The team behind Shaetlan’s new online dictionary hopes for vibrant community participation

Local language speakers now have the opportunity to actively help collect and record words and phrases relevant to Shaetlan, thanks to a new initiative by language group I hear Dee.

The creation of an interactive dictionary with the help of the local community also enables the new online tool to become a representative snapshot of contemporary local discourse as it will include local versions of today’s words and expressions.

The Spaektionary online dictionary went live today (Saturday) at https://spaek.org

It comes the same week that local dialect group Shetland ForWirds has launched an app to give easy access to its database based on the John Graham Dictionary.

The idea of ​​creating an open-ended resource that will grow through community involvement was first floated by Shetlander James Stewart.

At Christmas celebrations a few years ago, her grandmother Whalsay encouraged those gathered around the table to “gumble over it” when a large plate of fries was brought without any serving spoons.

Stewart, who now lives in Ayrshire and works as a software engineer, said she obviously meant they just had to use their hands, but it was an expression he had never heard and agreed. soon realized that this and many more would be lost if not saved.

“I have a grandmother in Whalsay and one in Burra,” he continued, “and they both have different words for ‘spaegie’. [muscle soreness or fatigue]. Granny in Burra says “creeks” and my grandmother in Whalsay says it’s “hansper”.

James Stewart approached the I Hear Dee project in April this year with the idea of ​​creating an interactive dictionary.

He has now created an online database with the help of Dr Viveka Velupillai and Roy Mullay which, with its nearly 8,000 entries over time, is on its way to becoming the largest Shaetlan dictionary since the Faroese linguist Jakob Jakobsen has collected around 10,000 entries from the remains of Norn which was spoken in Shetland around 130 years ago.

The dictionary consists of the Shaetlan Project Lexical Database, which is built on a corpus of 20 oral history records from the Shetland Museum and Archives totaling around 316,000 words.

It also includes entries from a range of sources, including Alastair and Adaline Christie-Johnson’s Shetland wordsJohn Graham’s The Shetland Dictionary and Shetland ForWirds’ Mirds or Wirds.

“The purpose of the dictionary is to enable the community of Shaetlan speakers to come together to improve and expand this dictionary,” Dr Velupillai said.

“What we’re hoping for is community engagement, so that people record their voice saying the words/phrases, and add words/phrases or definitions that are missing from the dictionary.”

Stewart said, “I guess my grannies have a bit of a hand in trying to preserve some of that language and figure out where it came from geographically.”

The new dictionary so far lists five different words for ‘muscle pain’ which are used in different parts of Shetland. There could well be more.

Dr Velupillai, a linguistics professor at the University of Giessen in Germany, said the I Hear Dee project was the result of his scientific project to document and describe Shaetlan. The dictionary project, she said, will help safeguard the language.

“A participatory community dictionary like this will place Shaetlan at the global forefront of digital language tools and pave the way for more global recognition of Shaetlan,” she said.

It articulates with many other projects I hear Dee has launched over the past 12 months, including the development of predictive text in Shaetlan for mobile phones, the launch of a localized version of the viral Wordle word game and, just two months ago, the release of a first bilingual grammatical description of the local language.

“The dictionary is web-based but is designed to be accessible on mobile phone web browsers.” says Dr. Velupillai.

“The code is open source and available to everyone, which means other endangered languages ​​can create their own Spaektionary equivalents if they wish.

“It is likely that my international colleagues will want advice on how to create something similar for the languages ​​they work on; this is what happened after the launch of Wirdle.

Meanwhile, Stewart said the project’s launch on Saturday was not the end of the project but the start of an exciting new phase in keeping the local language alive. “I would like him to evolve more,” he said.

A possible next step to diving deep into local knowledge is to organize a village hall tour, celebrate the dialect and go beyond online.

“I would love to have offline meetings tied to the online dictionary database,” Stewart said, “because having my grandmother use it online is probably pretty unrealistic.”


When registering https://spaek.org users will be able to add words and sample sentences, record pronunciations or comment on entries. The website also has a large FAQ section and features a Shetland word of the day, which today is “peerie”.

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