The Flip Side O Chantin
The Year o Orkney Dialect is upon us, so I thought I should start by writing about a phenomenon in language that we are all familiar with. You have probably heard it hundreds of times: People complaining about people who are “chantin”. “Chantin” is when people deliberately try to speak more standard, and less dialect, than they normally would do. The attempt is somewhat unsuccessful, however, because the dialect shines through and the listeners realise that the speaker is putting it on. “Chantin” is what we call it in Orkney. In Shetland it is called “knappin”, and just as in Orkney it is not something you would do to make yourself popular among fellow locals, as the Shetland Dictionary gives the following example of usage: “Hears du him knappin awa laek a föl”. In Norwegian the phenomenon is called “knot” (pronounced k-noot) and with Norway generally being very friendly minded towards the use of dialect, “knot” is not very popular there either, as you can imagine.
Not all ways of varying your speech is considered to be “chantin”, though. Apart from “chantin”, other methods of varying your speech is by code-switching, accommodation or by playing to different parts of your register. Code-switching is when you switch between languages, or switch between distinct varieties of a language, as you are speaking. It can even be within one and the same sentence. An example would be the following sentence, which was spoken by my three-year-old son: “Der e æ, og der e my space-rocket”, meaning: “There is me, and there is my space-rocket”, said half in Norwegian and half in Orcadian. It is also possible to code-switch between Orcadian and Standard English, the difference from “chantin” being that code-switching is done subconsciously, it is not as deliberate as “chantin”, and it is also successful in that your listeners don’t find it suspicious. Accommodation, on the other hand, is when you subconsciously start speaking more like the person you are talking with, as you are talking. This is often done gradually in the course of the conversation, and can be done to various degrees. I, for instance, sometimes find myself speaking “Chinese English” to my friend from China. I usually only
realise what I have been doing afterwards, though, because it comes so naturally in the situation. A somewhat different phenomenon is playing to your register. Your linguistic register, within a language, is the range of styles that you are familiar with. For instance, you would choose different words and sentence structures if you were holding a lecture or an official speech, compared to when you are talking to your young children.
But to get back to “chantin”: I have the pleasure of running an evening class in Orkney dialect for beginners, where non-Orcadians like myself explore and take delight in all aspects of the Orkney dialect. (Actually, some Orcadians have decided to come along too!). The other day we were discussing this phenomenon, “chantin”, when one of the course participants brilliantly pointed out: What if we in-comers try to speak Orcadian – what would that be? Reverse-chantin?? I must hasten to add, here, that all the participants in this evening class are there because they love Orkney and the Orkney dialect very deeply. Not as a quaint curiosity, fit to be marvelled at in an exhibition but forming no part of our everyday lives. No, no. We love the Orkney dialect as it is: Real and living and a vital part of Orkney. Few things delight me more than when I meet someone with a broad Orkney accent who is not what we sociolinguists jokingly call a NORM: A Non-Mobile Older Rural Male.
Sadly, some Orcadians have had negative experiences with anti-dialect sentiments in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. For a while the schools were meant to get their pupils to “speak properly”, at least while at school. Fortunately this policy did not manage to wipe out the dialect. Still, many feel that Orcadian is somehow inferior to “Proper English”. “But Orcadian is just a dialect”, some may say, “it’s just a mangled version of the English language”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Queen’s English is a dialect too; the only difference being that she is in a position of power, while ordinary people in Orkney are not. The “Standard” is just another dialect, but it is the dialect which has won. Its speakers have somehow managed to convince the rest of us that it is more correct than other dialects. “The Language” is an abstract idea, it is the system derived from all the dialects that we collectively choose to include under one umbrella. Thankfully, most Orcadians today seem to have shaken off the inferiority complex from a few decades ago, and are now rightly proud of their unique dialect, hence the celebrations such as the Year o Orkney Dialect.
But what about us in-comers? Foreigners and ferry-loopers? We have moved to Orkney because we love Orkney. Is it okay for us to take part in the Orkney dialect too? Can we, with the help of The Orkney Dictionary, perhaps, write poetry for the Orkney dialect poetry competition? We quickly learn the word “peedie” and quite naturally use it, too. But what would the reaction be if we also used other Orkney words and expressions, such as “Ah’m feelan a bit trowie” or “Aye, aye, whit like the day?” – would we get dirty looks from people thinking that we are trying to mak a föl o them? “Whit are you reverse-chantin for!” Listeners to Radio Orkney’s Postbag programme the other week were told that we should not say “Fins-town” or “Fin-ston”, but “Fins-toon”. And that “Eday” rhymes with “ready, steady”. And, of course, there is the notorious “Birsay”, which no Englishman can get right. But what if they do? What if they do get it right and say “Beshee”, would they get away with it? Perhaps it is not due to lack of skill that many English people who are living in Orkney do not say “Birsay” in the Orkney way, but rather due to fear of being accused of reverse-chantin? As an in-comer, it seems that you cannot win.
Hopefully it will come naturally after a while: That I can enjoy speaking Orkney dialect quite without thinking about it. In the meantime I will be brave and enter something for the dialect poetry competition, and perhaps even reverse-chant a little bit, at least among friends and family. But I need the help of you Orcadians for one thing, though: What shall we call this phenomenon, reverse-chantin, in the Orkney dialect? In my Orkney Dictionary I see “backlins” and “erse aboot face” … “erse-aboot-face-chantin”??? All suggestions are welcome.