Whit tae write nou?

orkney, Poetry

ferryleaving

A’m leavan Orkney. A’m writan this nou on the train sooth fae Aberdeen, eftir a calm crosseen doun fae Kirkwall. Wather-wise, hid’s no been much o a summer – rain an cauld aa the wey – bit the eveneen wis bonnie: a douce blue-grey sky wi saft layers o clood, an a brief wash o pink whan the sun gied doun. A’ll be missan the islan lift: i the city, thir’s less o hid tae see fer biggeens, an whit thir is deusno hae the scope an variety o an archiepelago’s mony-wathered skies.

A’m spent fower months back haem researchan an writan in Orkney language. A startid wi waakan an taakan an listenan: rediscoveran the landscape o haem, learnan fae the fock aareidy deuan grand wark i the Orkney language, an trainan me lugs tae hear the differs atween dialects an figure hou best tae write them doun. The twa month by, hid’s been less aboot the research an more aboot the writeen: A’m been tryan tae wirk oot whit A want tae write wi this wirds, this tongue.

Thir’s an aye-bidan fankle fir fock wirkan in minority languages, especially languages closs tae the globally-dominant Engliesh: hid’s hou tae mak the wark no cheust aboot the language, an no cheust aboot the piece the language cams fae. Whan yir language is merkid – whan hid registers first as a language at isno Standard Engliesh – aa ye write chances at bean raed as bean a commentary on the language, a commentary on Engliesh. An acause yir writan in a language at’s unner thraet – A’ll no say diean, fir at’s unhelpfully fatalistic – an in wirds ye miss hearan, yir wirk affens tends tae the elegaic an nostalgic, tae dulefu hiraeth. An acause yir writan in the language o haem, the language at means haem, the first thing ye think tae write aboot is haem – an than hid’s herd tae brak oot. An aa this is compoondid bi the tradietion yir writan in: in Orcadian, as in ither firms o Scots, the majority o the wark at’s gien afore is elegaic writan aboot language an haem.

Nou, that’s no tae say this subjecks is bannid, at we shadno write about them ony more. Thir necessar subjecks, vital tae the minority language experience: language nostalgia forders language memory an reclamation; writan about haem brings a pride in haem at can strengthen the language; writan about language howks intae yir awareness o hid’s ebbs an flowes an chaenges an interactions wi the dominant tongue. Bit hid is tae say at this subjecks maan bi pert o a wider literature, at wir language is fecksome an rich enof tae tackle ony subjeck ye fancy.

Friday by, A organised wi Simon Hall an Alison Miller an event caad Rashy Bulder’s Big Night Oot. (Here’s the history o the naem.) Hid wis a celebraetion o the Orkney tongue, a gatheran o dialect writers tae perform thir wark. Wir absolutely delightid wi the result: wi haed a fill aadience, a grand bill o writers, an enthusiastic reception – an most o aa, the night wis lippan wi a sense o optimism aboot Orkney dialect, a widespried feeleen at wir reachan a tippeen pynt fir a nyow renaissance o wark. Fir me, whar that showed clearest wis in the raenge o wirk at wis performed.

Thir wis plenty o wirk about language, bit hid wisno aa aboot wirds at wir tint: hid wis affens aboot lukkan at the wey fock ir spaekan nou, hou Orcadian is interactan wi Engliesh nou, or hou attitudes tae Orcadian ir chaenged ower time. Thir wis plenty o wirk about haem, bit hid wis as much aboot haem nou as haem by. An thir wis a bonnie bit o nostalgia, bit thir wis gey more lukkan tae the future. Ootower aa that, thir wis plenty o writan at wisno aboot Orkney at aa!

Fir mesel, A still struggle wi hou tae mak that brak, hou tae shift me mind tae uiss Orcadian tae taak ayont Orkney. Fir whan yir language is merkid, hid’s nivver cheust aboot hou ye see hid yersel: hid’s aboot hou ithers see hid teu. Whitivver A write, fock ir gaan tae see hid as wrote in Orcadian, an so read hid as in pert aboot Orkney.

