Learn to Speak Norn For Only £120

cheap-books-uk-300x225A dictionary of an extinct language spoken only in the remote Scottish Highlands has been uncovered in an English charity shop. The two-volume Norn Dictionary was anonymously donated to the Willow Burn bookshop in County Durham, and with a price tag of £120 is the most valuable item to date handed into the shop.

Originally influenced by the Old Norse spoken by Norwegian settlers in the 8th Century, Norn gradually developed in the Northern Isles into its own distinctive language. The sheer scale of Norse settlement obliterated the Pictish language previously spoken in the Northern Isles, with Norn becoming the dominant language over the coming centuries. Interestingly Gaelic was never spoken in the islands, unless the language of Orkney’s Pictish inhabitants – the predecessors of the Norsemen – was variant, or precursor, to Gaelic.

Scots gradually began to replace Norn after control of Shetland and Orkney passed from Denmark to Scotland in the 15th century. From 1400 many people also moved to the islands from the Scottish mainland and as Scots became the official language, Norn became marginalised as the language of poor crofters and fishermen and thus was never written down. Although official documents do exist from this period, they were generally written in Norwegian.

When the Reformation reached Scotland in 1560, new Scots-medium schools were set up in the islands, along with Scots-speaking clergy. From 1740 an English version of the Bible was being taught in schools, and negative attitudes to Norn were becoming common. By the 19th century the shift from Norn to Scots was more or less complete, except on the more isolated islands such as Foula, Unst, Yell and Fetlar, where some people knew fragments of the language, such as songs and poems until the 1890s. The last native speaker of Norn is cited as Walter Sutherland from Skaw in Unst, who died in 1850.

Before the discovery of the dictionary, very few texts and no recordings of Norn were known to exist, making details of Norn pronounciation uncertain. Attempts have been made to reconstruct and revive Norn, including the Nynorn Project which aims to re-create Norn as a usable language.

The Lord’s Prayer*  in Orkney Norn:

Favor i ir i chimrie,
Helleur ir i nam thite,
gilla cosdum thite cumma,
veya thine mota vara gort
o yurn sinna gort i chimrie,
ga vus da on da dalight brow vora
Firgive vus sinna vora
sin vee Firgive sindara mutha vus, lyv vus ye i tumtation,
min delivera vus fro olt ilt,


*Recorded in the late 1690′s by James Wallace and first published in his An Account of the Islands of Orkney.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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One thought on “Learn to Speak Norn For Only £120

  1. Louisa Pocock

    I have never heard of the Norn language although my father & relatives are Caithnessmen. Very interesting.


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