Shetlopedia - The Shetland Encyclopaedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Nynorn (i.e. New Norn) is the name of a proposed revived form of the Norn language. The name appears to be inspired by that of Nynorsk, one of the two competing forms of Norwegian, which is derived from rural dialects, rather than the Danish influenced Bokmal.

Unlike many other parts of Europe, where similar situations have occurred, there is no major revival underway.


Current Status

Within Shetland, Norn is generally regarded as an interesting part of the region's historical heritage.

There is, however, little interest in the idea of revival. Indeed, few Shetlanders are even aware that there is any proposal to attempt to promulgate the introduction of a modern derivative Nynorn language. A handful of Norn enthusiasts within the isles study the historical language, but what revival efforts have been proposed appear to have been largely championed by linguists outwith Shetland. However, there are exceptions, such as Robert Alan Jamieson, whose poetry collection Shoormal deliberately revived extinct expressions from Shetland Norn. He mentions, for example, that "Shoormal", is the anglicised spelling of the Norn, Sjurmol. He also links the demise of Norn expressions in Shetland speech, and the language as a whole, with "inferiority" and "reticence" amongst Shetlanders:

"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, reticence and inferiority abound."<ref>Jamieson, Robert Alan, Shoormal (1985), p18</ref>

Had Norn survived extinction like Gaelic in Scotland, the idea of protecting and promoting it would likely have been attractive to many Shetlanders today. As Norn has been extinct for many generations, the majority of Shetlanders appear to see the idea of constructing an artificial modernisation as irrelevant to their current needs.

The Challenge

For those supporting the resurrection of dead languages, it is surprising that so little attention has been given to Norn revival in Shetland, given the situation elsewhere in the British Isles, with revived languages such as Cornish and Manx, or even Channel Island French, which have been given funding and newspapers columns. All three of these languages have their own version of Wikipedia as well.<ref>Cornish Wikipedia/Manx Wikipedia/Norman Wikipedia, including Channel Island articles</ref> Cornish died out in the same period as Shetland Norn, yet has its own Bible translation, preschool and recognition under the European Charter of Minority Languages. Even the Shetland Movement did not apparently show any interest.

One of the biggest difficulties Norn has, in terms of revival, is the Shetland dialect of Lowland Scots which has supplanted it. This may be considered the "soft option", for people who do not wish to put the effort into Norn. Shetland dialect is also closer to people’s hearts, as that is what they and their families speak as natives.

To some, Nynorn represents a modern Nordic or "Viking" outlook, rather than a Scottish or British one. However, even though Norn forms the basis of most Shetland place names, and forms the most distinctive parts of Shetland dialect, Shetlanders have become alienated from it. Since the British State, Scottish education system and churches never expended any effort on recording or preserving Norn, many Shetlanders wrongly consider it a "foreign" tongue (even though it is native to Shetland), because the level of anglicisation and scotticisation has been complete. This is not actually unusual in minority language situations, but can be reversed, as in the Isle of Man and Cornwall, where hostility towards the languages has greatly lessened in the wake of revival efforts. Closer to Shetland, the hostility displayed by some in Scotland to Gaelic is similar, and there was also something of a backlash against the revival of Faroese to begin with. When a language is wiped out, its speakers are often given an inferiority complex about it, or told that it is somehow useless.

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.

Norn persisted well into the 19th century, as 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 [19th] century are said to have been able to speak Norn'

It is worth mentioning Cornish persisted longer than is usually thought as well. In 2010 Rhisiart Tal-e-bot,a Cornish teacher disputed the death of Cornish saying that the grandparents of a student of his had spoken Cornish at home. He said: "It’s a myth. There was never a time when the language completely died out, people always had some knowledge of the language although it went quite underground."<ref>http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2010/01/16/first-cornish-speaking-creche-is-inspired-by-example-set-inwales-91466-25612689/</ref> Likewise Andrew George MP for St Ives has stated that "In the early part of the [20th] century, my grandparents on the Lizard were speaking Cornish in a dialect form at home".<ref>http://www.dumaurier.org/andrew_george.html</ref>

In the same way, it is not unlikely that Norn persisted in a watered down form into the 20th century, and was used privately. Language death is seldom an overnight occurrence. In the case of Norn, it has taken centuries, and even today some words persist.

Unlike revived Cornish, Nynorn has no recognition in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages by the United Kingdom.

Language Reconstruction

Reconstructing original Norn vocabulary

There are three main problems with extant records of Shetland Norn:

  1. The Norn we have is written down. There are no audio recordings. In this case, it is similar to Cornish (which uses a written base), rather than Manx (which has audio recordings).
  2. Shetland Norn is often recorded in an English spelling system, and not in a good phonetic system. This alienates it from its etymological roots.
  3. A great deal of Norn is in a corrupt form, or simply lost.