Thir twa weys A’m find fir fock haean the saem struggle at help unthirl wir language fae hidsel. The first is tae wirk at translaetion. This is hou A startid writan in Orcadian in the first piece, tryan me haand at translaetions o the Daode Jing. Hid’s a grand wey tae laern hou tae uiss a haaf-familiar language, fir hid maks ye pey that muckle attention tae ilka wird chyce (an gies ye whit excuse ye need fir uissan dictionars an thesauruses), bit hid pushes ye ayont that aesy subjecks forby. Steid o startan in Orcadian an than tryan tae gar yersel intae new subjecks, ye stert in a new subjeck an than hae tae speir whit Orkney haes tae say aboot hid, whit nyow perspectives an inflections Orcadian offers. Hid gars ye write in Orcadian aboot things ye’d nivver itherweys o wrote aboot.

The seicond wey A’m find is tae mak a fantastiecal laep intae anither warld. Fantasy warlds, science fiction warlds, parallel warlds, magiecal warlds. Hid’s notable at the only fill-length novel wholly wrote in Scots at A ken o is Matthew Fitt’s But n Ben A-Go-Go, set in a fleudid future Scotland. Projectan forrid intae the future (or across intae fantasy) allous ye tae mak wild guesses aboot whit language might deu i the time in atween. Ye can jummle yir language wi neologisms an mell dialects ithoot faer o bean inaathentic, fir yir settan the reuls o whit future aathenticity is. Ye can be utopian aboot language polietics, imaginan a future whar language diversity haes thrived, steid o a future whar Engliesh haes erodid aathing ither. (By the wey, hou langsom hid is at sci fi haes fir the most pert sattled on the Universal Translator device steid o actually thinkan throu hou languages an language polietics might chaenge i the future: beuys, the Babel fish wis a fun, no a prediction!) Steid o bean the primary focus, the language yir uissan is nou a metaphoriecal layer: ye can write aboot haem ithoot writan aboot haem, ye can force the reader tae think ayont yir language ithoot hidan yir language, ye can bide i the doubleness at’s ert an pert o takkan the minority position.

Ya, hid’s a doubleness at’s at the hert o hid. Ye want tae brak free o the constraints o yir heritage, bit ye want tae pey yir respecks teu. Ye want tae be seen as more as cheust whar yir fae, bit ye want tae be fae thir teu. Ye want tae write ootower yir language, bit yir aye writan in yir language. Ye want tae write anent Engliesh, bit yir aye writan anent Engliesh. The Scots “anent” is right here, fir hid translates tae the Engliesh “against”, bit hid means “in front o” or “i the face o” forby: hid intrinsically acknowledges at whan yir writan against sometheen yir defined bi hid teu.

Hid’ll be a peedie while afore muckle o me nyow writan is oot in publiec: A’m still shappan hid, still makkan hid. Bit hid sterts fae this twa pynts: translaetion an imaginaetion as weys o brakkan ootower the prescribed limits o yir language, as weys o pushan that limits, as weys o endan that limits. Eventually, A hope, A’ll be writan in me language ithoot e’en thinkan aboot writan in me language – the saem thing as ayewis thinkan aboot hid. The goal o me language polietics is fir this tongues tae become both transperent an opaque.

image by Mark Braggins

The Futur o Scots

orkney, Poetry

(originally published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/harry-giles/future-of-scots)

What does it mean that Fiona Hyslop, when launching Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policy last month, stumbled over the part of her speech that was written in Scots?

Govrenment screeds are wrote in a antrin idiom o English. We’re used to hearing the empty words of public relations slide smoothly by, and most of the Culture Secretary’s speech was written in this easy tongue. Sae nae wunner at, whan sheu ran intae the Scots o hir screed’s final lines – wirds at jummled archaisms, contemporar urbanisms an variant grammatical firms intae a nyow aald leid, wirds pangit wi anxieties o cless an identity an nation – sheu wis scunnert. To me, it’s great to think that Scots might still foul the wheels of government.

Hyslop blethered aboot growan up doon sooth wi a mither wha mostlins spok English bit shifted straet awey tae a rich urban Scots whan phonan haem. Perhaps, then, unlike the language of government, the words of the policy launch speech seemed strange and unfamiliar anyway: for the most part, they belonged to the literary (but still beautiful and useful) canon of Scots rather than the agile vernacular her mother spoke down the phone. This langed-fir leid – a firmal, standardised Scots suitid tae journalism an cultural policies – belongs tae the govrenment websites o some Scots’ langed-fir staet, an that wey hid’s closser tae the leid o Westminster as the leid Craigmillar.

