Scots: Aften Speirit Quaistions ASQ/FAQ

[Another excerpt from the 1996 version of the Haunbuik. Lots still – sadly – relevant but have noted a couple of updates.]

(a) What is Scots?


Scots is a Germanic language derived from Anglo-Saxon, but influenced by Norse, French, Gaelic and particularly English. It was for 300 years the official state language of Scotland and is still widely spoken as an informal linguistic variety all over lowland Scotland. It has a range of local forms and dialects, and despite being used for literary purposes (especially poetry) for several centuries, written forms for everyday purposes are only now being standardised. Overseas readers should not confuse Scots with Gaelic, the other indigenous Scottish language which is of Celtic origin. Gaelic was once spoken over nearly all of mainland Scotland but is now largely confined to the Western Isles of Scotland.

(b) Why do you say Scots is a language, not a dialect? 

Although obviously closely related to English, Scots has a distinct linguistic history and in a reasonably pure form is at least as different from English as Norwegian (Bokmal) is from Danish or as Catalan is from Spanish. However, Norwegian and Catalan are ‘established’ languages (they are taught in schools, have TV stations, press etc) while Scots is not. Scots has therefore suffered considerable erosion over the years to the point that modern Scottish lowland speech is a sort of ‘creole’ of English and Scots. To make things more complicated there are several dialects of Scots itself. Currently Scots is only ever used for informal conversation (hence it has a restricted vocabulary), English for everything else. In daily usage, therefore, Scots speakers may find themselves switching regularly between predominantly Scots to predominantly English patterns of speech, often without thinking.

(c) Where is Scots spoken?

All over Scotland apart from the Highlands and Western Islands where Gaelic was the predominant language until the 19th Century. By this time Scots had lost its national status, so Gaelic was replaced by a Highland variety of English (an interesting dialect in itself). In contrast when Gaelic died out in Ayrshire two centuries earlier it was replaced by Scots, where it is strong to this day. There are also still a few thousand Scots speakers in Ulster.

(d) Who speaks it?   

Written well before the census data came out last year.

Scots seems to be one of the most poorly studied varieties of language in Europe, so the simple answer is that nobody knows. Most lowland Scots (over 4.5 million people) will use elements of Scots grammar, pronounce ‘English’ words as Scots ones (and often use them in particularly Scots ways) and have a vocabulary of distinct Scots words from a few hundred to several thousand, depending on where they come from. In general, Scots tends to be at its strongest in rural areas, although all four major Scottish cities have distinctive Scots/English dialects. One common distinction is made between the ‘Braid’ Scots of rural areas which are closer to older literary forms and ‘Laich’ Scots of the urban population. However even the latter generally contain many Scots grammar and vocabulary elements. There is an attempt to include a question on Scots in the next Census, but the problem is defining it.

(e) Is Scots not a bit ‘common’ (low class)

It is important to recognise that current Scots is a class-based language. Scots forms occur more frequently among working class speech, although in the North East there is a small Scots-speaking middle class. Edinburgh, for example, once the linguistic heart of Scots, now has a remarkably (and deliberately) anglicised middle class. The middle classes of Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen on the whole seem happier with Scots or ‘local’ usage, but it’s clear that much of the prejudice against Scots is still to some extent class-based. The problem is that without formal status and awareness (particularly among teachers), good Scots has often been mistaken for ‘bad’ English (eg the use of Scots past forms such as gaed, makkit, seed, ett), and mistakes in Scots have gone uncorrected.

(f) How many Scots words are there?   

The Scots National Dictionary Association (SNDA) has about 50,000 on its computers, although the majority are archaic. The modern Concise English-Scots Dictionary lists some 15,000 words and the Scots Thesaurus over 20,000. Nevertheless, although Scots has a finely-tuned vocabulary in many areas (the environment, rural life, food and drink, character, emotions, social behaviour, informal conversation etc) it is poorly developed in more formal registers (styles) such as journalistic, literary, historic and technical writing. At the moment such Scots writing as exists in these areas tends to borrow heavily from English vocabulary to express the more complex and subtle concepts required.

(g) What is echt Scots, plastic Scots and synthetic Scots?   

Not sure where this terminology came from!

