Siol nan Gaidheal
The Scots Language
Yesterday and Today

1. The beginnings
Up to the time of the decline of the Roman Empire, the land that is now Scotland was divided ethnically and linguistically. What is now the centre and the south of the country was populated by Britons, who spoke a language that was also spoken all over England and Wales, and was the forerunner of modern Welsh. In the north of the country, other languages were spoken, and prominent among these was Pictish. The nature of this language is uncertain, and although it has long been thought to have been similar to the Briton's language, more recently the claim has been made that it was related to Basque.

Once the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, waves of invaders began to arrive from Ireland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia. In the West, in Argyll, the (now debated) arrival of the Scotiae from Ireland brought Gaelic to Scotland. [current thinking is that the people of Dalriada may have been indigenous, and that they shared a common language through trade]. In the East, Germanic tribes settled along the whole coast between the Forth and the Channel. They too brought their language, the forerunner of both Scots and English; but it is a notable, and very significant, fact that there were substantial differences between the speech of those who settled in Lothian and Northumbria, and the speech of those who settled further south. It is in this that the origins of the differences between Scots and English lie.

2. Growth
During the Dark Ages, the territory where Gaelic was spoken widened. By the eleventh century, it was prevalent all over Scotland except in Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles (which at the time were all Norse possessions), and parts of Lothian where the Saxon tongue prevailed. Although Latin was used for the official business of the State, the language of the monarch and the court was Gaelic. However, when the Normans conquered England in 1066, this gave rise to a movement of displaced people from Northern England into Lothian, where the language was the same as their own. This not only increased the number of speakers, but also the status of the language, since among the refugees were a high proportion of people of relative wealth and means. By the end of the twelfth century, the language of the monarchy was a forerunner of Scots known as "Inglis", and the territory over which it was spoken was continually expanding at the expense of Gaelic.

It is interesting to note that, at this period in history, the language of the Scottish court was already distinct from - although still closely related to - the vernacular of England. (The language of the English court at that time was Norman French). There were several reasons for this distinctness: firstly, that that the northern tongue had been different from the southern one from the very beginning. Secondly, because in England the language of the rulers was French, English fell under its influence and underwent changes in vocabulary and pronunciation. (Ultimately Scots was also influenced by French, but at a later time, and to a lesser extent). Thirdly, Scots was influenced by contact with Gaelic, and with the Scandinavian languages, to a greater extent than was English. Thus, by the thirteenth century, a distinct language unique to Scotland existed and was established as the court language. By way of contrast, the Gaelic spoken in Scotland at this period was identical - at least in its written form - to that of Ireland.

In the fifteenth century, Scots replaced Latin as the language of the Scottish State for all official business, and retained that status until the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It was the language of all citizens (outside Gaeldom) from the monarch down, and was used by parliament, courts, judiciary, universities, schools, civil service and the professions. It finally took the name "Scots" in that century during a particularly outstanding period for literature when a succession of writers known as the Makaris (sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Scottish Chaucerians) produced work that was admired throughout Europe. With English established as the state language of England, the two stood equal in their respective countries. Although they had their similarities, it would have been no more true to say that Scots was a form of English than it would have been to say that English was a form of Scots.

3. The Beginning of Decline
In 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England and moved his court to London, and from this time onwards Scots as an official language went into decline. The effect was compounded by the Treaty of union in 1707, and before long a command of English was essential for any person seeking a successful career, even within Scotland. English took the place of Scots as the language of the establishment and the educated classes, and the use of Scots came to be seen among them as something to be avoided. Scots did, however, persist, as the vernacular of the majority of the population, for use at home and in the workplace. In some respects, the language continued to grow, and in areas of the eastern and southern Highlands where Gaelic fell into disuse, it was Scots rather than English that took its place. (This was still happening in the twentieth century, in places such as Braemar and Strathdon). Some writers, the most notable of which was Robert Burns, also continued to use Scots in their work. However, the view of Scots as a poor alternative to English gave rise, in time, because of the similarity of the two languages, to a view of Scots as a poor form of English. This was not helped by the way in which Burns chose to spell Scots, full of apostrophes implying that many Scots words were simply English ones with letters missed out, something that no writer before him had ever done.

4. The Present
The view that Scots is a corrupt form of English, although completely untrue as we have seen, is still the one that prevails today, even among people who speak it. Because of this, the language is not used at all in the nation's institutions but is used, as it has been since Union, as the spoken vernacular of ordinary people as they go about their everyday business with family, friends and acquaintances, and for prose, verse, drama, popular song and light entertainment. For generations, the educational system perpetuated the view that the use of Scots by pupils was something to be ashamed of, and well within living memory, the use of a single Scots word could be punished with the strap. People who normally express themselves in Scots will, when with strangers, often go over to English because not to do so might be seen as uncouth. Any person seeking employment involving responsibility or dealings with the public, who uses Scots at the interview, will almost certainly not be employed: the use of Scots will be equated with illiteracy, inarticulacy, or other negative qualities. Scots tends to be seen - at best - as non-Standard English, or - at worst - a form of gutter slang. In short, the Scots language today is surrounded by prejudice and ignorance, and it is even perhaps surprising that it continues to be used at all.