A language has numerous registers, each suited to different circumstances. E’en a teknicly monolingual body spaeks to thir clossest freinds i a differ leid – wi a differ, but owerleppan, vocabular, grammar, intonaetion an pronunciaetion – as thay wad i a job interview. A language also has numerous dialects, varying from region to region, some of which might stake a claim to being a language as well. So whan Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policie (laudably) walcomes aa the kynds o Scots, whit daes that mean?

Perhaps it means that art produced in all the varieties of Scots will be welcomed, with cultural support due to the languages of Orkney and Drumchapel as much as to the languages of Kelvingrove and Holyrood. This, alang wi a shift in eddicaetion policie at taks Scots intae the clessroom, is a bangin ootcome o decaedes o leid activism: wark at means thare’s no so mony bairns’ll be shaemed fir the wey thay spaek, an at mor weys o thinkan an scrievan’ll mebbe flourish an be acceptid. But what are the limits of that acceptance? Hou wad hid be gin a govrenment strategy event haed spaekers wi Niddrie or Sighthill accents an wirds, an whit leid policie cad gar that tae com? An authorised Scots tries to strip the language of any class or rural prejudice, but it can’t end class conflict or rural depopulation, and the standardisation of Scots itself hides the ways our words mark us out. “Fouter” is alloued i the clessreum nou, bit is “fam” – or “fml”?

Scots, as it currently exists, is a delicious mess. Thare’s dictionars at offer a dizzen differ spelleens an pronunciaetions fir ilk wird, competeen grammars an orthographies, wholly incompatible politiecal foondaetions. As a literary language, used in multiple forms, Scots is fairly established, with a thin but significant trickle of novels, stories and poetry produced in multiple varieties each year. As a spokken vernaclar, Scots haads on, wi more yet o a wrote firm on social media (A ween more Scots is publieshed on Facebook as i aa Scotland’s presses togither), but hid’s no consistent uissed fir journalism, criticism, public relaetions, or govrenment policie. When Creative Scotland says that it now welcomes funding applications in Scots, the notion involves inventing a whole new register to write in – we don’t currently have a Scots in which you can write funding applications. A muckle corpus o Scots comes fae laa, fir Scots wis the leid o laa in Scotland fir gey wheen o centuries, bit hid’s a trachle tae imagine a register o contemporar Scots suitid tae the tesk. What would it mean to create these registers?

Speiran at this fankle o quaistions gangs deep intae whit a cultural fundeen policie or a govrenment leid strategy is fir. Both are part of the apparatus of the state, of liberal governmentality. The resurgence o the Scots leid is aa frappid i the Scottish Nationalist project, fir the claim tae a leid haes lang been pert o the claem to staethood. Language standardisation is at the foundation of the modern nation-state: when the Italian and German nation-states formed, they brought together multiple competing regions under one government which centralised power, and they brought together multiple competing dialects under one language which centralised power. 20Th century Scottish Nationalists, ettlan tae firm a nyow 20th century staet, teuk inspiraetion fae this projects i the erly daes o standardiesation.

So a new phase of Scots language work needs to be engaged in – because it is already engaged in – the political formations of the 21st century. As European regional indiependence meuvements come at, ir thay gaan tae repaet a aerlier process o makkan naetion-staets, wi aa hids leid politics, or ir thay gaan tae ert oot nyow politiecal an linguistic formaetions?

I’m interested in politics beyond the nation-state, and that makes me interested in language beyond standardisation. We maan uiss wir utopian imaginaetion. What would it be like to have an education system where standard grammars were not enforced? Cad that be pert o undoan cless an raecial oppression i the clessreum? What would it be like to live in a world where Standard English did not smooth the flow of globalised capitalism, where we had to spend time learning what someone from the other side of the world (or the next town over) was saying, rather than assuming we shared our projects and problems in easy hegemonic understanding? Hou wad hid be gin that global English (Panglish?) continued hids process o disintegraetion an regionaliesaetion, firdered bi text-spaek an Twitter abbrevieaetions an phoneticisms? What would it be like if we did not all speak the language of government? – or if we could understand it, tolerably, but chose to speak to our comrades and families in a different language? This quaistions bring oot dystopian landscapes cheust as thay deu utopian possiebilities, bit wir history an wir present hae mony inspiraetions: pieces whar English daesno ower aa or haes been forcibly expelled, whar the leid o govrenment is differ fae the tong o haem, whar monolinguality isno the standard, whar the liberal staet isno the limit o the politiecal imaginaetion.

