I stand Corrected

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In the first of two blog posts I’m going to explain a little about the Scots language: today I’ll explain why it’s regarded as the poorer relation of the widely-adopted English language, and tomorrow you can read some examples of it and lament its fading.

Well, there I was in my introductory blog post bemoaning my lack of language skills, when it turns out that not only am I diglossic, apparently I’m also able to code-switch. That came as a welcoming thought, though as I’ll explain it’s somewhat bittersweet.

I’m not trying to fool you: I am not, nor ever will be bilingual; with a degree of effort I hope one day to be able to converse in a second language. However, the lexicon which I picked up during my formative years is not exactly the same lexicon with which I’m typing right now.

I was born and have spent most of my life in Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, where I habitually spoke Modern Scots. The proverbial jury is still out over whether the more archaic form, Scots, can be genuinely considered a language or merely a dialect of old English (and linguists have all sorts of terms for the in-between spectrum – if you’re thinking pluricentric diasystem then you probably know more about this than I do) but what is clear is that over a few centuries of ‘friendly domination’, the Act of Union, the Enlightenment, immigration and so on, the Scots’ perception of themselves changed, and accordingly so did the way we spoke.

Northern Britain? Isn’t that where Scotland once was?

This change in attitude resulted in prominent Scots categorising themselves as Northern British and even trying to shake off the terms Scots, Scottish or Scotch. This arguably is still ongoing, but until a mid-20th century resurgence in nationalism it was widely accepted that to get anywhere in life, speaking in Scots simply wouldn’t do. To this end, in 1946 the Scottish Education Department concluded that “[Scots] is not the language of ‘educated’ people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture”.

And so it was that I found myself at school in the 1980s and 90s speaking in one manner in the playground and after school – what I now understand to be a hybrid of Scots and English, i.e. Modern Scots – and in a different manner while in the classroom.

But this ‘lexical variety’ introduced a contradiction which in many ways can be seen as a microcosm of Scotland trying to find its place in the union today: rather than being taught those great romantic poets of the English language Keats, Yates and Shelley, we were instead examined upon our knowledge of Burns, MacCaig and McDiarmid. So in one breath our teacher would admonish us for answering a question with aye (the Scots word for ‘yes’) while in the next encouraging open discussion over Scots poetry.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some examples of the Scots language in literature.



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