The Scots language in an independent Scotland
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.
22 thoughts on “The Scots language in an independent Scotland”
It’s interesting that Scotland and parts of England are practically the only places in Europe where many (most?) people aren’t able to speak standard English. I think that to some extent, this is caused by a belief that they are already speaking English, so there’s nothing to learn. (This might have been different when RP was the only pronunciation heard on TV, but these days it’s full of Scots, Scouse, Geordie and so on.)
If Scottish people started calling their native language ‘Scots’ again, perhaps that would then be followed by the introduction of English as separate school subject.
To be more concrete: Lots of Scottish people pronounce ‘water’ as /’watər/, not /ˈwɔːtə/ or /ˈwɔtɚ/. This pronunciation can be very confusing for foreigners (incl. native speakers of English who haven’t encountered Scots a lot), but there would an uproar if schools introduced elocution lessons to teach the kids to pronounce the word in RP (or Mid-Atlantic, for that matter). Once the spelling had been changed back to ‘watter’, it’d be much easier to discuss how to pronounce the English word ‘water’.
It comes back again to when language use is for communication and when it is for group identity. English developed out of the need for the disparate groupings in Great Britain (the island) to communicate/trade with each other, while the regional dialects contain echoes of the original disparate languages of the island. It’s possibly the norm in most places in the world to have one’s group identity language and a different language (or language version) for communication outside the group. E.g. the use of Latin in church and academia in the middle ages; the use of English across India; etc. If the in-group identity language in Scotland diverges further from standard English, it will be important for Scottish children to learn standard/international English so that they don’t lose out on the opportunities that come from knowing that that language.
I think the language issue can be too much associated with the inward-looking aspects of Scottish nationalism (and nationalisms in general) for me to be comfortable with it. I wouldn’t want everyone in Sussex to go back to the old dialect — I think that would be a backward step.
Thomas Widmann, what about Wales? Do they speak standard english there? All their road signs and so on are in english and gaelic…
They speak standard English and Welsh in Wales, Karsten. Welsh is a P-Celtic language (the others being Breton and Cornish) and is not particularly similar to Gaelic (which is a Q-Celtic language like Irish and Manx).
No, I don’t think the issue was whether Scotland should stop teaching standard English, but whether we should start teaching Scots as the native language and English as an easy foreign language. Of course there are downsides to it, but then you could argue it was a crazy idea to replace Danish with Norwegian in Norway 200 years ago. 🙂
Because the vernacular isn’t standard English in most parts of Scotland.
I guess that depends how you define standard English…
Teaching Scots as the national language and English as an easy foreign language seems (a) like a backward, inward step and not consistent with the kind of nationalism the new SNP claims to espouse and (b) will drive a wedge of inequality between middle class Scots whose day to day speech is closer to standard English and working class Scots whose tongue is more exclusively Scots. It would result in a rather inward-looking national identity based on linguistic markers.
It seems that linguistic idealism goes in two directions: Esperantists in one direction; linguistic nationalism in the other. The two seem to be somewhat incompatible. It’s good to have a bit of ‘local colour’, shades of variety of English, but too much divergence and you risk locking people in to their communities.
Jens, the forms you quote aren’t very divergent from standard English, and they’re common to many varities, too. The Scots language (not English as spoken in Scotland) is much more different. For instance, “isna/isnae”, not “isn’t” (and in general -na instead of -n’t); singular nouns after numbers (“five pound”); different reflexes of Old English vowels (e.g., “muin” /mɪn/ for “moon”, “houss” /hus/ for “house”); the phoneme /x/ (e.g., “dreich” /drix/, “thocht” /θoxt/ “thought”), and very many different lexical items.
Rob, I don’t think you have to choose between being inward-looking and outward-looking. Being aware, proud and confident of your own background can be a necessary stepping stone to making your mark in the world.
I live in the deep south of the United States and I am proud of my accent. I am also if Scottish descent and my ancestors have been in US for at least 300 years and I speak a lot of Scottish words that has been passed down through the years. I have been learning the Scottish language and I didn’t realized I spoke so many Scottish words and phrases. I am very proud of it.
Well, that’s quite a persuasive way of putting it but I think the educational emphasis should favour the outward-looking, communicating language rather than the inward-looking, identity-forming language.
My fear is of a future where the inward-looking factions in nationalism gain the upper hand.
What are children taught in German schools? Or French, Italian, etc, etc. Why should Scotland be unique in downplaying its own languages in favour of one from another country?
RT @arcofprosperity: New blog post: The Scots language in an independent Scotland http://t.co/Z6Kw4zDGam #indyref
@arcofprosperity Liked your article. Taught in uni that Scots language never standardised because bible wasn’t published in Scots. 1/2
@arcofprosperity Holy book being published generally thought of as feature of standardisation. Publishers moved with Court to London! 2/2
If its Scottish it must be crap.