A history of Scottish languages – part 9

8
1719

by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 8Scotland 1800

1800 AD : It was during this period that both Scotland’s major languages became minoritised, but Scots and Gaelic were affected by the advance of English in different ways.  A minoritised language is something different from a minority language although the two categories often overlap.  A minoritised language is one that has been driven from public use and whose use is not recognised or supported by the state, which works exclusively through the medium of another language.  The state sees its goal as the spread of this language to the exclusion of other languages.  Speakers of the minoritised languages are expected to learn and use the state language.  Speakers of the state language are not expected to learn the minoritised languages, and most often view them at best with patronising condescension, at worst with outright hostility.  A language can become minoritised even when it remains the majority language of a country.  This is exactly what happened in Scotland.

by Paul Kavanagh

Read part 8

Scotland 18001800 AD : It was during this period that both Scotland’s major languages became minoritised, but Scots and Gaelic were affected by the advance of English in different ways.  A minoritised language is something different from a minority language although the two categories often overlap.  A minoritised language is one that has been driven from public use and whose use is not recognised or supported by the state, which works exclusively through the medium of another language.  The state sees its goal as the spread of this language to the exclusion of other languages.  Speakers of the minoritised languages are expected to learn and use the state language.  Speakers of the state language are not expected to learn the minoritised languages, and most often view them at best with patronising condescension, at worst with outright hostility.  A language can become minoritised even when it remains the majority language of a country.  This is exactly what happened in Scotland.

At this period in Scottish history a large, indeed overwhelming, majority of Scottish people were still speakers of Scots or Gaelic.  The population of Scotland was about 1,600,000 in the year 1800.  Approximately 300,000 people, just under 20% of the Scottish population, were monolingual Gaelic speakers who spoke no other tongue.  No official counts were made of the number of Gaelic speakers who were bilingual in Gaelic and English or Gaelic and Scots, but they formed a large and substantial population.  By 1800 the Industrial Revolution was starting to alter the human geography of Scotland, and Gaelic speakers were moving into the emerging industrial districts along with Scots speakers from rural Lowland areas and Irish speakers from the north of Ireland.  Most of these Irish speakers used dialects which were rather similar to Scottish Gaelic, mutual intelligibility was possible without too much effort. Probably more than a quarter of the Scottish population spoke or understood Gaelic.

In the Lowlands, the overwhelming majority of people still spoke traditional Scots.  No attempts were made to count the number of speakers, but Scots remained the everyday spoken language of the rural population and the ordinary people of the larger towns and cities.  Spoken Scots remained strongest of all in the rural districts.

English language texts had begun to become common in Scotland even when Scotland was still an independent state with its own monarch.  After the Union of Crowns in 1603 the amount of written and printed English became a deluge which almost wiped out the native Scots literary tradition, a development strongly reinforced by the political decision to adopt an English language bible.  This accustomed Scots speakers to associating the standard English of England with the formal and dignified spheres of language.  Scots was no longer regarded as a suitable medium for prose, especially prose texts dealing in complex or abstract topics.  English became the sole medium of ‘intelligent’ writing.  Scots was now seen as fit only for comedy and for self consciously dialectal poetry.  When Scots was written, it was now written using a rather haphazard mixture of English spelling conventions with the occasional use of traditional Scots spelings – a situation which continues to the present day.  This occurred as English spelling and the standard language based upon the educated usage of southern England were becoming more rigorously codified and standardised, but no corresponding attempts were made to codify and standardise Scots.  Since Scots was no longer regarded as an appropriate medium for the full range of genres and styles found in normal literary languages, and no longer had a literary standard or codified system of spelling, the perception began to grow that Scots wasn’t really a proper language at all.

Scots was by now relegated entirely to the domestic and familiar spheres.  The saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ holds true for languages too.  Scots came to be held in contempt by those who sought mastery of spoken and written English in its standard southern form.  The possibilities of social advancement now depended heavily on a good command of a written and spoken English which was acceptable to the English speaking establishment of the British state. The fear grew that the Scots language was a millstone around the necks of Scots, preventing their development and improvement.  In part this was due to the incorrect scientific opinion of the day, which held that the acquisition of one language ‘took up space in the brain’ as it were, and so prevented the proper acquisition of another.  Scots came to be regarded as an obstacle to social improvement which had to be overcome.

It was not until the Union of Parliaments in 1707 that spoken English started to become widespread.  The upper and middle classes of the cities adopted spoken southern English with great enthusiasm, and became determined to extirpate any trace of a Scots accent from their speech.

Just as English had become the formal written variety corresponding to the remaining self-consciously colloquial writen uses of Scots, which were now almost exclusively poetry, spoken English now became the formal variety corresponding to spoken Scots.  Spoken Scots increasingly became perceived as a debased form of English, whilst at the same time English words, constructions and pronunciations percolated into Scots.  The educational system saw its goal as the promotion of English, and use of Scots became strongly stigmatised, marking its speakers out as uneducated, uncouth, and inarticulate.  Many Scots developed a terror of public speaking, since every time they opened their mouths they risked revealing themselves as provincial buffoons who would be looked down upon.  The infamous Scottish cultural cringe began here.

