A history of Scottish languages – part 5

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Scotland 1000by Paul Kavanagh

Read parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

 

1000 AD : The Norse flashed across Scotland like a lightning storm.  But although dramatic, their effect on the linguistic geography of Scotland was surprisingly limited.  Even so, the linguistic effects of Norse upon the other languages of Scotland would prove to be far more significant.  All the modern languages of Scotland contain a substantial number of Norse loanwords, and features of Norse pronunciation strongly affected the Gaelic of northern Scotland.  The characteristic ‘preaspiration’ of Scottish Gaelic dialects of the Highlands is almost certainly due to Norse influence. Preaspiration refers to the “h” sound that occurs automatically in these accents before sounds like p, t or k.  Preaspiration is quite rare amongst the languages of the world, in Europe it occurs in languages which are either descended from Old Norse, like Icelandic, or which were in close contact with it, like Sc. Gaelic and the Saame or Lappish language of northern Scandinavia.

by Paul Kavanagh

Scotland 10001000 AD : The Norse flashed across Scotland like a lightning storm.  But although dramatic, their effect on the linguistic geography of Scotland was surprisingly limited.  Even so, the linguistic effects of Norse upon the other languages of Scotland would prove to be far more significant.  All the modern languages of Scotland contain a substantial number of Norse loanwords, and features of Norse pronunciation strongly affected the Gaelic of northern Scotland.  The characteristic ‘preaspiration’ of Scottish Gaelic dialects of the Highlands is almost certainly due to Norse influence. Preaspiration refers to the “h” sound that occurs automatically in these accents before sounds like p, t or k.  Preaspiration is quite rare amongst the languages of the world, in Europe it occurs in languages which are either descended from Old Norse, like Icelandic, or which were in close contact with it, like Sc. Gaelic and the Saame or Lappish language of northern Scandinavia.

The major casualty of the Norse invasions was the spread of English in Scotland.  The power of the Anglosaxon kingdom of Northumbria was broken by the Viking invasions, halting the advance of Old English in southern Scotland. The previous Old English expansion into the south-west proved unsuccessful, and the language was largely displaced there by Gaelic.  Northumbrian expansion north of the Forth was reversed. The extension of Old English in the Lothians was also reversed to quite a considerable extent by Gaelic, which had by now become the dominant language in West Lothian.  There were still Cumbric and English speakers in some of the Gaelicised districts of southern Scotland, but it seems the common language was now Gaelic which was being adopted by younger generations as a first language.

The Gaelic speakers of both Scotland and Ireland called themselves Gaels and both were usually referred to as Scots by non-Gaelic speakers.  This period was the zenith of Gaelic Scotland, when the language was close to reaching its greatest extent.  It was the only language which was used in every region of the country and was used by all sections of society.  Gaelic speakers were found in areas which were not majority Gaelic speaking, and knowledge of it as a second language was widespread especially amongst the ruling and landowning classes.  Gaelic even penetrated into parts of Cumbria, now in England but then controlled by the Kingdom of Scots.  The written language of the Gaels was starting to become codified and to develop into a highly prestigious written language.  Known as Classical Irish, this standard written language became the medium of an enormous literature which was shared equally by all Gaelic speakers from Kerry in Ireland to the extreme north of Scotland.  As well as original writing in various genres of prose and poetry, Latin and Greek texts were translated into Classical Irish making the knowledge of the ancients accessible to the Gaels.

The one area where Gaelic had suffered a geographical reverse was in the extreme north and north west.  These were the regions where Viking influence had been greatest and where Old Norse had displaced the original Celtic language – whether that was Gaelic or remnants of Pictish.  Ironically perhaps, the Isle of Lewis, the modern heartland of Gaelic, was Norse speaking during this time.  When the common language in the Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee areas was Gaelic, and when even the inhabitants of Edinburgh knew and used the language, the dominant language in the northern Western Isles was Old Norse, although Gaelic was still doubtless in use at least among some sections of the population.  However the Isle of Lewis in particular seems to have been very strongly Norse in character during this period.

Although the Viking invasions were politically and economically devastating, as a spoken language Norse was short lived in Scotland outside the extreme north and the islands and coast of the north west.  The Norwegian and Danish settlements of northern England did not spread far into Scotland with the exception of a small area in Dumfriesshire.  In northern England it was most likely the incursion of Norse speaking groups which brought about the extinction of Cumbric there.  In most of the south west of Scotland the Viking period actually helped to consolidate the spread of Gaelic, since the Norse settlers of that region were already Gaelic in language and culture by the time they arrived.  These were the Gall-Ghàidheal ‘the foreign Gaels’ who descended from Viking groups which had settled in Ireland some generations before.  The Gall-Ghàidheal gave their name to Galloway.

Cumbric was struggling to survive.  The last remaining Cumbric kingdom, Strathclyde, would soon be annexed to the Kingdom of Scotland.  Gaelic cultural and linguistic influence within Strathclyde was strong, and many people had already shifted to the exclusive use of Gaelic.  Many Cumbric speakers would have been bilingual in Cumbric and Gaelic, and many Old English speakers in the Lothians were likely to have been bilingual in Gaelic too, but it’s unlikely that most Gaelic speakers troubled themselves with learning Cumbric or English.  By this time Gaelic was dominant in all of Galloway and Ayrshire and the Glasgow area and just about everywhere in Scotland north of the Forth.  It looked set to become the only language of almost all of Scotland.

Next : 1200 and the emergence of Scots

 

 

Read previous articles from the history of Scottish languages series. Part: 1, 2, 3, 4