By Malachy Tallack
Each morning, thousands of people learn a new word or phrase, selected and shared by Britain’s favourite eco-lexicographer, Robert Macfarlane. In his book Landmarks, and more recently with his “word of the day” tweets and Instagram posts, Macfarlane has nourished a previously unsuspected appetite – a craving, even – for a richer vocabulary of landscape, of weather, and of the natural world.
The nine glossaries compiled in Landmarks are troves of linguistic treasures, gathered from around the British Isles. There are, among them, numerous alternative names for common birds, animals and geographical features, as well as many terms that are without direct equivalents in “Standard English”. Such words can enrich not just the way we speak and write about the world, but the way we see it, too. The specificity of language is itself a kind of noticing; it brings new details into focus.
Some of the terms Macfarlane has gathered are rarely, if ever, formed on the tongue. Some are archaic, or from languages no longer spoken. But much of his “word-hoard” in fact comes from vocabularies which, though threatened, are still, to some degree, in use: from the many dialects of English and Scots; from Welsh, from Gaelic, and from Cornish. These are not dead words, resurrected; this is not a Lazarus lexicon. It is, rather, a selective celebration of the linguistic wealth of the British Isles.
But what, then, of the rest of that wealth? What of the actual languages and dialects from which these words have come? For monoglots, of course, much is not immediately or easily accessible. The three Celtic languages, for an English speaker, require significant effort to learn. And that effort is escalated if one does not live in the regions in which they are primarily spoken. (That does not mean that the effort is not worthwhile.)
But there is a great deal, still, that remains in reach. With a little extra attention, and a glance now and then at a dictionary, most dialects of English and of Scots can be understood perfectly well, certainly in those written forms in which they are likely to be encountered.
Except – and here’s the thing – they rarely are encountered. With the notable exception of poetry, the literary language to which readers in Britain are exposed today is, almost universally, an homogenised version of English. Despite the apparent upswell of interest in regional vocabularies – and despite Macfarlane’s own championing of writers who use them – the diversity of voices that can be heard around these islands is simply not reflected in contemporary literature.
It’s as though, chopped up neatly into little parts, those voices can be seen as beautiful and beguiling. But taken as a whole – as ways of speaking, of writing and thinking – they become, instead, an irrelevance, a matter only of local concern. And to those writers who insist on reflecting that diversity in their work, the response, sometimes, can be severe.
It’s twenty-four years now since James Kelman won the Booker Prize for How late it was, how late – still the only Scottish winner so far, and certainly one of the most controversial. At the time, the novel was widely criticised for its “profanity”, its spectacular profusion of fucks in various forms. But the criticism went much deeper.
Kelman’s narrative voice was that of his central character, Sammy, a Glaswegian who “winds up blind” after the police “knock fuck out of” him. And “ye dont need the fucking sodjers to give yer body a battering,” as Sammy puts it, “ye perform the job yerself.” For some, that voice – a masterful stutter and flow – was not only un-literary, it was also, somehow, threatening. According to Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times, the novel’s unconventional spelling and grammar represented a kind of “literary vandalism”. In a phrase that I hope he has lived to regret, Jenkins went even further, condemning Kelman for “acting the part of an illiterate savage”.
Rarely is this kind of cultural elitism expressed so explicitly or so vehemently, rarely is it targeted so directly. Little wonder that in his Booker Prize acceptance speech, Kelman responded, framing his work as part of a “wider process, or movement, towards decolonisation and self-determination”. As the author well understood, the marginalisation and denigration of other people’s voices is always political.
While commentators today are less concerned about profanity than they once were, it is not clear if the welcome is much warmer for those authors who choose to deviate from “Standard English”. Among writers and publishers of literary fiction there remains a nervousness about the consequences of straying too far from the norm. To pin your language down geographically, to pull your words towards your place, is to risk being seen as parochial; it is to risk being seen as unreadable. There is a quiet – and quietening – pressure to conform.
When I chose to locate my novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World, in Shetland, I knew that language would be an issue. I knew that it might, indeed, be a problem. After all, the islands are linguistically distinctive, with a dialect that, though officially a form of Scots, has roots in Norn, the now-extinct Norse language of the islands. This dialect – sometimes called Shaetlan or Shetlandic – has an extensive vocabulary, and its grammar can be at odds with that of English. To a first-time listener or reader, then, broad Shaetlan can take some work to decipher.
It would have been easy to make this distinctiveness invisible, to smooth it down until no more than a lilt. And it would have been easy to justify such a decision: for the sake of readability, or the sake, even, of sales. But to do so would have been dishonest. It would have been to participate in the muting of a culture. And it would have been, I think, disloyal.
Though I wasn’t born in the islands, and though I don’t, in fact, live there now, Shetland is still my home. It is the place around which my thoughts most often circle. And it is important to me, therefore, to get it right. So I tried, as best I could, to recreate the dialect on the page – the rhythms of the speech, the grammar and pronunciation – without alienating those readers for whom it will be entirely new. This required compromise, but it didn’t require concealment.
“‘I lost track o time’”, says David, the character whose voice is most distinctly Shetlandic. “‘Ah’m been warkin in da shed, until me gut reminded me o whit me heid forgot.’” The spelling, and in places the grammar, may be unfamiliar to many people; but the voice, I hope, is clear.
“If you lose your language,” James Kelman once said, “you’ve lost your culture”. In Britain, that loss is well underway. These islands were once affluent in languages and dialects that are dwindling towards silence. It is a process of linguistic depletion, and a process of cultural diminishment.
There is recognition now, it seems, that these diminishing cultures contain beauty, that their words are worthy of attention. But words alone, cut loose from their contexts, are little more than museum pieces. For them to live, they must be used; they must be held in the mouth and shaped on the page. And the patterns of speech from which they come must, too, survive. Fiction, surely, should find space for those riches that still remain.
Malachy Tallack is a writer and singer-songwriter from Shetland. His most recent book, The Valley at the Centre of the World, was published by Canongate in May 2018. He is contributing editor of The Island Review.
Photograph: Fair Isle reflections, Robbie Robertson, CC 2.0