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The Orcadian dialect

"The chief peculiarity of the Orkney dialect is its accentuation, the intonations of the voice, long marked by abrupt rises and falls so as to form a sort of cadence."

For 950 years - from approximately AD800 until the middle of the 1700s - the spoken language in Orkney was a variant of Old Norse known as Norrœna, or Norn.

Remnants of this now extinct language can still be clearly heard in today's Orcadian dialect - a dialect shot through with Norse words and turns of speech.

Unfortunately, however, Orkney's dialect is at a low ebb - changing rapidly due to the constant influences of television and education as well as the large number of incomers now settled in the islands.

These days, many placename pronunciations bear no resemblance to what they should be, words have been forgotten and names changed.

In years past, to speak with an Orcadian accent was regarded as a mark of ignorance. So, like many altered cultures across the planet, the natives were forced to change to suit to settlers.

Fortunately the days are gone in which the dialect was deliberately suppressed in schools - although not that long gone. This practise was still the case in my schooldays.

But all is not lost. There have been efforts to revitalise the dialect and thanks to the efforts of some, Orkney's dialect is no longer something that is regarded as the "speech of the ignorant". Our local radio presenters often use dialect - not without the protest of some - and there are now books documenting the vanishing language. In addition, a growing number of Orcadian writers also utilise it in their work.

As long as we remember that over one thousand years of tradition and heritage went into the 'language' of the islands, and that the past thirty years has seen the destruction of so much, then perhaps the Orkney Norn can survive long into the 21st century.

"The men spoke for the most part in a slow deliberate voice, but some of the women could rattle on at a great rate in the soft sing-song lilt of the islands, which has remained unchanged for a thousand years...

It is a soft and musical inflection, slightly melancholy, but companionable, the voice of people who are accustomed to hours of talking in the long winter evenings and do not feel they have to hurry; a splendid voice for telling stories in."
Edwin Muir