A history of Scottish languages – part 7

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2092

Scotland 1400by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 6

1400 AD : A massive shift to Scots is in progress in the Lowlands. By this time Scots is regarded as a different language from English, and was in the process of undergoing a complex set of linguistic changes which would eventually turn it into a language quite different in character from its closest relative.  Most of the distinctive features of Scots pronunciation arose during this period and the language was being lexically enriched as writers strove to adapt it for use as the language of the Scottish state and administration.  Literature in Scots starts to become abundant and covers a diverse range of topics, styles and themes.

by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 6

Scotland 14001400 AD : A massive shift to Scots is in progress in the Lowlands. By this time Scots is regarded as a different language from English, and was in the process of undergoing a complex set of linguistic changes which would eventually turn it into a language quite different in character from its closest relative.  Most of the distinctive features of Scots pronunciation arose during this period and the language was being lexically enriched as writers strove to adapt it for use as the language of the Scottish state and administration.  Literature in Scots starts to become abundant and covers a diverse range of topics, styles and themes.

The distinctive vocabulary of Scots includes terms preserved from Old English but lost in more southern varieties, such as thole ‘suffer, endure’ from Old English þolian, however it also included vast numbers of words of Norse origin most of which probably spread to Scots from the strongly Norse influenced English dialects of northern England. Words from Dutch or Low German also begin to put in an appearance, keek ‘to peep’ comes from Dutch kijken ‘to look at’.  Although Dutch words first became established in Scots due to the influence of Flemish settlers amongst the first inhabitants of the Royal Burghs, Dutch and Low German continued to influence Scots thanks to the important economic and trading links Scotland maintained with the Baltic region. The common language of this trade was the Low German of the Hanseatic League.

However the greatest amount of vocabulary was borrowed from French and from Latin.  Although the fundamental words and grammar of the language remained Germanic, Latin and French words were numerous. Scots and English often borrowed the same words, but sometimes adapted them in different ways.  For latinate verbs ending in -ate in English, such as illuminate, educate, English formed the regular past participles illuminated, educated, written Scots preferred the past participles illuminat, educat.

Gaelic also influenced Scots. Scots geographical vocabulary is strongly Gaelic in origin, including such common words as loch and glen.  But the greatest influence of Gaelic – and probably Cumbric too – upon Scots was expressed in a more subtle way as both Scots and English began to develop grammatical constructions of clearly Celtic origin, such as the distinctly un-Germanic progressive tenses, eg I was going, he is walking etc which characterise modern Scots and English and distinguish them from Dutch, Frisian and German – their closest relatives – which lack these constructions.  These tense forms first put in an appearance in northern English and Scots texts, and spread to southern English in the later Middle Ages.

The rapid and extensive spread of Scots at the expense of Gaelic is the most marked feature of the language history of this period.  Spoken Scots had by now spread to Central Scotland, the Clyde Valley, north Ayrshire and Fife and the language was already well established in the burghs along the east coast north of Fife.  It was continuing to spread strongly, and within a few generations would entirely displace Gaelic all along the east coast almost as far as Nairn.

It is interesting to speculate why Scots spread so rapidly amongst the Gaelic speaking population of the Lowlands.  It may be connected to the singular fact that when they adopted the Middle English dialect now known as Scots, the Gaelic speakers of Scotland did not also have to change their ethnic identity or their political and cultural allegiences.  This was strongly in contrast to what was occurring in eastern Europe at the same time, where Slavic rulers encouraged the settlement of German speakers in their kingdoms in order to found burghs and promote trade and the economy.  In these regions the local Slavic speaking population often assimilated linguistically to the incoming German language, but as they did so they also became culturally German and identified themselves as ethnic Germans.  However when the Gaels of Lowland Scotland began to take up the Scottish variety of the Middle English language, they did not become ethnically and culturally English as a result.  Instead they identified this Middle English variety as a distinct language called Scots – the very word which had previously been used in English to refer to the Gaelic language.  It would be as though the German speaking inhabitants of the towns of Poland or Bohemia had decided that they shared an ethnic and cultural identity with their Slavic speaking neighbours, and that the variety of German they used was not in fact German at all, it was a different language called Wendisch (the German name for Slavic languages and their speakers).

Gaelic was under severe pressure from Scots in the Lowlands but remained strong in Galloway and southern Ayrshire.  In the Highlands Gaelic had by now mopped up the remaining pockets of Norse in most of the islands and in all of the mainland except Caithness.  Norse was probably still used to some extent in Lewis at this date, but it was under extremely strong pressure from Gaelic.  Norse may even have already disappeared from Lewis as an everyday spoken language, maintaining itself as an ’emblematic language’ which the Norse of the Suðreyar (lit. ‘the southern isles’, the Norse term for the Western Isles) regarded as a symbol of their Norse identity and ancestry, but which they no longer spoke on a daily basis. Whichever was the case, Norse would soon vanish completely from the Western Isles, leaving its traces in the large number of place names of Norse origin which are still a feature of the islands’ landscape.

Although Scots was by now regarded as a different language from English, Scottish Gaelic and Irish speakers still regarded themselves as speakers of different dialects of a single language.  Both Gaelic Scotland and Ireland made use of the Classical Irish literary language which enjoyed massive prestige. Literature in this language was copious, far greater in quantity than that of the contemporary Scots.  The literary language was supported by a system of bardic schools, which had as their patrons the Gaelic speaking lords of both Scotland and Ireland.  The language enjoyed such high prestige that it was considered a classical language on a par with Latin.

On the other hand the emerging spoken colloquial did not enjoy the same prestige. The spoken dialects of Gaelic in Scotland were by now well on the way to becoming very different from the classical written tongue.  Major simplifications and rationalisations took place in the verbal system, reducing the number of irregularities.  The old noun case system also began to simplify and reduce and a new way of forming the plural of nouns was established.  Words from Scots began to appear, like trang ‘busy’ from Scots thrang.  Scottish Gaelic began to take on the character of the language we know today, and was becoming rather different from Irish.  Even so, there remained close cultural ties between Scotland and Ireland, and the Gaelic dialects of Galloway and neighbouring Ulster had far more in common with one another than distinguished them. Unfortunately since the written form of Gaelic enjoyed such massive prestige there was very little writing in colloquial varieties of the language, so it is not always easy to trace when and where various changes took place.

The Norse of Scotland was by now experiencing linguistic changes which would turn it into the Norn language.  Important changes took place in pronunciation, and changes also arose in the grammar of the language. Norn was not used for writing, the inhabitants of the Northern Isles used the contemporary Danish written language, so it is very difficult to say with any precision what these changes were. Norn was by now almost solely confined to Orkney and Shetland, but still clung on in Caithness. However it seems that in Caithness bilingualism was widespread, indeed Gaelic may never have disappeared there entirely. The influence of Scots was also beginning to make itself felt in Caithness and Orkney and Scots words were beginning to be borrowed into Norn.

 

Next: 1600 The end of the golden age of Scots