Category Archives: Scots language

Norwegian language lessons for Scots

(Reblogged from my personal blog.)

Norway is in some regards at least 150 years ahead of Scotland: Until the mid-19th century Norwegians wrote standard Danish, although they spoke Norwegian dialects or at the very least Danish with a strong Norwegian accent; however, for political reasons they decided to recreate a language of their own (they ended up with two separate written languages for good measure, but that's a different story). In Scotland, there is still no standard way to write Scots, and many people have negative feelings towards the language.

Here I'll discuss two lessons Scots language standardisers can learn from Norwegian.

Speak yer dialeck, write staundart Scots!

"Speak dialect – write Nynorsk".
"Speak dialect – write Nynorsk".
I sense that many Scots speakers feel that a written standard would be harmful to the Scots dialects.

However, Nynorsk (the form of Norwegian that is closest to the dialects) proves this isn't the case. For years, a common slogan was "snakk dialekt – skriv nynorsk" ("speak dialect – write Nynorsk"), and my impression is that it's been very successful. Norwegian television is certainly full of people speaking various dialects, and I've seen school books teaching how to understand them.

There's no reason whatsoever why the Scots language community couldn't go down the same route. That is, it should be feasible to tell people to write standardised Scots while encouraging them to speak their local dialect.

Main forms and side forms

main forms and side forms
Main forms (lysbiletapparat and ljosbiletapparat) and side forms (lysbildeapparat and ljosbildeapparat).
For many years, Norwegian dictionaries have been full of so-called "main forms" (hovedformer) and "side forms" (sideformer). (The proportion tends to go up and down over time, but that's not important here.) Both types are correct, but in official contexts (such as in school books) only the main forms can be used.

I think this is a great way to encourage some spellings without discouraging people who aren't aware of them (for instance because the norm has changed or because their dialect uses a divergent form). Here are some examples of how a Scots dictionary using main and side forms could look:

If a word has two forms that are both considered main forms, they are shown in the same typeface:

daurk or derk adj dark.

This means that everybody has a free choice between writing daurk or derk.

If the word has a main form and a side form with no regional differences (for instance where one word has almost been replaced by the English equivalent), square brackets and a different colour are employed, and a cross-reference is created from the side form to the main one:

Dens [or Danish] adj Danish.
[Danish] see Dens.

This means that nobody would get a red mark for writing Danish instead of Dens (and spell-checkers would allow both), but school books and other official documents would always use Dens.

The same applies where the side form is regional:

bairn [or wean (W)] n child.
[wean (W)] see bairn.

I don't see any reason why one couldn't also add disallowed form in a separate typeface as a help for learners, e.g.:

ane num one.
yinane.

Some word with main, side and disallowed forms would admittedly produce quite a lot of entries, but this shouldn't be a problem, especially at a time when more and more people use dictionaries in electronic format:

faarwhaur.
[far (N)] see whaur.
[whair (S)] see whaur.
wharwhaur.
whaur [or far (N) or whair (S)] adv where.
wherewhaur.

If we learn these lessons from Norwegian, we can encourage both standard Scots and the Scots dialects while improving literacy in Scots and raising the status of the language.

Did universal bilingualism give Scots an advantage in the past?

Bilingual
Bilingual.
There's more and more evidence that being bilingual makes you smarter and keeps your brain functioning for longer. Here's a summary from the New York Times (but there's a huge amount of material on this topic out there, as a quick Google search will demonstrate):

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

[...]

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. [...] Individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

It's also a well-known fact that Scotland punched well above its weight inside the United Kingdom. It appears to me that this started some decades after the 1707 Acts of Union and slowly started to fade out in the 20th century.

Interestingly, most successful Scots must have been bilingual (or even trilingual) during this time -- you needed to know English well to succeed, but in Scotland everybody spoke only Scots and/or Gaelic (depending on where they lived). I'm not sure when Standard Scottish English started replacing Scots and Gaelic as the primary language of large numbers of Scots, but it must have been a relatively recent event. For instance, when Norn was dying out around the time of the Acts of Union, it got replaced by Scots, not by English. On the other hand, the vast areas of the Highlands where Gaelic died out after the Clearances ended up speaking English, not Scots.

