Until recently, it was possible to tell exactly which island or part of the Mainland anyone came from by the way they spoke. It is still possible to some extent but not with the same amount of accuracy. This means that, although we speak of Orcadian as a single dialect, within that dialect there are many different ways of saying the same word; and this in turn makes compiling a dictionary of Orcadian quite difficult.

The problem can be solved in two different ways. One way is to pick one pronunciation of a word and decide that that should be the standard form, but this would mean losing a lot of the variety, colour and interest of the dialect. The second method is to include as many different pronunciations as possible to show the variations between districts, and this is the method we have chosen.

Until now there has been no guide to help with spelling Orcadian and this has meant a wide variety in spelling which makes it difficult for the reader. We have therefore tried to bring order and consistency into the spelling of Orcadian sounds. As far as possible we have followed English spelling conventions as these are the most familiar.We learn them in our first year at school. If an English word is used in Orcadian with only a slight difference in pronunciation, we see no reason to change it. For example, although we pronounce the letter ‘j’ in Orcadian as ‘ch’, we see no reason to drop the letter ‘j’ in spelling. Orcadians always pronounce ‘j’ as ‘ch’ when reading English and will therefore have no trouble in doing the same when reading Orcadian. In fact, to change the spelling to ‘ch’ each time makes Orcadian more difficult to read as we are used to the convention of spelling with ‘j’.

As far as possible we have used familiar spellings and we hope that our approach is one of common sense. We have added the following conventions to help with the spelling of Orcadian words:

AA is used to represent the long ‘a’ sound in gaan (going) as opposed to gan (stare).

AE is used for the sound in Orcadian paet, maet etc. (English peat, meat.)

EI is used as in Scots to show the dialect equivalent of a word which would have EA in English, for example heid, breid for head, bread.

EY is used, not as in English grey, but as a diphthong which English does not have. Examples: wey (way), gey (quite).

UI and EU are used for the sound in, for example, cuithe, which is similar to French ‘eu’. A general rule is followed whereby UI is used at the beginning and in the middle of words, and EU is reserved for endings, for example sheu.

Y is used in the middle of words to represent the sound in ‘why’. The exception to this is when it follows ‘g’, as in gyung, when it should be pronounced as in ‘young’.

AU is used only to illustrate the North Ronaldsay pronunciation of a + n as in aund, and. It should be pronounced as in English ‘fault’.

Use of the apostrophe

There is a tendency, when writing dialect, to put in an apostrophe whenever it is considered that a letter is missing from the English equivalent of a word. For example, many writers put in an apostrophe after o’ (thus), meaning English “of”. We consider that there is no need to do this since it is dialect which is being written, and in Orcadian we use the word “o”, not the word “of”. Similarly there is no need to put in an apostrophe after the present participle, indicating a missing g, as the present participle in Orcadian ends in -an. An apostrophe should be used only to indicate that a letter is missing in Orcadian, as for example “Ah’m” for “I am”.

To show the diversity of pronunciation within Orkney we have tried to use examples of speech from as many places as possible, but we have not specified in the main body of text which areas these examples come from. While examples from North Ronaldsay are readily identifiable by the use of soft ‘j’ for hard ‘g’ among other features, we believe that readers will be able to deduce the origins of the others fairly easily. We hope, in this way, that we have managed to show a little of the variety and richness of our dialect.