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The Norn language (native name Norroena) also known as Orkney and Shetland Norn) was a Germanic language spoken in Shetland and Orkney during the Norse era down to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Norn still has a considerable influence on contemporary Shetland speech.



Dr. Jakob Jakobsen was a major recorder of the language, and a native speaker of Faroese, probably Norn's closest living relative.

Norn was a part of the Indo-European family, to which languages as diverse as Russian, English, Hindi, Gaelic and Greek belong. It belonged to the Germanic branch, along with English, Dutch and German, more specifically, North Germanic, which makes it a relative of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Its closest living relatives are the Nynorsk form of Norwegian (Norway's second official language, most widely used in Western Norway <ref>
The prevailing regions for Nynorsk are the western counties of Rogaland, Hordaland, Sogn og Fjordane and Møre og Romsdal, in addition to the western/northern parts of Oppland, Buskerud, Telemark, Aust- and Vest-Agder, where an estimated 50% of the population writes Nynorsk. The usage in the rest of Norway, including the major cities and urban areas in the above stated areas, is scarce.</ref>), Icelandic and Faroese, of which the last two are the least changed from the old Norse. Together with Norn these three languages form the West Scandinavian sub-group of the North Germanic languages.


Pre-Norse background

We do not know what the earliest language spoken on Shetland was, since it has not been recorded or at least not yet deciphered. When the Norse arrived, the people in Shetland seem to have been speaking a form of Pictish, a Celtic (or possibly partly non-Indo-European language), some of which is recorded in ogham inscriptions.

Because some later Norn speakers were descendants of Picts, and/or spoke Pictish as a main language, it is likely that Pictish exerted at least some influence on the early forms of Norn in Shetland.

Early history

Norn was a direct descendant of the Old Norse tongue, but it is not easy to say where Norn begins and Old Norse ended. Instead, it was a case of a long transition, rather than a sharp break, like between Anglo-Saxon and English, with the Norman Conquest. Barnes, in The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland<ref>The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland</ref>, makes Norn apply to Old Norse as it is known in the Northern Islands. It is then possible to assign "Norn" to the variety of Nordic Language used on the Islands from the Norse conquest in around 800 AD to the extinction of the language over a millenium later.

Differences began to appear in Norse, c. 1000, when West Norse, and East Norse emerged. East Norse consisted of Swedish and Danish, and West Norse of the other dialects. West Norse had considerable Celtic language influence, both direct and indirect. In Shetland, Orkney, Caithness and the Hebrides, the influence came directly from an indigenous Celtic speaking population. In the Faroes, and Iceland, the pre-Norse population was small, and seems to have had little influence.

Indirect Celtic influence on West Norse came in the form of wives and slaves. The Norse tended to be xenogamous, and to marry non-Norse. The Norse in Shetland would have taken some of their wives from the native Picts, and from Gaelic speaking regions to the south. Gaels were known as Vestmenn, and gave their name to Vestmannaeyjar in Iceland, and Vestmanna in Faroe.

Because of Shetland's relative proximity to continental Norway, it was probably highly influenced by the dialects in Western Norway, and to a lesser extent, the Faroes. There are many records of Shetlanders visiting mainland Norway, and vice versa, and presumably they understood one another well. One of the obvious signs of this influence is the stopping of voiced and voiceless dental fricatives, i.e. the conversion of the "th" sounds of eth and thorn into "d"s and "t"s. This is not present in Icelandic, but can be found in Norwegian and Danish. So strong is this influence, that it continues to affect the pronounciation of English words in Shetland.

In the later Middle Ages, Shetland was visited by considerable numbers of Dutch, speakers of Low German, Scottish Lowlanders and English. All of these would have had some influence. A small amount of Dutch vocabulary remained in use in Shetland into the modern period.


Foula was probably the last place to speak Norn in Shetland. Photograph taken from Dale of Walls

Norn seems to have gone into sharp decline in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was probably partly due to an influx of Scottish landowners, and later tenant evictions. Curiously, its decline seems to have occurred round about the same period as that of Cornish. Its last strongholds seem to have been Unst and Foula. James MacKenzie mentions the role of the SPCK in eliminating the language:

"The customs of the inhabitants, like the rest were all Norvegian; their language the Norse, or that dialect of the Gothic [i.e. Germanic] which is spoken in Norway, and disused only within this present age, by means of those English schools erected by the Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge. Nor to this very time is it quite disused, being still retained by the old people, and in vulgar uses amongst them at this day."<ref>MacKenzie, James, The General Grievences and Oppression of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland, 1836</ref>

Scots and English as Germanic languages had some words in common with Norn, and so there seems to have been something of a merger with them, which resulted in modern Shetlandic, still spoken to this day. English was used in Church, and became the language of prestige, while Orkney and Shetland Norn was increasingly associated with poverty. It declined rapidly, first in Orkney and subsequently in Shetland.

