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A New Scotland: Who Should Get to Vote?


Normally, I avoid political rambling on the blog for several reasons. First, I’m not especially politically minded. Second, politics and sociolinguistics are uncommon bed-fellows. And third, there are a ton of politics-orientated blogs out there, so I don’t see the point in adding to them. But I’d be lying if I said that the question of Scottish independence didn’t have me intrigued, given that it’s quite possibly the biggest question the people of Scotland will ever have to answer in the history of the country.

And in that previous sentence is a key phrase: the people of Scotland. Not ‘Scottish people’, not ‘the Scots’, but ‘the people of Scotland’. And it’s important since how voting rights are being determined is by residency, not by ancestry or any other rubric. Which, as a fully paid up member of the Scottish Vowel Length Rule (where words like greed and agreed are contrastive by the length of the vowel /i/, unlike in English English where the vowels are the same length), I find pretty disappointing. I grew up in Scotland, studied in Scotland, lived, worked and contributed to Scotland’s economy. From the ages of -9 months to 26 1/2 years old, I lived in Scotland. And then I had to move, mainly because there were no jobs in Scotland in sociolinguistics (who’da thunk it? It’s such a growth industry!). And now that I’m living in England, I’m ineligible to vote in one of the biggest decisions ever to affect my country.

This blog post is inspired in part by the fact that right now, I’m giving a talk at the Scottish Leadership Conference in Troy, MI (just outside Detroit) about the Scottish Studies Fulbright Award (which, if you’re thinking about applying, you should do now! There’s only about a month left to go until the deadline!), and I know that there will be a lot of people there talking about Scottish independence and so on. It was also inspired by this post here, but what jumped out at me was the following quote:

By any measure, my accent, vocabulary and appetite for cholesterol-rich foodstuffs still mark me out as a Scot. I think “glaikit” is a superior term to “stupid”, “messages” preferable to “groceries” and “shoogly” more mellifluous than “unstable”.

So for the writer, the biggest determinant of Scottish identity is language use (and therein, we get to the confluence of sociolinguistics and politics!). And there’s been lots written about identity and nationality (one I’m making my way through just now is Monica Heller’s recent book on the topic), so it’s no surprise that language use should be invoked here as a key marker of ‘Scottishness’. Language is, after all, how we show the world who we are and where we come from, and language is, for me, one of the most important ways I construct my identity as Scottish. And being in America right now, my Scottishness is perhaps even more explicitly foregrounded (especially when I switch into my faux-American accent and realise that I sound like an eejit).

Now, what the practical ramifications of independence will be are unclear, particularly relating to things like passports and border control (I’m guessing that nothing much would change here, but I could be wrong), but if independence does go through, at least I won’t have to feel that twinge of uncomfortableness when filling in Government forms that ask for your country of birth (for me, it’s Scotland, not the UK).

Incidentally, while I’m annoyed that I can’t vote on the independence question, and would welcome any movement which would allow Scots abroad to vote (like this chap is trying to do), I understand the complications on drawing a line between who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Indeed, the SNP has now publicly disavowed Scots abroad and won’t let them vote. But supposing it was to happen, would the best way to determine Scottishness be  a linguistic test (sample questions below)?:

  1. What’s do you call the smallest finger on your hand?
  2. (Fill in the blank) A migraine is a kind of severe ______.
  3. Spot the odd one out: loch, burn, stream.
  4. (Fill in the blank) The car is dirty. It needs ______.
  5. (Speak into the microphone clearly and read the following passage aloud): Wash those grass stains off your knees!
  6. (Translation): Here hen, ur ye gaunae go up the toon the morra night or no?

A workable proposal? I think so.

The Scottish Linguist

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