The Scottish Government has recently announced measures to support the Scots language. The measures are mild, and the Government has specifically stated that no extra funding is being made available. In a normal country they’d attract criticism on the grounds that they go nowhere near far enough and are a ridiculous tokenism for a language which has a million and a half speakers in Scotland and which is understood by many more. But this isn’t a normal country, this is Scotland – which is inhabited by Scottish people, people who’ve moved to Scotland to make their lives here, and by ProudScotsBut.
The measures fall a long way short of recognising Scots as an official language, far less do they make Scots medium education obligatory, yet they’ve been greeted with the usual howls of denunciation from the Cringing Factions of ProudScotsBut. Scots isn’t a language, it’s a dialect, their cringes cry, despite having not a clue on how linguists determine that a speech variety is a language in its own right. And in this instance, the world of linguistics is pretty determined that Scots is a language.
Despite the academic consensus that Scots is as much a language as Portuguese, Slovak or Frisian, this doesn’t stop the Arty Buggers and the Political Nae Sayers. When you’re a ProudScotBut you are suddenly overcome with the magical ability to pontificate on topics which you know bugger all about. ProudScotsBut know far more about the subject of Scottish languages than people who have devoted their careers to studying it. We’re back to that typically North British combination of wilful ignorance and overweening arrogance which pretends to occupy a moral high ground that exists only in their own heads.
The two key terms in deciding the question of language vs dialect are Abstand and Ausbau. Abstand refers to raw linguistic difference, it is German for “standing off”. If speakers of speech variety A can’t understand speakers of speech variety B, then it’s reasonable to consider them different languages. Linguists have developed tests for mutual intelligibility which are used when developing literacy programmes in unwritten languages which exist as chains of dialects. In such languages, neighbouring dialects can be mutually intelligible, but dialects which are further apart are not. Typically, linguists look for around 70% mutual intelligibility before considering two related varieties as the same language. Where intelligibility is lower than this, speakers require different written forms.
There’s a problem here, because all Scots speakers understand English. We’re exposed to it from an early age on television, in films and on the radio. Scots speakers without exception understand English with native speaker competence. That means that linguists can only test people from outside Scotland. Few such tests have been carried out, however the few which do find that English speakers without prior exposure to Scots understand less than half of what is being said – and this is when they are listening to modern urban Scots varieties. When exposed to more traditional Scots varieties, intelligibility drops dramatically.
Scottish people find it difficult to comprehend just how foreign non-Scots find the Scots language. Partly that’s because when we compare Scots and English we automatically compare Scots with Scottish Standard English, but Scottish Standard English is itself a variety of English which is heavily influenced by Scots. It’s English spoken with the phonetic system of Scots, and also allows a significant number of Scots vocabulary items and uses Scots syntax.
Technically Scottish Standard English is an institutionalised xenolect, which sounds like something spoken by space aliens who have escaped from the asylum. And when you listen to modern ProudScotsBut proclaim that Scots isn’t a language, you could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion.
Modern Scots exists as a series of dialects which form a clear and distinct group which is sharply distinguished from anything else which could be described as English. Uniquely in the “English speaking” world, Scots does not merge geographically into the dialects of Northern England. The Scottish-English political frontier is also a very marked linguistic frontier.
But intelligibility and linguistic differentiation are not the only criteria for deciding whether a linguistic variety is a language in its own right. Culture plays a vital role too. Unlike a dialect, a language is consciously elaborated for a range of social uses – it has Ausbau, German for “building out”. Dialects – at least non-standard ones – are typically restricted to the domestic and the familiar. However, Scots – uniquely for a so-called “English dialect” – has registers. Registers are different forms of a language which have different social uses. So for example there is everyday spoken Scots, but there are also a number of varieties of literary Scots. Previously there was a legal Scots too, used in Scottish courts. No English dialect possesses anything like this.
Many ProudScotsBut dismiss literary Scots, especially modern literary Scots, as an artificial language. However they are missing the point. ALL literary varieties are artificial by definition. Standard languages are deliberate creations, people sat down and invented them. They do not arise by magic because the Language Fairy waved her sparkly standardisation wand. Some modern European standard languages – for example standard Estonian, Finnish, Basque, or Romantsch – are consciously artificial creations. Estonian contains words which were invented out of nothing. Words in modern literary Scots are at least taken from some variety of the real language.
Scots also has a spelling system which is partially independent of English. Spellings like heid contain the sequence ei, used for a distinctly Scottish pronunciation of the vowel written ee in English spelling. The spelling ui in words like guid is used for a sound pronounced differently in different Scots dialects.
Scots has all the attributes of a full language. It has Abstand – it is linguistically clearly distinct from its nearest relative and not easily mutually intelligible with it without language learning. Scots has as much Abstand vis as vis English as Portuguese has with Spanish, or Danish has with Swedish. And Scots also has Ausbau, it has been developed as a language with its own spelling system, and contains distinct registers. There is such a thing as formal literary Scots, there is – or once was – legal Scots, there’s no such thing as formal literary Cockney or legal Geordie. That’s what makes Scots a language, while Geordie remains a dialect of English. Of course that doesn’t mean Geordie couldn’t be elaborated as language – it’s just that no one has ever been motivated to do so. Scots on the other hand were motivated to elaborate their speech variety as a distinct language hundreds of years ago – because they felt that they belonged to an independent nation, distinct from England.
And that brings us to the nub of the issue, the assertion that Scots is a language is also an assertion that Scotland is a nation, a different country. And that’s why the North Britons react so vehemently against it.
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