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More on Scots


I’m sure that these debates will become more insistent and regular as Scotland approaches its referendum on independence, but recently there was an interesting exchange on the internet about the status of the ‘protectors of Scots’. The debate was generally structured around what constitutes ‘Scots’ as a language, and whether ‘true Scots’ should be unco fu’ o’ aiblins, chitterins, gaunaes and maukits, or whether a more inclusive view of what constitutes Scots should be considered. The first set of comments (by David McVey) argue that what is defined as ‘Scots’ is gated off by ‘men with glasses and beards and tweed jaikets’. It is them (I’m not really sure who ‘they’ are, but I’d assume it’s folk who work in the literary business, academics, researchers, and so on. Oh, and I guess middle-class as well) who decide what is Scots and what is not. But McVey also raises the question of status:

I struggle to see any connection between the peculiar extra-terrestrial inflexions and pronunciations of Aberdonian Doric and the language that I grew up with. Are they both Scots? Are either of them? Is Doric purest Scots, while Glaswegian is some kind of mixed-race lower-caste pidgin?
 

The problem of ‘is Scots a language or a dialect’ is something that people have been grappling with for ages now. Uriel Weinrich defines a language as ‘a dialect with an army and a navy’, and there are many examples of speakers of two ‘separate’ languages being able to speak to one another. For example, someone speaking Spanish to someone who speaks Portuguese will usually be able to get by, as will a Czech and a Slovak speaker. So even though a language might have a different name, it doesn’t necessarily mean that mutual unintelligibility will ensue. But for nationalistic reasons, it’s often important for speakers to have a ‘separate’ language from other countries (especially when those countries share other resources, like a border, for example). Ulimately, languages are purely political constructs. With that in mind, then, it’s clear to see why some people might want Scots to be a ‘language’ rather than a ‘dialect’. Languages carry status, while dialects are often seen as mere derivations of another language (so there’s an element of hierarchy here). And Scots are particularly proud of being Scottish, so one way to claim ‘Scottishness’ (and to display it) is through language. If you can then say ‘I’m speaking a different language’, the claim of distinctiveness is even more powerful.

But what I think also gets on McVey’s nerves is that speakers (and writers) of ‘Scots’ are somehow inauthentic (or even affected). He goes on to say that;

Scots will survive on the streets, on buses, on the football terraces and in the pubs. Users of so-called ‘ned’ language have, on their own (with, perhaps, a little help from ‘Chewin’ the Fat’), evolved a uniquely Scottish vocabulary and style: ‘You’re a pure total wideo, man!’. By contrast, middle-class Scots teenagers speak a mildly Scottish-accented English whose cadences and phraseology are traceable from transatlantic influences such as ‘Friends’: ‘Like, I’m so not ready for this exam, Fiona’. Equally, in England, youth language is evolving with Friends elements in some circles and hip-hop cadences in others: ‘You so is not respectin mi’. 
 

Many of his points here are, unfortunately, bunkum. There is no such thing as a ‘ned language’, Chewin the Fat never helped develop it (it took a stereotype and ran with it. It’s now many people’s frame of reference for adolescent language use in Glasgow), middle-class Scots don’t talk as he says they do, and so on. But what I think is interesting is his point about where Scots will survive. It will survive on the streets, the buses, the football terraces and the pubs: in other words, it will survive in working-class places. Scots in poetry, novels, short stories (in other words, the preserve of the middle-classes) is for Scots purists, and that Scots is not a true reflection of what happens ‘in the real world’.

As a rebuttal to McVey’s article, Michael Hance (head of the Scots Language Association), argues that steps have been taken to represent Scots in the widest possible sense of the word (incidentally, the SLC is a fantastic resource and they do a lot with very little money).

We seek to represent the widest possible range of Scots registers, dialects and forms. Indeed our critics have suggested that we over-emphasise modern Scots. If he visits our website or our group on facebook he’ll find plenty of variety and along with the ‘uncos’ and ‘aiblins’ he so dislikes he’ll read and hear examples of the language used by hundreds of thousands of people in streets, homes, shops and pubs throughout the country.
 

Hance flags up the particularly important issue of how Scots was reduced to its current status:  Language shift has occurred because efforts have been made to change the way people speak. Scots was, before the Union of the Crowns and Parliament, the language of the court, law, education, and literature, and had an enviable literary pedigree. Indeed, writers like Gavin Douglas, Robert Henryson and William Dunbar were described as the ‘Scottish Chaucerians’ and their work deserves a place in history as some of the best story-telling ever done. Once the Unions happened, Scots quickly lost status in the face of English, and gradually, the language became more and more restricted in its application. People were actively changing the way they spoke so as to ‘fit in’ with their new English neighbour. The growth of Protestantism and education also impacted on the development of English in Scotland. First, the only book that many Scottish families owned was a bible (written in English, after King James I and V upped sticks and headed down to London). That meant that peoples’ exposure to English was through the written medium. Second, education was carried out mainly in English, and this meant that school teachers would expect their charges to speak in English, not Scots. Unfortunately, this still goes on and it’s brilliantly portrayed in William McIllvanney’s story Docherty.

“What’s wrong with your face, Docherty?
Skint ma nose, sur.
How?
Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur.
I beg your pardon?
Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur.
I beg your pardon?
In the pause Conn understands the nature of the choice, tremblingly, compulsively, makes it.
Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur.
The blow is instant. His ear seems to enlarge, is muffled in numbness. But it s only the dread of tears that hurts. Mr Pirrie distends on a lozenge of light which mustn’t be allowed to break. It doesn’t. Conn hasn’t cried.
That, Docherty, is impertinence. You will translate, please, into the mother-tongue.
 

So a conflation of factors led to Scots being in its current predicament, and while I don’t think that Scots will ever regain language status in the same way as it has in its past, I wholeheartedly agree with Hance’s last comment:

Surely we should celebrate [Scots] where it survives, encourage experimentation and expression in it, and rejoice when we hear it.
 
The Social Linguist
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