On Tuesday Billy Kay, the writer, broadcaster, and advocate for the Scots language, gave an address to the Scottish Parliament, The Time for Reflection address is not meant to be partisan or party political and Billy’s eloquent speech most certainly was not. Instead he used his address to highlight the importance of the Scots language to Scottish culture, literature, and identity. Scots is a language which, despite decades of official neglect and at times outright hostility and oppression still has over a million and a half speakers in Scotland and many more who understand the language even if they don’t actively use it themselves.
A huge part of Scottish cultural and literary output was produced in the medium of Scots. There is an enormous quantity of writing in Scots, there’s the poetry of Robert Burns and Hugh Macdiarmid, Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, a play written by the makar Sir David Lyndsey in the early 1500s intended for performance at the court of King James V, the translation of the New Testament by Lorimer, legal texts and chronicles produced when Scotland was an independent state, and the modern poetry of Tom Leonard or Liz Lochhead. There are Scots language translations of the children’s story the Gruffalo, Asterix the Gaul, Harry Potter, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In terms of its quality and range, not to mention its sheer quantity, writing in Scots vastly exceeds writing in any English dialect.
The quantity of Scots is also evident in its vocabulary, The Scottish National Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue are massive multi volume works, nothing comparable exists for any mere dialect of English, and nothing comparable could exist for any of them. The reason for this is that as a language in its own right, there are regional dialects within Scots, and there are also different registers of Scots. There is colloquial Scots, and there is also formal literary Scots. However there is no such thing as formal literary Cockney, Geordie, or Yorkshire, because the formal and literary variety corresponding to these dialects is standard English.
From a linguistic point of view Scots is highly divergent from English. Without getting too technical all non creole English dialects and standard English have a vowel system in which some vowels are inherently long and others are inherently short, however all Scots dialects have a radically different vowel system in which the length of a vowel (i.e. the duration of its pronunciation) is predictable from its phonetic context. Scots also displays important grammatical and syntactic differences from English. These grammatical and phonological differences end sharply along the Scottish-English political border, in marked contrast to local dialects within England, which merge imperceptibly into one another.
Scots must be distinguished from Scottish Standard English, the form of English most widespread in Scotland. Scottish Standard English arose in the 18th century and is basically southern English pronounced according to Scots phonology. As such it is a form of English which is heavily influenced by Scots and which has accommodated partially towards Scots. Since this is the form of English most spoken in Scotland it gives many in Scotland the false impression that Scots is more like English (non Scottish English) than it really is. This impression is compounded by the fact that all Scots speakers are bilingual in English and most Scots speakers use neither pure English nor pure Scots but rather speak a varying mixture of Scots and English depending on the formality of the social situation and who they are speaking with.
English and Scots are very closely related. However English speakers without any previous exposure to Scots typically find Scots extremely difficult to understand and have to learn it as a foreign language. Being closely related to another language and partially mutually intelligible with it does not rule out language status for a linguistic variety. Norwegian and Swedish are closely related and are partially mutually intelligible, as are Czech and Slovak, but they are accepted as being languages in their own right. Ukrainian is very closely related to Russian. Russian nationalists claim that Ukrainian is merely a dialect of Russian and use this to assert Russian political dominance over Ukraine.
The Scots language, like the Gaelic language, is part of the cultural heritage of everyone in Scotland, irrespective of their political opinions or their views on Scottish independence. Billy Kay’s speech to Holyrood was not political, and he would be the first to stress that the Scots language should not be a pawn in Scotland’s constitutional debate, but it is significant that those who took to social media to howl in protest about him making a speech in Scots to the Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly defined themselves as opponents of Scottish independence and were quick to express their distaste for the SNP.
In order to clarify things for the British nationalist frothers who attacked Billy Kay for having the temerity to use Scots in a formal setting, the recognition of the status of Scots as a language has nothing to do with the SNP. It was the British Government of Tony Blair which ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2001 and gave official recognition to the Scots language and also Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, and Cornish, as well as Irish and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland. However it was because the British Government chose to give a higher level of recognition to Gaelic (and to Welsh) than it did to Scots that we have a Gaelic TV channel but not a Scots one, even though Scots has more speakers than Gaelic and Welsh combined.
As far as any measures to promote or foster the Scots or Gaelic languages are concerned, the Scottish Government is merely acting as the agent for the British Government in fulfilling Britain’s international treaty obligations in Scotland. You’d think Unionists would be happy that Holyrood was doing what Westminster expects of it, but not apparently when it comes to Scots or Gaelic.
One of the most common protest against Billy’s speech was that “no one speaks like that” and accusing him of using a “made up language.” However all standard and literary languages without exception are the artificial creations of linguists and writers who make conscious decisions to extend the use existing words into new meanings , to create new terms from the internal resources of the language, or to use the language consistently and without the strong influence of a different prestige language.
In the case of Catalan in the 19th century this entailed writing the language using a regularised and more consistent version of the orthography used for Catalan when the Kingdom of Aragon was independent of Spain, and purging the new written Catalan of the Spanish vocabulary which was crowding out native Catalan words. Other European languages were standardised in very similar ways. In the case of Estonian this actually entailed the wholesale adoption of words from Finnish (the previous prestige language in Estonia being German) and even the outright invention of new words.
No one is proposing anything so radical for Scots. However any attempts to extend the range of Scots or to use it in formal settings are met with howls of protest from linguistically illiterate people who invariably deride the language and insist that it is not a proper language at all, while they do their utmost to prevent Scots from ever being used as a proper language. Not only do these people wear their linguistic ignorance as a badge of pride, they almost always identify themselves as opponents of Scottish independence and assert that any attempt to use Scots outside of a narrow range of informal settings is “politicising” the language. In fact what is politicising the language is to insist that Scots must not be permitted to make use of the same tools of linguistic enrichment, or to be used in the same range of settings, as every other language in Europe, for fear of strengthening the appetite for Scottish independence.
Such people often claim that using Scots in the way Billy Kay did in Holyrood is “embarrassing” but this tells us vastly more about the person making the assertion than it does about Billy Kay or the Scots language. Objectively no language is any more or less embarrassing than any other. Saying that Scots is embarrassing tells us that person has strongly internalised feelings of Scottish inferiority and inadequacy, feelings which go a long way to explaining their visceral opposition to independence. They are terrified that if Scotland does have languages and a culture of its own, languages which are no better or worse than any other language, just languages which are distinctively Scottish , then perhaps Scotland might be something more than just a tartan bedecked region of a monolingually English speaking “British nation.”
It never fails to amuse just how willing those who suffer from terminal cringe are to not only display their ignorance for all to see, but that they are convinced that their ignorance is a virtue and demand that the rest of us must share in their ignorance too. It’s not the Scots language which is embarrassing. It’s them.
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