It's tempting to think that one of the factors that allowed Scotland to punch above it weight was the near-universal bilingualism. If this theory is correct, making all Scots bilingual again by supporting and promoting both Gaelic and Scots will make Scotland a more successful country in the future.

Whit wey can we revive the Scots leid?

The following blog post is written in Scots. If you find it hard to read, here's a dictionary that might help.

Oor Rabbie
Oor Rabbie by alister, on Flickr.
In the 2011 census, 1,225,622 fowks indicatit that thay coud speak, read an write Scots, an this maks Scots a heap muckler nor Gaelic. Houaniver, thair is practicallie nae support for the leid in Scotland -- we daena hae TV or radio stations (forby wee programmes on the Internet), thair is nae Scots schuils, an thair is nae leid courses whaur outlins (sic as masel) can lairn Scots. Ye can uise Facebook in Faeroese or e'en in Pirate Inglis, but no in Scots. Google Translate canna help ye wi Scots, an yer phone's autocorreck will chynge yer perfecklie guid Scots intae braken Inglis.

Forby this, monie (maist?) Scots thinks Scots is juist a dialeck o Inglis, an thay aft feel bad about speakin it. This is ane o the monie things that is creautin the Scots creenge.

We maun chynge this!

At the maument there's three Scots leid organisations in Scotland: The Scots Leid Associe (SLA), the Centre for the Scots Leid (SLC) an the Scots Leid Dictionars (SLD). The SLA is fecklie concernt wi publishin leeteratur in Scots; the SLC is forderin the interests o Scots speakers (nearlins like a ceevil richts muivement); and the SLD is documentin the leid an publishin academic dictionars. Thay ar aw daein a byous job, but nane o thaim sees is as thair rôle tae staundartise the leid an creaut the tuils needit tae lear Scots tae fowks wha daesna speak it yit.

Whan A say "staundartise the leid", A mean it. The SLA thinks a normative orthographie wad juist be a hinderance for the makars, the SLD daesna want tae bother the fowks wha gat thair erse skelpit for uisin Scots wirds at schuil, an the SLD is simplie documentin whit awbody is daein. Houaniver, ye canna tell a fremmit lairner or a schuil bairn wha anelie haes passive knawledge o Scots that thay maun juist say whit feels richt tae thaim -- the result definatelie wadna be Scots! Ye canna mak a spellchecker that allous ilka spellin variant in uiss -- it wadna richtifee oniething ava. An schuils will need guideship on whit tae lear tae the bairns.

This isna about creautin a oppressive orthographie -- makars and native speakers can write Scots onie wey thay want. Houaniver, the lave o us needs a norm.

Monie ither leids haes been in the same situation. Scots is gey an siclike tae Catalonian an Icelandic in the wey aw three leids haes a great linguistic past but lost thair status whan the places thay ar spoken lost thair independence.

Here's whit Wee Ginger Dug writes anent Catalonian (in Inglis):

The Catalan Renaixença ‘Renaissance’ arose in response to the sclerotic nature of the Spanish state. The Catalan language came to be seen as a symbol of the frustrated desires of Catalans for their country to become a fully democratic modern European state. A revitalised standard literary form of Catalan was the outcome of this movement, a modern Catalan language fit for all the needs of a modern Catalan nation, but which was solidly linked to the greatness of the Catalan literary past. It was rapidly accepted throughout els Paissos Catalans.

An this is fae the Inglis Wikipedia airticle about Icelandic:

The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthography laid out in the early 12th century by a mysterious document referred to as The First Grammatical Treatise by an anonymous author who has later been referred to as the First Grammarian. The later Rasmus Rask standard was a re-creation of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various archaic features, as the letter ð, had not been used much in later centuries. Rask's standard constituted a major change in practice.

We need a Scots orthographie that connecks the modren leid tae its past (makars like Blind Harry, Henryson, Dunbar, Fergusson an Burns), tae its present (the wey Scots is spoken an wrote in Scotland an Ulster the day), an paves the wey for its futur (bi bein consistent sae that it's easie tae lairn). It is probablie no gaun tae be muckle different fae the spellins promotit bi the Online Scots Dictionar, but a deceesion needs tae be made.

