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General account on Norn

1. Introduction
2. Overview
  2.1. Shetland (mainland) Norn
  2.2. Foula/Westside Norn
  2.3. Orkney Norn
3. Norn in Scandinavian classification
  3.1. East Scandinavian features in Norn
  3.2. West Scandinavian features in Shetland Norn
  3.3. West Scandinavian features in Foula/Westside Norn
4. Relations to neighbouring languages
  4.1. Orkney Norn vs. South Shetland Norn
  4.2. Foula/Westside Norn vs. Faroese
  4.3. Foula/Westside Norn vs. Suðuroy, Faroes
  4.4. North Shetland Norn vs. Faroese
5. Summary

1. Introduction

1.1. The word 'Norn' originates from the Old Norse word norrønn 'northern, Nordic' and is normally used for the Scandinavian language that existed in Orkney and Shetland until the 17-19th centuries. Occasionally the term 'Norn' is applied to the English [Scots] dialects that are spoken on the archipelagoes nowadays. This usage is certainly wrong, although some respectable authors, incl. Hugh Marwick, admitted the term Norn in this incorrect sense (see f.ex. Marwick's "Orkney Norn", 1929, p. XXVIII, where he calls the Sanday author Walter Traill Dennison a "writer of modern Orkney Norn"). So be careful: if you see a text in "Norn" and it has spellings like tae, guid, wrang, laek etc, be sure it is Scots.

1.2. Another stereotype tied with the name of Norn is that it is often understood to be similar both for Orkney and Shetland. This view is misleading too, because there were clear distinctions between the Orkney and Shetland versions of Norn, probably about as noticeable as the differences between Shetland Norn and Faroese when the former was still in full use. More than that, there were serious differences, at least of phonetic nature, in Shetland between the Foula and Westside/Sandness dialect on the one hand (further: Foula/Westside Norn) and the rest of the islands on the other hand, differences at some point larger than between (the rest of) Shetland and Orkney. (We know practically nothing about dialects of Orkney Norn, if they ever existed). To sum it up, the name Norn is rather collective and applies to a group of dialects rather than to any kind of a common language. However, we reserve the right to use the term Norn as referring to one language when dialectal differences within Norn are to us of no importance.

2. Overview of Shetland and Orkney Norn

Further we are going to broadly examine main distinctive features of Norn and its dialects. Bearing in mind our knowledge of grammar is limited, we will mostly concentrate on  phonetic features. For a more detailed account see respective sections on Orkney and Shetland Norn.

2.1. Shetland (mainland) Norn

The main features of Shetland Norn are the following (Norn < Old Norse or Old Norse > Norn unless specified):

2.1.1. monophtongisation: keipr > keb, greiði > gre(d), haugr > hjog, høg, hleypingr > løbin; one of the very few exception: ausa > ous
2.1.2. breaking:
baugr > bjog, birtingr > bjartin, fela > fjal, hnefatak >  (*njavatak) > njafatag, nevatjog, er ('is') > yaar (Foula), ek > yach, barn > bjadn- (Foula)
2.1.3. "reverse" umlaut:
brydda > brodd, *flyðra > fluder, lær > (*lár) > lor, *læringr > (*láringr) > lorin, snælda > (*snálda) > snolda, sæti > sodi
2.1.4. voicing of stops
p,t,k > b,d,g: keikr > kεgǝr, djúpr > džub, brot > brod
2.1.5. occasional devoicing of voiced stops:
bindari > bjintǝr
2.1.6. occasional preaspiration of
tt, pp, kk: ba'kk, klai'p (often absent or, in the case of tt, replaced with palatalisation, see 2.1.8.)
2.1.7. unvoicing of sonorants (
r,l,m,n,ļ,ņ,ng) before p,t,k: swi'rt, ba'lker, (kett)hu'ntlin; in the case of t often replaced or followed with palatalisation: klo'ņt/kloi'nt, ho'ņtel;
2.1.8. palatalisation
ll,rl > ļļ, nn,rn > ņņ, tt > itt, ţţ, rather irregular:
-
falla > faļļj, fäļļ, ullar- > oļļa, millum > melan, meļļan, occasionally in the initial (prevocalic) position: fleygja > fļog, lœkr > log,ljog
-
hann > häņņ, brenna > breņņǝk, andi > äņdi, but banna > bann, occasionally in the initial (prevocalic) position: nykr > njogel, snykr > snjuger
-
gott > goţţ, goitt, kattaklór > käţţiklur, käitaklur;
2.1.9.
ð > d, g, 0 (zero), þ > t:
-
hlíð > li, lýðr > lø, moeða > mø
-
boða > bod, gœðing > gødin, spaði > spadi;
-
afráða > afro, afrod; greiði > gre, gred
- Like in Faroese, the old cluster
ðr is preserved, but unlike Faroese where it is often pronounced as [gr], in Shetland Norn it appears as [dr]: flaðra > fladrǝk, lúðr > ludǝr-, but hrúðr > rudǝr, rur
- Nevertheless,
ð does change to g in Norn in a number of words: kafaburðr > kavaborg, skrið > skrid, skrig, leiðvísari > legvisǝr, aða > jog, øg
-
þari > tari, þilja > tili, þurkasótt > torkǝsot
- Only in South Shetland (Dunrossness)
ð occasionally stayed preserved as [ð] or [þ]: eið > eð, mið > mið, kóð > køð,køþ, seiðr > seð,seþ
2.1.10.
hv, kv > hw, in North islands (Yell) occasionally to sw: hvalr > hwal, kví > hwi,kwi, hvammr > swam
2.1.11.
kj, skj are normally preserved, same as gj, which rarely changes to , while tj, þj tend to become š:
- kjálki > kjo'lk, skjól >sķul
- gjá > gjo, Nor. gjelg, gjølg > džö'lki
- tjǫrn > šonn, tjaldr > šaldǝr, but vitja > vitš
- þjukkr > šjukk,šok(k)a

