A history of Scottish languages – part 8

3
1199

by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 7

Scotland 16001600 AD : This was the end of the golden age for Scots.  It had become the only spoken language in most of the Lowlands, and was the vehicle for a rich literature.  Scots was apparently well on the way to establishing itself as a European state language on a par with English, Danish, French or German.  Although the concept of an official standardised state language is anachronistic at this period in history – all European languages still exhibited variation in spelling and choice of vocabulary and some grammatical features – prior to the 17th century Scots had showed all the signs that it was on the same path of development as other European languages which would shortly emerge as standardised and codified languages.

by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 7

Scotland 16001600 AD : This was the end of the golden age for Scots.  It had become the only spoken language in most of the Lowlands, and was the vehicle for a rich literature.  Scots was apparently well on the way to establishing itself as a European state language on a par with English, Danish, French or German.  Although the concept of an official standardised state language is anachronistic at this period in history – all European languages still exhibited variation in spelling and choice of vocabulary and some grammatical features – prior to the 17th century Scots had showed all the signs that it was on the same path of development as other European languages which would shortly emerge as standardised and codified languages.

The lowland plains of Aberdeenshire and the North East were by now Scots speaking while in southern Scotland Scots was the sole spoken language almost everywhere except southern Ayrshire and Galloway where Gaelic was still in widespread use.  Whereas in earlier historical periods Scottish people had mainly used Gaelic to communicate with one other Scottish people who had a different mother tongue, now they largely used Scots.  Scots was by now the only ‘inter-language’ of Scotland.  There was a firm and strong social expectation that the onus was on Gaelic and Norn speakers to acquire Scots to communicate with other Scottish people, Scots speakers didn’t generally bother to acquire Gaelic.  This social attitude to Gaelic bilingualism remains even today.

However like Gaelic before it, the golden age of Scots was also when the seeds of its later downfall would start to become apparent.  The invention of printing in the previous centuries had meant cheap books, texts no longer had to be laboriously copied out by hand.  Books were no longer the sole preserve of the wealthy and the ability to read had started to become widespread amongst ordinary people.  But the advent of printing had brought a flood of books in English from the print presses of England which produced greater print runs, working as they were in a larger market.  Religious tracts in English were being widely read by Scottish religious reformers.  The easy availability of written texts in English familiarised Scots speakers with written English.  The two languages were closely related and shared much in common, so acquiring an understanding of written English was not too difficult for Scots speakers.  As a knowledge of written English spread, the tendency also developed for Scots to use English spelling when writing Scots. This tendency increased in strength as time went on, more and more written Scots made use of spellings and forms which were originally proper to English.

Within a few years, the Authorised Version of the bible would be published.  This was a translation of the bible into English, and was intended as the official translation of the scriptures to be used throughout the realms of the Scottish monarch.  However the Scottish monarch James VI was by now also James I of England, he was an individual with strongly absolutist and centralising tendencies.  For political and cultural reasons, the English bible was to be used in Scotland too.  This brought English directly into the households of most Scots speakers, as being able to read the scriptures for oneself was one of the basic tenets of the new Protestant religion.  English was now also heard every Sunday in church, where attendance was obligatory.  Scots speakers began to associate the exclusive use of English with the formal spheres of writing and literature and with formal and dignified speech.

Unlike Cornwall, where in the previous century a rebellion had broken out when an English language Book of Common Prayer was imposed upon the Cornish speaking population, there was no great protest in Scotland about an English language bible.  The period was one of immense social upheaval and warfare provoked by religious disagreements, but disagreement about the language to be used in bible translation was not one of the major bones of contention.  Scots were already familiar with written English and did much of their reading in English.  The use of an English language bible was largely accepted without great complaint.  This was the start of what can be called the minoritisation of Scots.  As Scots slowly began to drop out of use in the high status functions it had previously enjoyed, it would eventually lose its status as a distinct language in popular consciousness and come to be regarded as a variety of English.

Scottish Gaelic had by now undergone almost all of the linguistic changes which differentiate it from Irish, but speakers still made exclusive use of Classical Irish as their written and literary language.  The modern spoken dialects of Scottish Gaelic had by now established their distinctive features in grammar and phonology and were substantially similar to the modern language.

The Gaelic literary language was now very far removed from the spoken tongue, and literacy was only possible for those who had the time and resources to study the ancient classical language.  As a rough approximation you could say that the language used by Gaels for writing during this period was about as different from the spoken language as early Middle English differs from modern English.  If you have ever struggled to understand the works of Chaucer, you’ll have a good idea of the scale of the task faced by Gaels who wanted to write in Gaelic.  With the political decline of the Gaelic aristocracy in Ireland, and the increasing use of Scots by Highland aristocrats, the system of bardic schools which had supported the Classical Irish language were starting to fall into decay.  Just when literacy was beginning to become widespread amongst Scots speakers, illiteracy was spreading amongst Gaelic speakers.  By now the stereotype of the illiterate and uncultured Gael had firmly established itself in popular consciousness in the Lowlands.  Gaelic now faced prejudice and contempt and was no longer thought of as a classical tongue almost on a par with Latin.

The difficulties faced by Gaelic speakers in the acquistion of literacy posed problems for the Protestant reformers.  The first Gaelic book printed in Scotland was a translation of John Calvin’s cathechism, one of the basic texts of the Calvinist Church of Scotland of the age.  Printed in 1631 under the snappy title Adtimchiol an chreidimh comhaghalluidhedar an maighiser agas an leanamh it was written in the Classical Irish language.  As such it was of very limited utility to Protestant reformers who wished to preach the new faith amongst Scotland’s Gaelic speaking population, who proved far more resistant to the new religion than their Lowland contemporaries.  The geographical extent of Gaelic had by now more or less retreated to the Highland Line, and alongside the long existing differences in economy and social organisation due to different geographical conditions there was now a division of language and religion between the Highlands and the Lowlands.

Although there were still large communities of Gaelic speakers in southern Ayrshire and Galloway, the language was retreating there before Scots and would eventually disappear completely from the Lowlands.  Galloway Gaelic survived until the 18th century. Its last speakers most likely lived in the area around Glen App in the extreme south of Ayrshire. With its loss, Gaelic was confined to the Highlands and islands.  The Gaelic dialect of Galloway was never put down in writing, no literature in it survives. However it’s likely that it had a great deal in common with the Irish dialects of the neighbouring Ulster coast and with the Manx of the Isle of Man as well as with the Sc. Gaelic of Argyll and districts adjacent to the Lowlands such as the Lennox area of Stirlingshire where Gaelic still survived.  In many ways Galloway Gaelic would have been a linguistic bridge between Irish dialects and Sc. Gaelic dialects and was most likely transitional between the two.  When it died out the linguistic divisions between Irish and Sc. Gaelic appeared more strongly marked.

But the biggest casualty was Norn. Norn had probably vanished entirely from Caithness by this time, where Gaelic-Scots bilingualism was now commonplace. In the Northern Isles the language had already begun to give way to Scots even before the islands passed to the Scottish kingdom as a dowry pledge. Spoken Norn still clung on in Orkney but it was already severely weakened by the spread of Scots. Shetland Norn fared little better and in both island groups the language would soon die out. In Orkney it became extinct sometime during the 18th century. In Shetland it survived a little longer, its last speakers lived on the island of Foula in towards the end of the 18th century or the early decades of the 19th century.

Next: 1800, The minoritisation of Gaelic and Scots