Trows and other Norse fragments

Linguistic clues to their Nordic past linger in the modern-day Shetland and Orkney Islands

An illustration of a sea troll.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Norwegian Theodor Kittelsen’s “Sjøtrollet,” 1887 (The Sea Troll). Shetland trows are typically shorter than trolls, but they have much in common, including a linguistic root.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

While reading British-born author Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Island series, I became curious about her inclusion of colloquial island words, like trow. It and others sounded much like the Norse words. For instance, were the words troll and trow related? Yes, as a trow is a night creature who has bad intent.

It was though Cleeves’s writings, given to me by the wonderful Jean Larsen, that I began to not only see but also hear remnants of Norn, a Norse language spoken in the Shetland and Orkney Islands as well as Caithness, the northernmost part of the Scottish mainland. c can be found in the Shetlanders’ everyday language, especially in the place names like Lerwick, which comes from Leirvík, i.e. muddy bay. Also Walls, a settlement known locally as Waas, is named for a Norn descriptive word for the way the sea comes into the bay. And most importantly the name Shetland itself was procured from two old Norse words hjalt (hilt) and land (land). They even have a place called Tingwall (the old Norse parliament), the equivalent of Iceland’s Althing.

In some cases words have been altered from their Norse counterparts. Replacing “th” with “d” is a common change.

Not only have specific words and phrases stuck, so has a segment of Norn’s sentence structure. The Orkney dialect puts prepositions at the end of sentences, a trait that Dr. Heddle, Director of the Center for Nordic Studies, sees as evidence of Norseness.

The inclusion of Nordic words is not limited to the outer reaches of Scotland, as commonly used words “like bairn (child), midden (dump), muckle (large) and even kilt (from the verb kjalta, meaning ‘to fold’) are derived from Old Norse,” Heddle told the BBC.

This Norse linguistic connection should not be so surprising, as the Vikings began settling the Shetland Islands in the early ninth century. The Shetlands and Orkney were twined under Viking and later Scandinavian rule for over six centuries. The interesting language they spoke is believed to be derived from the west coast of Norway and was used until the 15th century, when Norn was ousted and supplanted by the tongue of the Scots English. What is surprising is that much of the language and culture survives more than five centuries later.

The Scottish influence did not abruptly change the language and Norse influence of the Shetlands but gradually took over beginning in the 13th century, when Scottish Earls began replacing Norse Earls, who still had to answer to Norway. By the 14th century, Scottish, which had been the secondary spoken language, gained more importance. For a while these islands remained bilingual, until Scots English became the dominant language.

In 1468/1469 Norway promised the islands of Shetland and Orkney to Scotland, specifically to King James III. It was part of the dowry of his wife-to-be, Princess Margaret of Denmark. One century later the Shetlands were transferred from Norway to Scotland. In 1707 the islands changed hands again when Scotland was subsumed into the Kingdom of Great Britain. Yet, with all of these changes and passing centuries, there is documentation that certain pockets of the islands continued to speak Norn until the late 1890s, and the islands retained familial and trading ties to mainland Norway all the while.

Today, Norse remnants are found in many places. The Shetland and Orkney flags are very similar to the other Scandinavian countries, with a cross dominating them. The Shetland Islands’ coat of arms includes the islands’ motto, Með lögum skal land byggja, “By law shall land be built.” This phrase comes from The Code of Jutland (Denmark) 1241. The Shetlands celebrate an annual end of Yule fest, Up-Helly-Aa (featured in one of Cleeves’s books and one of the segments of the PBS series based on her books), at the end of January. Groups dressed up as Viking tribes process through the streets with lit torches. It culminates with the torches being thrown into the harbor, aimed at a Viking longship, which ignites in a glorious blaze.

Like Scandinavians, Shetlanders revel in a great love of language and literature. In fact, the prestigious and hip Iceland Noir Book Festival created a Shetland Noir in 2015. I am certain that Ann Cleeves’s popular Shetland book series, later made into a wonderful BBC TV series that played on PBS, was the impetus for the festival’s location that year.

So why do so many Norn words still exist to this day in the Islands? These fragments of a former language may seem insignificant. But they have remained because they are useful today. Many are descriptive of trades tied to employment, such as fishing; others to Shetland creativity in what they craft; while still others refer to their very special seaswept landscape.

Words are more than letters on a page. They often stay in use because they reflect the zeitgeist of a culture. Norse linguistics have remained relevant because they resonate with the contemporary Shetlands. In order for words to survive, they need to continue to be symbols and reflections of a culture. That these continue to be in use means that to some degree the Norse way of life has endured.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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