A lesson learnt: the death of a Norn

24/02/2014 16:49

Written by James Proctor

Jakob Jakobsen (1864–1918) was a Faroese linguist who, at the age of 29, began studying the remnants of Norn, the Old Norse language once spoken in the Shetland Islands and a sister language to his mother tongue, Faroese (both languages were mutually intelligible). The Scandinavian language that evolved into Norn was brought to Shetland by Norwegian Vikings in the 800s and, indeed, Shetland remained part of Norway until 1472 when the islands were officially annexed by Act of Parliament to the Scottish crown.

From 1893, Jakobsen spent three years in Shetland, travelling across the islands interviewing local people and jotting down dialect words and place names which he considered to be of Norn origin; the result was his Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland, published in 1928, which included an impressive 10,000 entries. In 1894 Jakobsen reported that there were still people on the island of Foula who could repeat sentences in Norn and possibly men who had lived into the second half of the 19th century who could speak the language.

Today, the last native speaker of Norn is considered to have died around 1850, though the language had effectively died out between 1775 and 1800 due to increasing immigration from mainland Scotland and the use of English as the official language of administration, law and religion. In the early 1900s, the death of Norn was cited by Jakobsen and other promoters of Faroese as a cautionary example of what could happen to their own language in the face of Danish linguistic supremacy: Faroese, like Norn, was an unwritten language used on the periphery of a larger empire which spoke a different language. Significantly, what saved Faroese from extinction was the lack of large-scale immigration into the Faroe Islands (the exact opposite of what happened in Shetland), which meant the islanders could still get by speaking Faroese in their daily lives.

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