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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear