This dictionary lists dialect words which are not normally found in an English dictionary. It also includes English words and phrases which are used in Orkney in a special way. However the reader will also find in the lists English words which are spelt differently. This is to help the reader to pronounce the word and to write and recognise it in Orcadian. For a number of reasons it has not been possible to include every word which is pronounced differently. Firstly, so many English words are changed when pronounced by an Orcadian that if we had included them all we would have ended up with a heavy and costly book. Secondly it is very difficult to write some of our pronunciations because there is no English vowel which we can use to represent the sound. Take the word ‘fish’ for example. As an Orcadian you may think that you pronounce this in an ‘English’ fashion but you do not. Say ‘fish’, then ask an English speaker to say the same word and note the difference. There is no way in which this difference can be written so you will not find ‘fish’ in the dictionary! When you are having this little game why not say ‘Birsay’ – in Orcadian of course – and ask the English speaker to repeat exactly what you say. You will find that the English speaker is unable to copy you! Just as it is not possible to write ‘fish’ in the way that Orcadians pronounce it, it is not possible to write ‘Birsay’ either unless we add new letters to the alphabet!

Orcadians in their speech use a number of sounds which are unknown in English but which are used for example in Norwegian and the Norwegians have special letters for these sounds. Take for example the Orkney word for a coalfish – a cuithe. The sound in the middle can easily be written in Norwegian with the special letter ø. When the committee who planned this dictionary was discussing how the Orkney words should be written, there was a great debate about whether letter ø should be used to represent this sound or whether in fact we should do as the Shetlanders do since they have the same problem. They chose the German and Icelandic letter . In the end the committee decided to use English letters wherever possible so you will find that in this dictionary the vowels ui or sometimes eu together are used to represent this sound and so a cuithe remains a cuithe.

The non-Orcadian reader will be interested to know whether there are any pronunciation rules. When advising on pronunciation, dictionary makers have to be very careful since just as the pronunciation of English varies greatly from one part of Britain to the other, so the pronunciation of Orcadian varies from parish to parish and from island to island. Perhaps the greatest difference lies in the pronunciation of words in the north Isles and on The Mainland. Words ending in ‘ead’ such as head, dead and bread are sounded ‘heid’, ‘deid’ and ‘breid’. There is evidence that this is a relic of a pronunciation which at one time was found throughout Orkney since the word dread is pronounced ‘dreed’ everywhere. Several other North Isles words change in the same way. Name is pronounced ‘neem’ and tale, sounded ‘teel’, whereas table is ‘teeble’ and able ‘eeble’. North Ronaldsay folk pronounce the long i as ‘oi’; in this way mile is sounded ‘moile’ and while as ‘whoile’. Like Westray folk they also pronounce the short a as ‘ay’ in which case apple becomes ‘ayple’ and barn ‘bayrn’. Where an a is followed by an ‘r’ the position is complicated. On The Mainland, west of the range of hills which passes through Birsay and Harray, an a followed by a r is sounded as if it were a short ‘e’. In this way car becomes ‘ker’, guitar, ‘guit-er’. North Isles folk might say ‘Er thoo?’ instead of ‘Are thoo?’ When ar is followed by t as in part, smart, cart, start, such words are universally pronounced as ‘pert’, ‘smert’, ‘kert’ and ‘stert’ but there is no rule for other ‘art’ type words; ‘mart’ and ‘wart’ for example are regular. As for the word arm it is regularly pronounced ‘erm’ throughout Orkney.

We also have to remember that, as in any dialect, pronunciation is changing rapidly and there are great differences between one generation and another. For instance in the examples below, the oo sound in English which is pronounced ‘ui’ in dialect does not seem to have been adopted by the younger generation, few of whom would talk about the muin for the ‘moon’ or skuil for ‘school’.

The following guidelines therefore are general and are certainly not intended to indicate that any one pronunciation is superior to another.


The sound of some consonants differ from English. A hard c or k may still be heard pronounced ‘ch’ in the North Isles, especially in North Ronaldsay. e.g. care becomes ‘chair’, cake ‘chek’, kiosk ‘chosk’. One might joke that when one North Ronaldsay chicken meets another it enquires, ‘Hoo are thoo cheepan?’ This pronunciation does not exist on The Mainland though we know it did exist and can be seen in placenames such as the Chair o the Lyde where ‘chair’ is the same word as Norwegian dialect kjerr a bog. Some old folks pronounce k as a t. If they do so they generally introduce a y immediately after it so that kettle becomes tyettle. The consonant d is often lost if it appears in conjunction with l, e.g candle becomes ‘canle’ and handle, hanle. As in English dialect old loses its final d to becomes ‘aal’ and cold is rendered ‘caal’. Both j and soft g are usually pronounced ‘ch’ throughout Orkney and so German jam becomes ‘Cherman cham’. The policy adopted in the compilation of the dictionary is not to reject the ‘ch’ spelling of words beginning with j and soft g and we should like to recommend that dialect writers also adopt this approach. H is always sounded at the beginning of a word, the main exception being the word hospital, always pronounced ‘ospital’. House also loses its initial h in the common expression wir oos, ‘our house’. Many older people still pronounce qu as ‘wh’. An instruction to a child to stop doing something was, ‘White hid!’ which means ‘Quit that!’ S is pronounced as in English unless there is an r sound in front of it in which case, in some parts of Orkney but excluding the North Isles, the s is pronounced ‘sh’. English worse for example is pronounced ‘warsh’. Even where a word ending with an r sound is followed by a word beginning with an s, this s will also be changed to ‘sh’. More supper becomes therefore in, chiefly Mainland, dialect ‘more shupper’. Th at the beginning and end of words always used to be pronounced as t. Length would be ‘lent’, earth ‘ert’ and the parish of Firth, ‘Firt’. Thing would be sounded ‘ting’ and think as ‘tink’. Such pronunciations may still be heard though ‘doo’ and ‘dee’, the old dialect pronunciation of ‘thoo’ and ‘thee’ is completely lost. Wh in initial position is always sounded, unlike in English. For example whereas wheel in English is sounded ‘weel’ Orcadians would sound the complete word. Initial z is pronounced ‘s’, hence zoo and zebra become ‘soo’ and ‘sebra’.