2.1.12. The grammar of Shetland Norn, as far as it can be established from the registered texts, shows most of the features of Old Norse: 3 genders (male, female, neuter), 4 cases (Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive), 2 numbers (singular, plural), strong and weak declensions of verbs etc. However, this old system was already in decay. The case system was becoming more and more corrupted, cases started getting mixed, which especially concerns the merging of Nominative and Accusative forms of nouns and pronouns. This process likely owed to the influence of Scots which does not distinguish between both cases. As a result, either the Nominative or Accusative form was chosen. The Accusative is more frequent in the strong masculine declension, where it represents the bare stem: ON Nom. hestr, Acc. hest > Norn hest. The Accusative form is often present in plural, cf. several toponymes: ON Nom. lœknirnir grœnu, Acc. lœkina grœnu > Norn L(j)øgena grøna. In the weak declension both forms are possible. Most of the weak feminine nouns retained the old Nominative ending -a (in whatever sound form) or dropped it at all. However, few feminine forms feature the accusative ending: ilsko < ON Acc. ilsku, Nom. ilska; grœnsku, grinsko < ON grœnsku, grœnska, compare also Norw. dial. viku, vuku, vukku 'week' < ON Acc. viku, Nom. vika 'week'. (See the Sketch of Shetland Norn grammar for the more detailed picture). The pronoun system was not left untouched by the merger of Nominative and Accusative either, as the language of the Hildina ballad shows: Quirto vult doch fiegan vara < ON. Hvort vilt þú feigan vera, where doch 'you' < þig, Acc. þú.

2.2. Foula/Westside Norn

The Foula/Westside Norn inherited many of the above-mentioned features of Shetland Norn, but had the following unique features:

2.2.1. ON á > wo: á > wo, tár > twor, fá > fwo
2.2.2. Instead of the palatal utterance of
ll, nn, the change ll, nn > dl, dn is present  in many cases (where Shetland Norn has ņņ/rn and ļļ/rl): fall > fadl, bolla- > bodli-, kunnr > kodn,kodden, horn > hoden
2.2.3. Likewise, the long -
tt- is never palatalised and does not palatalise the preceding vowel.
2.2.4. The initial
h- is often omitted: hennar > ednar, henni > ende, hǿsta > osta
2.2.5.
hv,kv > kw (hw): hvalr > kwal, kví > kwi, hverjum > kvara, hvar > quar (Hildina), but hvítr > whit-, hvern > whaar (Hildina)
2.2.6. Some pronunciation differences:
bjadni < barn(it), cf. Shetland mainland boņņ.

2.3. Orkney Norn

Data on Orkney Norn is much more scarce in comparison with Jakobsen's material from Shetland, which can be explained by the fact that Orkney stood in the frontline of "Scottisation" and lost archaic Scandinavian features quicker than Shetland Norn by the time the remains of both were recorded.

