Slipan, Sweechan

orkney, Poetry

The English used to the right is an accepted orthography that’s congealed over time: development seems to have stalled. It’s completely inconsistent, but accurate to Standard English speech. There is no guiding principle but convention. I’ll write about different ways of doing Orcadian orthography, and the successes and failures of Standard English, next time.

Slipan, Sweechan

The mor at fok meuv aroon, the mor fok at meuv aroon, the mor tungs we a spaek wi.

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A grod up immersd in twa sindree weis o spaekan: the Standard English o mee femlee, an the Orkney langwach o mee komyoonitee. A nivir fillee adoptid wan or the tither, pikan up vools an konsonants fae both, mee aksent orbitan aroon an unplaesabl sentir, sumtaims slippan north, sumtaims skaitan sooth. A tak on aspekts o the spaekan at’s aboot mee, wharivir A’m at: sumtaims A sweech swithlee, sumtaims slolee. A kin spaek pasabil RP, bit haer an thir a slippid vool will lat on mee reuts; A hae all the unkin nordik vools o Orcadian in mee tung’s raech, bit A kannae baid thir staeblee.

Mee sistir, fouïr an a haf aers ouldir as mee, chaenchis that bit mor dramateeklee. Thir a bit o slipach in hir aksent, bit hid tends tae baid firmlee whariver sheu’s baidan. Sheu kam tae Orkney a cockney, queeklee got Westray, got Edinburgh whan sheu gaed tae yooniversitee, an noo soonds naeraboot totalee Brighton.

A lot o fok fae lang-taim Orcadian femlees sweech a geud bit teu. The most comin sweech is tae baid in an Orkney aksent bit tae drap a the daiälekt wirds an adopt Standard English vool firmaeshins. This is komin enof tae hae a daiälekt wird: “chantan”. Fok affens yeus hid tae anser the fon, tae taech a kless, tae mak a spaech. This daes, thir affens mor sithrin Scots’ idyims an vools in Orcadians’ cheneril spaech, een ithoot chantan, as maigraeshin sofans daiälekts.

Wan set o academik modils at kin eksplaen (or at laest descraib) this is “code-switching” (kod-sweechan), an at’s the term a lot o the fok A’m spokin tae hae yeusd tae tak aboot thir aen daiälekt yeus. Fok deu hid, konshislee an unkonshislee, atween langwachis an daiälekts an registirs (whitiver the unkan, bliree distinkshins atween them terms is). Hid saems gei affens, haer, mibee apees, tae be aboot beelongan, an atheen at entaels: kles, inteemasee, aidentitee, praid, desair…

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Fiona MacInnes’s novil “Iss” – in Engleesh, the taitl maens both “us” an “this”, dependan on the novil’s spaekir – deskraibs most o hids karaktirs kod-sweechan, delibritlee an no. The soshalist postmestir o Gaelic orichins spaeks an aksentid Standard Engleesh most o the taim, bit swichis tae brod Orcadian whan spaekan tae lokals askan fir a hand fae him; his lass fairs oot a the Orcadian fae hir tung whan sheu flits tae Edinburgh fir ert skeul, an than trais tae rekiver hid whan retirnan haem. The novil’s spaekirs ken snellee hoo hoo thei spaek cheenchis ithers’ persepshins, both haem an sooth, an the cheenchis ir rekordid in fonetik daiälog. Bit haer an thir thei kach thirsels oot.

This faels gei treu tae ekspeereeïns, fir mee – the renyee thir is in sweechan sumtaims. The parteeklir Orcadian ekspeereeïns haes its aen parteeklir paens: enkoontirs wi fok wha patronais or patronaisinlee fetishais, amost refleksivlee, rooral aksents; the dos o dekaeds o Orkney langwach beeän eksplisitlee band fae the skeul; the konekshin atween dwainan langwach an 20th sentiree eekonomik deklain; yung fok flitan sooth an diskiveran whit weis thir aksent merks them oot; kles, ai. A o this shoogs ir, A doot, at the seurs o chantan.

Wan raitir A spok tae deskraibd at faelan in the nanosekind afore ye spaek whan ye reealais a the soshil implikaeshuns o the wird-firm yir aboot tae yeus. Hid’s laik verteego. Sumtaims hid kin fraes ye. A rekognais whit sheu wis deskraiban imeedyitlee, an twa-three sentensis laetir foond meesel fraesan, unaebl tae utir ithir “old” or “ald” or “ould”, onee o whit A’d mibee itherweis komfirtablee yeus at difer taims. Sum sweechan hapens unkonshislee, an hid’s that mukl aesyir at wei, fir tae be konshis o the sweechis an slips ye mak is tae git afil ankshis.

