‘The dialect doesna seem to be very cool’: Language Attitudes in young Shetland speakers

Mercedes Durham and Jennifer Smith

University of Aberdeen, University of Glasgow -- University of Glasgow


Until recently, the Shetland Islands (and its distinctive variety of Scots) were isolated from the UK mainland; the discovery of oil in the North Seas in the mid seventies, however, and the construction of Sullom Voe, an oil terminal on the main island, has provided a steady influx of incomers to Shetland (Shetland in Statistics 2005). These incomers tend to speak more mainstream varieties of English, leading some researchers (Tait 2001:8, van Leyden 2004:18) to comment that the Shetland dialect is rapidly dying out in the youngest generations of native Shetlanders.

Recent research (Smith 2007-2008) into three generations of speakers in Lerwick, the main town, suggests that the actual situation is more complicated however. Although the youngest group of speakers comprise a homogeneous group both socially and demographically and in a number of cases belong to the same social networks, they can be divided into two groups on linguistic grounds. Roughly half of the young speakers still use proportions of dialectal features comparable to the older groups while the other young speakers have for the most part moved away from the dialect and use Standard Scottish English. How can we account for such differences in a homogeneous group?

This paper attempts to address this issue by considering linguistic and attitudinal factors together and examining whether attitudes towards the dialect (and the Shetland way of life) can help us understand the speakers’ use of a number of Shetland features: the maintenance of a T/V distinction (1); be /have variation as perfect auxiliaries (2) and strategies of demonstrative use (3).

1. a. if you were gonna replace your peerie car I would recommend a Vauxhall Corsa.

b. Mam was lyke 'du's no to spend dy money on all this shopping’.

2. a. I'm no got a middle name.

b. I’ve got one pair of football boots.

3. a. I got yon job when I was in lyke the second year.

b. At that time I wanted to learn more about politics.

c. I got this band together.

Correlating attitudinal factors with actual linguistic usage will allow us to investigate differences found in otherwise very similar speakers. This will help us understand the role of the individual within community-wide linguistic change and perhaps why extreme intra-community variability is often found in isolated communities when the dialect is obsolescing (Dorian, 1994).


Dorian, N. (1994). Varieties of variation in a very small place: Social homogeneity, prestige norms and linguistic variation. Language. 70(4):631-696.

Shetland Islands Council (2005). Shetland in Statistics. Lerwick: Shetland Litho.

Smith, J. (2007-2008) Obsolescence vs. stability in a Shetland dialect: Evidence from three generations of speakers. ESRC funded project no. RES-000-22-2052.

Tait, J. (2001) "Whit is Shetlandic?", Lallans 58, 7-16.

van Leyden, K. (2004). Prosodic Characteristics of Orkney and Shetland Dialects. An Experimental Approach. PhD Dissertation, Leiden University (LOT Dissertation Series 92, Utrecht: LOT.

Session: Paper session
Attitude 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 09