That Scots now has stronger material and financial support is to be celebrated. But A wunner gin – an hop at – the frawart, raivelt, ramstam literar an spokan uiss o Scots wilno thole hids govrenment policie. Thare’s a responsiebility fir them wirkan i Scots tae uiss the leids imaginatively, an tae turn the nyow level o uphaudan tae utopian ends, tae gar the leid tae bide rammage an unassimielatid, tae brak the leid intae nyow politiecal possibilities.

(originally published at https://www.opendemocracy.net/harry-giles/future-of-scots)

Whit’s it mean at Fiona Hyslop, whan lenchan Creative Scotland’s Scots Leid Policie the month by, hytert ower the pairt o her screed that wis wrote in Scots?

Government speeches are written in a peculiar idiom of English. Wir uissed tae hearin the teum wirds o public relations slidder sneith by, an most o the Culture Secretary’s screed wis wrote in this aesy tong. So no wonder that, when she ran into the Scots of her speech’s final lines – words that mixed archaisms, contemporary urbanisms and variant grammatical forms into a new old language, words stuffed with anxieties of class and identity and nation – she was scunnered. Tae me, hid’s grand tae think at Scots’ll mebbe yet fool the wheels o govrenment.

Hyslop talked about growing up in England with a mother who spoke English for the most part but switched immediately to a rich urban Scots when phoning home. Mebbes, than, no lik the leid o govrenment, the wirds o the policie lench screed wir uncan onywey: thay mostlins belonged tae the literar (but yet bonnie an uissfu) canon o Scots steid o the sneck vernaclar hir mither spok doun the phon. This longed-for language – a formal, standardised Scots suited to journalism and cultural policies – belongs to the government websites of some Scots’ longed-for state, and as such it’s closer to the language of Westminster than the language of Craigmillar.

A leid haes mony registers, ilk suitid tae differ situaetions. Even a technically monolingual person speaks to their closest friends in a different language – with a different, if overlapping, vocabulary, grammar, intonation and pronunciation – than they would in a job interview. A leid haes mony dialects teu, varyan fae piece tae piece, an some of thaim wad mebbe staek a claem tae bean a leid an aa. So when Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policy (laudably) welcomes all the varieties of Scots, what does that mean?

Mebbes hid means at ert mad i aa the kynds o Scots’ll be walcomed, wi cultural uphaud due tae the leids o Orkney an Drumchapel as tae Kelvingrove an Holyrood. This, along with a shift in education policy that increasingly brings Scots into the classroom, or at least accepts the use of Scots in the classroom, is the brilliant outcome of decades of language activism: it means we can hope that fewer children will be shamed for the way they speak, and that more ways of thinking and writing can flourish and be accepted. But whit’s the limits o that acceptance? How would it be if a government strategy event had speakers with Niddrie or Sighthill accents and words, and what language policy could make that happen? An aathorised Scots ettles tae tird the leid o ony cless or rural prejudice, but hid canno end cless conflict or rural depopulaetion, an the standardiesaetion o Scots hidsel derns the weys wir wirds merk iss oot. “Fouter” is allowed in the classroom now, but is “fam” – or “fml”?

Scots, the wey hid’s mad nou, is a gustie hags. There are dictionaries that offer a dozen different spellings and pronunciations for each word, competing grammars and orthographies, wholly incompatible political foundations. As a literar leid, uissed i mony firms, Scots is ferly establieshed, wi a peedie bit signifiecant trinkle o novels, stories and poietry mad i mony differ weys ilk yaer. As a spoken vernacular, Scots holds on, with an extended written form on social media (I suspect more Scots is published on Facebook than in all Scotland’s presses combined), but it is not consistently used for journalism, criticism, public relations, or government policy. Whan Creative Scotland saes at hid nou walcomes fundeen applicaetions i Scots, the gee gars makkan a whole nyow register tae write wi – wir no yet got a Scots fir the writan o fundeen applicaetions. A significant corpus of Scots comes from law, because Scots was the language of law in Scotland for some centuries, but it’s hard to imagine a register of contemporary Scots suitable to the tsk. Whit wad hid mean tae mak this registers?

Asking these harder questions goes deep into what a cultural funding policy or a government language strategy is for. Both ir ert an pert o the apparatus o the staet, o liberal govrenmentality. The resurgence of the Scots language is inextricable from the Scottish Nationalist project, because the claim to a language has long been part of the claim to statehood. Leid standardiesation is at the foondaetion o the modren naetion-staet: whan the Italian an German nation-staetes firmed, thay browt togither mony competan pieces unner the een govrenment o centralised pouer, an thay browt togither mony competan dialects unner the een leid o centralised pouer. 20Th century Scottish Nationalists, trying to form a new 20th century state, took inspiration from those projects in the early days of standardisation.