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Fok want tae beelong, an fok want tae fael athentik. Afens, getan the cod rang maks ye nithir.

Ernest Marwick rot a skript fir a spot on Radio Orkney kad “The Crime of Speaking Proper”, whar he deskraibs chantan as no an ankshis respons tae poor bit a pretens: “to chant is to try to put one over on our friends and neighbours by pretending to a more refined use of language than they possess”. Heu’s eequalee hersh on inkomirs spaekan (or traiän tae spaek) Orcadian, atakan a traveleen saelsmin fir afektan the langwach fir tae sel theens. His konkleuzhin – in a pees fir spaekan at’s rot in firmil Engleesh – is at “We must speak as naturally as we can in any given situation”.

Is thir sik a theen as an athentik vais, tho? A’m nivir haed een meesel; A cidna. A’m afens been konfyeusd bi the wei poiïts tak aboot “findan yir vais” whan ritan poiïtree, fir A’m nivir haed een tae find: mee poiïtree swichis mods, swichis rechistirs, swichis langwachis, swichis firms. A’m skepteecal o Marwick’s aideeal o athentisitee, seeän hid as a ferlee disipleenaree wei tae merk oot an infors beelongeen (an no beelongeen). Hid risks teu fetishaisan langwachis laik Orcadian as ai beud in a taind reuril past: A’m as skepteecal o Robert Rendall’s eedikt at daiälekt poiïtree kin onlee be geud gin hid is “sincerely wrought and faithfully reflects local life”. Fir mee, the fek o a langwach is in hids reench an adaptabilitee: gin a langwach is livan, hid kin be plaefil, inventiv, unkin, distriblan, fremitan, insinseer. An, fir mee, whit raelee merks oot a langwach is at it kin be laernd.

Most o the fok A’m spokin tae, both ritirs an langwach activists, saed thit “abdee sweeches”. Orkney haes ai been a stopeen paint fir travlirs: afor creus ships hid wis Briteesh impeeryal eksplorirs; afore them, hid wis spulyan an colonaisan Vaikeens; afore them, hid’s fikl tae sei, bit the walee sais o wir sentral neeölithik templ compleks maks mee imachin at fok kam haer fae a weis awei een then. An at maens wir spaekan haes ai been inflooïnsd bi ither spaekan, an monee o us wil ai haed differ fok wir spokan tae wi differ tungs.

Morag MacInnes’s poiïm sequins “Alias Isobel” is rot in the richist an most compleks Orkney langwach A’m seen in contemprir poiïtree, but hid’s calerlee leus in hids cods teu. Speleens (an sicweis, mibee, pronunseeaeshins teu) o the saem wird cin differ fae poiïm tae poiïm, or een inooth poiïms, bit the wark as a hol haes a kaindlee vernaclir flo. Isobel Gunn hersel, a maigrant, sumbdee wha flit Orkney in men’s klaes an rechistird as a mael laebrir, wid laikan o slippid an sweechd as at: the myeusik o the poiïtree rings o treuth. (Mor, A doot, as mee aen ritan haer, whit haes preeöritaisd speleen ouïr kaindleenes as A figir oot whit A’m traiän tae deu.)

A that bai, A’m met fok teu wha dinnae cod-sweech, an sum A’m spokin tae disagree on gin abdee daes hid. Thir brod Orcadians wha had sterklee tae the langwach thei spaek in – whit, firnent skeuleen an skorn an ordnir inflooïns, taks gei mukl fek. Bit ir thir onee mor athentik in thir laifs or thir tungs as the rest o us, an whas spaekan mon we lisen tae whan we rait?

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Thir at laest faiv weis o ritan Orkney langwach A cin theenk o:

The first is tae tak Christina Costie’s aproch, whit rendirs the brodist o Orcadian vernaklir spaekan wi a ferlee konsistint fonetik speleen: the naraetirs o hir storees ir spaekan, no ritan, an thir spaekan a strang an abaidan Orkney langwach. This is vaital tae langwach presirvaeshin, bit hid’s gei fikl tae deu, an taks a gei talentid an treezhird lug fir langwach.

The secind is tae tak Fiona an Morag MacInnes’s aproch (tho thei mak oot the efekt in difer weis), whit is tae rendir contemprir vernaklir spaekan fonetiklee, no fashin aboot speleen bit paintitlee recordan hoo the spaekir spaeks noo, sweechis an a. This is mibee the most acsesibl aproch, an hid’s espeshlee yeusfil fir langfirm naraeshun, makan monee differ entreeweis fir differ levils o intrest. Hid most paintitlee rendirs teu hoo most contemprir Orcadians akchilee spaek.