Scottish English was now established as a widespread spoken language.  It was the language Scots used on formal occasions, and when speaking to non-Scots and for communication between Scots of different language backgrounds.  It was increasingly being adopted as the only spoken language, especially amongst the middle classes of the towns and larger cities.  Technically, Scottish English is an ‘institutionalised xenolect’. A xenolect is a foreign accent, the characteristic accent of French people when they speak English is an example.  Xenolects arise when people acquire a second language in adulthood or later childhood, the natural tendency of adult learners is to ‘map’ the sounds of the language they are learning onto the sounds of the language they already know. Since there is never an exact match between different languages, a characteristic accent is the result. Usually xenolects are attempts to acquire a new language without an accent but sometimes when an entire society adopts a new language, these interference features from the older language become established and accepted in the way the new language is pronounced locally. Standard Scottish English is an example. It derives from the standard English of southern England, but in its pronunciation retains the basic phonology (sound system) of Scots.  Scottish standard English is a recognised and well described variety of standard English in its own right.

The minoritisation of Scots and the rise of Scottish English caused Scots to become regarded as a dialect.  Gaelic was also being minoritised during this period, it came to be seen as purely a Highland language of no relevance to the rest of Scotland.  The previous history of Lowland Gaelic was obliterated in Scottish popular consciousness, both in the Lowlands and in the Highlands.

The annihilation of the Gaelic bardic schools in the 17th and early 18th centuries brought about the final end of the Classical Irish literary tradition.  In post-Jacobite Scotland it was considered a matter of urgency to root out Catholicism in the Highlands, and various Protestant groups and societies set about spreading their particular brand of Christianity amongst the ‘benighted’ Gaels.  However these attempts were hampered by the lack of a bible easily intelligible to Gaelic speakers.  Previous attempts to spread Protestantism had relied upon translations into the Classical language, but since very few Gaels now understood the old literary language the usefulness of such texts was limited. The widespread illiteracy amongst Gaelic speakers and the great distance which had grown up between the spoken language and Classical Irish meant that Classical Irish was no longer suitable as a written medium for Scottish Gaelic speakers.  A new written variety for Scottish Gaelic came into being, based mainly on the 18th century translation of the bible into the dialect of Argyll.  It’s a pleasing coincidence that the dialect spoken in the territory of Dalriada, the original Gaelic kingdom of Scotland, became the written basis for the modern Scottish Gaelic literary language.  But it also happened to be the case that this particular dialect of Scottish Gaelic was had the greatest intelligibility amongst speakers of other dialects.

For loyal North Britons, there was also the political consideration that the creation of a written standard for Scottish Gaelic had the effect of separating potentially rebellious Scottish Gaels from potentially rebellious Irish Gaels.  Scottish Gaelic and Irish were now seen as different languages.

Spoken Gaelic continued to decline.  The opening of the 19th century still saw Gaelic demographically strong in the Highlands, but the crushing of the Jacobite rebellions of the previous century had ripped the heart out of Gaelic society.  The remaining Gaelic aristocracy now acquired English with the same gusto as their Lowland equivalents, and Scotland began its long line of “clan chiefs” with cut-glass English accents who were completely assimilated into the English upper classes.

For many generations, there had been little in the way of formal educational provision in the Highlands.  School attendance was voluntary even where schools did exist.  According to Prof. Derick S. Thompson, around the year 1800 illiteracy was the norm in the Highlands.  There was thus no large reading public for texts and books printed in Gaelic.  Prior to 1800 the small number of books published in Scottish Gaelic dealt with religious topics and themes.  But due to pervasive illiteracy even these books were not widely read. In order to counter this lamentable state of affairs the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was founded in 1811.  According to its foundation document, “the sole object being to teach the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands to read the Sacred Scriptures in their native tongue.”  The Gaelic schools proved popular and successful, and created a reading public which would eventually lead to an increase in the styles, themes and genres of Gaelic language publishing.

The events of the Industrial Revolution and the Highland Clearances caused mass emigration to the emerging industrial towns and cities of Lowland Scotland and further afield.  The Clearances and the Highland Potato Famine of 1842 were especially devastating on the fortunes of Gaelic as both disproportionately affected the Gaelic speaking peasantry, the demographic core of the language.  The linguistic effects of the Clearances saw English speakers become a far larger proportion of the remaining population, and these English speakers were largely to be found in positions of local power and influence. The generation born in and around 1800 would live to witness the destruction and loss of the Gaelic language across much of its remaining territory.

Although there was no formal ban on the use of Gaelic in the educational system when compulsory state provided education developed in the late half of the 19th century, in practice use of the language was actively discouraged.  There was poor provision of Gaelic speaking teaching staff, many teachers spoke only English and saw their goal as the promotion of English. Those in positions of authority and influence were often overtly hostile to Gaelic.  Speaking Gaelic had the same negative overtones and stereotypes as speaking Scots.  It was seen as something to be ashamed of, and marked its speakers out as uncouth and lacking in education.  Although most of those born in the Highlands at this time would grow up as Gaelic speakers, their children and their children’s children would abandon the language.

Norn had by now almost completely vanished. Only a handful of ‘rememberers’ still remained in the outer islands of Shetland.  Rememberers represent the very final stage of language death.  They do not speak the language, but remember phrases, lines of verse, prayers and other short fragments which they were taught by the last generation of speakers. Norn had now become a memory.

 

Next : 2000 : Retreat and loss, and fresh shoots of hope