Nancy Dorian

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Nancy C. Dorian
Born 1936[1]
Nationality American
Fields linguistics, Celtic studies, anthropology
Alma mater University of Michigan
Known for work in Scottish Gaelic and language death

Nancy C. Dorian is an American linguist[2] who has carried out research into the death of the East Sutherland dialect of Scottish Gaelic for over 40 years, particularly in the villages of Brora, Golspie and Embo. Noting that arguments were made about what happens when a language begins to die out, she decided to study a declining language until it had no remaining speakers and examine the evolution of its grammar, phonology, and other linguistic features. The language in question, East Sutherland Gaelic, is an isolated dialect, with substantial differences from other dialects of Scots Gaelic, preserved in three small communities of Scottish fisherfolk. In the early years of the study there were 200+ speakers, including one parrot. As of 2014 there are three living speakers, as well as Dorian herself.

She also studied young people who could speak Gaelic but didn't speak it often ('semi-speakers') and noted their ability to quickly return to fluency with effort.

Nancy Dorian received her Ph.D from the University of Michigan and is a former professor in linguistics and anthropology at Bryn Mawr College. Working for the Linguistic Survey of Scotland in 1963, there was little expectation at the time of finding Gaelic locally spoken but Dorian found over 200 Gaelic speakers. Her study into the decline of Gaelic in East Sutherland is considered an important and detailed study of language death.

She was the subject of a documentary that aired on the BBC: "Mar a Chunnaic Mise: Nancy Dorian agus a' Ghàidhlig," in Scots Gaelic with English subtitles.


She observed the discomfort and hostility shown by some of these speakers, 'Who wanted nothing more than to be inconspicuous'.

  • "The Gaelic-speaking East Sutherland fisherfolk have in one sense already been proven 'wrong', in that some of the youngest members of their own kin circles have begun to berate them for choosing not to transmit the ancestral language and so allowing it to die." (Language Death, David Crystal, p106)


  • East Sutherland Gaelic: The Dialect of the Brora, Golspie, and Embo Fishing Communities, 1978, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
  • Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect, 1981, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • The Tyranny of Tide: An Oral History of the East Sutherland Fisherfolk, 1984, Karoma Publishers
  • Investigating Obsolescence: Studies in Language Contraction and Death (Editor), 1989, Cambridge University Press
  • Investigating Variation: The Effects of Social Organization and Social Setting, 2010, Oxford University Press
  • Small-Language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages: Collected Essays, 2014, Brill


  1. ^ "Tobar an Dualchais - Biography". Tobar an Dualchais. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  2. ^ Brenzinger, Matthias (1992). Language death: factual and theoretical explorations with special reference to East Africa. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 4–. ISBN 978-3-11-013404-9. Retrieved 8 June 2011. 


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