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. Her study into the decline of Gaelic in East Sutherland is considered an important and detailed study of language death.

Dorian first went to study in East Sutherland in Scotland in 1963. Noting that a declining localized speech form offered a chance to find out what sorts of changes took place as a speech form passed out of use, she began a long-term study of variation and change in the local Gaelic.[3] 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 more than 200 speakers of the dialect, including one parrot. Although traditional practice calls for anthropologists to change fieldwork settings, health challenges led Dorian to continue study of East Sutherland language development, a situation that had the beneficial side effect of producing a study of unprecedented scope and continuity.[4] This study has continued into the first two decades of the twenty-first century, when only a handful of speakers remain. She has 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. Her introduction of the term "semi-speaker" and her attention to the way that speech competence develops differently in endangered and obsolete languages led socio-linguists to take an interest in understanding different speaker types and their relations to the process of language shift and language shift reversal.

Nancy Dorian received her Ph.D from the University of Michigan and is a former professor of linguistics and anthropology at Bryn Mawr College.

In 2012 Dorian was awarded the Kenneth L. Hale Award by the Linguistic Society of America, an award which "recognizes scholars who have done outstanding work on the documentation of a particular language or family of languages that is endangered or no longer spoken.".[5] The Society recognized Dorian for "research on Scots Gaelic that spans a period of almost fifty years—perhaps the most sustained record of research on any endangered language; and for her effective advocacy for the cause of endangered language preservation and revitalization. Hers was one of the earliest and is still one of the most prominent voices raised in support of endangered languages."[6]

Dorian 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, p. 106)


  • 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. 
  3. ^ Dorian, "Surprises in Sutherland: Linguistic variability amidst social uniformity" in Linguistic Fieldwork, ed. Paul Newman and Martha Ratliff (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 142
  4. ^ Dorian, "Introduction" to Small-Language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages, Collected Essays, (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 3, 23, 25.
  5. ^
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