Scots and English form a linguistic continuum (ie they can be mixed easily). Echt Scots is at the Scots end of the continuum where more distinctive Scots forms and vocabulary is used. In a spoken form this is known as Braid Scots. However, few people use this full style naturally (as they have had neither the education or liguistic upbringing). People uncomfortable or ignorant of the processes of linguistic change sometimes attack any use of Echt/Braid Scots (unless by 80-year-old Buchan farmers) as somehow artificial, referring to ‘plastic Scots’ or ‘cod Scots’, forgetting that we happily use a multitude of spoken and written English styles without comment and regularly use dictionaries and thesauri to extend our vocabulary. ‘Synthetic Scots’ is associated with the Lallans movement stared in the 1920s, an earlier attempt to extend the use of Scots for literary purposes. It received exactly the same type of criticism 70 years ago, showing that deep-seated prejudice is difficult to dislodge. As Lallans writer Sidney Goodsir Smith commented:  We’ve come intil a gey queer time    (gey = very)  Whan screivin Scots is near a crime  (screivin = writing)

(h) How many dialects of Scots are there?   

According to the SNDA there are three mainland varieties, Central, Northern, and Southern together with Island (Orkney and Shetland) and Ulster dialects. All share a common core vocabulary and grammar, but often differ widely in pronunciation. In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in these local forms (especially the Northern variety, Doric, which is perhaps the strongest). At the moment it is hard to say whether such a focus on the local dialects will revive interest in the national language or lead to further fragmentation.

(i) What is the current status of Scots?   

[Scots has since this was written at least been recognised by the UK Parliament, Scottish Government and NI Assembly]

None. No Scot has a right to speak Scots in any official or public context, no right to have his or her children taught in Scots, there virtually no TV or radio in Scots, no newspapers and only a few books and magazines. Most Scots speakers are functionally illiterate in their own language as Scots has been banned from all levels of education for over a century. The growing interest in Scots as a language therefore faces an uphill struggle against prejudice and ignorance. There is no guarantee that this will succeed, but if it does not Scots is likely to die out as a language early in the next century.

(j) What is its future?   

There are two possible futures for Scots: further degeneration until it becomes a real dialect of English (by losing most or all of its links with the historical language), or revival. Revival really means elevation of Scots into an official or semi-official language, so-called ‘normalisation’. Normalisation involves four stages: selection (of the dialect/s to be developed), codification (standardisation), elaboration (extending the vocabulary to handle new concepts and contexts) and acceptance (encouraging people to use it). There are many successful international examples of languages which have gone through this process in comparatively recent times: Catalan, Gallego, Swahili (in Tanzania), Maori, Hebrew. The task is not impossible and already for Scots much progress has been made on the first two stages. However further development (elaboration and acceptance) will require a political will, flexibility, co-operation and, eventually, funding. If Scots had a fraction of the monies used to support ballet, opera or other such Scottish cultural activities, one would have more confidence. Even Gaelic, Scotland’s other beleaguered indigenous tongue fares much better in this context.

(k) Why bother with Scots, when English is a more useful language

English is a world language of great beauty and power. But Scots is our language, providing a link with the past and enabling a distinctly Scottish way of describing the world. When that is gone, it is gone forever and we will have lost a major part of our identity. From an international perspective, Scots is the nearest living relative to English, it has many unique linguistic features, and has a literature of world-wide cultural importance. No one is saying that English should (or could) be removed from Scotland, rather that a better balance be found between the languages. With about half of the world bilingual, there is much evidence to suggest that a genuine bilingualism (as opposed to the confused, unrecognised, half-hidden sort at the moment) will enrich Scots people rather than impoverish them. Scots, and Scots children in particular, have laboured too long under the impression that the language of their family and friends is somehow ‘wrong’.

(l) Why do you spell Scots like that?

Scots is reasonably standardised, but at the moment there are still a number of spelling variations to chose from. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

(m) Why do you use Scots words I’ve never heard before? 

In order to use Scots in a wider context the vocabulary has to be extended. This can come form a number of sources. The most obvious one is English, but too much can result in ‘thin Scots’. A better option is to use a composite vocabulary of words from different living Scots dialects and possibly revived words (if recently lost). This can be augmented by ‘stretching’ the meaning of familiar Scots words (ie making specific meanings more generic). The last option is invention (using words like ‘flichtpairk’ for airport or ‘faurspeiker’ for telephone) but clearly this has to be treated with caution. However there is nothing particularly unusual in a linguistic sense about these processes. They occur all the time in all languages, as a quick glance through some other newsgroups will quickly show. ‘Newsgroup’ is as much an invention as ‘Wittenscurn’!

A better example nowadays would be ‘Website’ and ‘Wabsteid‘, a word I invented in 1996 but now I am proud to say forms part of the Scots lexicon.


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