The letter l in a word frequently affects the sound of the vowel in front of it. Where a is followed by a double ‘l’ the a becomes short. All becomes ‘aal’, tall becomes ‘taal’ and wall becomes ‘waal’ (or shorter ‘wa’) and so on. Where a short e is follwed by a double l the e is sounded ‘ay’, for example sell, yell and hell are rendered ‘sayl’, ‘yayl’ and ‘hayl’. There are important exceptions to this as in the case of well (in the sense of ‘healthy’) which is pronounced ‘weel’ and well meaning a spring of water which on The Mainland is pronounced ‘waal’. Where e is followed by ‘w’ as in new or few the e is sounded approximately ‘ow’ on The Mainland. An Orcadian seeing a neighbour might enquire ‘Whit nows wi thee the day?’ meaning ‘What news with you today?’ The dialect pronunciation in the North Isles of e followed by ‘w’ has no equivalent English dipthong. Where a long i is followed by ‘nd’ the tendency is for the i to be short as in ‘blind’, ‘find’, ‘wind’ (round), ‘grind’ all of which rhyme with ‘wind’ in the sense of ‘gale’. Important exceptions are ‘mind’ and ‘kind’ which are sounded as in English. The short ‘i’ is usually pronounced as in English but there are several important exceptions in which it is pronounced ‘ee’. For example wicked, king, kick, basin and kitchen are pronounced ‘weekid’, ‘keeng’, ‘besseen’ and ‘keetcheen’. The short i in the gerund ending as for example in English fishing is also sounded ‘ee’ and since the ‘g’ sound of the gerund is always dropped the reader will find in the dictionary that all gerunds are written in the form ‘fisheen’, ‘wirkeen’ and so on. This applies to other nouns which have the ‘ing’ suffix, e.g. ‘pudding’, which appears here as ‘puddeen’ which happens to have a short ‘u’ in Orcadian to make things even more complicated! The English long o as in rope, broke and soap for example is pronounced as a short o in Orcadian and become therefore ‘rop’, ‘brok’ and ‘sop’. The old pronuciation of the short o was ‘ae’ so rope was ‘raep’ and soap, ‘saep’. It is still possible to hear soap pronounced in this way though the pronunciation ‘raep’ is reserved only for the line or rod (originally rope) above a fireplace. In instances where the long o is followed by l the sound of the o is changed to ‘ow’ and so old becomes ‘owld’, cold ‘cowld’ and so on. English words ending in -ull have two different pronunciations, for example full and dull. In Orcadian all words ending in -ull are pronounced as English dull.

English Orcadian Examples of Orcadian Examples of exceptions
ea ae (see note above on North Isles pronunciation of ‘ead’ type words) ‘peat’ becomes paet leap (leep), leave (layve), great (gret), leak (lek), steal (stale), dream (draym)
ou, ow oo ‘sound’ becomes soond

‘pour’ becomes poor

‘now’ becomes noo

‘bow’ (of a boat) becomes boo

‘towel’ becomes tooel

ground (grund), low, mound, £-pound (all pronounced as in English)
oa o ‘boat’ becomes bot
ay ey ‘away’ becomes awey

‘hay’ becomes hey

say, lay, day, play are pronounced as in English
oo ui/eu ‘moon’ becomes muin

‘soon’ becomes suin

‘fool’ becomes fuil

‘to’ and ‘do’ (which have an ‘oo’ sound in English) become teu and deu

au, aw aa ‘haul’ becomes haal

‘fault’ becomes faalt

‘law’ becomes laay

‘saw’ becomes saa

‘shawl’ becomes shaal

ai ey ‘hail’ becomes hel sounded as in English ‘hel(p)’

‘nail’ becomes nel

pail is sounded as in English

No English vowel or diphthong can represent the sound of the ‘aa’ in Orcadian ‘waal’ meaning a spring of water. Though ‘waal’ is used to mean spring of water and wall in this dictionary their pronunciation is completely different. The Rousay, Evie and Rendall pronunciation of ‘aal’ meaning all contains the same vowel as ‘waal’ meaning a spring of water.