The third, whit A’m foond in novils rot bi both Orcadians an viseetirs, is tae rait daiälog mostlee in Engleesh, onlee yeusin Orkney wirds an speleens fir spesific merkir wirds at sha the spaeker’s Orcadian. This, fir mee, is the most unsatisfaiän: hid fetishaisis the langwach ithoot rilee contreebyeutan tae hids thraivan. Bit hid cin introdyeus wirds an the thot o ritan Orkney langwach tae beeginirs.

The fouïrd wid bees a modrenist, MacDiarmidait aproch, makan a consistint irthografee an yeusan a thrang o Orcadian wirds an idyims, whethir or no hid reflekts the vernaklir. This is an unpoplir aproch in poiïtree this daes, but A hae a fondniss fir the unkin poor o hids myeusikl an ekspereementl efekts.

The fifd is whit A’m deuan noo, whit is foond teu in Simon Hall’s blog Brisk Northerly (tho wi a differ irthografee), makan a “firmil Orcadian” tae mach firmil rot Engleesh: Orkney speleens, Orkney wirds (bit no that thrangan), but in rot (insteed o spokan) firms. This is, as wi the second aproch, yeusfil fir langwach presirvaeshin an thraivan, an hid’s mor apropreeït tae diskirsiv pros. Hid deus, tho, chans at tainan Orcadian sentins firms tae thir Engleesh or Scots equivilint.

Thir problee ithir weis. An thir sheurlee a saksd, whit is tae meuv gliblee atween this mods dependan on whit’s needid. Fir mee, thir nae athentik corekt ansir on hoo tae rait: hid depends on whit ye want tae deu, whit ye want tae mak oot. We kin be conshis o hoo we spaek, an meuv gliblee ithoot fashin aboot hid that mukl – an mibee insteed o findan beelongan in an inacsesibl athenticitee, we kin find hid in shaerd pleuralitee, the shaerd slippan o monee-myeusikl tungs.

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The orthography used here is based on that used in the Orkney Dictionary, but takes it to its extreme conclusion. (That doesn’t necessarily mean it should be used: this is an experiment.)

Single vowels all represent short vowel sounds. Double vowels all represent long vowel sounds or dipthongs. All the comparisons with SE words below are approximate guides only: in an Orcadian accent, most of the vowels sound slightly differently to their Standard English equivalent.

  • a: very short a as in Standard English “black” and “gather”.
  • e: short e as in SE “red”, “tent”.
  • i: short i as in SE “pit” and “twin”
  • o: short o as in SE “not” and “blot”.
  • u: short u as in SE “dunk” and “but” (except in combination with q; see below).
  • ae: can be the a/ai of SE “place”/“plaice”, the “ea” of “meat”, or something in between, depending on the speaker and region of Orkney. Compare to the same variable sound in “encyclopaedia” and “paediatrician”.
  • ai: as in SE imports “haiku” and “gaia”.
  • ee: as in SE “feet” and “teen”.
  • ei: no SE equivalent. Halfway between the “ay” of “way” and the “y” of “why”.
  • eu: no SE equivalent. In Norwegian, it is represented by ø; it is close to the French “eu” of “bleu”.
  • oi: as in SE “point” and “foil”.
  • oo: as in SE “moot” an “boot”. Not the shorter oo as in SE “book”.
  • ou: as in the SE “about” and “proud”.y and w function with vowels as in SE.

When a vowel appears with a diaresis, it does not change the pronunciation of the vowels itself, but indicates that it is a separate sound, as in SE “Chloë”. Thus “daiälekt” is pronounced similarly to the SE “dialect”. Where four vowels are in sequence, it indicates two separate dipthongs, as in “pronunseeaeshin”, pronounced similarly to the SE “pronunciation”.

All consonants and consonant pairs are as in SE, but note:

  • r: always rotic.
  • ch: as in SE “chair” and “chore”; it never becomes the soft terminal “dge” sound some SE speakers use in “sandwich”.
  • kh: used for the Scots “ch” of “loch” and “nicht”.
  • zh: used for the SE “s” as in “treasure” and “pleasure”.

