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Bower author helping Norn become the norm

By Matt Leslie

COMMON words and phrases used by Caithnessians may be thought of by locals as slang terms – but, by using them, they may have been reviving a dead language.

Bower author Elspeth Grace Hall is doing her bit to revive the language of Norn that was once widely spoken in Caithness.

Norn was officially declared a “dead language” by world heritage body the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

However, Grace Hall has been bringing about a revival of the region’s native tongue by writing a series of children’s workbooks to teach kids how to read and write in Norn.

If Elspeth is successful in helping to increase the numbers of Norn speakers in Caithness, UNESCO could reverse its death declaration.

They had once delivered a similar verdict on Kernowek – the native language of south-west English county, Cornwall.

But in 2010, UNESCO announced that its former classification of the language as “extinct” was “no longer accurate”.

Grace Hall said: “If you have ever sat ‘O a benk’, fed the ‘scorries’, told your ‘mannie’ off for being a ‘loon’ or simply popped off ‘till’ the shops you have been speaking a second language – one that officially doesn’t even exist.

“I’ve always been intrigued by languages and the Caithness dialect is wonderfully rich.

“I started to investigate the etymology of words unique to Caithness and found that they weren’t part of Scots, English or Gaelic, they were in fact Norn. A language that official bodies such as the UNESCO insist has been dead since the 1800’s.

“It wouldn’t be the first time UNESCO has prematurely pronounced a language as dead. Back in 2009 UNESCO declared Manx extinct despite there being over 1500 speakers of Manx.

“UNESCO was forced to change its classification of Manx from “Extinct” to ‘Endangered’ after a group of school children wrote to them in Manx asking what language they were writing in if Manx didn’t exist.

“The more people I talked to the more I came to find that Norn isn’t dead, it has just become lost in our English. When I gave people examples they shrugged them off as ‘Caithness Words’ but it is so much more than that it is ‘Caithness language’ if only we put our minds and our hearts to it.”

With her Norn Min series workbooks Grace Hall is spreading the Norn language both within Caithness and outside of the region as well.

She added: “The Norn Min series has three workbooks published and another two in the pipeline. Copies of the series have sold as far away as America and Sweden.

“It was just after the publication of Norn Min buk two that I received an email from the University of Bari in Italy as their Minority Languages department was interested in Norn.

“They asked if they could use the Norn Min series to create an Italian-Norn phrasebook. A week later I was contacted by the World Children’s Book project and they offered me a contract to translate five of their books into Norn.

The World Children’s Book project has over 200 translators making their bilingual books available in languages traditional publishes ignore such as English Igbo in Nigeria, German/Tigrinya in Ethiopia and now English/Norn in Scotland.

Copies of both the workbooks and storybooks are available at John O’Groats and Caithness Horizons.

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