‘Insular isles, insular speech’? Language change in the Shetland Islands

Peter Sundkvist


The Shetland Isles, a group of islands settled in the North Sea approximately halfway between Norway and Scotland, are perhaps popularly best known for ponies, sheep dogs, and knitwear. Considerably less well known is the fact that the isles are also home to a highly distinct local dialect. The Shetland dialect constitutes a form of Lowland Scots but also displays a significant Scandinavian component. This is attributable to Shetland's history: the isles were settled by Vikings around 800AD and a Nordic language - first Old Norse and later Norn - was spoken there up until about the 18th century. As for many local speech forms, however, there are strong signs that the Shetland dialect is undergoing drastic change; arguably, it is even in rapid decline. The aim of this essay is to provide an accessible introduction to the Shetland Isles, their settlement and linguistic history, and the complex local language situation. Furthermore, some of the discourse surrounding current language change, involving both local and non-local contributors, is reviewed. Recent empirical research, which provides important clues to the future of the Shetland dialect, is also discussed, as well as its various implications.


The Shetland Isles; Language change; Shetland dialect; Scots

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Moderna språk - Romanska och klassiska institutionen - Stockholms universitet - SE-106 91 STOCKHOLM
ISSN: 2000-3560