Robert Alan Jamieson links the loss of Norn, with a loss of confidence amongst Shetlanders, in themselves, and in their culture:

"As Shetland lost its Norse culture, words which contained in their very sound and syllabic structure, strong clues to their philosophy and temperament of their makers have passed from memory... The result for many people is a form of a wasteland. The new language is not natural to the tongue, the old is forgotten. Without a vital means of verbal expression, which is not elitist or alien, reticience and inferiority abound."<ref>Jamieson, Robert Alan, Shoormal (1985), p18</ref>

The decline of Norn represents the end of a bigger process, which had begun a thousand years ago. At their widest range, Norse-based languages were spoken in Dublin and in Moscow, Normandy and Northern England, not to mention a minor presence in Greenland and North America. By 1400, it appears that Norse had disappeared from all these places, and all parts of Scotland and Ireland south of the Pentland Firth. By 1800, they could only be found in Scandinavia, Iceland and the Faroes, with a few remnants in Shetland and Orkney.


Friðarey folk, a group who take their name from the Norn for Fair Isle.

The linguistic development in Shetland may be contrasted with that in the Faroes and Orkney. In Faroes the Norn-derived language survived (though modified by Danish), so that today the Faroese speak a language very similar to that brought by the Norse. In Orkney, Norn was lost, and while some vocabulary remained in the Orkney dialect of English, that is far less than is the case in Shetland. The linguistic development in Shetland is unusual - the volume of vocabulary preserved is remarkable, which may be partly due to Shetland's relative isolation from the rest of the UK.

Jakob Jakobsen wrote:

As late as 1894, there were people in Foula who could repeat sentences in Norn, as I myself had the opportunity of hearing. The last man in Unst who is said to have been able to speak Norn, Walter Sutherland from Skaw, died about 1850. In Foula, on the other hand, men who were living very much later than the middle of the present century are said to have been able to speak Norn'

Notably Jakobsen was able to record a guddick in Norn from Unst in the 1890s.

Also, some Norn still persists in a watered-down form in modern or near contemporary speech:

"Modern Shetlandic is an uneasy combination of English, Lowland Scots and Norroena, or Norn, which was the language spoken in the islands from their settlement by the Norsemen in the early Viking Age until well into the eighteenth century. By the year, English grows more dominant, as the least anglicised corners of the dialect are eroded by the hard rub of modern media."<ref>Jamieson, Robert Alan, Shoormal (1985), p11</ref>

In the 1990s, it was reckoned that at least a thousand Norn words were still in current use, along with numerous grammatical and phonetic features.

Modern use and revival?

Shetland's motto "Með lögum skal land byggja"
Some modern use of Norn: the ferries Dagalien and Daggri meet in Yell Sound.

Although Norn is effectively a dead language, there are now attempts to revive it on cyberspace as Nynorn (New-Norn), and it still has one or two uses in Shetland today. The ferries, Dagalien & Daggri have Norn names, meaning "dawn" and "dusk" respectively.<ref></ref> Shetland council also uses the motto, Með lögum skal land byggja ("with law shall (we) build (the) land")

Periodically, there are suggestions of a Norn revival <reF></ref>, but none of these have come to much. It should be noted however, that there are several fairly successfully revived languages in much the same position, such as Cornish and Manx. Other languages such as Frisian, Channel Island French and Hawaiian have also been brought back from the brink.