2.3.1. Monophtongisation is not complete, some of the old diphtongs are preserved, albeit in a changed sound quality: geiri > g[ai]ro, gneisti > n[ai]st, gleyma > misgl[ai]med, naut > nout
2.3.2. Unlike in Shetland, the voicing of intervocal stops is more consistent:
stikill > stiggle, raki > rag, burtu > bordo, kúpa or koppr > kubby
2.3.3. According to H.Marwick, palatalisation affects only
ll, nn is never palatilised: helli- > hellyiefer, rulla > rullyo. However, in Marwick's "Orkney Norn" we have found a number of forms that witness about palatalisation of nn and even ng: for eenyie < hver er inni 'who is within?' (p. XXVI), grunyie < grunnr, vinya < vinna; fonyaless < *fǫngulauss, munyo < magn, groyn < grenja. Cf. also Ork. nitter, Cait. nyatter, of obscure origin.
2.3.4.
ð stays in several words: niðra > nither, hroði > ruithe, bregða > braithin;
2.3.5. The grammar is more simplified, Dative has merged with Nominative/Accusative: while the Lord's Prayer from Foula has Dative in
fro adlu idlu < frá ǫllu illu 'from all (the) bad', the Orkney version of the prayer says fro alt ilt, where the last two words correspond to ON Nom/Acc. allt illt. A specific feature of Orkney Norn is a big number of originally feminine weak words that have preserved the accusative form: ON bytta, Acc. byttu > Norn butto, ON kringla, Acc. kringlu > Norn kringlo.
2.3.6. Lexical distinctions from Shetland Norn: Ork.
soind 'to die slowly' - Shet. soind 'to show', Ork. skrift 'lean, hard-grown' - Shet. skrift 'crack, fissure', Ork. lerblade 'cormorant' - Shet. lorin 'cormorant'.

3. Place of Norn in the classification of Scandinavian languages

3.1. Traditionally Norn is classified as a West Scandinavian language. Marius Hægstad, Sophus Bugge and Jakob Jakobsen brought forward historical evidence in support of that: as they asserted, Shetland and Orkney were populated mostly from several areas in West Norway, namely Ryfylke and Jæderen (Stavanger, Rogaland; all included into the West Scandinavian area). They based this view upon numerous lexical parallels between the dialects  of the mentioned Norwegian regions and Norn. Michael Barnes supports the West Scandinavian status of Norn by bringing forward a number of phonetic features of the latter, although he mostly quotes material from Foula, the dialect of which was rather specific and the closest to Faroese, an undoubted West Scandinavian language (see below). But as we believe, the overall amount of Norn data does not look to us so unambiguously West Scandinavian and a good deal of East Scandinavian features can also be discovered (most of them we loosely pick up from Elias Wessen's "De nordiska språken"):

3.1.1. almost complete lack of u-umlaut
3.1.2. monophtongisation, incomplete in Orkney, practically total in Shetland (see 2.1.1 and 2.3.1)
3.1.3.
ó > ú
3.1.4. breaking, which is very widespread (probably as much, as nowhere else in Scandinavia) and occurs even to short
a (see 2.1.2)
3.1.5. breaking in the personal pronoun 1 pers. sg. -
ya (Foula) (although it could well have been a later development, cf. Icel. ég [jeγ])
3.1.6. palatalisation of
ll (incl. Orkney) as well as nn and tt (Shetland only), unknown in Iceland, Faroes and West Norway and developped primarily in Trøndelag dialects of Mid-North Norway (see 2.1.8 and 2.3.3)
3.1.7. the assimilation of the Proto Norse (PN) clusters
mp, nt, nþ, nk is incomplete: bank/bakk < ON bakki < PN *bankan, kemp/kepp < ON keppa < PN *kampijan, but slokk < ON sløkkva,sløkkja < PN *slankwijan; tann/tant < tǫnn < *tanþu, but munn,monn < ON munnr < PN *munþaz
3.1.8. vague traces of the ending of reflexive verbs
-s: pinnis (see also 3.2.4.)
3.1.9. a good deal of words having cognates in Swedish dialects (which did not stay unnoticed by Jakobsen, see his "Etymological Dictionary...", XXXIV)

Of course, many of these features (especially 3.1.1-5) might have developed independently of the East Scandinavian influence and be a pure coincidence. Moreover, we are not aware of specifically large migration from Denmark to the islands, let alone from Sweden. So most of the above mentioned East Scandinavian features should be rather explained as the sum of the internal development of Norn dialects and the external influence that Scots, Low German, Dutch and Danish may have put on it. On the other hand, point 3.1.9. cannot be explained as easily and requires a special investigation.