Sae a nyow phaes o Scots leid wark maan be engaged wi – fir hid’s aye been engaged wi – the politiecal formations of the 21st century. As European regional independence movements strengthen, are they going to repeat an earlier process of nation-state creation, with its attendant language politics, or are they going to find new political and linguistic formations?

A’m interestid i politics ootower the naetion-staet, an that maks me interestid i leids ootower standardiesaetion. Let’s use some utopian imagination. Hou wad hid be tae hae an eddicaetion system whar standard grammars wir no enforced? Could that be part of undoing class and racial oppression in the classroom? Hou wad hid be tae bide i a warld whar Standard English didno sleek the flowe o globalised capitalism, whae we wad maan tak time tae learn whit a body fae the ither side o the warld (or the next toun ower) wis spaekan, steid o assuman we shared wir projects an problems i aesy hegemonic understandeen? What would it be like if that global English (Panglish?) continued its process of disintegration and regionalisation, furthered by text-speak and Twitter abbreviations and phoneticisms? How wad hid be gin we didno aa spaek the leid o govrenment? – or gin we cad understand it, right enof, bit chos tae spaek tae wir comrads an femlies wi a differ tong? These questions bring out dystopian landscapes as much as they do utopian possibilities, but our history and our present contains many inspirations: places where English does not rule all or has been forcibly expelled, where the language of government is different from the language of home, where monolinguality is not the standard, where the liberal state is not the limit of the political imagination.

That Scots nou haes clear and strang material an financial support is tae be celebratit. But I wonder if – and hope that – the contrary, snarled, headstrong literarr and spoken use of Scots won’t tolerate its government policy. There is a responsibility on those working in Scots to use the language imaginatively, and to turn the new level of support to utopian ends, to ensure that the language remains untamed and unassimilated, to break the language into new political possibilities.

Orcadian Irthogrifee Irthografee Orthografee Orthography

orkney, Poetry

2015-05-04 14.15.54

When you’re writing in minor languages, how you write matters as much as what you write.

Right now, I’m writing in Standard Formal English. I’ve told myself that that’s because I’m doing a post on Orcadian orthography, and to make clear the distinctions between different approaches I need to write the analysis in a different language. That’s partly true. But it’s also true that Standard Formal English comes more easily to me, because I’m more experienced in writing in it, and because a Standard Formal Orcadian doesn’t exist. Yet.

It’s also true that Standard Formal English is attractive because it gets to pretend to be neutral. Like all unmarked things, its surface familiarity lets it pass unseen. When I write in this language you might not quite notice that I’m writing in it, and so all the political currents flowing through it might also go unnoticed. You might not notice that this language, the language that I’m using right now, is the language of the most extensively genocidal settler-colonial imperialism the world has ever seen, is the primary international language of neoliberal capitalist globalisation, is the language most responsible for the erosion of international linguistic diversity, is the primary international language of authoritarian academia, is an established and extensive language of poetry, religion, theatre, and beauty. And that all of these things are built into the words I use, the grammar that forms them into sense, and the orthography that underpins how they appear.

I write in minor languages and experimental forms because the thriving of diverse languages is the thriving of diverse ways of thinking. I think that writing in minor languages is poetically exciting, and that doing so helps to support linguistic diversity in thriving, and that writing against English helps to expose the strange and disturbing politics of that global language. I am learning how to write in Orcadian because it is the language of my home, and I care about my home’s culture, and I don’t want us to lose the ways of thinking and being that are tangled in our tongues, and I think that learning how to do new things with old words is learning how to be new things in an old world.

But what system of orthography best achieves these goals? How should we spell Orcadian?

* * *

Here’s a passage of Christina Costie, from her Collected Short Stories. Her prose is a shining literary experiment and vital work of language preservation: it stands as both a modernist remaking of literary language and the strongest and most aurally accurate body of published dialect work Orkney has ever had. She deserved to be better recognised and better supported, and I’m glad that Ragnhild Ljosland’s Chrissie’s Bodle has begun the work of fully acknowledging the work.