The exact extent to which Scots is spoken today is difficult to ascertain: as the language does not officially exist, there has never been any attempt to count the number of speakers. The question is complicated by the fact that it is no longer possible, in Scotland, to draw a clear line between Scots and English, as would have been possible in the sixteenth century. Today the two have become a dialect continuum, although this does not imply that they have become one language. Spanish and Portuguese exist as two distinct separate languages forming a dialect continuum, as do Scottish and Irish Gaelic. (more will be said on this below). The continuum is not one merely of geography, however, as is the case with those other pairs, as social class is also a factor. At one extreme of the continuum there are people who speak a conservative form of Scots that has changed little since Scots was the State language: such people can be found in the farming and fishing communities of the north-east and the south-west. At the other extreme is a small proportion of the population whose natural speech is standard English. (Nearly all Scots can use something resembling standard English vocabulary and grammar, when it is necessary to do so). Between those extremes there are many, many variations, but there are few Scottish people whose speech is totally unmarked by Scots. It is still no more true to say that Scots is a form of English than it is to say English is a form of Scots.

5. The Comparison with Gaelic
Scottish Gaelic has in recent years gained much support. This not only refers to public opinion throughout Scotland being more favourable towards promotion of the language by the state, but also material support from the state itself in the form of money mada available for greater use of the language in broadcasting and in education.

The respective histories of Scots and Scottish Gaelic show some remarkable similarities. Each is closely related to the language of a neighbouring country. Both arrived in Scotland at the same period in history. Each, at different periods, was the language of the monarch and the majority of the population. Each lost status through a shift in political power, rather than any reason concerning its own intrinsic worth. Both, in spite of their loss in status and subsequent efforts to eradicate them, persist today as the everyday speech of a section of the population. Each was, and is, a medium for great literature. However, there is one respect in which Scots stands ahead of Scottish Gaelic: the distinction between Scots and English goes as far back as their arrival on this island, in that the Germanic tribes who settled in Lothian spoke differently from those who settled further south. By the fifteenth century, Scots was a distinct spoken and written language used by all the institutions of the kingdom. On the other hand, the Gaelic of Scotland was indistinguishable from that of Ireland for centuries, and only emerged as a different written language in the eighteenth. At the level of local dialects, it still remained difficult to draw a clear line between the two and this remains so today: the few Gaelic speakers left in Kintyre (the nearest part of Scotland to Ireland) can sound so Irish to people from the opposite end of Scotland's west coast as to be difficult to understand. There are, today, no Irish-speaking communities left in County Antrim, but when there were (some speakers remained even in the 1950's) they often sounded more Scottish than Irish to speakers from southern counties such as Cork or Kerry.

As we have seen, the existence of Scots as a distinct language goes back much further than that of Scottish Gaelic. The fact that the use of Gaelic is promoted by the state, whereas the use of Scots is not, is an incongruous state of affairs.

6. The Revival
The last few years have seen something of a revival in the fortunes of Scots. Earlier this century, there was an explosion in the amount of poetry being written and published in Scots. While the flow of verse continues unabated, more recently we have seen the revival of written Scots prose, something that had not been seen for generations. Scots dictionaries have sold thousands of copies, as has a translation of the New Testament into Scots, which has been used in worship in some churches. A church in Perth has conducted wedding ceremonies in Scots. In 1989 Scottish Television broadcast a "chat show" series, with Billy Kay as host, and the dialogue in Scots. In 1991, BBC Radio Scotland broadcast a similar series, and early in 1992 produced a "Scots Language Week" with several programmes a day either in or about Scots. The language is recognised by the European Community as a minority language within the UK, through its Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages. Serious writing in Scots has appeared in the pages of a newspaper. In January 1991, the University of Glasgow began a course of evening classes for adults wishing to improve their command of Scots. The course was heavily over-subscribed, and was extended in academic year 1991-02, and the University of Edinburgh now holds its own course on similar lines.

There has as yet, however, been little progress in the sphere of school education. Pupils are no longer given corporal punishment for using Scots, or for anything else, but there is little positive progress to report. Pupils may occasionally be given work by Burns, MacDiarmid, or a more recent writer to look at during their English (sic) lessons - although this is in itself nothing new - and the understanding throughout is that while the work itself is to be studied and appreciated, the language used in it is not to be imitated. This stands in contrast to the place given Gaelic in schools, where not only is the literature studied, but pupils are also taught to be literate and articulate in the language. Gaelic is used as the medium of tuition in primary schools, and for some subjects in secondary schools.

In 1991, the Scottish Education Department produced a document on the teaching of language in school which, although it had the title "English Language 5 - 14", also addressed to some extent the possibilities for the teaching of Scots and the languages of immigrant communities. While the paper had its flaws, there was much in it that was encouraging for those who wish Scots to be more widely used. Its effect will depend greatly on the response to it from local authorities, which at present remains to be seen.

7. A Question of Timing
In the end, there can be little doubt that, in spite of centuries of divergence, Scots and English retain a good measure of similarity to one another. While most people who seek to promote the use of Scots also seek to assert its status as a language different from English (the two do not necessarily go together), it is possible to argue for the view that they are both forms of one and the same language. This part of the paper is aimed at those who hold the latter view, and is intended to establish the point that, while this is a credible position to take, the terms in which it is expressed often involve an anglo-centric basis that is, or ought to be, unacceptable to anyone who believes that Scotland is a nation with an identity of its own, rather than a flawed and deviant version of England's.

The often-made statement that Scots is a dialect of English can be dismissed from the outset. Scots is not a single dialect, of English or of anything, and has various dialects of its own in different regions of Scotland. The view that Scots is a tongue derived from English is equally false, as history shows us that the two have evolved separately from common roots. However, the statement that the various dialects of Scots, and the various dialects of English (including standard English) are all dialects of one language is, as has been acknowledged, a defensible one. What is not defensible, especially for Scottish nationalists, is to refer to that one language as "English". Indeed, for nationalists, the former ought to be preferable. Still more unacceptable, especially for a nationalist, is to refer to the court and state language of Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as "English", and to do so is as incorrect as to refer to the language of England at that time as "Scots", a description which no English person would accept, far less an English nationalist.

Siol nan Gaidheal - 1992

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