3.2. Among West Scandinavian features common for Shetland Norn (incl. Foula/Westside)  we mention:

3.2.1. preaspiration (sporadically occurs in Swedish dialects; see 2.1.6)
3.2.2. unvoicing of sonorants (
r,l,m,n,lj,nj,ng) before p,t,k (see 2.1.7)

3.3. Foula/Westside Norn shows an additional number of traits proper to West Scandinavian dialects:

3.3.1. No palatalization of nn, ll, tt;
3.3.2.
rl, ll > dl, rn, nn > dn (see 2.2.2.);
3.3.3.
hv > kw (see 2.2.5.);
3.3.4. traces of i-uml. in present indicative:
sevǝ < sefr (J.Jakobsen "Etymological dictionary...", CX), tega < tekr, du geve < þú gefr, stiendi < stendr, keimir < kemr, genger < gengr (Hildinakvadet)
Material from the other parts of Shetland is too scarce on this subject
3.3.5. the ending of reflexive verbs is -
st: sadnast < sannast

We should also mention here another form where an older reflexive ending -sk ( > -st) can be reconstructed in the following example: helsk < helsask. This form is registered in Nesting (middle Shetland Mainland) which is geographically adjacent to Westside.

At the same time, the Foula/Westside dialect, like the rest of Shetland, has some of the features listed in 3.1, such as monophtongisation and breaking.

4. Relations to neighbouring Scandinavian languages

As shown above, the Norn dialects were not isolated from linguistic trends going on in the other Scandinavian languages and dialects. Although this could have been the result of independent development, influences from outside were quite possible as well. Whether certain change comes from inside or outside, is a question where linguistic theory is often helpless and in this respect Norn is probably no exception. In this connection it is especially interesting to have a look at the geography of features that were common within Norn dialects and with their closest outside cognates, namely Faroese.

4.1. Orkney <-> the southernmost part of Shetland (Dunrossness):

4.1.1 sporadic preservation of ð (see 2.1.8. and 2.3.4.)
4.1.2 several lexical parallels: Ork., Du. ru - Shet. rug < hrúga; Ork. (Birsa) tekkal, South. Shet. (Du., Conn.) tahella, tahellek < *þak-hella - Nor. Shet. ufsahella < ufsahella 'one of the flat stones laid to form the eaves of a house (to prevent rain from penetrating)'

4.2. Foula, Shetland <-> Faroese:

4.2.1. traces of "skerping" (a Faroese term designating consonantal inserts -gv- and -ggj- after several old long vowels): ON búa > Norn buga, Far. búgva, ON sjór > Norn sheug (rest of Shet. sju-), Far. sjógvur
4.2.2.
ý > oi (Far. [ωi], where [ω] designates a sound between [o] and [u]): hýsa > hoissan, Far. hýsa [hωisa], útýðligr > utoitlig, Fær. ótýðiligur [öu-tωji-lijωr] (a similar change ý > ui has also occurred in several West Norwegian dialects, f.ex. that of Setesdalen)
4.2.3.
ll, nn > dl, dn (see 2.2.2)

4.3. Foula, Shetland <-> Suðuroy, southernmost Faroese dialect:

4.3.1. Foula yagh 'I' - Suð. [je], Far. eg [e]
4.3.2. Foula
mier 'me (dat)' - Suð. [mjer], Fær. mær [mear]
4.3.3. Foula
dagloght (Lord Prayer) - Suð. [daglot, daglωt], Fær. dagligt [daglit]

4.4. North Shetland Norn (Yell, Unst) <-> Faroese (except Northern Isles):

4.4.1. Shetland: the long ā develops into [åa]: åali 'lamb' - Far. [ɔa] < á: bátur [bɔa:tωR] (except the northern Faroese dialects, which have [bātǝR]).

4.5. The above examples are certainly fairly scarce, and an exacting reader would suggest that these are sporadic and occasional similarities, so any further discussions on this subject would be a waste of time. According to another possible explanation, at some stage, probably in the 14-15th centuries when the Norn dialects were still not worn out, they constituted together with Faroese a common L-complex (a chain of dialects, where the neighbouring links are linguistically closer to each other than those further away). This would mean that there were regular contacts between Orkney and Shetland as well as between Shetland and the Faroes that kept their neighbouring dialects linguistically close to each other, despite the large geographical distance in between (approx. 100 km. between Orkney and Shetland and ca. 300 km. between Shetland and the Faroes). But could there really be so tight a linguistic interaction across the sea that would allow us to explain the similarities in question? The seriousness of this question is illustrated by Michael Barnes who discusses case 4.2.3. as an example of a possible influence from Faroese. Barnes mentions historical evidence about real contacts between Shetlanders and Faroese fishermen who used to cast ashore in Foula and Westside. Nevertheless, the author does not fail to point out the main drawback of this hypothesis: "It is of course highly improbable that the arrival of the odd Faroeman would be sufficient to cause Faroese features to spread among the speakers even of a small island community using a closely related language" (Michael Barnes "The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland", 1998, p. 18)

