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Cromarty: Death of a Dialect November 21, 2019

Posted by P, J, or J in Language revitalisation, multilingualism.

Around the world languages and dialects are disappearing at an alarming rate all over the world, including in the UK. At the end of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, here’s one story of how it can happen.

Various news reports covered the death of Bobby Hogg, the last fluent speaker of the Cromarty dialect, in 2012.

Cromarty is/was a dialect of Scots, which some (falsely) consider to be ‘just’ a dialect of English. (More on that in another post)

Map showing Cromarty and surrounding sea areas addapted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shipping_Forecast
Cromarty, well known (to some) as one of 31 Sea areas around the UK
mentioned four times a day in the BBC Shipping forecast

Daniel Kaufman, a linguist who has mapped out over 600 languages and dialects spoken in just one district of New York, states, “The fisherfolk were not victims of genocide or colonialism but of social marginalisation”.

It is not so much that anyone forced them to abandon the grammar and vocabulary of their dialect but rather that it became more useful to them to speak standard Scots and English. Successive generations used the traditional dialect less and less until their are just a few elderly speakers left, and with them dies a whole way of speaking.

In other times and places the death of a language is less of a natural decline and more a case of ‘linguicide’.

Kaufman links biodiversity to linguistic diversity and large scale agriculture to biological leveling, stating that as further industrialisation takes place people move or are moved out of traditional communities into larger towns and cities. Numerous factors affect what is known first as language shift (adopting and putting more emphasis on using another langue) and language loss (the language is used in less ‘domains’ and less people pass the language on to the next generation.)

Join the lecture at 15 minutes in for factors on how languages and dialects die

Some communities value their languages as part of their identity and resist pressures to lose their heritage, others are less concerned or find the pressure to abandon their language to great.

Elizabeth Philips was placed in a residential school as a child and forbidden to speak her home language. ” While other children played, she would stand alone at the outside gate, staring out at the Fraser River and thinking in her language. ”

She is now the last known fluent speaker of Halkomelem.

“I try my best not to lose it, because I can’t have conversation,” she says. “But I text in Halkomelem.” She pauses, then laughs, “The phone is always trying to correct me!”

(APTN Canada 2016, Language Keeper: The last fluent speaker of Stó:lō’s Indigenous dialect in race against time)

It seems inevitable that some languages and cultures will die out. Outsiders should no more try and force people to continue using their traditional language that they should force them not to. But we can recognise that when a language is lost forever it is not just lost to a community but lost to the whole planet.

We can also recognise that it doesn’t have to happen. People do not have to lose one language in order to become proficient in another. Most of the people on the planet are bilingual or multilingual, able to move freely between multiple languages, and able to communicate widely without losing their heritage.

The United Nations declared 2019 to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages, a small but significant step to raising awareness.


While that was happening Bible Societies, and churches have been busy preparing for 2020 which has been declared as the Year of the Bible by the World Evangelical Alliance and a number of other organisations.

There will be lots of ideas an initiatives, such as this one…

I’ll be continuing to advocate for churches linking to online Bibles and sharing other ideas about becoming a more multilingual church. I invite others to blog, post or tweet using #multilingualchurch


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