“A’ll deu that,” he said. “Tell thee boy A’m coman ower the morn for the len’ o’ fish heuks.” He moved aff tae the door, an’ Jeanic wha hid saesed the cup o’ life wae baith haan’s an druken ‘id tae hids bitterest dregs, wis a’ at eence cowld sober an’ silent i’ the face o’ Daith. The weeman sat quiet a peerie while, every ane wae her ain thowts. Than Jeanic said, “Lasses, Wattic’s deean.” “Aye,” said ‘Lizbeth, lukkin doon at her haan’s falded i’ her lap, “an’ t’ree peerie bairns’ll be fetherless afore lang comes short.”
(Waa’s Folk)

The orthography here serves to mark out the key pronunciations of spoken Orcadian. It creates a language for both dialogue and narration that accurately reflects the way that Orcadians speak, and it does so carefully and consistently. Moreover, it preserves a remarkable specificity of place: it is not a standardised Orcadian, but one specific to the Walls/Waas region of Orkney the story is set in. Often small differences in orthography reflect cultural differences between speakers, and code-switching from the same speaker in different circumstances. Thus we have “peerie” rather than the “peedie” of other parts of Orkney, and (in other passages) a more Scots “aald” rather than a North Orcadian “owld”. Similarly, what would be translated as “it” into Standard English is both “hid” and “’id” depending on sentence position. This approach enables a flexible, subtle orthography that can convey important social and emotional effects.

However, this approach is also in debt to English, and submits itself to English superiority. The most obvious aspect of this is the apologetic apostrophe, showing letters that are “missing” from the “proper” English version. Thus the Orcadian for “and” is rendered as “an’”, despite that D never having existed in Orcadian to be marked as missing.

Even were we to remove all the apologetic apostrophes from this orthography, as in Lamb, Flaws et al’s work, there are other English dependencies: spelling in this orthography is used not so much to accurately render Orcadian but to mark Orcadian’s difference from English. Thus the English “hand” is in this Orcadian “haan”, and the English “off” is in this Orcadian “aff”, but the A sound is the same in both Orcadian words. The double A in “haan” is used because to use the single A would not alter the spelling from English, and therefore not indicate that the A sound here is different than the A sound in the English “hand”.

Costie’s Orcadian also thus inherits many of the bizarre spelling inconsistencies of English, one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn how to pronounce because of its many fossilised anomalies. The “ae” of “saesed” and the “ai” of “baith” are (or can be, dependening on the region of Orkney) pronounced the same way, but there’s no way of knowing this unless you’ve already heard it; similarly, the “ee” and “ie” of “peerie” are the same sound. Unless you’ve heard them already, or apply some of the rules of thumb of English, themselves always inconsistent, you wouldn’t know that the “ie” of “quiet” is different than “peerie”, or that the “i” in “quiet” is the same as in “silent”, but different from the “i” of “hid” and “bitterest”. All this means that while Orcadians can read Costie’s Orcadian accurately out loud, non-Orcadians are lost.

This also means that a dependency on English is built into the very bones of Costie’s Orcadian, which risks perpetuating the idea that Orcadian is in someway inferior to English, or derived from English, rather than an individual language that has evolved autonomously from but in dialogue with English. This in turn risks perpetuating some of the ideas which have held back Orkney language literature and which were often reinforced by the Orkney literati of the 20th century: that Orcadian is suited only to comic material or Orkney subjects, that Orcadian lacks the full expressiveness of English, that Orcadian cannot be used to write about intellectual matters. Costie’s work stands against those ideas, but the orthography holds the seed of them.

There’s also a logical problem: if the spelling is only accessible to Orkney speakers, wouldn’t Orkney speakers do just as well with English spellings for all but the unique words? I don’t agree with this argument, but there is a logical consistency to its orthography. It takes a dependence on English to its extreme conclusion:

“I’ll do that,” he said. “Tell thee boy I’m coming over the morn for the lend of fish hooks.” He moved off to the door, and Jeanic, who had seized the cup of life with both hands and drunk it to its bitterest dregs, was all at once cold sober and silent in the face of Death. The women sat quiet a peerie while, every one with her own thoughts. Then Jeanic said, “Lasses, Wattic’s dying.” “Aye,” said Lizbeth, looking down at her hands folded in her lap, “and three peerie bairns’ll be fatherless before long comes short.”

This approach – preserving local speech-forms while using English orthography – is used by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is his novels, and is also frequently used for the dialogue in contemporary novels set in Orkney. I particularly dislike this approach in the latter case, because those novels’ authors have a tendency to inaccurately render or completely lose local speech forms: you’ll see “Aye” and “peedie” and “lass”, but you are much more likely to find “before too long” than “before long comes short”, and you’ll certainly see “to borrow” rather than the correct Orcadian grammar “for the lend of”.