A Spanish linguist, calling himself "Sanchez" offers the following opinion:

"During the [19th] century Shetland Norn was swallowed up entirely by Scots; however, it still retains a significant influence on Shetland Scots, and several online groups have recently formed with the purpose of reconstruction and revitalization. The development of a genuine revival is still in its infancy, maintained generally by only a few enthusiasts. Myriad issues are faced when one considers Norn revival; among them low prestige, a small literature, and heavy corruption from Scots at the time of its extinction. Therefore, I argue that while Norn cannot be revived in its original form, it is entirely feasible to reconstruct the language in a manner that borrows heavily from Faroese, Norn’s closest living relative....
"With respect to reconstruction, Norn presents a challenge in that unlike other revived languages like Hebrew, few texts survive to the present, and Norn to this day retains a very low prestige in Shetland. To examine Shetlanders’ views on Norn revival, I opened a thread on the internet forum, part of a website aimed at the Shetland community, including the fairly open-ended question “Should Norn be revived?”. In the thread were discussed various definitions of “revival”; among linguists, as a literary language, or as a language taught in schools. The responses were generally negative or indifferent: thirteen of twenty-two polled responded “No” or “No opinion”... In other areas of the United Kingdom, such as Wales and Cornwall, dead language revival has become an expression of regional or ethnic pride, modern Shetlanders see no reason to dust off what they consider an obsolete, and mostly forgotten, tool. Interestingly, however, there is a considerable degree of pride in Shetland Scots, locally known as Shaetlan. This double standard appears to go unnoticed."<ref>Norn: Language Death and Reconstruction</ref>

At least one forum has been set up to discuss the traditional use and revival of Norn in Shetland (and Orkney) - "Norn Kjokl" The Orkney & Shetland Norn Forum


There are three or four main sources for Norn in Shetland

  • Place names and personal names, many of which are still in some use, e.g. Rasmie for Erasmus, Papa Stour (Papey Stora) and Muckle Roe (Mikla Raudey), which are corruptions, or modern developments one might say, of Norn names. Jakob Jakobsen studied Shetland place names thoroughly. The overwhelming majority of place-names are Norn derived. In some cases, local pronunciation and names may differ considerably from those proffered by the Ordinance Survey, e.g. Sodom on Whalsay, which is properly Sudheim.
  • Oral fragments recorded just as the language was facing extinction. Some of these were still in use after its official death, and some phrases may have survived into the 20th century.
  • Written fragments e.g. the ballad, Hildinakvadet (or Hildina Ballad) recorded on Foula 1774, and the Lord's Prayer plus a few short verses and fragments.
  • Shetlandic, which retains many Norn words, feature and pronounciation in it. Even today, names of birds, flowers and other common nouns used in Shetland dialect often have a Norn root.

Comparison with closely related languages also helps us reconstruct what it was like.

As recently as 2006 the Foula Community website posted a fragment of Norn not previously recorded. It is within the bounds of possibility that even today somewhere on Shetland someone remembers a child's rhyme or a grandparents' phrase which is a snippet of this largely lost language.

It should be noted that Norn has been recorded in two main orthographies: an anglicised one, which records it in English phonetics, and a Norse one, which is probably more faithful, and resembles the neighbouring languages of Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian, as well as its old Norse roots. Hildinakvadet was originally transcribed in English phonetics; unfortunately this can hide the roots of certain words.


Norn is to be distinguished from the present day Shetland 'dialect' of Scottish English, termed by linguists Modern Shetlandic Scots. The Faroese philologist Jakob Jakobsen discovered that much of Norn vocabulary was retained in Shetland and used alongside Scots and English. He was assisted in his efforts by Shetland native Haldane Burgess.

Michael Barnes, emeritus professor of Scandinavian Studies at University College London, has published a history, The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland, in which he sets out a clear account of Norn in Orkney and Shetland and disposes of some myths about it.


Obviously given the size of Shetland, and distribution of people, it is likely that there was some dialectal variation within the islands. Outlying parts would have been the most distinct perhaps, especially Foula, Fair Isle and the northernmost part of Unst.

Some theoretical data about the dialects of Norn, can be found here.

The Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer fragment is important, but even it displays some English influence, e.g. the use of "forgive" and "but" for Norn cognates:

Fy vor or er i Chimeri.
Halaght vara nam dit.
La Konungdum din cumma.
La vill din vera guerde
i vrildin sindaeri chimeri.
Gav vus dagh u dagloght brau.
Forgive sindorwara
sin vi forgiva gem ao sinda gainst wus.
Lia wus ikè o vera tempa,
but delivra wus fro adlu idlu.
For do i ir Kongungdum, u puri, u glori, Amen

This is in Foula dialect, recorded in the 1770s, by George Low. <ref>Low, George, A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland Kirkwall, William Peace, 1879</ref>

See also

Further reading

  • Jakobsen, Jakob An etymological dictionary of the Norn language in Shetland London, 1928-1932; reprinted Lerwick: The Shetland Folk Society, 1985

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