Freed from the Norn connection
The difference is that in Standard English, you can use “to be” as an auxiliary with verbs of motion and change, such as “I am come to rescue you!” But in Orkney and Shetland, you can use it with any verb, including transitives (I am done something). This is unusual, compared to other varieties of English. Just over a hundred years ago, Wright’s English dialect grammar claimed to have heard such sentences with “be” instead of “have” in southern Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Rutland. However, as Gunnel Melchers has pointed out, a century later it seems to have disappeared. Could it be something archaic which has survived here, but died out elsewhere? Interestingly, Yuri Yerstov has found that is certain areas of Canada, people say “I am done [something]”, “I am finished [something]” and “I am started [something]”. While now restricted to these three verbs, Yerastov notes the similarity to the Shetland dialect, which he uses for comparison in his study, and he concludes that the Canadian usage probably has a Scottish origin.
So “be” and “have” are now in free variation in the Orkney and Shetland dialects: You can say “I’ve had me dinner” or you may equally well say “I’m had me dinner” – it doesn’t matter which, except the latter perhaps makes you sound a bit more local. How has “to be” come to be used so broadly?
Many people would now point to our usual suspect: Norn! Is this another instance of Norn’s influence on our Scottish dialect? Personally, I don’t think so. But I will attempt to explain what the argument in favour of such a claim is, before explaining why I don’t agree.
Various researchers have upheld the claim that the “be” instead of “have” has to do with Norn influence, but only one, as far as I know, has made an attempt at any in-depth proof. This is Alexander Pavlenko, writing about Shetland dialect. He makes two observations:
1) When you abbreviate for example “he is changed the tyres” to “he’s changed the tyres”, you no longer know whether the “s” is supposed to stand for “is” or “has”. (This, of course, applies to “she’s” and “hid’s” as well.)
2) In late fragments of Norn, “everything” seems to end in “a” – which is easy to spot for example in the following Norn fragment collected by Jakob Jakobsen: “Jarta, bodena komena rontena Komba.” This is supposed to mean: “My heart (my dear), the boat (a boat) has come round de Kaim [a hill in Foula near the coast]”.
Now, Pavlenko makes a link from observation two to observation one. In order to do that, he needs to show that Norn also had confusion between “has” and “is”. He thinks that the fact that “everything” ends in “a” in late Norn caused a similar confusion to that between “has” and “is” when both are abbreviated to “s” in Scots/English.
To show what he means, he quotes three versions of a Norn verse known as The Troll’s Message. Pavlenko’s own English translation of this verse is: “Go home to Fivla, and tell Divla that the dogs were fighting (or had/have fought) and had/have/burnt the bairns.” This translation seems to be based on the Fetlar version of the verse, which is in a mixture of Scots and Norn, and goes: “Geng hame to Fivla, and tell Divla at de honnins wis lopen in a ‘tuilly’ and brunt de bonnins.” He also quotes two versions from Foula, which are entirely in Norn, but doesn’t attempt to translate them any differently from the Scots/Norn hybrid version from Fetlar.
The Foula 1 version contains the expression “hɔņdǝna bradna”. Pavlenko says that the “a” at the end of the first word can mask either the Old Norse word for “has” (hefir) or the word for “is” (er), but that these have both been merged into this one sound. In that sense, the situation is similar to “s” masking both “is” and “has”. He therefore concludes that this confusion in Norn influenced the native islanders’ learning of the incoming Scots language, leading them to generalise a limited use of “be” in Scots in expressions such as “I’m done …” and “I’m begood …” to all verbs, including transitives.
I will now explain why think Pavlenko’s argument doesn’t hold. Pavlenko reconstructs “hɔņdǝna bradna” as Old Norse “hundinn hefir bruninn”, which would translate as “the dog (hound) has burnt”. However, this understanding must be based on the mixed Scots and Norn version from Fetlar rather than on the Foula version itself, where it is not at all clear what the “hɔņdǝna” is supposed to mean.
Indeed, when the Foula versions are examined without reference to the mixed Fetlar version, the dog doesn’t seem to feature at all. In a completely unrelated article, Yelena Helgadóttir also happens to examine The Troll’s Message. Being a folklorist, she is able to provide parallels from Norway, Iceland and the Faroes, which in turn allows her to translate the Foula versions as “Hear, hear ride/rider; Ride, ride, run; say [to] her [to] Divla, that [she] Vivla; copper-kettle; hand burn[t]” – which is quite different from Pavlenko’s translation. There is no dog in it! So “hɔņdǝna” instead represents the Old Norse hǫndina meaning, not dog, but ‘the hand’! And in that case, the “a” is part of an entirely grammatical definite suffix (“the”), and does not represent “to be” or “to have” at all. Assuming that Helgadóttir’s translation is right, we now have no evidence in the Troll’s Message that “hefir” (has) and “er” (is) were merged into “a” in Norn. We can therefore not assume a Norn origin for constructions such as “I’m changed the tyres” either.
However, Pavlenko does make one good observation, and that is his observation number one: That, for example, “he’s” could represent both “he is” and “he has” and therefore cause confusion. However, this also applies to other varieties of English, and doesn’t explain why the generalisation of “to be” has happened in Orkney and Shetland in particular. Why not everywhere? That, I cannot answer. I can only observe that it might have been helped along by the second person singular. If a Shetlander says “Du’s changed the tyres”, you don’t know if they what they mean is “Du has …” or “Du is …”. This is possible because “du” takes “is” rather than “are”. This means that out of the three persons singular, you can only see the difference between “to be” and “to have” in the first person: “I’m changed the tyres”. So in two out of three, you hear a sentence where you can’t tell the difference between “is” and “has”. In Standard English, this happens only in the third person. I don’t mean to say that this explains the whole emergence of free variation between “to have” and “to be” which we see in Orkney and Shetland, but at least this frees it from the Norn connection by explaining it with reference to current language usage only.