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Masculine and feminine in dialect

“I didna know if I should wash her or burn her!” I heard this said the other day, and no; it was not said about a witch, but about a chair which had got dirty. Why is the chair a “her”? .....


“I didna know if I should wash her or burn her!” I heard this said the other day, and no; it was not said about a witch, but about a chair which had got dirty. Why is the chair a “her”? I have been lucky enough to get the opportunity to explore this question, along with other questions about the Orkney and Shetland dialects, as part of a project I am doing through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme. The project is called the Orkney and Shetland Dialect Corpus Project, and I am collecting texts that are written in these dialects in order to use them in research. I was also fortunate enough to be asked to speak about my research at the “Voices Aroond the Islands – Past, Present and Future” seminar day organised by the Orkney International Science Festival and Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme last Saturday. This is a shortened version of what I said there.

While collecting dialect texts, I observed that objects can be referred to as “he” or “she” rather than “hid” (it). This seemed very unusual when compared to Standard English, but not at all unusual when compared to my native tongue Norwegian, in which all nouns have a gender. Many languages indeed have grammatical gender as a feature of their noun system, including our neighbours Gaelic, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. English is quite unusual among the European languages for not having it. However, Old English did have grammatical gender. It has just been lost somewhere along the way. I therefore set up some hypotheses for myself, which I wanted to check: Could the rudimentary signs of a grammatical gender system in Orkney and Shetland have been (1) carried over from Norn? Or (2) carried over from Old English via older Scots? Or (3) have anything to do with Gaelic? Or (4) be idiosyncratic altogether?

The fact that gender is a feature of the dialect is commented on in the grammars, such as Hugh Marwick’s Orkney Norn and T. A. Robertson and John Graham’s Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect. Marwick observes that weather and time phenomena are spoken of in the masculine, while fish are generally referred to as feminine. He then adds that “[i]n general, concrete objects, e.g. gun, nail, &c., are spoken of as feminine, and that is very common even yet” (Marwick 1929: xxx). Robertson and Graham describe the situation in Shetland dialect as follows: “Common Nouns are either Masculine, Feminine or Neuter. Nouns which are Neuter in English are often Masculine or Feminine. The following are among those usually considered to be Masculine: aer, steid, schair, spade, sun. […] A smaller number are usually Feminine, including: lamp, fish, kirk, mön, wirld.” There are of course neutral nouns as well (“hid”/it), both in Orkney and Shetland and in Old Norse and Old English. However, in fairly modern texts one can never be sure if the instances of “hid”/it are traditional or if they have been influenced by Standard English.

In order to investigate these observations around grammatical gender further, I used prose fiction written in Orkney dialect, spanning in time from Walter Traill Dennison’s story “Why the Hoose o’ Hellsness was Brunt”, from his collection The Orcadian sketch-book : being traits of old Orkney life written partly in the Orkney dialect, published in 1880, to Christina Costie’s short story collection The Collected Orkney Dialect Tales of C.M. Costie, published 1976 but written in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. For comparison, I also used the Shetland texts Eels (James Stout Angus, poem, 1877); Auld Maunsie’s Crü (Basil Ramsay Anderson, poem, 1888); and Shadowed Valley (John Graham, novel, with Shetland dialect dialogue, 1987).

Having been through these texts and picked out all instances of “she/her” or “he/him” or indeed “hid” where Standard English would have “it”, I observed that Marwick is right in saying that concrete objects predominantly seem to be assigned the feminine gender in the Orkney texts. For example: “Hae, boy, there's dee thee gun. Thu'll need tae tak' care; mind sheu's half barral fu' o' leed, an' sal gin sheu spleets thu'll get warm haffits, I'se be boond” (Walter Traill Dennison); or “Me teeble wis a lovely sight whin sheu wis set” (Christina Costie). I only found one example from Orkney of the masculine gender: “An' abeun de yett wus a bonnie square free-steen wi' letters cuttid on him 'at nee bodie could read” (Walter Traill Dennison).

In Shetland, however, the situation is the reverse. Here, the masculine gender dominates, while the examples of feminine objects are in the minority: “I hae ta lead da coo an cerry Granny's shair. Come an gie me a haand wi him” (a chair, John Graham); “Wir been here i dis hoose for near on fifty year noo - an I'm wae ta laeve him” (John Graham); and interestingly contradicting his own statement in the grammar book that “kirk” is feminine: “Was der mony at da Kirk? Yae, as full as I'm seen him for a braa start noo” (John Graham). One can observe the productive formation of gender assignment in the two dialects if one looks at words that are newer than Old Norse and Old English. For example, when “peat” is feminine, as in “Noo sheu teuk the paet and breuk her i’ t’ree and set the pieces gently on the coals” (Christina Costie), we know that the gender can’t have been carried over from Old Norse or Old English because the word doesn’t exist in these languages. The Oxford English Dictionary says “Origin unknown; perhaps a borrowing of an unattested Pictish or British word, perhaps the same Celtic base as the suggested etymon of post-classical Latin petia: piece.” So the etymology is really foggy, and the word doesn’t enter into the English language until the Middle English period, when the gender system had been lost. Nonetheless, when it comes to Orkney, it gets assigned the feminine gender, as that seems to be the default here. Similarly, when a chair is masculine in Shetland (as in “Granny's shair”), we can see that masculine is the default there because the word “chair” also entered into English in the Middle English period, and ultimately derives from Latin “cathedra”, which is also why many Orcadians pronounce “chair” with two syllables – as “chayer”. This is closer to the older pronunciation.

