The Scots tung: how to support it without tying up the Yes movement. A guest post by a Clear Contrair Spirit
One of the insinuations heard (admittedly, mostly from English-based media) during the referendum campaign was that the SNP was all about compulsory Gaelic. As any Scot knows, Gaelic is marginal to the Scottish independence movement, and this is probably a good thing. In Wales, the nationalist movement has been largely tied up with the Welsh language movement. On the one hand, this has given them a cause to rally round, but on the other, it has limited the appeal of Welsh nationalism in a country where only around a fifth of the population speaks it.
That’s actually less than the proportion of Scots claiming to speak Scots according to the 2011 census, some 30% of Scots indicated some level of competency in the language, rising to 49% in Shetland and Aberdeenshire. Unlike Gaelic, Scots is spoken the length and breadth of the country, and it is impossible to live here for any length of time without acquiring at least a passive understanding. This being so, independentista types need to ask the question, where do we stand on the Scots language?
Before we get started on that, we need to ask what the Scots language actually is. Most people in Scotland, whenever they open their mouths, place themselves somewhere along a linguistic continuum. At one end, we have what is known as Scots Standard English. This uses British spelling conventions and more or less the same grammatical rules as standard English but the same phonology as Scots and a large amount of Scotland-specific vocabulary (perhaps the best known examples are the use of a trilled /r/ pronounced regardless of its position in the word, and the use of ‘outwith’ instead of ‘outside’). At the other extreme, we have the Scots language proper, based on the Old Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-saxon, with a large admixture of Norman French and Latinate vocabulary, just like English. A sample sentence (taken from William Lorimer’s translation of the New Testament): Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels, but hae nae luve I my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin bress or a ringing cymbal (English translation, from the KJV: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angel, but have not love, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal). Most Scots, myself included, mash these up these two languages, using vocabulary, grammatical forms, and vocabulary from both, sometimes even in the same sentence. Sample: There’s a fell load o snow oan this platform, a pure Scots sentence would use sna instead. When it comes to writing however, almost all of us resort to English, because this is what we’re taught at school is the correct way to write and that’s what we feel comfortable with.
The position of Scots reflects a sort of national schizophrenia (whether this is a cause or a symptom of the famous Scottish split personality or antisyzygy if you’re looking to win at Scrabble is a question for another day). On Burns Night say, Scots is set up as an object of pride, but it’s an ossified object, presented as of no practical use or contemporary relevance, and its use in polite society is frowned upon outwith certain staged contexts. For many older Scots, the refrain rings true that ‘For one day a year, we were given a prize for being able to read and recite ‘guid Scots’ and on the other 364 days we were belted for using the same words.’ But to write in Scots is not just difficult, but often discouraged as incorrect. There’s often also a sneaking suspicion that to write in Scots, on a form or an official letter say, would be undignified; it would mark one down as uncouth and ill-educated, even though the chances are almost everybody who read it would be able to understand the meaning.
This brings us to one reason why the independence-minded should be willing to support Scots. I’ll get the atavistic nationalist thing, red in tooth and claw out the way now – Scots is ours, and if we don’t cherish it and look after it, nobody else is going to. It’s part of what makes us who we are. But, blood and soil nationalist hat off, one thing we often heard during the referendum debate from the Yes camp was ‘I want to live in a normal country.’ Implicit in that statement is the recognition that Scotland is not a normal nation, that we suffer from some kind of psychological wound due to our lack of independence. Heal and whole come from the same (Germanic) root and the way to heal this wound is to integrate (Latin root, to make whole) the national psyche. One very practical way to do that is to integrate Scots mentally so we don’t see it as a second-class form of speech or mere identity marker, the sort of thing you learn by heart at school then promptly forget, but rather as a part of us that we feel entirely at home with, without embarrassment or reservation. Some might think this is impossible, but there is ample historical precedent. In South Africa, Afrikaans used to be derided as ‘Cape Dutch’ or ‘Kombuistaal’ (‘kitchen language’), the uncouth speech of the unlearned. In the wake of the Boer War, Afrikaner nationalism began to cherish the language, and to insist on its development and public use. In order to develop, Scots needs greater standardisation of the spelling conventions, more use in schools and the media, and recognition of the right to use it in communication with public bodies. In Finland, Swedish is a secondary official language, but Swedish-speaking Finns have the right to interact with officialdom in their own language, in recognition of their status as full citizens. Ultimately, we should be looking for Scots to be accorded the same status.
But ca’ canny. Many people already do interact with the government in Scots, but only in oral form, and might not see why they would want to use anything other than English for written communications. Perhaps more importantly, Scots has survived because people feel comfortable using it. There is a danger that were we to impose too artificial a standard, people would become alienated. Obtaining formal language rights is simply a means to an end, and that has to be about normalising the use of Scots, and raising its prestige. Achieve that, and people will come to use it naturally in more contexts, including writing.
Before we go any further, we should say that this isn’t about abolishing the use of English. English connects us to the wider world, and we need both languages to achieve the psychological integration mentioned above. English is part of us too. Rather than teaching Scots as a separate subject, it might be simpler and more effective to teach Scots spelling and grammatical forms alongside each other, in the same way schoolchildren are exposed to Scots literature in what we call their English lessons. A good metaphor for the relationship between Scots and English might be the Horcrux. Except in this case, the two can exist in symbiosis.
A further question is, how do you promote Scots without being labelled as obsessive hobbyists or narrow nationalists? One answer is that the Yes movement is precisely that, a movement. Scots language organisations can take a neutral position regarding politics, but still work for the language, but there is a need to set up a group that supports both the Scots language, and the independence movement, and can co-operate to linguistic and political ends on an ad hoc basis. Another answer lies in questions of social justice. Social justice? That’s practical stuff: foodbanks, bailouts, benefit cuts – nothing to do with language, surely? Wrong. Scots is the language of the people, in that it is the language of the lower classes, urban and rural. In the contemporary Scottish media, it’s exceedingly rare to see or hear Scots used except in a context where the use is there to show that the speaker is proletarian, or comic, or quite possibly both. Still Game is laced with Scots; you won’t hear it on Reporting Scotland, save the odd vox pop. Normalising the use of Scots in all contexts is a very powerful way to lessen the stigma, and therefore the social exclusion, that goes with using the language. If, as George Bernard Shaw said, it is impossible for one Englishman to open his mouth without another despising him, it remains true, almost a century later, that a huge proportion of Scots cannot open their mouth without their fellow Scots mentally writing them off, because of the language it comes naturally to them to express themselves in. In a nutshell, if you remove the negative stereotypes associated with contemporary Scots, you remove a huge impediment to social mobility and social justice.
So, want to know the old Scots word for independence? Unthirldom!
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