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23 September 2014
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Scots today
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.

Spoken Scots
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'.

Written 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.


Your Comments
What is your experience of Scots?

Sunny Murchison from Pasadena, California
For a culture to endure, the language must be perpetuated; ergo, the Scots language. Happy New Year! God Bless, Sunny Murchison

Rachael, Edinburgh/Aberdeen
Whilst I agree with Dànaidh (Gaelic needs all the promotion it can get!), there is nothing to say Gaelic and Scots can't co-exist as the languages of Scotland - I mean, so many Scots words are derived from Gaelic - think of brae, for example. My Scots is miserably lacking, and I only really use it with family and close friends. Most of it is idioms, phrases and words mixed in with english, I'm sad to say. What I find the real problem is, is getting people to recognise it as a language! Scots isn't a dialect of English (as Gaelic isn't a dialect of Irish Gaelic, because I've heard that one too.) It's very hard to get people to accept that though - even amongst Scots. One of my friends, who speaks Scots the majority of the time, didn't even know she was doing it (and she was definitely doing it!). Some Scots - I've noticed this amongst many of my Gaelic speaking friends, unfortunately - are prejudiced against it. I've found it easier to persuade Americans and Canadians of the language than I have of many of my friends (maybe because they are more aware of words I'm using that may be normal to me, but they've never heard before, and it's not just because of the accent). Coming from Edinburgh and living in Aberdeen, I can most definitely hear the difference in dialects between the areas (not just in accents.) BOTH our country's languages should be encouraged, BOTH should be promoted so that they aren't seen as backwards languages with no future, and BOTH should be put on an equal footing to English in this country.

neil, waterford, ireland
Gaelic came to Scotland around the same time as Scots - the Irish invaded the West as the Anglo-Saxons arrived from the East. Before that a language akin to Welsh was spoken in Scotland. So that makes neither Gaelic nor Scots indigenous!

Andy Lamb, originally Glasgow, now Bolton
I was born and raised in Glasgow, but I moved down to bolton three years ago to study for my PhD. I am very proud of the way I sound and of what I am. Scotland is a nation of doers and grafters. From John Logie Baird to Alexander Graham Bell, from John Napier to Joseph lister, from Alexander fleming to Sean Connery, I am so glad that these pioneers and leaders in their respective fields have come from the same place as me. In fact there are time when I overdo the Scottisness when talking to my friends down here.

Dànaidh MacIlleDhuibh Dùn Eideann
GAELIC is surely a national symbol of Scotland. Just like Welsh is that of Wales. I do believe Scots should receive funding from the government, but we cannot deny the GAELIC is the INDIGINOUS language of Scotland, and SCots is an incoming language, obviously coming from English (Anglic). Scottish people should be proud of Gaelic if they are proud of Scots. Just as Welsh is progressive in Wales, Gaelic can come on leaps and bounds in Scotland. Yes, be proud of Scots, but Gaelic is our indiginous toungue. Scots is beautiful too like our Gaelic.

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