Home > Research > The return of the Scots language: Some thoughts

The return of the Scots language: Some thoughts

Ok, so I know that this article was posted a while back (May), but given that I started my blog after it came out and I wanted to talk about other stuff first, I think I have good reason for only now getting round to discussing it.

Basically, the basis of the article is discussing whether or not Scots (not Gaelic, Scots, which is derived from the Old Northumbrian dialect of Old English and has a very separate genealogy to English) is due a revival as the ‘language of the people’. This is especially pertinent in the recent SNP victory in the Scottish elections, and many Scots language enthusiasts are optimistic that (awkward sentence ahead!) this new found sense of political will will manifest itself as an outbreak of enthusiasm for the Scots language (/awkward sentence…). One of the commentators on the article, James Robertson (a novelist with the publishers ‘Itchy Coo’) even goes as far as to say:

“In an independent Scotland,the country’s indigenous language will be given more value and status, and people will feel much more proud and confident in using these words.”

Will this actually happen? In a word, ‘no’.

In slightly more words, ‘it’s massively unlikely that the state of events as envisaged by Robertson will come to pass’. Why? Well, I’ll tell you why sonny jim try and give a reasoned response as to why I think that there will be no substantial increase in the number of Scots speakers.

The first thing is that there is a problem of definition on what ‘Scots’ actually is. Ok, so it has a separate linguistic history from English and it has its own literary tradition which predates many of the foremost English poets, but do speakers in Scotland today really speak ‘Scots’? If I say “I’m gaun hame’ (I’m going home) but I don’t say ‘that’s a muckle big dug’ (That’s a really large dog), am I a Scots speaker? What about if I spell the 2nd person plural pronoun youz rather than youse, am I a Scots speaker then? There are a myriad of competencies of ‘Scots’, but who decides where the dividing line is?

Moreover, Scots has no codified dictionary, so there is no national standard for the writing system. That impacts on its learnability and (unfortunately) its relative prestige. Because Scots isn’t standardised, the question of whether it’s a dialect or a separate language in its own right also raises its head. I’d go as far to say that Scots is more like a creole, absorbing and integrating influences from English, and I’d argue that over the past 50 – 100 years, Scots in Scotland has lost much of what made it ‘different’ from English. Unfortunately, I don’t think that there will be a reversal. Trying to change back to an antiquated version of Scots (such as that seen in the article) is trying to freeze language in the past and ignores the fact that language change is an inevitable part of human communication. But in many ways, the ‘language or dialect?’ question is moot for everyday purposes. Having a status as a ‘language’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the average person on the street is going to all of a sudden start using it, and grassroots support is absolutely vital in Scots reestablishing itself.

And whether Scots is a language or a dialect doesn’t help us answer one of the main issues in this debate: contemporary Scots and English is mutually intelligible (that is, speakers can understand one another). The merging of Scots and English has become ever more pronounced (no pun intended), and speakers in Scotland and England have (generally) no problems understanding one another. From the 18th Century, Scottish landowners, business men and capitalists realised that England was the biggest and richest trading partner, and if they wanted to make money, well, they better speak the lingo of those who had the money. The Union of the Crowns, the Union of Parliaments, and English being used in education and religion, all influenced the spread of English in Scotland. English is now massively powerful in Scotland and is integrated into our every day way of life. Usurping that would take massive social will and I don’t think that we’re there yet (or really ever will be). Hugh MacDiarmid tried to have his nationalist poetry inspire grassroots use of Scots (or at least, his version of Scots) and guess what? It didn’t take off…

This is not to say that I don’t think that Scots doesn’t have a future. I believe it does and if it was to be lost completely, I would be devastated. But we have to recognise the fact that Scots is never going to reestablish itself as the language of Scotland, particularly with the lines so blurred between Scots and English in contemporary society. People are not going to all of a sudden adopt Scots and eschew English, not with the opportunities afforded by a strong command of English. Scots is clearly different from English, and perhaps there is the potential have children being able to command both. I commend the commentators in the article for trying to raise public awareness about this topic, maybe if we can keep Scots alive in the classroom, maybe a little bit of it will spill out as those children get older and enter into the workplace and use it with their own children. But I can’t say that I’ll be holding my breath…

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  1. Aly Brown
    August 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Fascinating article, which I have to say (unfortunately!)I do agree with. It will never be re-established as the foremost language in Scotland.

    I have had countless arguments with my privately educated colleagues justifying Scots as a language in its own right with a separate genealogy. These children of Bearsden and Newton Mearns refuse to accept this and view Scots as a bastardised version of English which has been warped by the ”lower classes” who speak it. Unfortunately these colleagues would never tolerate the use of Scots in the classroom of their children.

    I may be a little hypocritical as I do not use Scots myself (although like most people, I find my English is peppered with occasional words and phrases). I grew up in a house where my mother (doctors daughter) viewed Scots as slang and would persistantly correct my sister and I if it was spoken. Fortunately for me my father was from a small mining village in deepest, darkest Ayrshire. My grandfather spoke the purest form of Lallans Scots I have ever heard and would also write in this Scots. I have countless birthday and xmas cards with small Scots verses written inside, this is what triggered my interest in the language. I became even more passionate about it after reading Billy Kay’s book- Scots Thhe Mither Tongue.

    I digress, apart from the resistance of the ‘seemingly’ well educated faction in our society to Scots, I also wanted to state it would be impossible to standardise Scots. There are so many regional variations of it. The Scots spoken in Ayrshire

  2. Aly Brown
    August 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

    is completely different to the Scots in Caithness, which is entirely different to Doric. Where would you start?

    There have been changes in attitude to Scots but I worry it may be a little late!

  3. August 15, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Thanks for the comment Aly, maybe I should get you to be a guest blogger on here some time 😉

    The whole ‘Scots as slang’ thing is really common, particularly on the west coast (and particularly in Glasgow). It amazes me, though, that even when faced with the argument that Scots used to be a separate language, people still cling on to the ‘but it’s just bad English!’ argument.

    If your family is from Ayrshire and you’re interested in this kind of stuff, I would definitely recommend reading Ronald Macaulay’s book ‘Locating Dialect in Discourse: The Language of Honest Men and Bonnie Lassies in Ayr’. It’s a cracking read 🙂

  4. January 5, 2013 at 10:03 am

    You may be interested in my website here:


    • April 9, 2013 at 3:17 pm

      Hi John,

      Many thanks for the link! I’ve had a look through it and some interesting stuff. I saw that you were cited in a chapter on the Shetland dialect in my edited volume I have coming out later this year. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

  1. January 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm

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