A Scots Revival?
Author(s): Mr Bruce Leeming
Copyright holder(s): Mrs Dorothy Leeming
Protagonists for the wholesale adoption of Scots recommend that English still be taught in our schools, but only as a second, a foreign language. They believe that the long erosion of Scots from the 1603 Union of the Crowns and its eclipse by English usage, often forcibly imposed, has greatly contributed to the undeniably existing 'Scottish cringe'. The claim is that the only way to eliminate this regrettable handicap is by the equally forcible reintroduction of Scots, particularly as the across-the-board medium of instruction at primary school level. This will lead to a recovered pride in the native tongue and a consequent dispelling of feelings of inferiority or shame.
However this solution having been proffered, questions inevitably arise about what exactly is meant by 'Scots'. Presumably reference to the lexis is not made on any territorially partial basis? It must be assumed that we are not thinking only of, for example, north eastern Doric, Shetlandic, or Ayrshire crack, nor yet Glesca street 'patter' - all vestigial local dialects of ancient Scots. So what would this universal modern Scots be? A synthesized compound of those varying strands, decided by a committee of professors of linguistics? How practical is this, how sensible, how desirable? MacDiarmid and others tried it a long time ago, with mixed success and only really in the rarified sphere of poetry.
At this point a certain agressive defensiveness tends to enter the debate. Stories are dusted down about 19c Gaelic-speaking children being beaten at school for daring to utter words in their first language. Such barbarous treatment was of course unforgivable, however lofty the education authorities' motives, but how relevant is its memory to the contemporary situation regarding Scots? This objection is often met by individuals' heartfelt personal testimony of humiliation, keenly recalled, at being told at school that they were speaking in an unacceptable manner, using words and constructions inadmissible in 'good English'. That the child, from working-class circumstances usually, knew that he or she was using the everyday language of his or her respected parents and loved grandparents deepened the private shame and puzzlement. And this could lead to a permanent, debilitating inferiority complex.
It would be insensitive to fail to understand these types of hurts in young lives. It has to be asked, nevertheless, if such long-term sufferers are best fitted now to analyse the present position, in the age of multi-channel TV, the mobile phone and the Internet. Are they likely, indeed able, to pronounce with clarity of vision, with dispassion, on our best way forward?
The fact that in the 15/16th centuries Scottis was the language of the Scottish Court, of the Parliament, of legal documents and much meritorious literature hardly seems a useful justification for its reintroduction today in some academically concocted 'modern' form, four hundred years later. Arguments among the cognoscenti about whether Scots should be considered a distinct language or merely a dialect of Northumbrian Inglis, albeit with later imports from Gaelic, Norse, French and Dutch, will probably go on indefinitely. And a fascinating field of enquiry it is. But the very uncertainty of definition should surely tell us something about the likely usefulness of any attempt to elevate 'Scots' to a position in the 21st century as the nation's official first language.
'In da simmer dim quines and loons is oxterin' may mean to the present day student of Scots, armed with one of the excellent dictionaries available, that 'In the gloaming young girls and lads are walking arm-in-arm'. But the sentence is wholly artificial, agglomerating words from the quite distinct dialects of the Shetlands, the North East and the South West of the country. It would have been nigh meaningless to the 16c courtier at Stirling or Edinburgh.
The fact of the matter is that, however unwelcome, however much deplored, Scots for at least two centuries has not been the language of educated Scottish people, whether in parliament, medicine, the Law, commercial activity, the Arts. It will not become so in the future. We are already preoccupied by the fight against the onslaughts on English by American and sundry other forms of that language derived from the mother tongue, never mind its insidious undermining by 'estuarial' speech and a cacophony of other debased argots via the sound media.
But neither is Scots a dead language since it lives on in several regional dialects and broken urban demotics as a ready means of communication at the level of, say, bus drivers, farm workers or club comedians. Perhaps such a comment is non-PC. Too bad, for herein lies a snare for those enthusiasts who advocate the readoption of 'Scots' in public life. What they are actually promoting, by default, is the embarrassing sort of Glesca-speak utterances credited to DG Elder during the Scottish Executive's temporary location in Glasgow some months ago. Such speech, in such a context, is derided by sober minded politicians, is alienating to thinking members of the electorate and, worst of all, renders the deliberations risible, jokey, not to be taken seriously in the eyes of foreigners, the English especially. How would Scots react if discussions at Westminster were suddenly to be conducted in Cockney, Scouse, or Jamaican patois?
And any idea that businesspeople, MSPs and disc jockeys are about to submit to crash courses in classical Scots and then use it regularly - well, this is self-deluding idiocy.
Surely what lovers of our Scots language heritage - at least those with a balanced approach, without an agenda grounded in resentment and not blinkered against modern reality - what they should be concerning themselves with can be distilled into two initiatives:
1) Continue to encourage the raising of schoolchildren's awareness of and pride in classical Scots literature (appropriately simplified) and suitable contemporary prose and poetry (written in a neutral literary register). This is not the same thing as confusing youngsters by indicating that the easy demotic they may hear at home and in the streets is somehow of equal value linguistically as careful English.
2) Encourage by every means - by personal example in speech, in writing (by Scottish authors), in, say, Letters to the Editor etc., the incorporation of guid Scots words where they win on merit over English. At random: words like thole, sair trachled, shilpit, douce, haivers, kittle up and so on, and so on.
On a more immediate front pressure should continue for some public signs to be shown in Scots in Lowland towns and at the Parliament. Before the 1999 Election a suggestion was made to Alex Salmond that he try to have the new parliament's members designated SDs, Scottish Deputes. The title MSP seems to convey an acceptance of our parliament's secondary, dependent status. Also, there is an echo of the Auld Alliance in SD. No response was forthcoming but if and when Independence is on the cards many such changes involving Scots words should be insisted upon.
These sorts of efforts will help keep alive in the public consciousness our priceless Scots language heritage, its great beauty in song and poetry particularly, but also its appropriateness to salt richly the normal English speech of educated Scottish people today. New writing in a respectful modern literary Scots will also be encouraged.
In considering this subject we are not of course thinking about degrees of Scottish accent or occasional scotticisms - 'going to my bed' vs 'going to bed', 'looking out the window' vs 'looking out of the window', 'going a walk' vs 'going for a walk'. Such modest variations of Standard English do not constitute speaking 'Scots'.
Within the above limits there is every reason, especially in Scotland's evolving constitutional position, to hope for the preservation of Scots, indeed perhaps for its revivification as a national treasure. However, strenuous attempts to push for an enforced 'reintroduction of Scots' beyond those limits can only lead to resistance and actually be counterproductive to the dearest wishes of many who genuinely would like to see the beloved tongue cherished and used more in everyday speech by educated persons and in contemporary literature.
Finally, those who would wish to coerce children into the full-time use of a synthetic 'Scots' in place of Standard English should pause to consider whether this might not eventually inflict a cruel and worse social and commercial handicap in the outside world than already allegedly exists among certain Scottish adults.
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A Scots Revival?. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved January 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=132.
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