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  Norn - the Language of Orkney

"I am fifty years of age. When I was young, about five or six old men spoke mostly Norse but they were never taught to read or write any of it for a long time before so that their words and what does remain can be imperfect."
George Moar - Birsay - 1795

For almost 1,000 years, the language of the people of Orkney was a variant of Old Norse known as Norrœna, or Norn.

Originally carried to the Northern Isles by Norwegian settlers in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, their language, Old Norse, gradually developed into the distinctive language we now refer to as Norn.

The sheer scale of the Norse settlement of Orkney saw their language obliterate whatever indigenous language was spoken in Orkney. A few centuries later Norn was the dominant form of speech.

But unfortunately, because Norn was the language of the common people, it was never written down. Although official documents do exist from this period, they were generally written in Norwegian.

Norn remained the language of Orkney until the early 15th century, but, contrary to popular belief, its decline began well before the islands were annexed to Scotland, in 1468.

For many years prior to the impignoration, Scottish influence on Orkney had been on the increase. The Earldom had passed from Norwegian hands into Scottish ones and the influence of these Scottish earls must have had some effect on the "nobility" of Orkney.

Of particular importance, though, was the effect of Scotland on the church. Although the bishopric of Orkney was still subject to Norway, its bishops had shown a tendency to follow Scottish practices.

By 1312, the Scots calendar had been adopted and, as the clergy formed the bulk of the literate population of the island, the Scots language soon became more commonly used in clerical circles.  This is clearly apparent when we note that the last official document written in Norwegian in Orkney appeared in 1445 - 23 years before King Christian I pawned the islands to raise cash for his daughter's dowry.

However, despite this growing “Scottification”, it is likely that Orkney's rural population was largely unaffected and that the Scottish influence was restricted to the islands' upper classes. Because of this, Norn remained spoken in rural areas for 300 years or so later.

From the late 1500s to the early 1700s, most Orcadians were probably bilingual - speaking both Norn and Scots English. But gradually, cultural change in society, coupled with the economic changes, meant that the old tongue began to die out.

By the early 19th century, only a handful of older Orcadians still knew the language. When they died, Norn went with them. Although Orcadians had spoken Norn for almost a millennium, few, if any, of them wrote - or could write - a word of it. The illiteracy of the general population meant that the exact form of the language is unknown with only a few tiny fragments of written Norn remaining to us today.

To see an example of what we know to be Norn, click here.

But although the grammar and intricacies of Norn are now lost, a huge number of Norn words survived in the spoken dialect of Orkney. These words, generally relating to everyday life, remained in the following centuries.

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See Also

Gaelic has never been spoken in the islands, unless the language of Orkney's Pictish inhabitants - the predecessors of the Norsemen - was variant, or precursor, to Gaelic.

The form of the Pictish language remains hotly debated to this day.

The Norse settled the isles from the 8th century AD onwards and brought with them their own language, Old Norse, which supplanted the Pictish language.

A fine example of the survival of the Norse language in Orkney's more remote areas was documented by Scottish author Sir Walter Scott after a visit to the county in 1814.

Click here for details.

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