Monday, 4 February 2013



That architecture is a 'language' and can be considered within the understandings of the theory of language, is an idea that has been promulgated previously in other times - from the 1970's - as a fashionable construct. Think of Venturi and his colleagues. Maybe the concept is due to have a revival? The idea had a significant impact on attitudes to architectural theory that frequently lags behind other disciplines and appropriates different ideas from other fields for its own usage whenever it seems to suit. This concept involved an anthropologist and linguists and makes it extremely attractive to architects, adding both class and substance to something that is fairly ephemeral: Levi Strauss, Naomi Chomsky and Ferdinand de Sassure. Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Roland Bathes developed these ideas as the 'Post-Structuralists.' Their thinking stretched architectural concepts as much as they did linguistic thinking. Their names peppered architectural writings for years and became an essential reference for academic texts if they were to be taken seriously.

 The subject was Structural Linguistics. It became just Structuralism and, subsequently, Post-Structuralism. What is interesting is that matters concerning language can still assist in the understanding of architecture, even if the connection is no longer popular. The opportunity comes to consider this connection with a review of Shetland dialect, to consider the implications both for dialect and architecture. This circumstance was prompted by an article in The New Shetlander magazine. The piece by Bruce Eunson suggested that dialect should not be standardised; rather it should reflect the personal variations of the lived experience of individuals: the way 'I' say things. In architecture, the way 'I' say things has become the norm - the way things try to be me: think of Gehry and Hadid, and many others who seek a uniquely personal expression. This article on dialect argues differently - that the community is involved in dialect is an important matter for dialect. It is an interesting matter to consider the parallel circumstance in architecture - yes, even today, even if it is not fashionable to connect architecture with linguistics or dialect. The individual's attitudes may only be a perversion - a personal whimsy or oddity. Tradition said that it was extremely likely to be so, but we give no credence to tradition today.

Shetland Dialect, Not ‘Mine’ : on matters concerning dialect 

Dare one begin writing on this subject when the Shetland connection has been filtered through another country and another era - another generation? Some might see this as a unique opportunity to see things differently. Others might call it an impertinence. It all depends on one's attitude to understanding; whether personal issues are allowed to interfere with concepts that might be different or unexpected. If comments are awkwardly challenging, it is just too easy to drag in matters of distance, time and tongue - even upbringing: pedigree - to degrade any standing of the understanding. It is a little like the playground taunt: "Your mother's a . .  " - used as a last resort when all else fails. While Shetland dialect is not mine, I wish to argue the case for this being so in a broader Shetland context too – that is it not a personal whim.

To the outsider, Shetland dialect is most obvious in the Smirk cartoons - boldly and enigmatically in your face. Day to day speech, one might say, is in your ear, and is less challenging, perhaps because of its sweet, placating rhythms that soften what reads as a jarring puzzle. A growing familiarity with the written tongue and the spoken word allows one to pick up a sense of meaning in both sound and text as the natural cadences are learned. Strangely, dialect is easier to understand when both text and sound come together. Perusing the dictionary, (Graham's et al.), is informative and interesting, but it is like reading a text book - pure fact; and participating in daily chat with this knowledge can be a little personally challenging at times. The most useful and immediate involvement in dialect is in reading it aloud, listening to one’s own sounds as the letters and words are surveyed with a casual unselfconsciousness. It is a wonderful experience that brings dialect alive for the stranger, not so that this foreigner can use pieces of the different tongue to try to 'fit in' - or, worse, to try to be smart when back in the birthplace - but for the body to feel meaning as another through the complexity of the interplay of senses. Poetry in dialect literally glows when experienced in this manner.

This observation highlights the phonetic nature of dialect, in the same way as the writing in dialect does - that spelling. What comes to one's notice is that there are variations and ever-new inventions in what is described as dialect text. As more writing is published, it seems that just about any spelling can be explained away as 'dialect.' There appears to be a growing ad hoc quality in dialect writings. Sometimes one gets the feeling that even 'bad' or careless spelling can be excused under this categorisation that appears so broad as to allow for any variation in the combinations of letters. Sounds seem to be spelled out as the author might choose. One gets the impression that there is something random about dialect, or what is passed off as dialect. Sometimes it seems that there is a competitive struggle with authors all trying to be uniquely different - individually clever. It is puzzling, but what can one say, because the argument is put that dialect is how one speaks, and only the speaker can know this; that dialect is a living tongue, not a set of rules: ipso facto. Go away.

In The New Shetlander, No. 262, Yule Issue, 2012, on page 30, Bruce Eunson's article, It's me or the dialect: why I am against the standardisation of Shetland dialect, argues the case for dialect to reflect personal speech.

He writes:

Recently I was having some dialect writing of mine proofread, and I was told that dhese is not a dialect word, that in a context where it refers to the plural of something, it should be dis.

. . . . .

Unfortunately for Shetland dialect I don't want to make this correction. Because I say dhese for these, not dis.

