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29 October 2014
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Scots today
The history of Scots

The history of Scots

Scots shares its origins with the variety that developed into standard English, but today each is the result of quite different histories. The development of the two varieties diverged early.

The ancestor of Scots can be found in the Anglian dialects spoken by those tribes who populated the north-eastern part of England after the fifth century. Some of them eventually settled in the south-east of Scotland, around what is now Edinburgh. At this time, most people in Scotland spoke the ancestor of present-day Gaelic.

In north-east England and southern Scotland, the Anglian dialects became increasingly influenced by the Norse tongue of the Vikings, who invaded and settled north-east England from the eighth century onwards. In today's Scots, you can still hear echoes of this mixed linguistic inheritance. The 'oo' sound in words like hoose 'house' and moose 'mouse' is closer to the pronunciation of the Anglo-Saxon dialects than today's standard English pronunciation. And many different words and word-forms found in present-day Scots and English can be accounted for by referring to their sources in Old Norse and Old English, for example kirk/church, kist/chest, muckle/much, streek/stretch, brig/bridge, strae/straw, lig/lie and others.

Over time, the mixture of Anglian and Norse dialects spread over the lowlands of Scotland and the ancestor of today's Gaelic receded to the Highlands and Islands. In the eleventh century, King David I encouraged Norman barons, burgesses and clerics to administer tracts of land, stimulate trade and oversee his new monasteries, with the result that French borrowings, often to do with administration, penetrated the Scots vocabulary, as they did in the south. Sometimes the borrowing has a different form and meaning in Scots and English; for example in Scots a baillie is a town magistrate or alderman, whereas in England a baillif is a sheriff's officer.

From around 1400 to 1600 literature, law, and the conversation of the noble and the peasant were all conducted in Scots. Scots written prose and verse were, like the English of the time, subject to variation, but it seems likely that a fixed written standard of Scots would have evolved, had not there been three cataclysmic social changes.

First, the Reformation in Scotland tended to favour an anglicised prose that would reach beyond a purely Scottish audience; secondly the Union of the Crowns in 1603 saw the court and court patronage move south to London; and thirdly, the Treaty of Union of 1707 saw the Scottish parliament dissolve itself.

This last event saw many of the Scottish middle classes begin to adopt a 'refined' form of speech on an English model, while norms of grammatical acceptability were laid down by the newly-codified rules of standard English writing. Paradoxically, the very threat to Scottish national identity posed by the invention of 'Great Britain' also resulted in a renewed interest in writing verse and then prose that contained a substantial proportion of Scots terms. The literary revival of the vernacular that began with the poems and songs of Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns in the eighteenth century was the model for the succeeding 'reinventions' of written Scots described above.

The lesson of history is that, whatever forms it might take at different places and times, the Scots language is a resilient symbol of national community for the lowland Scottish people, and it is likely to be for many years to come.

Find out more...
About Scots literature or visit the Scots Language Society website, peruse online dictionaries such as the Scottish Language Dictionaries and Dictionary of the Scots Language or take a look at Glasgow University's SCOTS project.

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