With a very attentive and careful ear like Grassic Gibbon’s the effect of this orthography can be powerful, but I am still suspicious of the approach, which I think tends to erode local pronunciations, and I am also sad that the expressive power of local pronunciations is not recognised. Some grammatical forms are also inevitably lost: Orcadian preserves a case distinction between verbal nouns and present continuous tense, so that the English “I’m knitting my knitting” is translated into Costie’s Orcadian as “A’m knittan me knitteen”.

The only advantage of this approach is that it makes accessible to an English-reading public the unique words and (if properly used) speech forms of a minor language. A strong-willed Orcadian would read aloud both examples above in the same way, but I suspect that as Orkney language is eroded by a dominant English-language culture this will become less and less likely.

A third approach would be to for Orcadian to fully join forces with the Scots language movement, and use the standardised orthography of the Scots dictionaries while contributing its own words and speech-forms. The same passage would thus become:

“A’ll dae that,” he said. “Tell thee/yer boy A’m comin ower the morn for the lend o fish hooks.” He muived aff tae the door, an Jeanic, wha haed seized the cup o life wi baith haunds an drunken it tae its stroungest dregs, was aw at ance cauld sober and seelent in the face o Daith. The weemen sat quate a peerie/wee while, ilka wi her awn thochts. Than Jeanic said, “Lasses, Wattic’s deein.” “Aye,” said Lizbeth, leukin doun at her haunds fauldit in her lap, “an three peerie/wee bairns’ll be faitherless afore lang cams short.”

I mainly do this to set it up as a straw man: to me it seems like the worst option so far. Because Scots is also a minor language, it is marked to our eyes and ears: it does not have English’s ability to vanish behind unmarked privilege. That is to say, while an Orcadian might read aloud the English-spelled passage in Orcadian, they would almost certainly read the Scots-spelled passage in lowlands Scots. While Scots spelling is designed to encompass as wide a range of Scottish dialects as possible, it just can’t cope with the major vowel shifts north of John o’ Groats: the Scots “cauld” is as distant from our “cowld” as is the English “cold”, and in the reading “cauld” would displace “cowld”.

The motivation behind this approach would be to contribute towards the broad Scots language project: to continue the work of the Scots Renaissance of creating a national language for Scotland separate from English. I do not believe in this project. I do not use a minor language because I want to create a new state, but because I am interested in political possibilities beyond the state. Moreover, I think few if any Orkney writers would get behind that project, because Scotland and Scots is seen as as much of a colonising force in Orkney as English. Orkney Norn was largely eroded/displaced/incorporated by Scots long before Scots was in turn eroded/displaced/incorporated by English.

However, there are two points of interest for me here. The first is the choice of words. Access to the full lexicon of Scots does expand the possibilities for a literary Orcadian: it’s nice to have “stroungest” as a potential alternative to “bitterest”, and that hugely expanded lexicon is what gives syncretist Scots poetry its overwhelming power. Such a choice would be inauthentic to spoken Orcadian, but what is authenticity? The second is that Scots is increasingly incoporated into Orcadian, and so an authentic contemporary Orcadian vernacular should reflect that. An Orcadian of my age is more likely to say the Scots “yer” than the Orcadian “thee”, and some are as likely to say “wee” as “peedie/peerie”. To write accurate contemporary Orcadian dialogue in prose would have to use some aspects of Scots.

Because I hit all of these problems in each of the options currently available to me, in my last blogpost I experimented with creating a draft of a new orthography. My approach was to stay consistent with the orthography used by Costie, Rendall, Lamb, Flaws et. al., but to standardise it and to build it as far as possible from first principles. It always uses the same symbols for the same sounds, and has no inherent reliance on English spelling. Here is the same passage rewritten in my experimental orthography:

“A’l deu that,” he saed. “Tel thee beuy A’m koman ower the morn fir the len o fish heuks.” He meuvd af tae the dor, an Jeanic wha hid saesd the kup o laif wae baeth hans an druken hid tae hids bitirest dregs, wis a at eence kould sobir an sailent i the faes o Daith. The weeman sat quaiët a peeree whail, iveree aen wae hir aen thouts. Than Jeanic saed, “Lases, Wattic’s deeän.” “Ai,” saed Lizbeth, lukan doon at hir hans falded i hir lap, “an tree peeree berns’l be fethirles afor lang kams short.”