This argument seems to explain the view that dialect writing is randomly phonetic - 'my' expression. It does beg the question on matters concerning dialect: can dialect be so open and flexible and remain 'dialect' without falling apart or fading into a chaotic oblivion? What does dialect have or need to be to be dialect? Is there some necessity for a basic standardisation of dialect for it to exist as dialect, or can an open system of personal variations be dialect?

Those who argue for an open system that is a conglomerate of personal speech set out as 'my' phonetical soundings, 'the way I say things' - Mr. Eunson's position - use the argument that dialect is a living and changing phenomenon. It is the same argument that English speakers use when being criticized for what is strictly considered to be incorrect English, e.g. 'try and'; 'would of'; and ' the person that'. As more and more folk carelessly use these forms of speech and resist correction, the argument used to support this stubbornness is that language is a living and changing phenomenon; that the only people who are out of step are those who want to make sure that these forms are corrected. I admit to being one of these.

The dilemma with the argument for constant change is that something has to change for change to be recognised. Without some basic reference point, all is flux: everything is change. It is the norm, in which, ironically, there is no change. There is no stable core, even though with one, Heraclitus is still correct. Matters of scale, rate, time and categorization create the difference. When these are tiny, miniaturised and singular, as in the way I say just a single word, everything is open for anything to become whatever an individual might want it to be. "Well, that's what I call it; that's how I say it; and I am not going to change." This perception of dialect sees it as a collection of everyone's sounds and references, a conglomerate not too different to the new digital storage systems - somewhat cloudy.* The position also brings to mind the world of art. Here the individual says that art is what I like; and artists say that art is their self-expression - an outer manifestation of their inner selves and perceptions. Of course, without some overall agreement on what art might be, one has nothing to argue on either of these propositions. They just have to be accepted, such is their intimacy. So it seems that the core question in this case is: What is art? For dialect, it appears to be: What is dialect? Unless there is some shared communal understanding, both art and dialect become whatever one might want them to be. Is the lack of any clear definition of dialect why we see this increase in the 'creative' choice of references, sounds and their spelling?

If one is to identify any personal collection of spellings of personal sounds assembled in the way they might be personally used in everyday life as 'dialect,' rather than mere personal preference, then, it seems that dialect becomes an unpredictable, amorphous blur of sounds and spellings that are randomly individual. What comes to mind is that, schematically, language had its roots in such random chaos, out of which matters common stabilised into a particular system with a certain agreed coherence. One could hypothesise that dialect holds the same collective sense for it to be recognised as dialect, rather than remaining a set of personal sounds - 'personal' in the sense that I say it like this so I'll spell it like this. This communal framework seems to suggest some sense of standardisation. Indeed, what is a dictionary other than an identification of how sounds and spellings are currently used by the majority for certain meanings? Then there is the structure of sounds - the grammar: how the many choose to organize and relate matters, not just the one.* *


The parallel with the art world is interesting. With self-expression as the rationale, the artist is seen as, and is promoted as, the lone genius, unique, special and individual - the hero - with a different way of seeing order and life. All others have to see the artist in this way and discover the particular enlightenment of the vision being promoted, or just remain baffled by it. Traditional art saw things very differently. It placed no importance on individual expression. Indeed, it saw this individualism as fundamentally flawed. Art had rules and related to origins, being original in a completely different sense to our understandings today. The identity of the individual had no importance. What was critical was that art had to conform to the revealed model. Nothing could be beautiful unless it conformed. Copying was seen as being superior to personal invention. Individual 'creativity' was perceived as deformity. So it is that the traditional critique of modern art is harsh. It would be just as harsh on matters to do with dialect - see note *.

What we need is a core standardisation that can be subjected to change. Constantly concentrating on change and difference is only removing the rigour of dialect, creating an incoherence like that which made Babylon legendary as babble: a loss of common ground and understanding. Change can be and is, and must be, but things also need to have some sense of agreement for them to be shared and to survive as substance, or else the field of meaning just becomes a mire of personal quirkiness. It is a little like the spellings of personal names today where invention seems to be the core necessity - to avoid the norm and identify the one, the one and only: me. As long as things individual are allowed to get out of control, then dialect will become gabble, with everyone explaining their individualistic version of it, in the same way as children with names with unique spellings have a lifetime of explanation ahead of them. One example comes to mind - from a morning radio show. It is a simple name, but the lass was constantly having to remind listeners to E-mail or text "Kay, Kay with an 'e'. " One assumes this might be 'Kaye,' or perhaps a different sounding of 'Key' - c.f. 'Hey!' This is the simplest, possibly the most quaintly innocent of variations, but it does highlight the schism created between 'normal' spelling and personal invention. Imagine others. Just look at the latest list of popular names. Imagine dialect where every word needs explanation and definition just because each individual makes different choices on the same issue.

Our era loves the individual and places an emphasis on things personal - me, my, mine . . clothing, opinion, thoughts, feelings, appearance, expression, etc. Social media facilitates this concentration on individual peculiarities. The argument for an open - an anything goes - dialect seems to be getting caught up in this fashion that encourages and emboldens everyone's quirky differences - it embroiders them. Tradition says that these changes of emphasis from the community to the individual are cyclical, that what it sees as these deviant variations will pass.

