What's a Language Worth to a Small Town in Scotland?

A fisherman's dialect dies out.

Image
Flickr/amandabhslater

Bobby Hogg, a 92-year-old resident of the Scottish fishing village of Cromarty, died earlier this week, taking a local dialect along with him. According to the BBC:

The dialect is believed to have arrived in the area with fishing families that moved north from the Firth of Forth in 15th and 16th centuries. The families were thought to be the descendants of Norse and Dutch fishermen.

Hogg and his brother, who died last year, are believed to be the last two people fluent in the language. In 2009, a researcher recorded some of their conversations and created a lexicon of the "Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect" [PDF]. Hundreds of words and phrases are documented, including this one: "A'm fair sconfished wi hayreen; gie's fur brakwast lashins o am and heggs" – or "I'm so fed up with herring, give me plenty of ham and eggs for breakfast." That phrase survives in print, but it will likely never be spoken again.

It's not so rare for such a cultural deletion to occur. A language goes extinct every 14 days, according to National Geographic's Disappearing Languages project. More than 7,000 languages exist today. By the end of the century, that number could be cut down to less than half.

The loss of Cromarty's fisherfolk dialect is not particularly remarkable. But it represents one of the more instantaneous evolutions to the culture of a place. Other cultural shifts, like demographics, change over time, like a DJ's smooth transition between two songs. The formerly Jewish neighborhood that's now primarily Latin American, for example, or those deep V-neck shirts men were wearing in a certain part of town – these are the shifts that take place on the overlapping gradients of city life. But the death of a language is a hard edge, one where that strand of local culture is severed sharply.

The extent of the impact on Cromarty's culture is hard to define, but the loss should be considered significant. Our words shape how we think and how we understand the world around us. Cromarty can't go back and it won't.

Top image: A gravestone in a cemetery in Cromarty. Credit: Flickr user amandabhslater

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.