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Corby: The most Scottish town in England?


The BBC just published an interesting article on Corby, a town in England located near Kettering and Northampton (so East Midlands). Corby is a really interesting wee town because a whole bunch of Glaswegian and Central Belt steel workers moved there from the 1930 onwards when the Glasgow based company Stewarts & Lloyds built a huge steelworks in the town. Naturally, when a population moves to a new location, especially in some sort of critical mass, they take their cultural practices with them. Corby is now one of the few places in England where you can buy Irn Bru, square sausage and haggis with pretty much no problems at all. The town has its own pipe band, several Highland dancing clubs, a Rangers football supporters club (at least up until 2013), an annual Highland games and other notably Scottish activities and organisations. But one thing that sets Corby apart from other locations in the East Midlands is its associated accent (here’s a nice British Library clip of people discussing the Corby accent):

The most striking is the Corby accent, or mixture of accents. Some sound Glaswegian. Others seem to have a slight Scottish twang. And there are those that speak with a broad Scottish accent (BBC article).

When the Clyde Valley workers moved to Corby, they brought with them their accent, an accent which 2nd and 3rd generation family members also adopted (or at least certain features of it). The BBC article even goes so far as to suggest that people in Corby still feel Scottish, despite the fact that many of them are born and bred in England:

However, when it came to how the population described its national identity, 5,585 people in Corby said “Scottish only”. By comparison, 33,018 people described themselves as “English only” and 10,299 people said they were “British only”.

But the census doesn’t necessarily tally with local perceptions.

Steve Ireland, 64, who used to work in a whisky factory and the RAF in Scotland, but is English and now lives in Corby, maintains the town is very much still a “mini-Scotland.

Steve Noble, whose parents moved down from Glasgow in 1970 to work on the steelworks when he was 10 and is the landlord of the White Hart pub, agrees many families in Corby still feel Scottish.”

Now, the point of today’s blog isn’t to get into an argument about what does or doesn’t constitute Scottishness, but rather to suggest that this reading of families in Corby is really quite different to sociolinguistic work which looks at these issues. Of particular note is the work of Judy Dyer who conducted a really nice piece of sociolinguistic research on Corby back in the early 2000s (‘We all speak the same around here: Dialect levelling in a Scottish-English community‘).

Examining the LOT/THOUGHT merger and the GOAT vowel, Dyer shows that LOT/THOUGHT patterns much like other Anglo-English varieties (that is, two vowel phonemes here instead of just one as most Scots varieties do), but GOAT seems to be slightly different, with men favouring the monophthongal variant (that is, a variant similar to the Scots variant) while women favour the Anglo-English variant which is more diphthongal. Dyer asks why ‘historically Scottish features have been adopted at all, given the stigma associated with them (Dyer 2002: 109), and points out that a traditional variationist account would suggest that the male speakers in Corby are indexing some sort of Scottishness through their use of the monophthongal GOAT, and this is a reading which certainly fits in with the narrative outlined in the BBC article. But what’s especially interesting is that;

the third generation men interviewed, even those producing the highest percentages of historically Scottish variants, did not identify themselves as Scottish in any way. This is manifest both anecdotally in their support for the English (rather than Scottish) team in the Football World Cup (1998), and in their own self identifications. RD, one of the third generation male speakers with the highest use of historically Scottish variants, describes celebrating New Year with Scottish friends as an entirely new cultural experience, and ClT, another third generation man refers to the Cockney slang for Scots (‘sweaty socks’) and jokingly calls the Scots ‘sweaty jocks,’ clearly constructing them as ‘the other’ in his discourse (Dyer 2002: 110). 

Dyer goes into a good amount of detail concerning the kinds of social discourses surrounds Scots and Scotland, using data from 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation families in Corby and comes to the conclusion that it’s not Scotland the speakers indexing through their use of monopthongal GOAT, but rather it’s simply to display an orientation towards local identity. This perhaps isn’t surprising, and similar findings are reported in Scotland for young people’s use of TH-fronting in Glasgow (i.e. it’s not that they’re trying to identify as English or Londoner, but rather orientation towards and constructing a specific local identity).

It’s unlikely that the BBC would reach this kind of depth in their analysis, especially since the Scottish accent in Corby can be fitted into such a neat nationalistic narrative (alliteration ftw), but it does raise the point that how linguists and how journalists approach complex language situations can be really quite different.

The Social Linguist

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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

BBC News – Say what? iPhone has problems with Scots accents


The new iPhone 4S came out a few weeks ago to a relatively muted reception, primarily because it wasn’t the massive technological leap ahead that most people has expected (or hoped for). Nevertheless, one much vaunted tool was the new software ‘Siri‘, a natural language processing programme which is able to do everything from noting your reminders to showing you where the nearest cash point is to searching the internet, simply through you talking directly to it. Now, natural language processing is kind of viewed as the holy grail of search engines, primarily because when we want to find something, we don’t think in terms of key-words but rather coherent sentences. Ask Jeeves was probably one of the more successful attempts at integrating NLP processes as part of its search optimisation, but it wasn’t able to knock Google off its perch as the de facto search engine. This is because one of the major difficulties in developing intelligent NLP software in search engines is that it has to be able to deal with a variety of inputs. For instances, if I wanted to find out how to make homebew, it could be phrased in a number of different ways ‘How to make homebrew’, ‘How do I make homebrew?’, ‘What do I need to start homebrewing’, and so on. Google, on the other hand, doesn’t use NLP but keyword searches. So, for the previous example, Google would trawl its indexed webpages looking for instances of ‘homebrew’, ‘starting’ and so on, and pages which had more of these keywords would appear higher up the search rank. Now, this works fine for simple searches, but you enter a question into Google and it starts to struggle, outputting quit useless pages which aren’t really relevant to your query (I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I know it’s happened a bunch of times to me…).

When we get to voice activated NLP, we get into even more difficulty. Not only does the software have to deal with different forms of input in terms of lexical items and grammatical structure, but it also has to deal with variability of accent and dialect. For example, it has to be able to identify the fact that /bʌtəɹ/ and /bʌʔəɹ/ are the same word (butter), even though it’s pronounced slightly differently. Again, that’s only a simple example, but when we think of the variability of phonological structure between different varieties, the software has to be powerful enough to store these different varieties and recognise them when they’re input into the system. Take into account differences of age, sex, class and so on, what Siri can do gets ever more impressive. That is, until it tries to deal with Scots.

Now, obviously there are a number of stereotypes about Scottish speakers and how difficult they are to understand (when I play clips of Scottish English speakers to my students, there is often a stunned silence in the room as they try to decipher whether the speaker is asking for the time or threatening to chib someone…). And it seems that Siri is similarly affected (for the most part) in trying to deal with Scottish accents (BBC News – Say what? iPhone has problems with Scots accents). I can’t say that this is entirely unsurprising given the amount of trouble I have with voice recognition technology. You know, the kind that’s used in telephone banking, cinema booking lines and car insurance call centres… Quite why the technology hasn’t caught up with understanding Scots is a bit of a mystery to me, especially since it should technically be the same kinds of processes of programming the software as would be followed for Souther Standard British English or General American. I mean, I get that Scotland is a small country in the grand scheme of things, but it’s kind of difficult to ignore a potential market of 6 million speakers.

But I suppose that so long as we’re not lumbered with voice activated lifts, we’ll be alright…

The return of the Scots language: Some thoughts

August 2, 2011 6 comments

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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