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When a language dies

By Nancy C. Dorian


When he died recently, Bobby Hogg took the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect out of existence with him, at least as a fluently spoken mother tongue, and the media took notice. The BBC reported on his death, celebrating the unique nature of his native dialect. In an Associated Press report originating in London, his dialect was spoken of as “a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.” A knowledgeable University of Aberdeen linguist spoke of this as “the first time that an actual Scots dialect has so dramatically died with the passing of the last native speaker.”

By all accounts (and by a brief sample offered in the BBC article), it was indeed a fascinating dialect, a form of Scots with recognizable Gaelic influence. And it represented, just as a local county councillor and historian said of it, “part of a way of life which is now gone.”

But it’s not alone. Just a little to the north along the Scottish coast, the decline of the fishing industry between the two World Wars left many populations of fisherfolk in decline and left their unusual, strictly local dialects headed for foreseeable extinction. But these were dialects of Gaelic, not of Scots. That is, they were Celtic, rather than speech forms related to English. Balintore, Shandwick, and Hilton, along the south coast of the Fearn Peninsula, still had residual populations of Gaelic-speaking fisherfolk in mid-twentieth century, as did Inver on the northern coast of the same peninsula. Former fisherfolk and their descendants still spoke Gaelic fluently in Embo, Golspie, and Brora on the east coast of Sutherland, the next county to the north, well into the second half of the twentieth century. But the native Gaelic dialects of these areas have vanished entirely as fluently spoken mother tongues, as surely as has the Cromarty dialect of Scots. Each of these forms of Gaelic was highly distinctive, and each could accurately be said to have been a fascinating fragment of the Gaelic linguistic mosaic.

Cromarty Harbour, 2006. Photo by Chris Wilson. Creative Commons License.

Why were these unusual dialects not mourned and celebrated in their passing in the way that the Cromarty dialect is currently being mourned and celebrated? What has changed, our sensitivity to language loss, our perception of growing homogenization, our search for rootedness, some blend of all of these? Or do we accept (even expect) the loss of dialects of ‘small’ indigenous minority languages without those losses rousing the degree of regret that is felt at the loss of distinctive local dialects of a ‘major’ language like English? The native Gaelic-speaking population in Scotland has long been dwindling, with many local dialects already lost. Various regional forms of Gaelic are severely threatened at present and will almost certainly be lost, too, as fluently spoken native speech forms (on the northern coast of Sutherland, for example, or in parts of northwest Wester Ross). Perhaps in view of the frequency of past losses and the likelihood of losses still to come, Gaelic dialects can not be afforded the degree of concern and attention that Cromarty’s Scots fisherfolk dialect is receiving.

In 1967 I made a number of linguistic field trips in and around the Black Isle, the peninsula on which Cromarty is located, searching out widely scattered and elderly Gaelic speakers from agricultural parts of the peninsula. For several years after that I worked occasionally with two of the speakers I had located, almost certainly the last fluent native speakers from Muir of Tarradale, a village at the opposite end of the peninsula from Cromarty; they were at any rate unable to identify any other surviving speakers from their district. These were brother and sister Roderick and Martha MacKay, who were living in the brother’s household in Muir of Ord. I also recorded, later archiving the tape with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (the Gaelic college in Skye) and the School of Scottish Studies, the remarkable local Gaelic of John Cameron, who came home to Brae of Kinkell after an adult working life spent in Canada, still speaking utterly fluent Black Isle Gaelic. The MacKays and John Cameron are long gone, and unfortunately it is perfectly safe to assume that no one has spoken their varieties of Black Isle Gaelic in many years.

Without wishing in any way to minimize the loss of Cromarty’s fisherfolk dialect, I would wish to set beside it the equally painful and significant losses of Muir of Tarradale and Brae of Kinkell Gaelic in the Black Isle, of Hilton, Shandwick, Balintore, and Inver fisherfolk Gaelic, likewise in Easter Ross, and of the fisherfolk Gaelic dialects of eastern coastal Sutherland to their north. Their like will never be heard again as everyday mother-tongue speech forms.

Nancy C. Dorian is the author of Investigating Variation: The Effects of Social Organization and Social Setting. She is Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology, Bryn Mawr College (retired). She is the 2012 holder of the Kenneth L. Hale Award of the Linguistic Society of America in recognition of her work on East Sutherland Gaelic.

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One Response to “When a language dies”
  1. Thanks for sharing this, Nancy. When I read the title of your article, I thought you were going to speak about an African or Asian dialect, not one that was spoken so close from us!

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