Depending on the speaker and region of Orkney:

  • qu can also be pronounced as an aspirant “wh” as in SE “what” and “which”. In old Scots this is written as “quh”.
  • wh can also be pronounced as an “f” as in SE “foot” and “fall”, though with more aspiration than in SE English, which is also found in contemporary northeast Scots. (N.B.: this does not mean that the Orcadian “qu” ever becomes an SE “f”.)
  • th can also be pronounced as a “t” as in SE “trouble” and “wit”, especially at word beginnings and endings.
  • k can also be pronounced as “ty” as in SE “boatyard”, especially at word beginnings.
  • d can also be silent, especially in confunction with “l”.

Finally, the SE spelling of most proper nouns has been kept. “Orkney” world otherwise be written as “Orknee” and “Orcadian” as “Orkaedyin”.

I may have made spelling mistakes.

The Orcadian yeusd tae the left is an ekspereemint in irthografee: hid’s still in deevelopmint, bit A think hid’s filly consistint, gin no yet filly pyntit. The prinseepl is at ivree letir or letir paer aywis merks the sam soond, as notid in the gyd beelo. A’ll ryt aboot differ weis o deuan Orcadian irthografee, an the suksesis an faelyirs o this ekspereemint, nekst tym.

Slipping, Switching

The more that folk move around, the more folk that move around, the more tongues we all speak with.

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I grew up immersed in two distinct ways of speaking: the standard English of my family, and the rich Orkney language of my community. I never fully adopted one or the other, picking up vowels and consonants from both, my accent orbiting around an unplaceable centre, sometimes slipping north, sometimes sliding south. I take on aspects of the speech immediately around me, wherever I am: sometimes I switch rapidly, sometimes slowly. I can speak passabl RP, but occasionally a slipped vowel will betray me; I have all the unusual nordic vowels of Orcadian within my tongue’s reach, but I can’t stay stably there.

My sister switches, four and a half years older than me, changes much more dramatically. There is some slippage in her accent, but it tends to stay firmly wherever she’s living. She arrived in Orkney all cockney, quickly became Westray, turned Edinburgh when she went to university, and now sounds almost entirely Brighton.

A lot of folk from long-time Orcadian families switch a lot too. The most common switch is to stay in an Orkney accent but to drop all the dialect words and adopt standard English vowel formations. This is common enough to have a dialect word: “chantan”. Folk often use it to answer the phone, to teach a class, to make a speech. These days, there’s often also more southern Scots’ idioms and vowels in Orcadians’ general speech, even without chanting, as migration softens dialects.

One set of academic models that can explain (or at least describe) this is “code-switching”, and that’s the term a lot of the folk I’ve spoken to have used to talk about their own dialect use. Folk do it, consciously and unconsciously, between languages and dialects and registers (whatever the strange, fuzzy distinctions between those terms might be). It seems very often, here, maybe everywhere, to be about belonging, and everything that entails: class, intimacy, identity, pride, desire…

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Fiona MacInnes’s novel Iss – in English, the title means both “us” and “this”, depending on the novel’s speaker – describes most of its characters code-switching, deliberately or otherwise. The socialist postmaster of Highland origins speaks an accented Standard English most of the time, but switches to broad Orcadian when speaking to locals seeking his help; his daughter pushes all the Orcadian from her tongue when she moves to Edinburgh for art school, and then tries to recover it when returning home. The novel’s speakers are acutely aware of how the way they speak affects others’ perceptions, both at home and south, and the changes are recorded in phonetic dialogue. But occasionally they catch themselves out.

This feels very true to experience, for me – the painfulness of switching sometimes. The particular Orcadian experience has its own particular pains: encounters with folk who patronise or patronisingly fetishise, almost reflexively, rural accents; many decades of Orkney language being explicitly forbidden in schools; the connection between dissipating language and 20th century economic decline; young folk moving south and finding how much their accent marks them out; class, always. All of these shocks are, I think, at the source of chantan.

One writer I spoke to described that feeling in the nanosecond before you speak when you realise all the social implications of the word-form you’re about to use. It’s like vertigo. Sometimes it can freeze you. I recognised what she was describing immediately, and a few sentences later found myself freezing, unable to say either “old” or “aald” or “owld”, each of which I might otherwise comfortably use at different times. Some switching happens unconsciously, and it’s so much easier that way, because to be conscious of the switches and slips you make is to be made very anxious indeed.

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Folk want to belong, and folk want to feel authentic. Often, getting the code wrong makes you neither.

Ernest Marwick wrote a script for a spot on Radio Orkney called “The Crime of Speaking Proper”, where he describes chantan as not an anxious response to power but a pretence: “to chant is to try to put one over on our friends and neighbours by pretending to a more refined use of language than they possess”. He’s equally harsh on incomers speaking (or trying to speak) Orcadian, attacking a travelling salesman for affecting the language in order to sell things. His conclusion – in a piece for speaking that’s written in formal English – is that “We must speak as naturally as we can in any given situation”.