It wad probablie be best tae creaut a new organisation for this ettle, lat's cry it the Scots Leid Buird (SLB) in the follaein.

Aince the orthographical principles is in place, the SLB needs tae creaut a dataset in electronic format that can be providit tae fowks, companies an organisations wha wants tae mak printit dictionars, Android apps, spellcheckers or onie ither uiss o't. The dataset soud include place names. The dictionars creautit uisin this dataset wad be great for schuil beuks, dictionars an aw.

Forby, the SLB soud provide advice on hou tae uise Scots an promuive the new orthographie an the Scots leid for ordinar, an thay soud wirk thegither wi the ither three Scots leid organisations aw the time.

In a ideal warld, the SLB soud be fondit uisin government siller, but in the praisent circumstances (wi monie mair cuts comin wir wey fae Westminster) we micht need tae uise croudfondin insteid, least tae get the projeck stairtit.

In ma professional life, A'm a expert in computational lexicographie, sae in anither blog post A micht hae a wee leuk at whit the dataset soud leuk like.

Atween haunds A'll be awfu interestit in hearin fae yese. Is this the wey forrit? Wha can help?

Why I’ll be voting Yes on Thursday

Although I've written hundreds of blog posts over the past couple of years, I've never described my personal journey to Yes. With just a few days to go before the referendum, here it is.

Getting to know Scotland

When I moved to Scotland from Denmark in 2002, I hadn't thought much about Scottish independence, but I was broadly in favour of it. It would be hard not to when you come from a successful independent country the same size as Scotland.

Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally
Yes Scotland's first annual Independence rally, a photo by PhylB on Flickr.
However, at first I wasn't really aware of the differences between Scotland and the other UK nations. I think I thought the differences were mainly cultural and linguistic, but I gradually started to notice the differences were much more fundamental than that, that Scotland really isn't just another region of Britain (something which most English people never seem to have realised).

Indeed, surprisingly to foreigners, most Scots seem to consider Scotland to be a country within a political union called the UK. Sometimes believed to be too wee, too poor and too stupid to be independent, perhaps, but a country nonetheless. This is very different from how the UK is seen abroad. In most languages, 'Britain', 'the UK' and 'England' are used with exactly the same meaning. For instance, I have often received letters from Denmark addressed to '..., Glasgow, Scotland, England'.

The reason that it took me a long time to work out that Scotland wasn't just a region wasn't helped by the media. At first I watched BBC News, Channel 4 News and all that, and it took me some time to realise that half the news stories they were reporting weren't relevant to Scotland. (Thank goodness I picked The Scotsman as my daily newspaper -- I could just as easily have gone for The Independent!) The lack of devolution of the media is bizarre -- it should have been a very easy thing to devolve.

However, once you start to realise that Scotland is indeed a country, a lot of things fall into place. You also start noticing how the native culture of Scotland is considered inferior by many people. For instance, although I had learnt some Gaelic before moving to Scotland, I only really started learning Scots after I moved here. It was very difficult, however, because most people will look at you like you've got three heads when you speak Scots with a foreign accent. It's such a strange situation -- a language that is spoken by almost half of the population but that people treat as an embarrassing dialect. The language of Dunbar and Burns, for crying out loud! It should be celebrated and be an obligatory subject in all schools as far as I'm concerned!

A political journey

During my first few years in Scotland, very little seemed to happen on the independence front. The SNP wasn't getting close to power, and I started to think there would never be a majority in favour of independence in the Scottish Parliament (those were the days before Salmond returned to Holyrood), and so I gradually started thinking that perhaps a more realistic solution would be a reformed UK -- a written constitution, proportional representation in Westminster, proper federalism, an elected House of Lords. I even joined the Liberal Democrats, thinking they had the determination to reform the broken union.

However, I rapidly grew disillusioned with the LibDems. I think it started when they refused even to sit down with the SNP in 2007 to explore whether a coalition could be formed. It started dawning on me that their commitment to federalism was just skin-deep, and that their real instincts were pro-Union and pro-Empire.