This approach achieves a few things well, I think. Although there is the obstacle of learning a new way of deducing sounds from spellings, it can be sounded as well by a non-Orcadian as an Orcadian. Personally, as a mixed Orcadian/Scots/English speaker, I find it easier to read consistently in this Orcadian than Costie’s Orcadian, because I am never misled into Scots or English pronunciations by commonality of spelling.

This orthography also helps to make more apparent Orcadian’s connection with Nordic languages. Because the distraction of English is more removed, we can more easily see the words that come directly from Old Norse, and the influence of Norse on the languages of the British Isles. More than one Scandinavian reader told me they could see reflections of their own language clearly in my last post, which didn’t happen to any of the previous ones, written in a more Costie-like Orcadian. Politically and culturally, this may be significant – though not as significant as the decisive minor language break from English, which pleasingly satisfies my aims.

There are, however, major and perhaps fatal disadvantages. The first is that it is hard to learn, and has to be learned. Minor concessions to similarity with English (restoring double-consonants, say, or use of “y” for “ai” and “ee” sounds when used that way in English) might help, but would detract from the purity of the approach which is its sole purpose.

The second is that it looks like a child wrote it, and so it risks being read as a naive language. I have little patience with this idea, because I like how children think, because no language is naive, and because children’s spelling is much more intuitive than so-called proper spelling. “Peeree” is more intuitive than “peerie”, “dor” than “door”.

The second is that, by standardising Orcadian, this approach erases local differences. One Orcadian writer pointed out a few things that jarred to her ears in my last post, because I’ve biased this orthography to North Isles (specifically Westray) Orcadian. In other words, a standard Orcadian suffers from the same faults as a standard Scots.

The third, and perhaps most important, is that this approach breaks not only with English but with both all the language-preservation work done so far and with popular understanding. The Orkney Wordbook, The Orkney Dictionary and contemporary Orcadian writers all use a variant of the literary Orcadian established by Rendall and Costie. Everyone here spells it “peedie” and not “peedee”, and that’s fair enough; to insist on “peeree” over “peerie” and “ai” over “aye” and “wei” over “wey” is hubristic, detached from local tradition, and risks being so obfuscatory as to find no readers. It’s an Orcadian that’s an interesting literary exercise, but does not to me feel like it belongs to a running thread of Orkney literature. If my political interest is not just to write in a powerful Orcadian myself but to support Orcadian writing, I certainly wouldn’t want to enforce (or even necessarily encourage) this orthography, interested as I am in it.

Thinking about that standardised/traditional/accepted Orcadian as it has grown in the last century or so, here is one final way of writing Costie’s passage. I’d not advocate editing the original for publication, but it’s interesting to think about how it might be written if it were written now: with no apologetic apostrophes and a few more standardised spellings. Consistent, powerful, flexible, rooted in the way folk speak, and enabling more folk to write in their tongue:

“A’ll deu that,” heu said. “Tell thee boy A’m coman ower the morn for the len o fish heuks.” Heu moved aff tae the door, an Jeanic wha hid saesed the cup o life wae baith haans an druken id tae hids bitterest dregs, wis aa at eence cowld sober an silent i the face o Daith. The weeman sat quiet a peerie while, every aen wae her ain thowts. Than Jeanic said, “Lasses, Wattic’s deean.” “Aye,” said Lizbeth, lukkan doon at her haans falded i her lap, “an tree peerie bairns’ll be fetherless afore lang comes short.”

* * *

So, how should we spell Orcadian? How should I spell Orcadian? How should you spell Orcadian?

I don’t think there’s a single answer to that question. I think different approaches to Orcadian orthography have different effects, different audiences, and achieve different political and literary results. I’ve explored five orthographies here not in order to come up with an answer but to think about what different ways of writing might achieve: not to close down posssibilities but to open them up.

There is power in standardised languages, and especially in the standardising work of dictionaries and grammars for minor languages: they support people in writing, they preseve words and speech-forms, they provide a locus for organisation. But at the same time I think we need to be free to bend and break rules for different aesthetic results and social meanings – in minor languages, but in English too.

I’m interested in minor languages in general and Orcadian in particular because I want to proliferate ways of speaking and thinking, to spread diverse ideas, tongues, and people. I’ll likely keep shifting and changing the way that I speak and write, and I think you can as well.