Orkney Norn

By Michael Barnes, Former Honorary Research Fellow of Institute for Northern Studies

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The Lord's Prayer in Orkney Norn

Languages change over time. The various forms of English now found in the British Isles, for example, are not constant. If we were to go back three, five, seven hundred years, we would find very different kinds of English in use. A thousand years ago, Anglo-Saxon, or what is sometimes termed Old English, was spoken over large areas of southern Britain. This is a form of language so different from the modern varieties that it has to be learnt much as a foreign tongue.

Languages once universally spoken are sometimes replaced by others. This can happen as a result of invasion, conquest and genocide, but also where two or more languages are in prolonged contact and speakers switch from what is deemed a lower status tongue to one of higher status. Some two thousand years ago a Celtic language (one related to modern Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic) was dominant in the area that now constitutes France, but the expansion of the Roman Empire led to the adoption of a demotic form of Latin, which ultimately gave us modern French. Two thousand years ago types of Celtic were also spoken throughout the British Isles, but fifth-century settlement by Jutes, Angles and Saxons led eventually, through a long process of adaptation and change, to a situation in which English became ubiquitous.

It should be no surprise then, that the Scottish form of English now current in Orkney is a relative newcomer. It is generally accepted that around the beginning of the Christian era (the age of the Broch builders) the population of the Northern Isles spoke a language related to Welsh. There are, however, indications that a second, pre-Celtic, language may also have been used by some. Around AD 800 the linguistic situation changed dramatically. Viking raiders and settlers from Scandinavia, principally Norway, overran the islands and introduced their North Germanic form of speech. There is certain archaeological evidence that suggests the Scandinavian incomers and the indigenous population managed to live side-by-side in relative harmony for several generations. However against this, the linguistic evidence – not least the almost total absence of pre-Scandinavian place-names – has been taken to indicate that the native people were swiftly eradicated – driven out or slaughtered. Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that the Scandinavian settlement spelt the end for the language or languages previously spoken by the inhabitants of Orkney. A type or types of Scandinavian idiom must rapidly have become the dominant, indeed the sole medium of communication throughout the islands.

Unfortunately there are vanishingly few examples of Orkney Scandinavian from any period, so direct evidence for the language that evolved following the Norse invasion is sparse. From archaeological finds and from saga accounts it appears that the bulk of the settlers hailed from Norway, particularly the west of that country. But there were doubtless others in the mix, and since Orkney in an age of sea travel was a central staging-post on the way to and from Ireland and the north and west of Britain, there will have been much coming and going.

The few written records of Scandinavian that are found in Orkney take the form of runic inscriptions and handwritten documents. These show forms of language that do not deviate in any significant way from the norms observable in Norway at the time they were composed. Most, if not all, of the Maeshowe inscriptions, for example, could as easily have been written in Norway as in Orkney, while the four preserved Scandinavian-language documents with a clear Orcadian provenance reflect the development (and not least the Danicisation) of Norwegian scribal practice, rather than any spoken idiom of the islands.

For all that, Orkney must have developed its own brand of Scandinavian, as happened in the Faroes and Iceland. And this brand came to be known as Norn, an Anglicisation of the Old Norse adjective norrœnn ‘Norwegian’ ‘Norse’ and the corresponding noun norrœna ‘Norwegian language’ ‘Norse language’. The term is first documented in 1485, and, in keeping with its original sense, has been applied not only to the Scandinavian idiom of Orkney but to that of Shetland and Caithness, and in one instance to the Hebridean island name Jura (< Dýrey ‘Deer Island’). Given the likely Norwegian background of the bulk of the Norse settlers, we are probably safe in assuming that spoken Orkney Norn was a predominantly western, i.e. Norwegian, type of Scandinavian, just as the nascent Faroese, Icelandic and Norse Greenlandic. It is further reasonable to think that this developing language exhibited considerable dialectal variation, in the absence of any state or cultural institutions that might have encouraged the development of some kind of linguistic norm. That was certainly the case in the Faroes, where after 1500 Danish became the language of the state, the Church, the law and public discourse, and the native idiom was left very much to its own devices.

We do have two snippets of Orkney Norn from the time when it can be supposed still to have been the language of the majority or at least of part of the population. One “Jo Ben” writing sometime in the 1500s, notes that “when we say ‘Guid day Guidman’, they [the islanders] say ‘goand da boundæ’”. The Norn phrase corresponds closely to Faroese and Icelandic góðan dag, bóndi, a circumstance which suggests that the grammatical system of Norn in the sixteenth century still retained much of its Old Norse flavour. A longer piece of Orkney Norn is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, which appeared in printed form in 1700 (see accompanying illustration). This is still recognisably Scandinavian, but bears witness to a collapse of the Old Norse grammatical system, and the admixture of elements from Danish and Scots.

As well as these two direct glimpses of Orkney Norn, we find a number of comments on the continuing existence of Scandinavian speech in the islands, long after Scots had become the everyday medium of communication. Such references span a period from the late 1500s to the middle of the 1700s. However, by c. 1800 Orkney Scandinavian is being described as a language of the past. Insofar as these accounts can be given credence, they indicate a gradual decline in use: in the 1500s, we are led to believe, Norn was the common language of the people, whereas by the middle of the eighteenth century it survived only in a few Mainland parishes, notably Harray.

Over the course of some two hundred years, Orkney Norn was thus replaced by Scots. This language shift doubtless had a variety of causes: the establishment of a northern form of English as the principal language of Scotland in place of Gaelic; the closeness of Orkney to the Scottish mainland; the succession to the Orkney Earldom in 1379 of the Scots-speaking Sinclairs; the immigration of large numbers of Scots speakers into the islands in the late Middle Ages and post-Reformation period; and the impignoration of 1468 which transferred political power from the Danish to the Scottish Crown. We might ask why Norn and Scots could not have co-existed, as Danish and Faroese did for hundreds of years in the Faroe Islands. The answer probably lies partly in the sheer number of Scots speakers who established themselves in Orkney, partly in the severance of ties with Norway and Denmark. Orkney Norn would thus appear to have died out because the islands became more and more orientated towards Scots-speaking Scotland. By the seventeenth century most if not all the inhabitants could speak fluent Scots, and as links with Scandinavia weakened, the motivation to perpetuate a low-prestige vernacular with no official status or written form disappeared.

Although Norn no longer survives as a living language in Orkney, it has by no means disappeared without trace. Most traditional place-names are of Scandinavian origin, as Eynhallow (< Eyin helga ‘The Holy Island’), Hoy (< Háey ‘High Island’), Kirkwall (< Kirkjuvágr ‘Church Bay’), Skaill (< skáli ‘(feasting) hall’). Considerable numbers of words and phrases of Norn origin also survived long enough to be recorded, as well as games, proverbs, riddles, etc. containing Norn elements. There is, on the other hand, no hope of a linguistic revival of the kind pursued by those in Cornwall who seek to resurrect Cornish. Too little remains of Orkney Norn to make such a project remotely feasible.

For further reading, see: Michael P. Barnes, The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland, Lerwick 1998; Hugh Marwick, The Orkney Norn, Oxford University Press, 1929.