I began an Orkney translation of Julia Donaldson’s children’s classic The Gruffalo last December, just for pure fun. I love the original text, and used to read it with both of my bairns when they were peedie. I also love James Robertson’s version, The Gruffalo in Scots. This Gruffalo is much closer to Orkney language than the original is, but there are words and soonds in the Scots version that somehow just aren’t right for Orkney. ‘A moose took a dauner through the deep, mirk widd/ A tod saw the moose and the moose looked guid’ is pure Scots poetry, but we don’t say ‘guid’ in Orkney, and we wouldn’t say ‘tod’ for ‘fox’ either, so these lines had to change completely. In the end, The Orkney Gruffalo began ‘A moose teuk a dander through the grimly trees/ A fox saa the moose, an thowt You’ll feed me!‘ We certainly speak Scots in Orkney, but it’s a pretty distinct variety.
Working through the text posed a number of challenges, and began to show me what Orkney language is capable of when you really push it. A journalist remarked to me today that it is surprising that just about all of the words – probably about three quarters of them – have undergone a marked change from English, and many of them have become completely and utterly different. The moose is peedie, the gruffalo is muckle – and already we’re in the realms of Viking language. And when we say moose, it’s the same as Norwegian mus – the older, correct northern form of the word that became corrupted in the sooth. The Gruffalo can only be described as a baest – one of the words we use in Orkney for a ku – because Orkney has more kye per hectare than anywhere else in Europe. Playing with contemporary idiom is great fun, too, so the moose says Beuy, dae ye no ken? And isn’t ken the same in Orkney, Norway and Germany? I’m starting to agree with the folk who say that Scots and English are different languages.
The grammar is different, too. In Orkney, it’s grammatically correct to say ‘His eyes is orange’. The verb ‘is’ agrees correctly with the noun ‘eyes’. This might seem odd to old-school grammarians, but to insist on one grammar to the detriment of another is, I think, very wrong. Orkney language has its own consistent grammar and follows its own rules. Likewise, the first person possessive pronoun in Orkney is ‘me’, as in me puggie is rummlan. How many folk have been told off over the years for using ‘incorrect’ language like this? It’s good to celebrate diversity, and to recognise the historical pedigree of this stuff. After all, everybody kens English. Wur language is rare, and unique.
And whar dis aal this language come fae? I don’t tend tae use the owld Orkney pronoun ‘hid’ much mesel, but I ken folk who say it aal the time, and it felt right at places in the translation. And when the moose sterts tae get hungry, it wis a bairn in the Shapinsay school who reminded me o the word puggie. Then I minded on a story me grannie telt me aboot a boy fae Copinsay who described a previous night’s thunder tae her wan day – Hid rummled an rummled – hence me puggie is rummlan. So the translation goes deeper intae wur community and history, but it hid tae remain contemporary…
Hou faer could I push the translation waeoot it becoman a heritage piece? Weel, there’s no words in it that I hivna heard used in Orkney in the last year. An that includes slightly rarer words like neb, grimly, splet or baelan, words that are a bit less common these days, but are still very much alive. There’s also contemporary stuff here, too. This cool moose eats good maet. An aal kinds o things are made intae tasty nuggets these days; fae chicken tae alligator, so why no Gruffalo?
Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy the Orkney Gruffalo, and that ye’ll enjoy readin it tae your bairns or grandbairns. It’s published by Itchy Coo on October 21st.