Norn language

Norn language
Spoken in Shetland, Orkney and Caithness
Extinct by the 18th century (19th century at the latest); much earlier in Caithness
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-3 nrn
Linguasphere 52-AAA-ac
Languages of Scotland around the early 15th century, based on placename evidence. Orange is Norn, yellow is English/Scots and blue is Scottish Gaelic.

Norn is an extinct North Germanic language that was spoken in Shetland and Orkney, off the north coast of mainland Scotland, and in Caithness. After the islands were pledged to Scotland by Norway in the 15th century, it was gradually replaced by Scots and on the mainland by Scottish Gaelic.



It is not known exactly when Norn became extinct. The last reports of Norn speakers are claimed to be from the 19th century, but it is more likely that the language was dying out in the late 18th century. [1] The isolated islands of Foula and Unst are variously claimed as the last refuges of the language in Shetland, where there were people "who could repeat sentences in Norn, probably passages from folk songs or poems, as late as 1893. [2] Walter Sutherland from Skaw in Unst, who died about 1850, has been cited as the last native speaker of the Norn language. However, fragments of vocabulary survived the death of the main language and remain to this day, mainly in place-names and terms referring to plants, animals, weather, mood, and fishing vocabulary.

Dialects of Norse had also been spoken on mainland Scotland—for example, in Caithness—but here they became extinct many centuries before Norn died on Orkney and Shetland. Hence, some scholars also speak about "Caithness Norn", but others avoid this. Even less is known about "Caithness Norn" than about Orkney and Shetland Norn. Almost no written Norn has survived, but what little remains includes a version of the Lord's Prayer and a ballad. Michael Barnes, professor of Scandinavian Studies at University College London, has published a study, The Norn Language of Orkney and Shetland. [3]


Norn is an Indo-European language belonging to the North Germanic branch of the Germanic languages. Together with Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian it belongs to the West Scandinavian group, separating it from the East Scandinavian group consisting of Swedish, Danish and Gutnish. While this classification is based on the differences between the North Germanic languages at the time they split, their present-day characteristics justify another classification, dividing them into an Insular Scandinavian and Mainland Scandinavian language groups, based on mutual intelligibility. Under this system, Norwegian is grouped together with the neighbouring languages Danish and Swedish, because the last millennium has seen all three undergo important changes, especially in grammar and lexis, which have set them apart from Faroese and Icelandic. Norn is generally considered to have been fairly similar to Faroese, sharing many phonological and grammatical traits with this language, and might even have been mutually intelligible with it; thus, it can be considered an Insular Scandinavian language.

Few written texts remain. It is to be distinguished from the present day 'dialect', termed by linguists Shetlandic.


The phonology of Norn can never be determined with much precision due to the lack of source material, but the general aspects can be extrapolated from the few written sources that do exist. Norn shared many traits with the dialects of south-west Norway. This includes a voicing of /p, t, k/ to [b, d, ɡ] before or between vowels and (in the Shetland dialect, but only partially in the Orkney dialect) a conversion of /θ/ and /ð/ ("thing" and "that" respectively) to [t] and [d] respectively.


The features of Norn grammar were very similar to the other Scandinavian languages. There were two numbers, three genders and four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive and dative). The two main conjugations of verbs in present and past tense were also present and like all other North Germanic languages, it used a suffix instead of a prepositioned article to indicate definiteness as in modern Scandinavian: man(n) ("man"); mannen ("the man"). Though it is difficult to be certain of much of the aspects of Norn grammar, documents indicate that it may have featured subjectless clauses, which were common in the West Scandinavian languages.

Sample text

Jakob Jakobsen was a Faroese linguist and leading documentarist of Norn

The following are Norn and old Norse versions of the Lord's Prayer: [1]

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. Amen.
Fyvor or er i Chimeri. / Halaght vara nam dit.
La Konungdum din cumma. / La vill din vera guerde
i vrildin sindaeri chimeri. / Gav vus dagh u dagloght brau.
Forgive sindorwara / sin vi forgiva gem ao sinda gainst wus.
Lia wus ikè o vera tempa, / but delivra wus fro adlu idlu.
[For do i ir Kongungdum, u puri, u glori.] Amen.
Faþer vár es ert í himenríki, verði nafn þitt hæilagt
Til kome ríke þitt, værði vili þin
sva a iarðu sem í himnum. Gef oss í dag brauð vort dagligt
Ok fyr gefþu oss synþer órar, sem vér fyr gefom þeim er viþ oss hafa misgert
Leiðd oss eigi í freistni, heldr leys þv oss frá ollu illu. Amen.

