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Caithness Norn

The scope of the Norse language in the British Isles was at times much wider than the Orkney-Shetland area. Vikings coming from Norway and other Nordic countries founded settlements in many corners of Britain and Ireland. Old Norse had a major influence on the other local tongues, including English, Scots and Gaelic. However, by the end of the Middle Ages Norse (or its later versions which we can call Norn) was superceded by other languages practically everywhere, except in such remote corners as Orkney and Shetland. Besides these, the last strongholds of Norn in Scotland seem to have been the Hebrides and Caithness (ON Katanes, North-East Scotland). In the Hebrides, Norn is believed to have died out in the 1500-1600's at the latest, replaced by Gaelic, but having left a big number of toponymes and borrowings in the Celtic language.

At approximately the same time, Norn was devoured by Gaelic and Low Scottish in Caithness. Per Thorsen mentions three possible datings of its decay in his paper "The Third Norn Dialect - That of Caithness" (The Viking Congress, Lerwick, 1950), which is probably the most substantive account on Caithness Norn so far: 15th century (by William Grant, "Scottish National Dictionary", Introduction, § 156), 17th century (by Adolf Noreen, "Altisländische und altnorwegische Grammatik", 4th ed., 20, "Geschichte der nordischen Sprachen", 3rd ed., 2) and 16th century, asserted by Thorsen himself, who cites the following testimony from 1662, which witnesses that the local inhabitants had by that time turned to Gaelic:

The common speech of humble people nowadays is mostly Scottish-Irish, a mixture of the two languages, not markedly one or the other. (Sir John Scott's text to the "Atlas Major" by J. Blaeu, Vol. VI)

One of the main factors which supported the existence of Caithness Norn during was the constant communication of the locals with Orkney, where its own dialect of Norn was well entrenched until the 16-17th centuries. However, it did not save Caithness Norn from decay which was destined to happen, like elsewhere on the mainland.

No written records in Caithness Norn are known to exist. All that we have to rely upon is the list for Norse words in the Low Scots dialect of Caithness (about 100 instances) collated by Thorsen and published in his article mentioned above. Thorsen mostly resorted to the "English Dialect Dictionary" by Joseph Wright, who, in his turn, borrowed Caithness words from the manuscript collection of David B. Nicholson, a native of Wick in Caithness. In several cases Thorsen adds words belonging generally to Northern Scotland (marked as "N.Sc."), assuming that they also occurred in Caithness.

Unlike Shetlandic and Orcadian material, no grammar features can be worked out from these forms, and their phonetics fully accord with the main sound pecularities of Norn, especially its Orkney version. The total of Norse words in the local Caithness dialect, including terms common to Scots in general, is estimated by Thorsen to be "a couple of hundreds".

The wordlist by Thorsen is fully reproduced here below:

1. Terms for natural formations:

clet 'rock or cliff in the sea' < klettr
geo 'narrow inlet, creek' < gjá
skerry 'isolated rock in the sea above water' < sker
wick 'creek, small bay' < vík
leen 'grassy place in a moor, low-lying piece of grass on a farm' < Far. Nor. lón
tuag 'small hillock' < þúfa + Sc./Gael. -ock
lith 'gate, gap in a fence' < hlíð
quoy 'piece of ground taken in from a common and enclosed' < kví 'cattle-fold'
rae 'enclosure for cattle' < ró, rá
roo 'heap, esp. small heap of peats set on end to dry' < hrúga
scroo 'small stack of corn, hay or straw' < skrúf

2. Terms connected with domestic life and husbandry:

squaar 'swath in mowing' < Icel. skári, Norw. skaare
steith, steethe 'bottom or foundation' < stœði, *stœða
toft 'homestead' < toft
wait, wate 'mill-race, the water-course from a mill' < veit, veita
boo-man (obs.) 'the man in charge of the cattle on a large farm' < bú 'farm', cf. búmaðr 'farmer'

3. Terms for implements, etc., and terms referring to house-building:


ammel (obs.) 'the swingle-tree of a plough' < *hǫmull
cassie 'basket made of twisted straw' < kass, kassi
clubber 'wooden saddle, pack-saddle' < klyfberi
flet, flate 'straw mat put under a horse's saddle to prevent the back from being chafed' < flétta 'plait'
keyse, keis 'large straw basket' < Norw. kjessa
lay 'slip of wood coated with sand or emery, used for sharpening a scythe' < lé 'scythe'
simman 'rope made of heather, rush, or straw' < sími 'rope'
tuskar 'spade used for cutting peat' < torf-skeri

benlin 'long light stone, slung in the loops of the "simmans" of a thatched roof < * bendlingr
birk 'piece of round timber laid horizontally', in roof-making < bjǫrk
rain-tree (obs.) 'bar or beam across the chimney from which pots are hung' < *randtré, Norw. randatre
wyg, in the phrase rae wyg to waw 'backwards and forwards' < veggr 'wall'

