted form in the dialect vocabulary, pronunciations and grammar of Orcadians but there is now no mutual intelligibility with Scandinavia. This has political implications because it naturally orients us towards Scotland and the UK where there is still a lot of cultural continuity between the northern isles and Norway etc. If we were to build up Norn as a useable medium, we would at least then have options, and, unlike Hugh MacDiarmid’s Synthetic Scots, we would not be competing with a living language.
There has been an attempt in recent years to reconstruct Norn as a useable language in the fashion of the Norwegian Landsmål, created out of various dialects to make something distinct from Danish. However, this Nynorn, as it is called, has no political project behind it, as the unifying Nynorsk did and thus, in my opinion, is doomed to fail. The focus must be on uniqueness and mutual intelligibility with other Scandinavian languages with the goal of fostering a closer relationship and enhancing a unique culture if it is to be successful.