Modern Icelandic

"Faðir vor, þú sem ert á himnum."
"Helgist þitt nafn, til komi þitt ríki,"
"verði þinn vilji, svo á jörðu sem á himni."
"Gef oss í dag vort daglegt brauð."
"Fyrirgef oss vorar skuldir,"
"svo sem vér og fyrirgefum"
"vorum skuldunautum."
"Og eigi leið þú oss í freistni,"
"heldur frelsa oss frá illu."
"[Því að þitt er ríkið, mátturinn og dýrðin"
að eilífu.]"

Modern Norwegian (nynorsk)

Fader vår, du som er i himmelen!
Lat namnet ditt helgast..
Lat riket ditt koma.
Lat viljen din råda
på jorda så som i himmelen.
Gjev oss i dag vårt daglege brød.
Forlat vår skuld, som vi òg forlèt våre skuldmenn.
Før oss ikkje ut i freisting, men frels oss frå det vonde.
[For riket er ditt, og makta og æra i all æve.] Amen.

Modern Norwegian (bokmål)

Fader vår, du som er i himmelen!
La ditt navn være hellig.
La ditt rike komme.
La din vilje skje
på jorden som i himmelen.
Gi oss i dag vårt daglige brød.
Forlat oss våre synder, som vi óg forlater våre syndere.
Led oss ikke inn i fristelse, men frels oss fra det onde.
[For riket er ditt, og makten og æren i evighet.] Amen.


Faðir vár, tú sum ert í himlinum.
Heilagt verði navnið títt.
Komi ríkið títt.
Verði vilji tín, so sum á himli, so á jørð.
Gev okkum í dag okkara dagliga breyð.
Fyrigev okkum syndir okkara, so sum vit eisini fyrigeva teimum, ið móti okkum synda.
Leið okkum ikki í freistingar, men frels okkum frá tí illa.
[Tí at títt er ríkið, valdið og heiðurin um aldur og allar ævir.]

A Shetland "guddick" (riddle) in Norn, which Jakob Jakobsen heard told on Unst, the northernmost island in Shetland, in the 1890s. The same riddle is also known from the Faroe Islands.

Shetland Norn (Jakob Jakobsen)
Fira honga, fira gonga,
Fira staad upo "skø"
Twa veestra vaig a bee
And een comes atta driljandi.
Fýra hanga, fýra ganga,
Fýra standa uppí ský
Tvey vísa veg á bø
Og ein darlar aftast
English translation
Four hang, four walk,
Four stand skyward,
Two show the way to the field
And one comes shaking behind
Orkney (The Orkney Norn, 1926.[4])
Foweer hing-hangers,
An’fower ching-changers,

An’ een comes dinglan efter
Fjórir hanga, fjórir ganga,
Fjórir veg vísa,
Tveir fyrir hundum verja
Einn eftir drallar,
sá er oftast saurugur

The answer is a cow. Four teats hang, four legs walk, two horns and two ears stand skyward, two eyes show the way to the field and one tail comes shaking (dangling) behind.

Modern use

Daggri and Dagalien at Ulsta, Yell, Shetland.

Most of the use of Norn/Norse in modern day Shetland and Orkney is purely ceremonial, and mostly in Old Norse, for example the Shetland motto, which is "Með lögum skal land byggja" ("with law shall land be built") which is the same motto used by the Icelandic police force.

Another example of the use of Norse/Norn in the Northern Isles can be found in the names of ferries:

There are some private enthusiasts who are engaged in developing and disseminating a modern form called Nynorn, based upon linguistic analysis of the known records and Norse linguistics in general.[6]


  1. ^ Glanville Price, The Languages of Britain (London: Edward Arnold 1984, ISBN 978-0-7131-6452-7), p. 203
  2. ^ Price (1984), p. 204
  3. ^ Barnes, Michael P. The Norn Language of Orkney & Shetland. Lerwick: Shetland Times 1998. ISBN 1-898852-29-4
  4. ^ The Ornkney Norn Hugh Marwick 1926. 
  5. ^ "The Fleet – New Yell Sound Ferries". Shetland Islands Council. Retrieved 2008-02-04. 
  6. ^ "Norn". Retrieved 10 June 2011. 

See also

  • Udal law, the Norse law system of the Northern Isles.
  • Fingalian, the Anglo-Norse language of Co. Dublin.

Further reading

  • Barnes, Michael P. "Orkney and Shetland Norn". In Language in the British Isles, ed. Peter Trudgill, 352-66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Jakobsen, Jakob. An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland. 2 vols. London/Copenhagen: David Nutt/Vilhelm Prior, 1928-32 (reprinted 1985).
  • Low, George. A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland. Kirkwall: William Peace, 1879.
  • Marwick, Hugh. The Orkney Norn. London: Oxford University Press, 1929.
  • Rendboe, Laurits. "The Lord's Prayer in Orkney and Shetland Norn 1-2". North-Western European Language Evolution 14 (1989): 77-112 and 15 (1990): 49-111.
  • Wallace, James. An Account of the Islands of Orkney. London: Jacob Tonson, 1700.

External links

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