The death of the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect

Listening to extinct languages and dialects is an eerie, but incredible, experience.

The last native speaker of the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect, Bobby Hogg, has died - and with him, a version of our language which had unique words, expressions and character.

You can listen to Hogg and his brother Gordon speaking here: the dialect has a lilting, sing-song quality. Linguists think it was influenced by Norse and Dutch, and survived because of the close-knit community and relative geographical isolation of Cromarty in the Scottish Highlands. 
 
Image: Google Maps
 
We're lucky that in 2009, a researcher called Janine Donald set out to preserve and record as much of the Cromarty dialect as she could. She wrote up her findings here, and it's quite hard to see what the roots of some of the words are that were in use. For example, where did "amitan", meaning "a fool" come from? (Also, can we revive "belligut" for "a greedy person"?)
 
"Am fair sconfished wi hayreen; gie’s fur brakwast lashins o am and heggs." (I’m so fed up with herring, give me plenty of ham and eggs for breakfast.)
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of specialist vocabulary relating to fishing, which I imagine is now gone for good, like "o the teydin" meaning "seventh fishing line".
 
There's always something poignant about the death of a last speaker of a language, pidgin, creole or dialect. According to K. David Harrison's film for National Geographic, in 2010 there were around 7,000 languages in the world, but they were disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks. Dialects and other particular sub-forms of a language, therefore, are probably disappearing more regularly. For example, linguists think that only two forms of Gaelic will survive
 
Here are some other disappearing languages. First, Lydia Stepanovna Bolxoeva, one of the last speakers of "Tofa" in Siberia, from 2001: 
 

And here's Ned Maddrell, the last native speaker of Manx, the language of the Isle of Man. This was recorded in 1964, and he died in 1974 at the age of 97:

Finally, to illustrate how much living languages change, here is Shakespeare read out in Original Pronunciation. I love how OO-AR this is. (Skip to three minutes if you just want to hear Henry V.)

My favourite dialect of English is that of Tangier, Virginia, where some of the first settlers arrived in the New World. It's also relatively remote, in an island on Chesapeake Bay, and is a wonderful mixture of "goshdarn" Americanisms and archaic English. The clip is from the American Voices documentary.

Thankfully, after years of neglect, there are now several organisations doing their best to capture these languages and dialects before an increasingly interconnected world means they are lost for ever.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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No, Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity on his deathbed

From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one. 

The suggestion that atheist writer Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed was inevitable. When the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton appeared on Newsnight last week to discuss his new book, he suggested that “the Hitch” was “contemplating conversion” in his final days. The collective sigh from his fans was palpable.

That particular claim is uncontroversial. Of course Hitchens “contemplated” Christianity – to say so simply suggests he had an open mind. However, the book goes further, and claims that Hitchens began to doubt his convictions in his final days. Taunton writes that: “Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist. In private, he was entering forbidden territory, crossing enemy lines, exploring what he had ignored or misrepresented for so long.” The book is littered with similar insinuations that he was, so to speak, losing his faith. His close friends, those he wasn’t paid to spend time with as he was with Taunton, deny this completely.

Naturally, the book has sparked a host of rumours and junk articles that suggest he converted. Not one to let a cheap shot slide or leave an insinuation untouched, Hitchens was forward-thinking enough to not only predict these accusations, but deliver a perfect pre-buttal. When Anderson Cooper asked him, a short while before his death, whether he had reconsidered “hedging his bets”, he responded:

“If that comes it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented either by drugs or by pain when I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumours.”

If that isn’t enough, however, his wife has made clear in the strongest possible terms that talk of a softening on Christianity and a deathbed conversion is entirely untrue. “That never happened. He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

The spreading of fallacious rumours of deathbed conversions by the religious is predictable because there is so much historical precedent for it. Many of history’s most famous atheists have suffered this fate, so, in a sense, Hitch has now been inducted into this hall of infamy alongside the likes of Darwin, Thomas Paine, and David Hume. In God is not Great, he wrote that “the mere fact that such deathbed ‘repentances’ were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes of the bad faith of the faith-based.”

Now, not for the first time, Hitchens has fallen foul of this bad faith. After all, what can be more abhorrent than baying for a man to abandon his lifelong principles when he is at his most vulnerable, and spreading callous lies when he can no longer respond? It speaks for the complete lack of confidence these people must have in their beliefs that they strike when the individual is at their least lucid and most desperate.

Hitchens felt the bitter end of the religious stick when he was dying as well, and he responded with typical wit and good humour. He was told that it was “God’s curse that he would have cancer near his throat because that was the organ (he) used to blaspheme.” His response? “Well, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that.” One suspects that he would have rubbished recent talk in a similarly sardonic fashion.

Likewise, for a man who was not afraid of a provocative title himself (see: The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie to) it would be reasonable to think he’d accept his own life as fair game. From Mother Theresa to Princess Diana, for Hitchens, there were no sacred cows. He certainly would not have wanted to become one.

Fortunately, we are blessed with the wonders of the internet, and Hitchens can respond to these claims as Thomas Paine and David Hume could not – from the grave. His prediction and preparation for this speaks of an intellect like no other. In a posthumous debate he still wins out.