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.

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:

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

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.

8 thoughts on “Norwegian language lessons for Scots”

  1. Thanks for this article. I taught at NTNU Trondheim (university) for a couple of years and used a mixture of English and Ryksmal (standard Norwegian) but the course exams had to be given in Ryksmal and optionally in Nynorsk. Once this option was requested (so I estimate one student out of the 80 I taught) and I was pointed to someone in the Department who could write Nynorsk which had a exact and uniform spelling. It was all sorted with light amusement but no negative feeling, typical of the uniformly tolerant educated company I kept. Note that Trondheim is not in the traditionally Nynorsk dialect areas, which are concentrated in the West, near Bergen, Alesund etc. so the student’s request had some rarity value.

    1. Just imagine if exams at Scottish universities had to be provided in English, Scots and Gaelic if anybody requested them! 🙂

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