The Scots tongue: wir mither tung

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by Reid Wyllie

The Scots language has been variously, and often disparagingly or in ignorance, referred to as a regional dialect, as patois or, as a family friend said to me the other day when we were discussing the subject, “Och, it’s jist Inglish bit wi a Scoattish accent.”

“Awa an bile yer heid, wumman.” I replied, “If Rabbie Burns kent there wis onybdy in Ayrshur that thocht whit they wir bletherin wis Inglish he’d be birlin in the caul, caul grun.  Noo, Ah’m awa ben the hoose, fur Ah’m baith scunnert and wabbit fae listenin tae yer brattle.”

She conceded that I may have a point.  But how did she come to hold this not uncommon perspective on the language that a goodly proportion of us use to converse with one another, to a greater or lesser degree, every day?

The beginnings of the demise of Scots can probably be traced as far back as the Union of the Crowns.  That is to say, not much more than a couple of hundred years after it had become the ‘official’ language of Scotland.  At this time Scots had a more standardized spelling than English and was viewed throughout Europe as a sister, but separate, language to English.

However, once the Scottish king James VI had decamped to London there was a certain inevitability that he and his successors would become, in time, ‘English’ monarchs who spoke and wrote and conducted business in English and that Scots would fall by the wayside, would eventually have its good name blackened. That, as we all know, is precisely what happened.  How many of us grew up being told by teachers, ministers, parents and many others (some of whom should have known better) that we should speak properly, stop using slang, use proper English?

There’s a famous anecdote in our family about how my paternal granny, having ’bad’ legs, had decided that at the age of two I was to be a doctor.  Being a doctor, it seems though, was not just about schooling, according to my granny, it was also about station in life as well as how one was perceived by others.

With this in mind, this woman from a working class background in Kilmarnock set about teaching me how to speak ‘properly’.  This meant that I was to speak clearly enunciated Queen’s English with as little Scottish accent and as few ’slang’ words as possible.  Being raised in a tiny village deep in the heart of Ayrshire this was no mean feat. The anecdote often concludes with me, at the age of 4years, telling my father that he was mistaken in saying that “hail stanes” were falling but that they were, in fact, “whole stones”.

Can you imagine my first day at school, a short while later? I obviously understood what all the other children were saying –after all, it’s what I heard every day from my grandparents, parents, siblings, friends and neighbours – it’s just that I didn’t speak like they did. Gee, thanks Granny. I remember, too, being mortified one day in class when I couldn’t remember the ‘proper’ word and having to tell my teacher that I had dropped my pencil “ablow” my desk. I was sternly and hastily reminded that we spoke “proper English” in our wee rural school and that my pencil, as I should know, was “below” my desk.

It’s an attitude that persists to this day.  Yet all is not lost. Whilst I do not speak as much Scots as my grandparents did, nor even as much as my parents still do now, the Scots Tongue is no longer demonized by the establishment.  To quote from a UK Government paper, “the Scottish Executive recognizes and respects Scots (in all its forms) as a distinct language, and does not consider the use of Scots to be an indication of poor competence in English”.  This was a sea change in official attitude that has led to a variety of initiatives from within Scotland to not only recognize Scots more but also to encourage and promote its use and our understanding of it.

Modern Scottish writers, such as James Kellman, who use modern, local Scots in their work have had a hugely influential role too.  This renewed interest has led to the inclusion of a question on the Scots language being included in the last census in an attempt to gather information, more widely than through sample surveys, on just how many of us speak or just understand Scots  The SNP administration at Holyrood has been quick to realize, prompted by a host of bodies as well as by its natural inclination to promote a Scottish agenda, that there is not only a great affection for our own language but that there are cultural and even economic benefits to its promotion.

The great flowering of literature written in Scots both before and during the Scottish Enlightenment and culminating in the splendid and populist poetry of Robert Burns is in danger of being lost, or at least consigned for all time to the dusty bookshelves of academics and researchers.  It would be a crime to wilfully allow this to happen.  Our still distinctive culture would be the poorer for it and our people would become even more disconnected from our past, our heritage and our sense of who we are.

Economically, tourism is already a very significant part of the Scottish economy. The promotion of Scots and events revolving around it can only help to bring in more tourists, who seem to take great delight in learning a few words of ‘Scottish’ to take back home. “Not more Tartan Tourism!” I hear some of you say.  Don’t worry.  Tartan Tourism is merely a disparaging term coined to make us feel bad about promoting certain elements of our past, about feeling proud of our past and proud of what we once were and can be again.  People with no pride in, or knowledge of, their past can hardly be expected to have confidence in themselves, to forge ahead into a new and brighter future.  If many of us don’t believe that the way we speak is speaking ‘properly’ how can we expect the rest of the world to listen to what we have to say.

One last point: this article was written on Microsoft Word.  In the spellchecker I can set up nine different variants of Sami, the language family spoken in Finland and surrounding areas.  I can set it for eighteen different variants of English (including Philippino, Caribbean and even Irish).  What I cannot do is set it for Scots, or even for English (Scots).  Perhaps it’s time I could.