What’s lost when languages and dialects die out? It’s of course a sad loss for the local community – part of the cultural identity of the place is gone. In the news recently (also: NPR) was the death of the last speaker of a Scottish dialect, spoken in a fishing village. Bobby Hogg lived in Cromarty and spoke all his life the Scots dialect spoken there. Scotland has a complicated linguistic heritage, with the many Scots dialects, Scottish English variants, and Scottish Gaelic (a Celtic language). Scots Gaelic has seen a revival of interest in recent years, witness the popularity of Julie Fowlis, who sings almost exclusively in her native Gaelic. Her Gaelic version of the Beatles Blackbird was a surprise hit in England and she was chosen to contribute songs to the recent Disney/Pixar’s Brave. Many English speakers find Scottish accents to be very pleasant, even though sometimes difficult for non-Scots to understand. In an interview with Glaswegian singer Amy MacDonald, NPR’s Scott Simon told her that he found her English “utterly charming” but was “only understanding every third or fourth word”. Scots dealing with non-Scots listeners, like Craig Ferguson or Sean Connery, have learned to “tone it down”.
How much would the typical English speaker understand of the Cromarty dialect? Some would be understandable but sound archaic, such as the use of thou and thee. One might figure out as well that beginning consonants were sometimes dropped, what becoming ‘at and where ‘ere. But one might still have trouble understanding “At wid be scekan tiln ken?” (“What do you want to know?”).
What’s lost when language dies is more than just local color. Language is culture, and the Scottish culture, like that of Ireland, is so strong in its linguistic and literary creativity that we all lose something with the disappearance of Cromarty Scots, whether we’d understand Bobby Hogg or not.