Modern Shetlandic Scots

Shetlopedia - The Shetland Encyclopaedia
(Redirected from Shetlandic)
Jump to: navigation, search
A 1978 anthology of Shetlandic poetry by Rhoda Bulter

Modern Shetlandic Scots (MSS) is a term commonly used among linguists when referring to the vernacular spoken in the various parts of Shetland. It is also commonly referred to as Shetlandic.

It is not to be confused with the Norn language or Old Norse.

The interplay between its different origins, and the disintegration of MSS, are complex ongoing processes:

"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>



MSS is also known as "Shetlandic" in English discourse (a neologism formed by association with "Icelandic" and "Greenlandic"), and some variation on "Shaetlan" by its own speakers. Locally most commonly referred to as "da dialect" or Shetland dialect, often abbreviated to "Shetland" or "Shetlan". The stronger variations are often referred to as "Broad Shetland."


MSS is often considered to be a subset of Insular Scots, along with the dialects of Orkney.<ref>McColl Millar Northern and Insular Scots. Edinburgh: University Press Ltd, 2007 p.5</ref>

MSS is part of the Anglic subsection of West Germanic, which is in turn a branch of the Indo-European languages. Insular Scots has a much more heavy Nordic influence than other Lowland Scots, and have succeeded the local Norn language, which was a North Germanic language.

In addition, MSS contains some loanwords from French, Latin, Greek and elsewhere.

There is no standard criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, so the question of whether MSS is a separate language from English is a moot point, and still much argued over. Suffice to say, it is far more distinct from English than certain other dialects of Scots are, but it continues to undergo a process of watering down, thanks partly to in-migration and the mass media.



Shetland has been inhabited for thousands of years, but we know little of the pre-Norse population. Pictish is the earliest known language of the islands, which was superseded by Old Norse in a long process starting around 800 AD. Old Norse gradually evolved into the Norn language in the Middle Ages, which was similar to dialects of Norwegian at the time. While Pictish seems to have left little but placenames, ON and Norn have had a considerable influence on MSS. The Faroese philologist Jakob Jakobsen discovered that much of Norn vocabulary was retained in Shetland and used alongside MSS and English. He was assisted in his efforts by Shetland native Haldane Burgess.

After the handover to Scotland, there was little change until the early 1600s when Scotland decided that the Norse laws which governed the islands were to be outlawed and replaced by Scots Law. From this point on the Lowland Scots language was used in all legal matters, and in the church.

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, and trade links with Scotland were strengthened. Curiously, its decline seems to have occurred round about the same period as that of Cornish.

By the early 18th century most Shetlanders were bi-lingual,and as time went by and the links with Scotland grew stronger, Norn slipped slowly into the past.

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 MSS. English was used in Church, often from the King James Bible (or "Authorised Version") and became the language of prestige, while Orkney and Shetland Norn was increasingly associated with poverty. Shetland Norn appears to have lasted into the 19th Century in outlying islands such as Foula and Unst.

The mid twentieth century saw a revival of interest in MSS, partly spurred by the experience of the Scottish Renaissance to the south, which often used Broad Scots as a medium for serious literature. New orthographies were realised for MSS, and one distinctive feature was the (re)introduction of the umlauts, e.g. Rönies Hill and Rasmie's Büddie (by Haldane Burgess).

The Shetland Dialect of today is being used less and less as the multicultural nature of the isles has made the adoption of the Queens English essential for the ease of communication, and the dominance of English broadcasting has further weakened the dialect.

The Shetland Dictionary Project, has been set up in the hope of preserving as much of the rich linguistic history of the isles as possible. Please feel free to add/edit the dictionary.


Robert Alan Jamieson, a notable contemporary writer in MSS.

It is the primary vehicle of Shetland's Literature besides English. One of the finest exponents of classic MSS in the 20thC. is the poet William J. Tait of Yell who allied himself with Hugh MacDiarmid's Scots language revival.

John Magnus Tait has developed a website as an introduction to MSS, Inbuis ta Shaetlan.

Another notable writer in MSS is Robert Alan Jamieson.


The following are copied from the Shetland Dictionary:

  • Yun boats aa gizzened an spleet noo, sho'll laek.
  • Yun egg hed a double baa (Yon egg had a double yolk (ball).)
  • Dunna Chuck Bruck (Do not (Dinna) chuck rubbish)
  • wir coarn is in eker eftir da gale dastreen
  • I ken no whit da queer fellow will tink
  • Nivver spaek aboot im, he nivver haes da trift t' win trowe we onythin

Orthography is not standardized so written examples elsewhere will vary. Sound samples, and footage of speakers can be found on the internet.

Many dialect words are spelled differently in the various parishes. It is important that these differences are recorded. In The Shetland Dictionary Project, if you have a different spelling to the one already there, add your spelling with any variation of description, and a note of which district the variant version is from.

Adding To The Dictionary

If you are not sure how to edit a dictionary page then post details of the word you wish to add on the forum Shetland Dictionary Project

External links

Personal tools

Other Useful Pages
Shetlopedia Projects