Monday, 8 October 2012

The Tungs o Men an Angels

The BBC reported last week on the death, at 92, of Bobby Hogg, the last speaker of Cromarty Scots. The distinctive Black Isle variety of which he was the last fluent exponent was never particularly large in population or geogrqaphical extent: looking at a scan of the map included in J. A. H. Murray's Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland (1873), one needs to zoom in to see it at all. Murray's map colours Cromarty Scots, like the rest of Black Isle, as a form of the Mid-Northern Scots spoken across the Moray Firth, but more recent research has tended to view it as North-Northern, though with many distinctive features. Scots often drops an initial h in the case of unstressed pronouns, but Cromarty was the only Scots dialect to exhibit h-dropping more generally, apparently influenced by the speech of English soldiers garrisoned in the area.

Debates on Scots sometimes turn on whether it is more fitting to speak of "dialectalisation" or "language death" (another, more emotive word for the former is "language suicide"). While it is always difficult to predict the future, if the decline of Scots continues, traditional dialects are much more likely to go the way of Glaswegian (style-drifting and continued dilution) than the Cromarty dialect (extinction when the dialect is still a relatively clearly demarcated system). For that reason, too, the event is likely to be decried and celebrated in years to come.

Like Ned Maddrell (1877-1974), the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic, but for the happenstance of his tongue, Mr. Hogg led a modest and unremarkable life. Like Ned Maddrell, his fame will far outlast him.

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