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The history of Scots
Scots today by John Corbett
Whether used in its spoken or written forms, Scots is a tongue infused with history but which is constantly being adapted by its speakers for use in modern life.
Why is Scots a language?
The status of Scots as a language is founded on a number of criteria. Historically, its vocabulary and grammar diverged sufficiently from southern English and performed a wide enough range of social functions for Scots to be considered a fully-fledged language. Literature still thrives in different social and regional dialects of Scots.
In recent years, however, the linguistic differences between Scots and southern English have been diluted; even so, they remain obvious enough for many people in Scotland to use them to identify themselves as Scots. Since the Scots tongue is recognised as a valid signifier of national identity, it is recognised as a distinct language, for example by the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages.
The Scots tongue is recognisable by its:
pronunciation, e.g. the r sounds produced before consonants and at the ends of words
vocabulary, e.g. words like scunner, 'disgust', oxter, 'armpit' and stour 'dust'
grammar, e.g. the old n plural found in words like een 'eyes', and the use of the definite article with nouns referring to institutions (the school), hobbies (the bingo) and illnesses (the flu)
idioms, e.g. I'll walk you the length of [as far as the end of] the street
While much traditional Scots survives, speech in Scotland changes, as it has always done. The pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and idioms of Scots alter, generation on generation and region to region, according to pressures we are only beginning fully to explore. Gender, age, class, and ethnicity all play a part in fashioning the language.
The linguistic repertoire of young Scots is continually redefined, drawing from traditional models provided by earlier generations, infusions from new arrivals and alternative models offered by the media. For example, immigrants interact with resident communities and the resulting mix is evident in the work of younger Glasgow writers like Suhayl Saadi in The Burning Mirror and Psychoraag.
As material culture changes, many treasured old Scots words die out of use, and, although some new words are coined, they are often words derided as 'slang' by older generations. Children may pick up pronunciation features from television - giving rise to the phenomenon dubbed 'Jockney' - but they recombine these features in a system that is their own. Jane Stuart-Smith of Glasgow University has found, for example, Scots mooth combining with English mouf, resulting in a new form, moof 'mouth'. By virtue of such combinations and mutations, Scots pronunciation, grammar and idioms remain distinctive - though they are sometimes misconceived as 'bad English' rather than 'good Scots'.
For about four hundred years now, written Scots has been largely confined to literature. Literature in local varieties of Scots still thrives, albeit in limited spheres, finding publication in pamphlets and in the regional press. Over the past century, champions of a 're-integrated' Scots, such as Hugh MacDiarmid, have synthesised elements of older and modern varieties of Scots to construct a literary medium capable of representing a nation rather than a region. Derided by some as artificial, the literary Scots of MacDiarmid and his successors is still capable of producing poetry of lyrical power and philosophical ambition.
By the end of the twentieth century, alternative visions of Scots and Scotland emerged. Tom Leonard's Glasgow poems, composed in a 'phonetic spelling' insist on the poetry of working class speech, and provide a searing criticism of the oppressive attitudes represented by standard English. Writers as diverse as Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Kelman give a vivid impression of rural and urban Scots speech, whilst writing largely in English. Irvine Welsh peppers his novels of the underbelly of Edinburgh life with a rich demotic Scots that includes criminal slang and Romany cant.
Perhaps the greatest recent success of writing in broad Scots has been for the stage, with dramatists and translators like John Byrne, Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman varying between different densities of Scots in a dazzling array of plays and adaptations.
Even non-literary written Scots has staged a minor comeback in recent decades. The Scots Language Society was formed in the 1970s to promote the use of the medium and campaign for a wider role for spoken and written Scots in everyday life, and its long-running magazine Lallans offers editorials, articles and reviews in Scots alongside the expected fiction and poetry.
The Scottish Arts Council supports this and similar ventures, like the successful 'Itchy Coo' enterprise, which has produced materials for use by younger children in schools, and a history, in Scots, of the old and new parliament in Scotland. The establishment of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1997 has seen a few nods in the direction of the language activists - one committee report, on Minority Languages, has been translated into Scots, and some information pages on the Parliament website have Scots versions. The challenge to the writers of these texts is to fashion a 'prestige register' or 'civil service Scots' from a language now associated so strongly with the spoken word.