When the LibDems entered government with the Tories, I was initially hopeful that they would manage to get some meaningful reforms out of it. However, they repeatedly got outsmarted by the Conservatives. The introduction of tuition fees was of course a huge betrayal, but from a Scottish perspective it was even worse that they failed to introduce the AV system and to reform the House of Lords. Clearly the voting system referendum should have been about proportional representation (and not AV) if the Tories were going to be campaigning against it -- AV should only have been accepted if the Tories committed themselves to campaigning in its favour.

More importantly, if the UK political system couldn't even implement such a minor reform, what hope was there of ever enacting the far bolder reforms that I considered necessary?

These political events (on top of the Iraq war and the numerous other scandals that New Labour presided over) convinced me that the UK was a failed state that couldn't be reformed. Many political parties seem quite idealistic when they're far from power, but as soon as they get involved with the civil servants, they become part of the establishment machine and become carbon clones of the previous government.

In the meantime, the SNP had demonstrated that they could do things differently at Holyrood, and as a result they gained an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, which then made an independence referendum an inevitability. I finally realised that I was a member of the wrong party, and I joined the SNP.

A different journey

At the same time I had been pursuing a career at a large publishing house in Bishopbriggs. Every other year, a redundancy round would move more of the best-paid jobs down to London, and I realised that you can only progress so far in your career in Scotland -- at some point, you need to spend some years -- or even the rest of your career -- in London.

This might seem obvious to Scots, but to a Dane like me it was hugely shocking. Unless you want to be CEO of a multinational company, Danes expect they can have fulfilling and rewarding careers without leaving Denmark. If people do move abroad for work reasons, there's not a single destination that dominates -- Brussels, London, Berlin, New York, Oslo and Zürich are all equally likely.

I also fell in love with one of my colleagues, and one thing led to another. With five children in the house, I now see the educational aspect of devolution, too. Because they're at Scottish schools, you can't easily move to England for a couple of years, and you worry whether they can have a good career here. You also notice that the school holidays here aren't in sync with the BBC's school holiday programming and with the back-to-school products in supermarkets. The separate school system is making it hard to move to England and back, but you need to do that for your career. In this regard, the current system gives us the worst of both worlds.

Reforming the UK

If it was likely that the UK would be fundamentally reformed soon, my natural instinct would be to give it a chance. However, given that very few meaningful reforms have happened after more than a decade of Labour governments followed by a coalition government that includes the Liberal Democrats, I cannot see where the willingness to reform the UK will come from.

The main political parties in Westminster don't seriously want to overhaul the system (because it's working exceptionally well for the Westminster and City of London elites), and there's not even a party that can carry the beacon of hope (in the way the LibDems did before 2010). The only untested party that has a chance of gaining power within the next decade is UKIP, and that will most certainly be a change for the worse!

If we have a choice between being part of a failed state or a new, potentially very successful one, the choice is easy.

Some people have suggested that the main diving line between people voting Yes and No is whether they feel Scottish or British. This national identity question is not what makes me a Yes. I don’t feel British in the slightest — I would probably describe myself as a Danish-Swabian-Scottish European, but I'm not against unions per se.

If somebody suggested creating a single country out Denmark, Norway and Sweden, I would look carefully at the proposal. If the new Scandinavian Union could achieve things that the existing countries couldn't do themselves, and if all three countries were going to get a fair share of political power, I might be in favour. If, on the other hand, the Union simply meant putting Stockholm in charge of Denmark and Norway too, making Swedish the official language in all three countries, and the main benefit of the Union was to give the Swedish generals a bigger army to wage wars with, I would most definitely be against it.

The same applies to the UK. I haven't found any area where we're better together inside the UK. Externally, the UK might be stronger than its constituent parts when the country tries to punch above its weight in the UN and on the world stage generally, but unfortunately the result is not anything that furthers peace, democracy and the rule of law elsewhere on the planet, and what's the point then?

