There’s been another wee outbreak of Scots-isnae-a-language-itis on social media of late. It’s a bit like gonorrhea, you think you’ve got rid of the disease then some wee dick comes along and infects everyone again. There’s a peculiar affectation amongst those who deny the existence of Scots as a language. Because they speak English they think that they’re qualified to make linguistic pronouncements that fly in the face of linguistic orthodoxy. It’s a bit like imagining that just because you’ve just passed your driving test that you’re immediately qualified to design cars for Maserati and you’re a faster driver than Lewis Hamilton.
We ridicule those who want the theory of a flat Earth to be taught in schools, there is rightfully strong and entrenched opposition to calls from religious fundamentalists for their creationist myths to be taught in science classes. The denial of Scots as a language is in the same league. It’s a position held by idiots who don’t have a clue what they are talking about, who substitute opinion for fact and prejudice for learning. Scots-deniers are the linguistic equivalent of people who believe that the world is born on the back of a gigantic elephant. But the only giant elphantine thing that exists in reality is the giant elephant sized turd that these folk drop all over any serious discussion of language in Scotland.
In what is quite certainly a vain attempt to answer these idiots for once and all, what follows in this blog post is not my opinion. It is based on an article by the highly respected Scottish linguist the late Professor AJ Aitken, a man whose contribution to the science of linguistics is so great that he’s actually got a law named after him. Aitken’s Law describes how vowels are realised in Scots and Scottish English (which is English pronounced according to Scots phonology). In 1984 Professor Aitken wrote a paper for a book called Language in the British Isles published by Cambridge University Press. The book was a collection of scholarly articles examining the different languages of these islands, and looking at their sociolinguistic setting. The book is a comprehensive survey of the varieties of speech used in Britain and Ireland, the only one it missed out was the keech spoken by Scottish Unionists.
In his paper, Scots and English in Scotland, Professor Aitken included a chapter called “What is special about Scots?” which directly addresses the issue of the distinctiveness of Scots. Just what is it about Scots that elevates it above the run of English dialect and allows it to claim the title language?
Firstly, Scots is of course not a single dialect, it is a collection of dialects which self-evidently have more in common with one another than they do with anything else that can be called English. While non-standard dialects in England merge imperceptibly into one another, Scots and Northumbrian English are separated by a sharp and deep linguistic frontier which runs, more or less, along the Scottish-English political frontier. Professor Aitken points out that this linguistic frontier is becoming more important with the passage of time, as traditional dialect dies out in England but Scots retains more vigour in Scotland.
Nowhere else in the “English speaking” world is there anything remotely like the sharp and abrupt linguistic frontier between Scots and the English of Northern England. Numerous important linguistic features which are typical of Scots run along this frontier. A border between linguistic features is called an isogloss, the Scots-English frontier is by far and away the most important bundle of isoglosses anywhere within “English”.
Within Scotland, Scots and Scottish English exist in a continuum. Speakers use more Scots or more Scottish English depending on social circumstances and who they are talking to. Scots speakers are more likely to use Scots with family members and close friends than they are in formal social settings like a job interview. Scots isn’t the only language variety to exist in a continuum along with Standard English in this way, the same is also true for English dialects.
However Professor Aitken points out that the end points of the spectrum are far further apart in Scotland than they are anywhere else in the English speaking world. In fact from a structural linguistic point of view, the end points of the Scots-English spectrum are clearly different languages which are not mutually intelligible. Even when Scots words are evidently related to their English equivalents (the technical term is cognate), the phonetic distance between the two is great. The vowel in hame is very different from the vowel in home. As well as cognate vocabulary, Scots also contains a mass of vocabulary which is not cognate with English, words like haiver, stramash, sheuch, speugie, stank.
It’s not just the sheer linguistic distance which makes Scots special. It’s also the quantity of Scots. Professor Aitken was the editor of the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue and points out that the Scottish National Dictionary (a dictionary of modern Scots) contains over 30,000 entries few of which are obsolete. No other “dialect” of English has anything approaching this quantity of vocabulary. That’s not surprising when you consider that due to its former use as the national language of the Scottish state, Scots contains literary and formal vocabulary such as legal terms. That means that there is such a thing as formal literary Scots. There is no such thing as formal literary Cockney or Geordie. Scots has registers, English dialects do not.
It’s not just that Scots possesses, in abundance, the sheer linguistic differentiation from English that makes it a language. Scots also possesses a rich and copious literature. According to Professor Aitken:
In quantity, distinction and variety this literature far outshines the ‘dialect literatures’ of any other part of the English speaking world. Scotland is unique amongst English-speaking nations and regions in possessing its own great literature in both ‘standard’ and ‘dialect’ versions of its own language … Furthermore, many Scots, such as Walter Scott and Hugh MacDiarmid, are very conscious that a form of Scots formerly was (in the sixteenth century) the full ‘standard’ or ‘official language’ of the then separate Scottish nation.
It was in its former use as the official language of the Scottish state that Scots began to develop its own orthographic conventions. Most of these spellings quh for wh, or sch for sh, are now obsolete, but some, such as ui for a vowel that is pronounced in different ways in various Scots dialects are still current. It would not be too difficult for a standard spelling for Scots to be developed on the basis of older Scots orthographic conventions, using them in a consistent manner without reference to English.
It’s because Scots is currently written in a spelling system based on English – in effect when writing Scots we write English except when Scots differs from it – that allows Scots deniers to keep claiming that one of Scotland’s national languages is not a language at all. However the weight of linguistic evidence is against them – so gaunie jist shut it, haud yer wheesht ya numpties.
So if you want to decide whether Scots is a language or not, who are you going to listen to? A politically motivated zoomer on social media, or one of the greatest linguists that Scotland has ever produced? Me, I’m going with Professor Aitken.
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