4. Terms referring to cattle, sheep, horses, etc.:

cushie, a milk-maid's call to a cow < kussi 'calf'
droonyie 'moan or complain in a murmuring way' < Norw. drynja 'low softly'
ingy 'bring forth lambs' < yngja 'bring forth young'
mull 'the mouth, esp. of a horse or cow' < múli
onmark 'troublesome or refractory person or animal' < andmarki 'adversity, vice', the word signifying properly 'something marked'), Norw. andmarke 'cattle'
queyag 'heifer' < kvíga + suffix -ock);
skeel, a mouth-disease in horses (Norw. skjøl, skjol);
skite (N.Sc.) 'the dung of fowls' < skítr 'dung'
snuy 'turn suddenly as if displeased or annoyed', used of cattle < snúðga 'win, accomplish', properly 'wind, turn'

5. Sea terms (in a wide sense)

(a) Terms for motions of the sea, etc.:

bowd 'breaker, billow' < boði
burth 'current in the sea caused by a furious tide, but taking a different course from it' < burdr 'carrying', Faer. burdur av streymi 'current'
insook 'inrush', used of the tide < *innsog
outrook 'the backward wash or undercurrent of a wave after breaking' < *útrák
rost 'strong tide or current' < rǫst
brook, in the phrase war brook, brook o' war 'a quantity of seaweed driven on shore by stormy weather' < brúk, þarabrúk

(b) Terms connected with boats:
lin(n) 'piece of wood put under the keel of a boat to facilitate its being drawn over a loose or sandy beach' < hlunnr
nile 'plug in the water-hole of a boat' < Norw. nygla
noast 'landing-place for boats' < naust 'boat-shed'
anno 'row against the wind to keep the boat from drifting' < andœfa
ouse, in the phrase ouse o'er 'swish over' < ausa 'bale out'

(c) Terms connected with fishing:
aav(e) 'spoon-net, the pock-net by which boys pick up herrings' < háfr; an identical Caithness word is haev 'small hand-basket used by fishermen to carry bait';
clev 'make up a fishing handline after use' < klyf 'cleft, forked implement'
ile 'the fishing-ground inside the main current' < íli 'sink-stone for holding a boat');
braad 'sharp pull to hook a fish' < bragd 'sudden movement'

(d) Terms for fish and parts of fish:
ly 'the pollack' < lýrr
peltag 'young coal-fish in its second year' < piltr 'boy' + suffix -ock
sellag 'the coal-fish in its first year' < síl, a kind of small fish, 'ammodytes tobianus' + suffix -ock
tusk 'the torsk, brosmius brosme' < þorskr
gip 'the point of the jaws of a fish' < Norw. gip
ug 'the pectoral fin of a fish' < Icel. uggi, Norw. ugge
maak 'the milt of a fish' < mjǫlkvi

(e) Terms for sea-birds:
scarf 'the cormorant' < skarfr
scorie 'young gull' < skári
tyst(e) 'the black guillemot' < þeisti

6. Atmospheric phenomena:

aem 'blast of hot air from a fire or furnace' < eimr 'steam, warm vapour'
flag 'flake, esp. of snow' < -flaga
flam, flan(n) 'sudden gust of wind', as a verb: 'blow in gusts' < flana 'rush'
gray 'slight breeze of wind' < gráði
theef, feff 'stench, bad smell' < þefr
up-light 'the brightening at the end of a shower' < létta 'brighten'
ime 'soot, thin scum or coating' < ím 'dust', in Norw. and Faer. 'soot').

7. Of the verbs, two categories stand out, viz.:

(a) Terms for odd or extravagant behaviour:

scravvle 'scramble, crawl, grope with the hands' < Norw. skravla 'scrape or beg together'
skavle, skaivle 'walk with a tottering gait' < Norw. skeivla 'walk clumsily'
pepper 'tremble, quake, vibrate' < pipra
scum 'glance, look at hurriedly' < *skúma, cf. Norw. skyma 'look secretly'
clype 'scratch with the nails' < klýpa 'pinch'
glaep 'gulp, swallow, seize' < gleypa 'swallow'
glup 'beguile, wheedle, catch' < Norw. glupa 'catch, swallow'

(b) Terms for 'useful' or 'productive' actions:
brath (N.Sc.) 'plait straw ropes round a stack, crossing them at intervals' < bregða 'plait'
skyle 'shelter, shade, put up a screen in the chimney to prevent the smoke blowing down' < skýla 'protect, screen', Icel. skýla hjá 'put up a kind of chimney-cap on the opening of the kitchen roof
elt 'knead dough' < elta);
scair 'fasten two pieces of wood together' < Norw. skara 'mortise boards or planks'

8. Various terms:

aikle 'molar tooth' < jaxl
birsk 'cartilage or gristle' < brjósk
brither-bairn 'cousin', brither-dochter 'niece', brither-sin 'nephew' < brœðraborn [pl.], bróðurdóttir, -sonr
knip 'small bundle of things strung together on a string' < Icel, knippi, Norw. knippe
slitter 'breach in cloth where the woof has given way, leaving only the warp' < slitri 'rag'
ta(a) 'fibre, fibrous root' < tág
yarfal 'peat mixed with clay and sand' < jǫrfi
wan, waan 'hope' < van
ever 'upper, higher', used of places < øfri, efri


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