On differences in spelling, I am reminded of the diaries of the American explorers Lewis and Clark, where the same words were spelt repeatedly almost willy-nilly; and of old maps where spellings likewise appear to be randomly phonetic. What is interesting is that the ad hoc spelling differences do not modify meaning or message in each unique context. They read as quirky variations that one can see as either: a sign of the times - its lack of coherence, its tolerance, and/or its carelessness; an indication of the skills of the person; and/or perhaps, an expression of the stress and fatigue of an amazing journey. How should we interpret and explain today's variations in dialect?

We are left with our own journey with dialect. Our scientific, analytical mind is able to deconstruct and hypothesise on any subject. Dialect is not immune. What we have to recognise is that our musings may reveal many interesting matters about dialect, but that the application of these 'discoveries' will not necessarily make or modify dialect in any sensible manner, even though everything might appear rationally reasonable. The argument that says that dialect is a living, ever-changing phenomenon has its own logic, just as the notion that dialect has its own history and roots does. To turn this around and argue that dialect must be or become a certain expression just because I say it, and I am living, unlike history and roots, seems to me to be a flawed argument, even though it has its unique sense. Languages and dialects do constantly change, both self-consciously and organically; but it is the organic sense of community that finally determines futures - what 'flowers.' That one person might say dhese while many others say dis, could indeed be the beginning of some subtle change, but to prematurely and stubbornly enforce individual personal preferences - to insist on them because one person wants it like this - seems to me to be problematical. More modesty is needed, and humility - less me, me, me. Others and other matters are involved in this issue that has to do with communication - community and communal issues. After all, it is 'Shetland’ dialect, not 'my' dialect.

Tradition has something to say on this too. In order to avoid the haze of the lazy familiarity of our clichés, we need to look to the East to see matters more clearly and succinctly. In Ghazali, Practical Processes in Sufism it is noted simply:

When there is arrogance, knowledge cannot operate.

Indries Shah, Thinkers of the East - Studies in Experientialism, published by The Octagon Press, London, 1971, (1977, 1982, 1986) - p.177: see

To sum up, perhaps the best analogy is that of a flowing stream. It was Heraclitus who pointed out that one can never step into the same stream twice. At any point along its length there is constant change that creates the identity of the stream. A splash from this mercurial motion looks dramatically different - interestingly unique, purely individualistic - but, after landing on a rock or the nearby soil, it will remain merely a damp spot or just evaporate. The stream keeps on flowing. The splash survives as an interim anomaly or disturbance only when it returns to the flow.***


* The problem with this position, (writing 'the way I say things'), can be seen when, for example, an individual with a stammer or a lisp begins writing in dialect using personal soundings.

** The role and importance of the dictionary is suggested in Aa My Selves . . . poems and stories by Stella Sutherland (The New Shetlander, No.262, Yule Issue, 2012, p.20/21):

Stella comes from a line of strong women. Her grandmother was determined that her eldest born (Stella's mother) would be educated. The family did not own a dictionary so Stella's mother gathered welks till she could afford to buy one. 'Mammy was always ashamed of that,' says Stella, 'but to me it was a wonderful thing to have done.'

*** A reading of Rat's tales (The New Shetlander, No.262, Yule Issue, 2012, p.36) will highlight the importance of conventions, both in spelling and punctuation. Try reading it aloud and unrehearsed, and experience the differences.

07 February 2016
An article from Shetland Life, 2015:

"spik it an lik it!"

7 APRIL 2016
Melvyn Bragg writing on dialect in the Lake District:

The remarkable thing is how long dialect has lasted. For despite the irreversible advance of Southern English, the dialect was held to for centuries – a tribute to its usefulness, at the very least.
During this century it has been driven further underground, by the pincer movement of widespread universal education and the growing genteelness of English life. Universal education has brought more children to school for a longer time than ever before and schools have been the traditional enemy of the dialect. As it is, on the whole, an unwritten language, it offends modern education in its primary assumption that books are the key to learning. I sympathize with this but regret that the double tongue, so easily practised by children who speak dialect on the streets but ‘proper’ at school, cannot be encouraged to continue. But from my own experience and that of others, it seems that the tendency, even the compulsion, is to drive out the dialect not only at school but in the home. Because, I suspect, mothers and elder sisters genteelized by BBC English (a limp latecomer to our language) dialect is not ‘nice’; it sounds ‘uncouth’; the words are raw, they come from a time of more direct speech, they are outdoor words in a largely indoor world. The softening effects of cultivation are steadily at work and what is amiable, inoffensive, bland, pre-digested and polite is taken to be higher on the scale of things than that which is rough. It is a sad betrayal of our own past.
Luckily the children – a mixture of outlaws and conservatives – preserve it to some extent . .

Melvyn Bragg Land of the Lakes Secker & Warburg London 1983 - page63

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