Scotland can lead the way

Then what? Nordic Horizons!
It's also very clear that Scotland and the majority of the rUK have very different visions for the future. An independent Scotland would want to retain and improve the welfare state (the Common Weal), whereas the rUK (led by London) is on its way to becoming a terribly unequal global city state. I believe Scotland could even inspire the other Nordic countries, where a certain degree of welfare state apathy has set in, but where Scotland's experiences with living under Thatcher and Cameron will galvanise the resolve to do better.

What I want

I want to live in a rich, egalitarian country. Where my children can have a decent career without moving away. Where a welfare state provides healthcare and education for everybody. Where people get a hand when they're down instead of being kicked further down. Where important rights are guaranteed by a constitution. Where immigrants are welcomed because most families consist of immigrants and emigrants. Where people are focusing on building the best small country in the world, not feeling disempowered and disenfranchised. Where nobility has been abolished, and ideally where the monarchy has been voted out too. A country that is growing at a normal speed, rather than seeing all other countries overtake it. A country that is a happy EU member state, not suffering from the Little Englander syndrome. A politically normal country, where people discuss the economy and foreign policy, not independence all the time.

The choice is simple. It has to be Yes.

(I haven't mentioned the currency of Scotland, the transition costs or anything like this, because those aren't reasons to vote Yes or No to independence -- they're purely practical problems to be resolved.)

Scots and the Scottish Cringe

I've been away to Denmark for a few days, and I took the opportunity to read Bill Kay's Scots: The Mither Tongue.

For people like myself who didn't grow up in Scotland, the Scottish Cringe is often somewhat of a mystery, but as an independence campaigner I often also feel the whole campaign is a fight to overcome that sentiment.

I therefore felt it interesting to see how the linguistic persecution of Scots (and of Gaelic, of course, but people are probably more aware of that) has formed the basis for the creation and preservation of the cringe:

The effects of centuries of stigmatisation and cultural colonisation cannot, of course, be overcome instantly with a new political attitude. The Catalans are a few decades into the recovery of their language but they concede that it will take several generations of confidence building before what they call the 'slave mentality' of their people can be removed. In public perceptions of Scots, we face similar problems and have not even seriously begun the process of recovery. Our equivalent of the slave mentality is the Scottish cringe.

If the people of Scotland started taking pride in both the languages of Scotland again -- Gaelic and Scots -- it would become so much more difficult to perpetuate the belief that we're uniquely too wee, too stupid and too poor to be independent. The unionists have a much easier time when the world is also linguistically seen through the prism of London.

The Scots language in an independent Scotland

Attenshun, mind yer step
Attenshun, mind yer step, a photo by x_goMad on Flickr.
I've met many people on either side of the independence debate who seem to regard Gaelic as one of the biggest casualties of the Union.

However, I think it's likely that Gaelic would have declined at a similar pace even if Scotland has remained an independent country forever -- a large reason for the lingering death of Scotland's Celtic language is the depopulation of the countryside, and most Western countries have seen this development, at least to some extent.

On the other hand, I don't think there's any doubt the Scots language wouldn't have been suppressed and dismissed as a mere dialect of English if the Kingdom of Great Britain had never been created. Scots, not Gaelic, would have been the majority language of Scotland today if Edinburgh had remained the capital of an independent country.

After a Yes vote we'll be in a situation similar to the one Norway found itself in after the ties to Denmark were cut as a consequence of the Napoleonic Wars: Lots of people still speak the original national tongue, but they write in the dominant language of the union. In the case of Norway, the written language was Danish, and the remnants of Norwegian were seen as uncultured dialects.

However, in a surprisingly short amount of time, Norway got rid of Danish and created not just one, but two varieties of Norwegian: Bokmål, which is a Norwegianised form of Danish, and Nynorsk, which is based more strongly on Old Norwegian and on the dialects. The two varieties have converged a lot, so even standard Bokmål these days can be pretty different from Danish.

I wonder whether the same could happen in an independent Scotland. Will Scots gradually gain higher status? Will it become more acceptable to write in Scots, or at least to use Scots words when writing in English?

It's impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but I wouldn't be surprised if a hundred years from now, 2014 will be seen as the year when the decline of Scots was reversed.