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Constructing Your Identity
Famous for little except their smoked salmon, ponies, and the Fair Isle sweater pattern, the Shetland Islands are not the sort of place one often hears about. Perched in the North Sea halfway between Scotland and Norway, the Shetlands belong to Scotland thanks to a dowry from Christian I of Norway in 1468. Since the time of the Vikings, a Norse language had been spoken in Shetland, the handover to Scotland, however, spelled doom for this fringe Scandinavian tongue known as Norn. As Scots English became the language of government and church, there was little need for the increasingly out dated and old-fashioned Norn. I never would have heard of Norn if it were not for a single line of a linguistics article I read during the spring of my junior year, in my private tutorial with Professor Jay Jasanoff. The article mentioned in passing that the current dialect of the Shetland Islands was in fact Scots English mixed with a heavy infusion of Norn, whose last speakers died in the eighteenth century. Intrigued by this exotic combination of English and Norse, I wondered about the current status of the Shetland dialect and how much of it consisted of remnants from the Norn era. Always up for an academic scavenger hunt, I began, with the approval and guidance of Professor Jasanoff, to scour Harvard's libraries for all they held on the Shetlands and their strange amalgamation of Norse and Scots.
Especially intriguing to me and unusual for a spoken vernacular, the Shetland dialect, as I discovered, had been used without self-consciousness by generations of Shetlanders in both casual and formal social settings. The twentieth century, however, heralded the discovery of oil in the North Sea; consequently, both money and non-native workers flowed into the Shetlands, the latter of which pushed the Shetland dialect along a path toward extinction.
Having decided to focus my thesis on the steps Shetlanders were taking to prevent the death of their dialect, I traveled to Shetland in May, 2003 thanks to a grant from the Harvard College Research Program. While there, I found that Islanders no longer needed to speak their dialect since the predominance of "southmouthers" from mainland Britain meant that Shetland residents frequently spoke Standard British and Scots English. It also became clear to me that those who were trying to promote the Shetland dialect did so because of its emotional importance: no longer necessary for communication, the Shetland dialect with its Norn remnants was actually a living embodiment of [the Islanders'] Scandinavian heritage.
This notion that people can, through efforts to organize language promotion programs, prevent or slow down a dialect's march towards the grave.fascinated me. For centuries languages had died with little fanfare as there was always a new dialect or language in use to take its place. As Professor Michael Barnes of the University College London wrote, "The concept of language as a badge of personal identity seems only to have become widespread in the nineteenth century, and. tended chiefly to excite those with the leisure to ponder such matters." Thus, the fact that some Shetlanders were proposing laws to require Shetland dialect instruction in schools stands as evidence of a new awareness of language as an important element in identity: though Shetlanders had no trouble communicating in Standard English, there existed a sentimental motive to keep the Shetland dialect alive. By relying on the legal system to effect linguistic change, Shetlanders reveal a belief that nearly all facets of human behaviour can be shaped through legal means¯even requiring that a dying dialect be spoken in schools.
After assessing Shetland's actual language promotion efforts through fieldwork, interviews, and library research, I concluded that the Shetland dialect, although emotionally valuable, was destined to die. Parents, who wanted their children to learn Standard English so they could attend university in mainland Britain, thought that teaching the dialect in school was preposterous. Furthermore, although many Shetlanders were sad to see the dialect abandoned, most did not take any initiative to organize a dialect promotion program. Although Shelanders indeed thought of their dialect as a badge of personal identity, it did not appear to be one worth protecting.
Upon my return from the Shetlands, Professor Jasanoff suggested that I compare the situation in the Shetlands to other European minority-language promotions. Thinking that rescuing a language through legal means was somewhat unnatural, I did not expect to find many successful linguistic promotion efforts. Surprisingly, citizens of both Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands successfully organized movements to promote their native languages. The Shetland dialect movement, I then realized, will likely fail because of the particular indifference among Shetlanders, not because it is inherently untenable to promote a language/dialect through legal channels.
What had started as a project investigating the fragile state of the Shetland dialect ended with my examination of how modern legal systems and motivated civic groups can alter language use. After having a small taste of how the law shapes its citizens, I plan to pursue a much more detailed examination of the written words that were crafted to dictate our behaviour. After all, the law is the ultimate arena for linguistic study: nowhere else do words have as much power, and in no other context can an ambiguous sentence have more impact. I am looking forward to spending the next three years and beyond immersed in a world of these influential words.