Scots grammars and standards

broonieIt may come as a surprise but the grammar of spoken and literary Scots was first described systematically almost a century ago when two comprehensive grammars were published within just a few years.

James Wilson’s fascinating but largely forgotten 1915 field study Lowland Scotch was based on interviews with inhabitants of the Perthshire village of Dunning and uses a marvelous phonetic orthography to capture the sounds of the vernacular.  This was followed by William Grant and James Main Dixon’s 1921 classic Manual of Modern Scots that takes a completely different approach focusing on a meticulous analysis of the literary language over two centuries from the late seventeenth century. Between them these two works provide a remarkably consistent and cohesive snapshot of the spoken and written language before the First World War.  Unfortunately both these essentially ‘descriptive’ grammars were out of print for decades so failed to make the impact on Scots they should have.

Nowadays both are available online, so have a look at the Leebrarie section of this site for links.

From the late 90s a range of ‘prescriptive’ grammars for Scots appeared, aiming to set out rules of usage. David Purves’ booklet A Scots Grammar was published in 1997; about the same time as Andy Eagle’s online Wir Ain Leed, essentially a reworking of Grant and Dixon. Also in 1997 Philip Robinson produced the masterly Ulster-Scots – a grammar of the traditional and spoken language, again something of a homage to Grant and Dixon. These reference works were joined in 1999 by Susan Rennie’s Grammar Broonie, a workbook aimed at young learners and in 2002 by L Colin Wilson’s Luath Scots Language Learner, the first-ever Scots language course for the complete novice with extensive sections on grammar. Christine Robinson’s  2012 Modren Scots Grammar has a notably different focus and introduces grammar to children (and their teachers) through the medium of Scots.

Especially over the last 40 years there have also been numerous small-scale studies of language use in Scotland, usually published in (for the public) rather obscure academic journals. However much of this was drawn together by Alexander Bergs in Modern Scots, a detailed review of literature which essentially updates Grant and Dixon based on more recent sociolinguistic research. Bergs is perhaps the most definitive published descriptive grammar of Scots to date, though is hard to obtain.

As David Purves reminded us in 2002 “in any language revival, an essential stage is the fixing of standards amongst the welter of variation that is always found in the untended garden of natural speech“. So far no ‘official’ body has emerged in Scotland to ‘fix standards’ but the publications above provide the next best thing; a remarkably consistent description by language scholars of how the core grammar of Scots currently functions.

In the absence of a ‘circumscribed’ standard we have is what some have called a ‘circumstantial’ standard, but it is a standard nonetheless.

 [Adapted from the introduction to the Scots Learners’ Grammar]

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