Why this contrast between Orkney and Shetland? If it were carried over from Old Norse via Norn, should Orkney and Shetland not have the same gender assignments for these nouns? Trying to get to the bottom of it once and for all, I made a big table of all the nouns I found which also exist in Old Norse, along with their gender in the Orkney/Shetland texts and their Old Norse gender. In total, 14 out of 32 dialect words turned out to match their Old Norse gender. If the gender assignment had been random, one would expect a strike rate of about 0.33. The strike rate here is 0.44. Although slightly higher, it is not enough to conclude that there is a genuine retention of Old Norse genders in the dialects.

How about Old English, then?  I did the same test for matching the dialect words up to Old English, but the strike rate here was even lower: 0.35, which is almost exactly the one-third one would expect if it was completely random.

Regarding the Gaelic hypothesis, I couldn’t check in this way because I don’t speak Gaelic and I don’t know enough about the language to find out which words have Gaelic cognates. I would be very grateful if a Gaelic speaker could help me with this. I must point out, though, that Gaelic was never spoken in Orkney or Shetland except by single individuals or families who might have come to the Northern Isles from Gaelic speaking areas. That said, I believe that although Gaelic has never been a community language here, there must always have been an underlying presence of bilingual speakers – even Norse earls such as Thorfinn the Mighty had Gaelic family connections. However, if the gender system in Orkney and Shetland has anything to do with Gaelic, it could also be that it resembles the kind of English or Scots spoken in Gaelic or ex-Gaelic areas. Pursuing this thought, it is interesting to note that “highlanders are fond of the feminine pronoun for all genders” (Grant and Dixon, Manual of modern Scots, 1921, p. 98). Perhaps the Orkney dialect’s generalisation of the feminine pronoun to almost all concrete objects could have something to do with the same tendency in the Highlands? This explanation does, however, leave the Shetland dialect’s tendency to generalise the masculine pronoun to most concrete objects unexplained. Do we have to settle for hypothesis four: It is idiosyncratic altogether?

There is one thing, however, which evidence suggests is Old Norse. And that is the fact that weather phenomena, and also tide, seasons and time, are masculine in Orkney, as for example in “Noo he was a sooth-aesterly gale” (C. Costie). The masculine gender contrasts with the feminine default. I know from Norway that many dialects there also speak of weather in the masculine. A forthcoming article by Eriksen, Kittilä and Kolehmainen says that speaking of weather in the masculine is characteristic of Icelandic, Faroese and some Mainland Scandinavian dialects.

The genders of the sun and moon can also be a tell-tale. The modern English poetic usage when personifying the sun and moon has taken up the French or Romance gender for sol (masculine) and luna (feminine), instead of retaining the Germanic grammatical genders where the sun is feminine and the moon masculine. If the Orkney and Shetland dialects had inherited these genders from Norn, one would expect them to follow the Old Norse genders: sól (‘sun’, fem) and máni (‘moon’, masc.). Marwick says in Orkney the moon in masculine. However, this may be because the moon can be seen as an aspect of time, tides or weather. In Shetland, Robertson and Graham have the moon listed as feminine.  The Shetland and Orkney dialects therefore have different genders for the moon, which means that if the fact that the moon in masculine in Orkney dialect is to be seen as a retention of the Old Norse or Old English gender, it implies that the gender of the moon must have changed in the Shetland dialect at some later point in time, possibly under influence of poetic usage in English.  What about the sun? While Marwick doesn’t give the gender of the sun in the Orkney dialect, Robertson and Graham say that the sun is masculine in the Shetland dialect. The Shetland dialect therefore seems to follow the general modern English poetic practice, while the Orkney dialect differs in referring to the moon as masculine in line with Old Norse.

In conclusion, while the grammatical gender system in Orkney and Shetland does neither follow that of Old Norse nor of Old English, there is reason to believe that assigning the masculine gender to weather phenomena is something which has been carried over from Norn. And perhaps also the very idea that nouns have genders has been retained, even if the genders themselves have not. Perhaps it developed into an identity marker which set the Orkney and Shetland dialects apart from other Scottish dialects.

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