A history of Scottish languages – parts 7 and 8


By Paul Kavanagh – [click here for parts 5 and 6] Scotland 1400

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 – [click here for parts 5 and 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.


1600 The end of the golden age of Scots

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