A’m leavan Orkney. A’m writan this nou on the train sooth fae Aberdeen, eftir a calm crosseen doun fae Kirkwall. Wather-wise, hid’s no been much o a summer – rain an cauld aa the wey – bit the eveneen wis bonnie: a douce blue-grey sky wi saft layers o clood, an a brief wash o pink whan the sun gied doun. A’ll be missan the islan lift: i the city, thir’s less o hid tae see fer biggeens, an whit thir is deusno hae the scope an variety o an archiepelago’s mony-wathered skies.
A’m spent fower months back haem researchan an writan in Orkney language. A startid wi waakan an taakan an listenan: rediscoveran the landscape o haem, learnan fae the fock aareidy deuan grand wark i the Orkney language, an trainan me lugs tae hear the differs atween dialects an figure hou best tae write them doun. The twa month by, hid’s been less aboot the research an more aboot the writeen: A’m been tryan tae wirk oot whit A want tae write wi this wirds, this tongue.
Thir’s an aye-bidan fankle fir fock wirkan in minority languages, especially languages closs tae the globally-dominant Engliesh: hid’s hou tae mak the wark no cheust aboot the language, an no cheust aboot the piece the language cams fae. Whan yir language is merkid – whan hid registers first as a language at isno Standard Engliesh – aa ye write chances at bean raed as bean a commentary on the language, a commentary on Engliesh. An acause yir writan in a language at’s unner thraet – A’ll no say diean, fir at’s unhelpfully fatalistic – an in wirds ye miss hearan, yir wirk affens tends tae the elegaic an nostalgic, tae dulefu hiraeth. An acause yir writan in the language o haem, the language at means haem, the first thing ye think tae write aboot is haem – an than hid’s herd tae brak oot. An aa this is compoondid bi the tradietion yir writan in: in Orcadian, as in ither firms o Scots, the majority o the wark at’s gien afore is elegaic writan aboot language an haem.
Nou, that’s no tae say this subjecks is bannid, at we shadno write about them ony more. Thir necessar subjecks, vital tae the minority language experience: language nostalgia forders language memory an reclamation; writan about haem brings a pride in haem at can strengthen the language; writan about language howks intae yir awareness o hid’s ebbs an flowes an chaenges an interactions wi the dominant tongue. Bit hid is tae say at this subjecks maan bi pert o a wider literature, at wir language is fecksome an rich enof tae tackle ony subjeck ye fancy.
Friday by, A organised wi Simon Hall an Alison Miller an event caad Rashy Bulder’s Big Night Oot. (Here’s the history o the naem.) Hid wis a celebraetion o the Orkney tongue, a gatheran o dialect writers tae perform thir wark. Wir absolutely delightid wi the result: wi haed a fill aadience, a grand bill o writers, an enthusiastic reception – an most o aa, the night wis lippan wi a sense o optimism aboot Orkney dialect, a widespried feeleen at wir reachan a tippeen pynt fir a nyow renaissance o wark. Fir me, whar that showed clearest wis in the raenge o wirk at wis performed.
Thir wis plenty o wirk about language, bit hid wisno aa aboot wirds at wir tint: hid wis affens aboot lukkan at the wey fock ir spaekan nou, hou Orcadian is interactan wi Engliesh nou, or hou attitudes tae Orcadian ir chaenged ower time. Thir wis plenty o wirk about haem, bit hid wis as much aboot haem nou as haem by. An thir wis a bonnie bit o nostalgia, bit thir wis gey more lukkan tae the future. Ootower aa that, thir wis plenty o writan at wisno aboot Orkney at aa!
Fir mesel, A still struggle wi hou tae mak that brak, hou tae shift me mind tae uiss Orcadian tae taak ayont Orkney. Fir whan yir language is merkid, hid’s nivver cheust aboot hou ye see hid yersel: hid’s aboot hou ithers see hid teu. Whitivver A write, fock ir gaan tae see hid as wrote in Orcadian, an so read hid as in pert aboot Orkney.
Thir twa weys A’m find fir fock haean the saem struggle at help unthirl wir language fae hidsel. The first is tae wirk at translaetion. This is hou A startid writan in Orcadian in the first piece, tryan me haand at translaetions o the Daode Jing. Hid’s a grand wey tae laern hou tae uiss a haaf-familiar language, fir hid maks ye pey that muckle attention tae ilka wird chyce (an gies ye whit excuse ye need fir uissan dictionars an thesauruses), bit hid pushes ye ayont that aesy subjecks forby. Steid o startan in Orcadian an than tryan tae gar yersel intae new subjecks, ye stert in a new subjeck an than hae tae speir whit Orkney haes tae say aboot hid, whit nyow perspectives an inflections Orcadian offers. Hid gars ye write in Orcadian aboot things ye’d nivver itherweys o wrote aboot.
The seicond wey A’m find is tae mak a fantastiecal laep intae anither warld. Fantasy warlds, science fiction warlds, parallel warlds, magiecal warlds. Hid’s notable at the only fill-length novel wholly wrote in Scots at A ken o is Matthew Fitt’s But n Ben A-Go-Go, set in a fleudid future Scotland. Projectan forrid intae the future (or across intae fantasy) allous ye tae mak wild guesses aboot whit language might deu i the time in atween. Ye can jummle yir language wi neologisms an mell dialects ithoot faer o bean inaathentic, fir yir settan the reuls o whit future aathenticity is. Ye can be utopian aboot language polietics, imaginan a future whar language diversity haes thrived, steid o a future whar Engliesh haes erodid aathing ither. (By the wey, hou langsom hid is at sci fi haes fir the most pert sattled on the Universal Translator device steid o actually thinkan throu hou languages an language polietics might chaenge i the future: beuys, the Babel fish wis a fun, no a prediction!) Steid o bean the primary focus, the language yir uissan is nou a metaphoriecal layer: ye can write aboot haem ithoot writan aboot haem, ye can force the reader tae think ayont yir language ithoot hidan yir language, ye can bide i the doubleness at’s ert an pert o takkan the minority position.
Ya, hid’s a doubleness at’s at the hert o hid. Ye want tae brak free o the constraints o yir heritage, bit ye want tae pey yir respecks teu. Ye want tae be seen as more as cheust whar yir fae, bit ye want tae be fae thir teu. Ye want tae write ootower yir language, bit yir aye writan in yir language. Ye want tae write anent Engliesh, bit yir aye writan anent Engliesh. The Scots “anent” is right here, fir hid translates tae the Engliesh “against”, bit hid means “in front o” or “i the face o” forby: hid intrinsically acknowledges at whan yir writan against sometheen yir defined bi hid teu.
Hid’ll be a peedie while afore muckle o me nyow writan is oot in publiec: A’m still shappan hid, still makkan hid. Bit hid sterts fae this twa pynts: translaetion an imaginaetion as weys o brakkan ootower the prescribed limits o yir language, as weys o pushan that limits, as weys o endan that limits. Eventually, A hope, A’ll be writan in me language ithoot e’en thinkan aboot writan in me language – the saem thing as ayewis thinkan aboot hid. The goal o me language polietics is fir this tongues tae become both transperent an opaque.