Will the Norn language see a successful revival in Orkney and Shetland?

By: | Post date: 2016-11-03 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Other Languages

Ah, a lot of doom and gloom here from other respondents.

I’ll admit that all I know about Shetland is that they have ponies, and all I know about Orkney is “huh, isn’t that halfway to Norway already?” But I knew Norn existed. I’ve had a quick look at Wikipedia (and pasted links in details).

And I’ll post not specifics (a Shetlander or Orcadian will need to supply those); but some questions to ask, and some stuff I’ve gleaned from both reading, and a friend working on language reclamation here in Australia.

Will you get the kind of revival that Hebrew had? Of course not. The Jews of Palestine spoke different languages, and even when they didn’t, they were strongly motivated to abandon their native languages. The Ottomans and British weren’t coercing their language onto the Jews of Palestine. The kibbutzim were like the plantations that pidgins developed in, only not coercive.

Obviously, that’s not happening in Norn territory. Everyone speaks English, everyone will keep speaking English, and a revived Norn would only ever be a part-time hobby thing.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing not real about that. But let’s stop comparing Norn to Hebrew, as the measure of a successful revival case. The proper comparison is with Cornish. (Which features in How many dead languages have successfully been revived as spoken languages of a group of people in the modern world?) And Cornish has not been an utter failure; people speak it and write it. Even if it is more emblematic than anything else in Cornwall.

So. Can Nynorn get to the status of Cornish? Well, let’s see.

  • It’ll need strong Shetlander/Orcadian nationalism. Strong enough for people to see the point in investing their time, seeking each other out to chat, organise cultural revival festivals featuring it, memorise the Hildina ballad (the one surviving non-trivial text). Nynorn needs to be the vehicle of a culture: it needs to motivate people.
    • I don’t know whether there is strong Shetlander/Orcadian nationalism. Without it, the revival’s going to be pretty damn marginal.
    • The naysayers on the forums, though, and anyone speaking of utility, can kiss my conlanger tuchus. Noone’s putting a gun to their head to learn Nynorn. Or French for that matter. If they think it’s a waste of time, they can go have a party with all the shmucks who are aghast I’d spent time on Klingon. As long as they don’t get in the way of anyone who does want to learn Nynorn.
  • It does NOT need a huge well-documented corpus of original Norn. Which is just as well, ’cause we don’t have one.
    • Yes, Nynorn is going to be a linguistic fiction, based on analogy with Faroese to fill in the blanks. Big deal. Cornish Mark #1 used Breton to fill in the blanks. Australian languages get revived based on a couple of scrappy word lists and triangulation.
    • The point is not that Nynorn be a completely historically accurate replica of 16th century Norn. The point is that it be good enough to be serviceable to the community. There are Aboriginal communities who were quite content with getting just a dozen words back, to inject into their Aboriginal English: it was enough for their purposes.
      • The error of Cornish (leading to Cornish Mark #2 and Cornish Mark #3) was thinking it needed to be more and more historically accurate. Why? You’re not going in a time machine any time soon. Language revival does not need to go all Jurassic Park. If you can understand the Hildina and can still talk in Nynorn about buying a pint of lager and a pony (or whatever it is people talk about over there), you’re good. The perfect must not be allowed to be the enemy of the good.
      • My friend was skipping the ergative in her revivals, because the tribe she was working with couldn’t get their heads around it. The linguists shook their heads. But my friend wasn’t doing the revival work for the linguists, or for herself (who, after all, knew perfectly well what an ergative is). She was doing it for the community. And it does the community no good if you revive a language for them, that they can’t wrap their heads around.
  • Dialects get in the way, because revival is only practical around a single standard.
    • Promoting standard forms of Irish and Scots Gaelic through the radio actually backfired: the native speakers of Irish and Gaelic got even more disheartened, because they found that not only was their mountain gibberish not the Queen’s English, it wasn’t even the Queen’s Celtic. A Greek dialectologist like me is not going to be grateful to the Greek government for sending teachers to the Ukraine: it’s not like they’re sent to teach the version of Greek that’s actually spoken there.
    • And of course, if the revival is to be driven by local pride, picking a non-local dialect is going to be a funny way for the locals to show pride.
      • That won’t be as much of an issue for Nynorn, because noone has spoken Norn for a couple of centuries. But Orkney Norn and Shetland Norn look very different; and imposing a single Nynorn over both might be a bad idea, especially if the locals know that Orkney Norn and Shetland Norn look very different. (I have no idea if that’s what’s happening.)

Flag of Orkney.

Flag of Shetland.

Shetland ponies in Shetland.

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