Scots, Scottish English and Scottishness

11 Aug

I really ought to be studying Latin just now (I’m trying to get my Latin A-level. It’s a long story.) but instead I find myself thinking about Scots. Scots is what we in Scotland call our language. It sometimes gets called “the Scottish dialect”, since it is a branch of English, but it’s actually (if you want to get technical) a national language variant rather than a dialect. Anyway, what it’s called is not really the point, the important thing is what it contains, in terms of language, and who uses it.

What set me off thinking in this vein was the Pollok Park Family Day last Saturday. There were lots of animals in a big muddy field (it was a lot better than that makes it sound), and commentating on the various animals and activities was a Scottish man. That’s hardly surprising, as Pollok Park is in Glasgow. (It is a very impressive country park, incidentally, and home to the Burrell Collection amongst other things.)

This Scottish man used lots of Scottish words – muckle, clatty, that sort of thing. The problem was that they didn’t sound natural. He sounded as if he had a list of “Authentic Scottish Words for Speakers at Scottish Events” and he was determined to squeeze in as many as he could. It left me feeling a bit ambivalent. I don’t want these words to die out, and they will if the younger generation doesn’t hear them, but then what’s the point in having them if they’re only party pieces, words that you have to go out of your way to use, and pat yourself on the back when you do?

A lot of people still do use Scots words, including those who don’t realise they do. People in the rougher parts of Glasgow could never be mistaken for speakers of the Queen’s English, but at the upper end of the Scots spectrum is something sometimes known as Scottish English, which is what they speak in the Holyrood (the Parliament) and what you find in business letters here. Most Scottish people would think it was just English with a Scottish accent, except that there’s the odd wee difference that you would only notice if you weren’t Scottish, such as the word “outwith”: Perfectly acceptable and rather formal within Scotland, but unfamiliar outwith it.

A better example of how Scots can work as a modern language is found, rather surprisingly, in the Disney film Brave. It’s set in some unspecified medieval period, but the people speak more or less modern Scots. Not the full-on, Rabbie Burns version, but it features plenty of vocabulary, and even grammar, that isn’t found in standard English. (I did enjoy the line “[A princess] disnae stuff her gob!”) It doesn’t all ring true, but the vast majority of it does, probably because the actors are actually Scottish. And there’s a wee gem in the film for Scottish language enthusiasts – a lad who speaks Doric (the dialect of the North East) and is completely unintelligible to the rest of the folks speaking ‘standard’ Scots.

Of course, the reason I take such an interest in the subject is that I don’t really speak Scots myself. I lived in England for many formative years, and although I can understand Scots (except Doric – no-one understands that), speaking it comes about as naturally to me as the pointedly Scottish words did to the MC at Pollok Park. I, therefore, will not be much use in preserving the language except as a semi-external observer. But then, as Rabbie said, isn’t one of the greatest gifts “tae see oursels as ithers see us”?


One Response to “Scots, Scottish English and Scottishness”

  1. kerrysmallman November 12, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    Is that Rabbie as in C. Nesbitt? 😉

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