Is there such a thing as an authentic voice, though? I’ve never had one myself; I couldn’t. I’ve often been confused by the way poets talk about “finding your voice” when writing poetry, because I’ve never had one to find: my poetry switches modes, switches registers, switches languages, switches forms. I’m sceptical of Marwick’s ideal of authenticity, seeing it as quite a disciplinary way to mark out and enforce belonging (and not belonging). It also risks fetishising languages like Orcadian as forever penned in a lost rural past: I’m as sceptical of Robert Rendall’s edict that dialect poetry can only be good if it is “sincerely wrought and faithfully reflects local life”. For me, the strength of a language is in its range and adaptability: if a language is alive, it can be playful, inventive, weird, disturbing, alienating, insincere. And, for me, what really marks out a language is that it can be learned.

Most of the people I’ve spoken to, both writers and language activists, said that “everybody switches”. Orkney has always been a stopping point for travellers: before the cruise ships, it was British imperial explorers; before them, it was marauding and colonising Vikings; before them, it’s hard to say, but the vast size of our central neolithic temple complex makes me imagine that folk came here from a long way away even then. And that means our speech has always been influenced by other speech, and many of us will have always had different folk we spoke to with different tongues.

Morag MacInnes’s poem sequence “Alias Isobel”, is written in the richest and most complex Orkney language I’ve seen in contemporary poetry, but it’s also refreshingly loose in its codes. Spellings (and thus potentially pronunciations) of the same word might differ from poem to poem, or even within poems, but the work as a whole has a natural vernacular flow. Isobel Gunn herself, a migrant, someone who left Orkney in men’s clothes and registered as a male labourer, would likely have slipped and switched in this way: the music of the poetry has the ring of truth. (More, I think, than my own writing here, which has prioritised spelling over naturalness while I learn what I’m trying to do.)

All that said, I’ve also met folk who don’t code-switch, and some I’ve spoken to disagree on whether everyone does it. There are broad Orcadians who hold strongly to the language they speak in – which, in the face of schooling and put-downs and ordinary influence, takes a great deal of strength. But are they any more authentic in their lives or their tongues than the rest of us, and whose speech should we listen to when we write?

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There’s at least five ways of writing Orkney language I can think of:

The first is to take Christina Costie’s approach, which renders the broadest of Orcadian vernacular speech with a fairly consistent phonetic spelling: the narrators of her stories are speaking, not writing, and they’re speaking a strong and abiding Orkney language. This is vital to language preservation, but it’s very difficult to do, and takes a highly talented and treasured ear for language.

The second is to take Fiona and Morag MacInnes’s approach (though they achieve the effect differently), which is to render contemporary vernacular speech phonetically, worrying less about spelling and more about accurately recording how the speaker speaks now, switches and all. This is perhaps the most accessible approach, and is particularly useful for longform narration, allowing many different entry points for different levels of interest. It also most accurately renders how most contemporary Orcadians actually speak.

The third, which I’ve found in novels written by both Orcadians and visitors, is to write dialogue on the whole in English, only using Orkney words and spellings for specific marker words that show the speaker is Orcadian. This, for me, is the most unsatisfying: it fetishises the language without really contributing to its thriving. It can, though, introduce words and the idea of writing Orkney language to beginners.

The fourth would be a modernist, MacDiarmidite approach, creating a consistent orthography and using a density of Orcadian words and idioms, regardless of whether it reflects the vernacular. This is an unpopular approach in poetry these days, but I have a fondness for the strange power of its musical and experimental effects.

The fifth is what I’m doing now, also found in Simon Hall’s blog Brisk Northerly (though with a different orthography), creating a “formal Orcadian” to match formal written English: Orkney spellings, Orkney words (but not too densely packed), but in written (rather than spoken) sentence forms. This is, like the second approach, useful for language preservation and thriving, and it’s more appropriate to disursive prose. It does, though, risk losing Orcadian sentence forms to their English or Scots equivalent.

There are probably other ways. And there is certainly a sixth, which is to move fluidly between these modes depending on what’s needed. For me, there is no authentic right answer on how to write: it depends on what you want to do, what you want to achieve. We can be conscious of how we speak, and move fluidly without worrying about it too much – and maybe instead of finding belonging in an inaccessible authenticity, we can find it in shared plurality, the shared slipping of many-musical tongues.

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