We would like to point out another drawback of this hypothesis: the rules for nn > dn (4.2.3.) in Faroese and "Foulese" differ, so it is highly unlikely that West Shetlanders could have borrowed this feature from the "odd Faroeman", but found it a different distribution. In Faroese the change nn > dn occurs only after the old long i-diphtongs (seinni [sa(i)dni], oynni [o(i)dni]) and new ones developed from older long vowels (one of the few examples is kvínni [kvω(i)dni], although it can be explained by analogy). The only exception where the change occurs after an originally short vowel is the obscure word tinna [tidna] 'tin'. On the other hand, on Foula and Westside nn regularly becomes dn after short vowels: kodn < kunn-, edne < enni, fidna < finna, ednar < hennar etc. We have not found examples of this change after the old long vowels, although this does not mean such instances did not existed. (Of course, we should not forget that this process must have been overshadowed by monophtongisation, see 2.1.1.). A development similar to Foula/Westside Norn can be found in several West Norwegian dialects, f.ex. in West Hordaland, where dn occurs only after the old short vowels (in the rest of Hordaland dialects it is registered after the old long vowels: á,ó,í etc. plus diphtongs). Although West Hordaland belongs to the area from where the immigration to Shetland is believed to have started, the fact that Foula is the farthest Shetland point from Norway makes us think this is not a result of direct influence either.

One could suppose that this feature could have already developed in the language of the first Norse settlers in Shetland back in the 8th century and for some odd reasons spread out only in the West of the archipelago. This point has several weaknesses. On the one hand, it is highly unlikely that dn could have later developed into nnj in the rest of Shetland. On the other hand, we certainly have no evidences which might allow us to date the change nn > dn, however, its later (=independent) development is typologically not excluded. For instance, in Iceland this process is believed to have happened in the 15-16th century (Björn K. Þórólfsson, "Um íslenskar orðmyndir á 14. og 15. öld" (1925), XXXI), when the country had already been linguistically isolated from West Norway for centuries. At the same time the distribution of nn >dn in Icelandic is similar to that of many Hordaland dialects, occurring after all old long vowels (except when nn belongs to the suffigated article). It proves to us that this phenomenon was not a result of direct linguistic contacts but rather an independent process in which "pre-conditions" were similar both in Iceland and in West Norway (and in Faroes as well, although we do not know in which century this change occured there apart from the fact that the distribution rules are slightly different in Faroese, see above). These "pre-conditions" can be interpreted as some kind of a seed that grew up 5-7 centuries later generating the change nn > dn. What kind of a seed it could be is to us totally incomprehensible. Why nn changed to nnj in the rest of Shetland mainland (and, possibly in Orkney as well), like in the far away dialects of Trondelag (Norway), is an even bigger mystery.

To sum up, common traits in related languages or dialects can witness either co-influence or parallel development from the same source. This kind of problem arises when dealing with similarities like those mentioned in 4.1-3., and at this stage we can just say that these features are still awaiting their linguistic interpretation, of course unless it will be proved that they are purely accidental.

5. Summary

The term Norn refers not to a monolyte language, but rather to a group of dialects, which, as we estimate, were three: Orkney, Shetland and Foula/Westside Shetland (we base this division mostly on their phonetic features). Being of West Scandinavian origin, they in different degree developed several features that can be considered as East Scandinavian, although it does not necessarily mean they occured due to the direct influence from East Scandinavian languages, as it was rather a move towards the simplification of the language. We should not disregard here the external influence from several West Germanic and Scandinavian languages spoken on the shores of the North Sea (mainly Scots, but also Norwegian, Danish, Low German, Dutch) that could also have had some impact, but to what extent this influence could have provoked separate changes is subject to further investigation.

A several number of common phonetic features between Orkney and South Shetland, Shetland (esp. Foula) and the Faroes (esp. Suðuroy) is registered. It can be argued whether these similarities are accidental or bear witness to linguistic contacts and a co-influence.

 

 
 

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