LONDON — In a remote fishing town on the tip of Scotland's Black Isle, the last native speaker of the Cromarty dialect has passed away, taking with him a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.
Academics said Wednesday that Bobby Hogg, who passed away last week at age 92, was the last person fluent in the dialect once common to the seaside town of Cromarty, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of Edinburgh.
"I think that's a terrible thing," said Robert Millar, a linguistics expert at the University of Aberdeen in northern Scotland. "The more diversity in terms of nature we have, the healthier we are. It's the same with language."
Cromarty, which counts just over 700 people, is at the very end of a sparsely-populated peninsula of forest and farmland. It's separated from Inverness, the closest city, by the Beauly Firth, a wide body of cold water where salmon run and dolphins frolic.
The Cromarty dialect included a helping of Biblically-influenced "thees" and "thous" as well as a wealth of seafaring vocabulary (including three sets of words for "second fishing line.")
The aspirate "h'' was often added or subtracted, so that "house" would be pronounced "oos" and "apple" would be pronounced "haypel." The "wh" sound was often dropped entirely.
A lexicon of Cromarty words, relying in large part on Hogg's speech, gave "Oo thee keepan?" as the town's translation of "How're you?"
The demise of an obscure dialect spoken by a few hundred people at the edge of Scotland may not register for most English speakers — "we'll all live," Millar said — but it's part of a relentless trend toward standardization which has driven many regional dialects and other local languages into oblivion. Linguists often debate how to define and differentiate the world's many dialects, but most agree that urbanization, compulsory education, and mass media have conspired to iron out many of the kinks that made rural speech unique.
Urban dialects may still be strong — Millar referred to "Toonserspik," the "town speech" of cities like Aberdeen — but he said they're don't replace what's being lost.
He explained that urban dialects tend to be more similar to one another than their rural counterparts, with an emphasis on differences in pronunciation over differences in vocabulary. And even rival cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh "sound more like each other than they used to."
Author Mark Abley, who has written about the dynamism of the English language, agrees.
"I don't believe there's a straightforward balancing-act in which urban dialects grow as rural ones shrink," he said in an email. "Cities are always melting pots, and isolation for any group is very hard to maintain."
As the worlds' melting pots grow ever bigger — half the Earth's population now lives in cities — lesser-known dialects like those from England's Forest of Deen to Scotland's remote island chains are evaporating.
Minor languages are melting away as well; the British Isles saw two go extinct within living memory, according to UNESCO.
The last native speaker of Alderney French, a Norman dialect spoken in the Channel Islands, died around 1960. The last speaker of traditional Manx, the language once spoken on the Isle of Man, died in 1974.
Donna Heddle, the director of the Center for Nordic Studies at Scotland's University of the Highlands and Islands, said the loss of each little language or regional dialect leaves the world just slightly poorer than it was before.Comment on this story
"It's one less little sparkle in the firmament," she said. "One little star might go out and you might never notice it, but it's not there anymore."
The Cromarty Fisherfolk Dialect: http://www.ambaile.org.uk/en/download/files/The%20Cromarty%20Fisherfolk%20Dialect.pdf (PDF)
UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger: http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/index.php