Tae thee, or no tae thee?

The owld Orkney pronouns – the ‘thoo’s, the ‘thee’s, and the occasional ‘thine’s – that well up like sweet spring watter in Westray and Papay and also, less frequently these days, in the West Mainland, present me wae a dilemma.

There’s no doot that previous generations o me family used these words. We hiv a family story aboot me great grandparents visiting a ferm on the Lyde Road in Harray. The wife o the ferm asked me great grandmither ‘Wid thoo be blide o a swine’s puddeen?’. And me Granny used tae tell me aboot someone who joked ‘Aal the world’s queer but thee and mee, and thoo’re a bit queer’.

But these pronouns are more or less completely extinct in Mainland noo. Wance, aboot ten year ago, in the bank in Kirkwall, a wife said tae me: ‘Pit in thee PIN number, buddo.’ And anither time I heard a North Isles bus driver sayan tae an owld wife, ‘On thu comes’ – never was there a gentler or a more compassionate utterance. In their twilight years, the writers Edwin and Willa Muir continued tae refer tae one anither in their Orkney and Shetland parlance as ‘beuy’ and ‘lass’, and they kept their island pronouns alive, although they had lived the literary life in Prague, Dresden, the United States. The ancient pronouns serve a function going way beyond the cowld, formal ‘you’ and ‘yours’; they convey a warmth, a generations-deep familiarity, a compassion.

So, is it ridiculous for someone who hasna really used them in the past tae employ these pronouns when addressing a bairn, a spouse, a beloved pet or farm animal, in the twenty first century? The resurrectionists of Welsh, Cornish, Manx achieve tremendous success in reviving their language in its entirety – whit can a peedie pronoun hurt?

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