Bidialectalism or dialect death? Explaining generational change in the Shetland Islands, Scotland

Smith, J. and Durham, M. (2012) Bidialectalism or dialect death? Explaining generational change in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. American Speech, 87(1), pp. 57-88. (doi: 10.1215/00031283-1599959)

Full text not currently available from Enlighten.


A number of studies in recent years have demonstrated dialect levelling in the British Isles (e.g. Williams and Kerswill, 1999:149). In this scenario, supralocal features replace local features, which may finally lead to dialect obsolescence in traditional varieties of English. A case in point is the variety spoken in the Shetland Islands in Northern Scotland. The dialect spoken in the main town of Lerwick is said to be undergoing rapid dialect levelling, with loss of distinctive features in the younger speakers (e.g. van Leyden 2004). Our previous research on change across three generations in this community (Smith and Durham 2011) suggested that dialect obsolescence may be well-advanced in this previously relic dialect community. An analysis of a number of vernacular features gleaned from sociolinguistic interviews revealed that with the younger speakers in the community, half used local forms in their speech while the other half used more standardised variants almost exclusively. We suggested that these results may reflect the pivotal generation in dialect obsolescence, often signalled by extreme linguistic heterogeneity across a group of historically homogeneous speakers (e.g. Dorian 1994). However, there may be an alternative explanation for the use versus non-use of the dialect in the younger speakers. Bidialectalism, where an indigenous variety operates alongside more widespread norms in a community of speakers, is said to have “increased so much that monolingual speakers of non-standard dialects have become the exception” (Cornips and Hulk 2006:355). In Shetland, “knappin”, the use of Scottish Standard English in place of the local variety, is assumed to be increasingly prevalent, leading Melchers (2004a:37) to observe that it is “difficult to find truly monolingual speakers of the traditional dialect today”, even with families who have lived there for generations. Instead, speakers “have access to a choice of two discrete, definable forms of speech: ‘English’ vs. ‘Shetland’” (ibid:37). If this is the case, it has important implications for the interpretation of our findings: our results may not indicate rapid dialect obsolescence per se, but merely reflect differing code choice in the sociolinguistic interview setting. In this paper, we explore this possibility by returning to the community in question to conduct further interviews with the younger speakers. In these recordings, the “dialect speakers” in the original recordings are interviewed by an “outsider” and the “standard speakers” recorded with a dialect-speaking peer in order to manipulate audience design (Bell 1984). We replicate our previous analysis of a number of lexical, phonological and morphosyntactic variables in this additional dataset across a range of linguistic variables, allowing us to test whether the inter-speaker variability we found in the younger speakers is the result of bidialectalism or dialect obsolescence. Finally, we discuss the findings against the backdrop of bidialectalism and the process of language attrition in the British Isles and elsewhere.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Smith, Professor Jennifer and Durham, Ms Mercedes
Authors: Smith, J., and Durham, M.
College/School:College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Journal Name:American Speech
Publisher:Duke University Press
ISSN (Online):1527-2133

University Staff: Request a correction | Enlighten Editors: Update this record

Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
442661Obsolescence vs. stability in a Shetland dialect - evidence from three generations of speakersJennifer SmithEconomic & Social Research Council (ESRC)ES/E012590/1CRIT - ENGLISH LANGUAGE