The solutions to these problems might include:

  • Respelling these words in an appropriate Nordic orthography, by comparison with Old Norse, Faroese, Icelandic and Nynorsk/Riksmal.
  • Filling in the gaps, by using the common wordstock of Old Norse, Faroese, Icelandic and Nynorsk/Riksmal, i.e. words, or forms found in all of these. If a word can be found in these languages, it is a fairly safe bet to say it was probably used in Shetland Norn.
  • Comparisons with Orkney Norn. Orkney Norn died out earlier than its Shetland cousin, but it was probably the most closely related dialect, by simple virtue of geography. Even so, this would plug some gaps. Caithness and Hebridean Norn is of little use, since only a few words survive in dialect.

New Nynorn vocabulary

Another interesting challenge would be in the construction of new words for modern life and technology. What would the Nynorn for "radio", "telephone" or "computer" be?

Icelandic and Faroese have always constructed such words from pre-existing words, e.g. tolva, sjonvarp, whereas the Scandinavian tongues tend to use common European terms, in Nordic spelling, e.g. telefon.


These are examples of proposed Nynorn (note, may not be completely accurate in spelling etc - the use of eth may be controversial):

  • "Guden dag" - Hello/"Good Day"
  • "Eg er ur Hjetlandi." I am from Shetland.
  • "Eg er ur Lervik." - I am from Lerwick.
  • "Hvat gamal er du?" - How old are you?

Sample translations into Nynorn, can be found here.

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.

As a language Norn is dead, and currently has no use for direct practical communication. Other than the many remnant local names for objects and places, and some words in Shetlandic, current usage of Norn vocabulary is extremely rare. The names of the inter-island ferries, Dagalien & Daggri are Norn, meaning "dawn" and "dusk" respectively.<ref>http://www.shetland.gov.uk/ferries/fleet/newyellsound.asp#Dagalien</ref>

One of the few current examples of Norn usage involving multiple words and grammar is the motto of the Shetland Islands Council, Með lögum skal land byggja ("with law shall (we) build (the) land")

Periodically, there are suggestions of a Norn revival <reF>http://www.shetlink.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2316</ref>. Since Norn has been lost, such proposals are based on the development of Nynorn, and centre on cyberspace initiatives. None of these have come to much.

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>

Should wish Nynorn move beyond the hobby stage, it shall have to develop itself further, and move from the internet into the street. It is currently in a very prototypical phase, with little or nothing available in the way of lessons for adults or children. Nynorn literature, if such could really be said to exist, is more scanty than the language it claims to revive. Until Nynorn builds up a base of competent speakers, and has its own corpus, then it shall remain little but a pastime. It will also have to work hard to win respect from people in Shetland, as nearly all of the people involved in it appear to live outside the islands, or do not even have connections to there.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is often seen as the father of revived Hebrew. However some have argued that the true sign of the success of the Hebrew revival was when a youth graffitied Ben-Yehuda's grave in Hebrew. The youth probably wasn't aware of the irony of this. Nynorn is obviously nowhere near that stage. While Welsh graffiti is common, it is rare in Scottish Gaelic or Channel Island French, which are living languages.


Is Nynorn a "conlang" (constructed language) along the lines of Esperanto or Star Trek's Klingon?<ref>Klingon was developed by a professional linguist, Dr Marc Okrand, with highly developed grammatical rules and in jokes. There is also the Klingon Language Institute which appears to be more developed than anything Nynorn so far.</ref><ref>{http://zbb.spinnwebe.com/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=34858 Discussion of Nynorn, including conlang comparison]</ref> Native Esperanto speakers do exist, George Soros being a notable example<ref>How Do You Say "Billionaire" in Esperanto?</ref>, and at least one child has been partially raised with Klingon as a first language for three years.<ref>d'Armond Speers: Dad Spoke Only Klingon To Son For Three Years</ref>

Nynorn would be technically what is known as an "a posteriori language", i.e. at least partially based on vocabulary and grammar of (a) pre-existing natural language(s).

Obviously, all languages are partly artificially constructed. This is less noticeable in English, but French has long had a language academy, and Hebrew has a massive amount of constructed material. Whether Nynorn is a conlang or not will depend on how much it relies on genuine source material. But if it does ever become the language of children, this question will be largely irrelevant.

Nynorn also seems similar to Dewnansek, a proposed revival of Devonian, which has not progressed very far, and seems to have little in terms of corpus or vocabulary.<ref>An Ger Dewnansek</ref> However, unlike Nynorn perhaps, some folk have claimed Dewnansek is a kind of "me too" language, so that Devon can claim parity with Cornwall. The Dewnansek project seems stunted and has not grown for some years. Like Nynorn, it seems to be largely internet based, and not taken up by people within its home area.

Amazingly, there is even an attempt to revive Shetland's pre-Norse language, Pictish.<ref>Prithenic</ref> Given that far less Pictish remains than Norn, this is even more remarkable. However, any such attempt with Pictish will inevitably lean into conlang territory.



External Links

Personal tools

Other Useful Pages
Shetlopedia Projects