Scottish man dies, taking town's dialect with him

By RAPHAEL SATTER,Associated Press Updated at 2012-10-05 08:21:46 +0000


LONDON (AP) — In a remote fishing town on the tip of Scotland's Black Isle, the last native speaker of the Cromarty dialect has passed away, taking with him a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.

Academics said Wednesday that Bobby Hogg, who was 92 when he died last week, was the last person fluent in the dialect once common to the seaside town of Cromarty, 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of Edinburgh.

"I think that's a terrible thing," said Robert Millar, a linguist at the University of Aberdeen in northern Scotland. "The more diversity in terms of nature we have, the healthier we are. It's the same with language."

The demise of an obscure dialect spoken by a few hundred people may not register for most English speakers — "We'll all live," Millar said — but it's part of a relentless trend toward standardization which has driven many regional dialects and local languages into oblivion. Linguists often debate how to define and differentiate the world's many dialects, but most agree that urbanization, compulsory education and mass media have conspired to iron out many of the kinks that make rural speech unique.

Cromarty, which counts just over 700 people, is at the very end of a sparsely populated peninsula of forest and farmland. It's separated from Inverness, the closest city, by the Beauly Firth, a wide body of cold water where salmon run and dolphins frolic.

The Cromarty dialect included a helping of archaic "thees" and "thous" as well as a wealth of seafaring vocabulary, including three sets of words for "second fishing line."

The aspirate "h'' was often added or subtracted, so that "house" would be pronounced "oos" and "apple" would be pronounced "haypel." The "wh" sound was often dropped entirely.

A lexicon of Cromarty words, relying in large part on Hogg's speech, gave "Oo thee keepan?" as Cromarty's version of "How are you?" and "Hiv thoo a roosky sazpence i thi pooch?" for "Can you lend me some money?"

Urban dialects may be strong — Millar referred to "Toonserspik," the "town speech" of cities like Aberdeen — but he said they don't replace what's being lost.

He said urban dialects tend to be more similar to one another than their rural counterparts, with an emphasis on differences in pronunciation over differences in vocabulary. And even rival cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh "sound more like each other than they used to."

Author Mark Abley, who has written about the dynamism of the English language, agrees.

"I don't believe there's a straightforward balancing act in which urban dialects grow as rural ones shrink," he said in an email. "Cities are always melting pots, and isolation for any group is very hard to maintain."

As the worlds' melting pots grow ever bigger — half the Earth's population now lives in cities — lesser-known dialects are evaporating. Worldwide, languages are disappearing regularly, with half of the globe's 6,000-plus languages expected to be extinct by the end of the century, according to UNESCO.

The British Isles saw two languages go extinct within living memory, UNESCO says. The last native speaker of Alderney French, a Norman dialect spoken in the Channel Islands, died around 1960, and the last speaker of traditional Manx, the language once spoken on the Isle of Man, died in 1974.

Donna Heddle, the director of the Center for Nordic Studies at Scotland's University of the Highlands and Islands, said the loss of each language or regional dialect leaves the world poorer than it was before.

"It's one less little sparkle in the firmament," she said. "One little star might go out and you might never notice it, but it's not there anymore."