A history of Scottish languages – parts 5 and 6


By Paul Kavanagh Scotland 1000– [Click here for parts 3 and 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.

By Paul Kavanagh – [Click here for parts 3 and 4]

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.


1200 and the emergence of Scots

1200 AD : By now Cumbric was on the verge of extinction, clinging on only in a few remote locations in the Southern Uplands or amongst isolated groups of speakers surrounded by a largely Gaelic or Scots speaking population.  It would be extinct within a generation or two.  The last speakers of Cumbric probably lived somewhere in the region of the upper districts of the Tweed Valley and in the Lammermuir Hills where there appear to be some clusters of late-looking Cumbric names.  The language was most probably extinct by the end of the 13th century.  In its final stages Cumbric must have become rather different from contemporary Welsh, as unlike the Welsh Cumbric speakers had been in intense contact with Gaelic speakers and speakers of Northumbrian English for many centuries.

Scotland 1200Gaelic had begun to reabsorb the regions it had lost to Norse as the Norsemen of the Western Isles gradually became Gaelicised in language and culture.  The last bastion of Norse in the Western Isles was the Isle of Lewis, but it is uncertain when the language finally died out there.  It may have clung on as late as 1500. Norse fared somewhat better on the mainland, but was still in retreat before Gaelic and would shortly be confined to Caithness and the north coast of Sutherland.  The Norse speakers of these areas were probably already bilingual in Gaelic, although it seems that on the mainland Norse maintained itself best in Caithness, which was still firmly within the cultural orbit of Scandinavia.  In the Northern Isles Norse still survived as the sole spoken language, but the local dialect was beginning to develop along its own lines.  The written form of the Norse language began to crystalise in this period and it was a period of great literary productivity for Norse.  The Orkneyingasaga, a historical account of the Norse earls of Orkney, was composed around this time, most probably by an Icelandic writer.

Gaelic had by now consolidated its position as the dominant spoken language in Scotland and was spoken almost everywhere in the country.  North of the Clyde and Forth it was the only language except in the remaining Norse territories.  South of the Clyde and Forth Gaelic was predominant everywhere in the West and Central Scotland and pentrated the south east as far as Peebleshire.  Galloway was stongly Gaelic in language, although some pockets of Cumbric may still have survived in some of the more remote higher districts.  Scottish Gaelic was by now undergoing the linguistic and phonetic changes which would differentiate it from its Irish relative.  These changes were quite substantial, and many of them were shared with the Irish dialects of Ulster. But although the spoken language was developing and altering, the written language was becoming standardised and codified and no longer reflected the changes that were proceeding apace in the colloquial.  A gap was beginning to arise between spoken Gaelic and the classical literary language.  Eventually this gap would grow to such an extent that the written form of Gaelic was no longer comprehensible to speakers of spoken Gaelic without special study.

Although Gaelic was now widespread across the entire kingdom, and Gaelic speakers could be found even in districts where most people spoke another language, the seeds of the later downfall of Gaelic had already been sown.  The Old English of Scotland had by now begun to evolve into Scots and it was starting change in ways that would distinguish it from English south of the Border.  However Scots was still generally referred to as “Inglis” during this period, but over time the linguistic differences between the Inglis of Scotland and English south of the Border would accumulate.

An early form of Scots was already spoken by many in the Scottish royal court which was located in Edinburgh in an economically prosperous and well-favoured region which had long been settled by Old English speakers.  The language received a great boost as the Scottish crown embarked upon the creation of Royal Burghs. Immigrants from England, the Low Countries, Germany and France were attracted to the burghs by the new economic opportunities they presented.  The common language used by the inhabitants of the new burghs to communicate with the locals was Inglis.  A knowledge of the language began to spread amongst the Gaelic speaking population of the Lowlands.

The language of the burghs showed immense influence from the Inglis dialects of Northern England, where Norse influence had been strong.  Many of the Norse words which characterise modern Scots entered the language at this time.

Norman French was current amongst the upper strata of society during this period and it was widely used as a written language.  However it is likely that in Scotland Norman French was the native language of only first generation or second generation Norman French migrants.  Most of the people who regarded themselves as Normans were simply of Norman descent and spoke Gaelic or Scots natively, but they acquired French in childhood as part of their education.  Although it was of restricted currency as a spoken language, Norman French, and later Parisian French, were to prove highly influential.

When the Normans invaded England, the literary tradition of Old English was brought to an abrupt halt.  When English and Scots once again begin to put in an appearance as written languages, they would do so in a spelling system based largely upon that of French.  Where Old English had written hus for ‘house’, in the Frenchified spelling of the Middle Ages the word was written house, using the ou of French to represent the vowel pronounced “oo” in modern English.  In later English the vowel written ou changed in pronunciation, hence modern English house, but in the variety of Middle English that became Scots this vowel remained unchanged, hence the older Scots spelling hous, pronounced hoose.  This change illustrates the political and cultural separation of Scots from English.  Whereas in Old English times linguistic changes and novelties that arose in southern varieties of English passed freely into the varieties that would evolve into Scots and vice versa, now linguistic changes stopped at the border. Over time these changes would accumulate, and create a sharp language border along the Scottish-English political frontier.


Next: 1400 – The spread of the Kingis Scottis