English of the north of England, the other drawing upon different influences
and developing into Scots. By
around the 14th century, Scots was a fully fledged national
language in all of Scotland except the Gaelic speaking areas. It grew
and changed like any other language for the next 300 years, becoming the
language of the royal court and the law and enjoying a particularly high
point in the literature of the 16th to 18th centuries.
Scotland has a long and distinguished literary heritage that stretches back
to John Barbour’s poem Brus and comes right up to date with
poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid and Tom Leonard, the inspired drama of Liz
Lochhead and the prose of exciting new writers such as Matthew Fitt.
below shows the development of Scots alongside that of English.
Older (pre-literary) Scots
Early Middle English
Older (Early) Scots
Late Middle English
(Early) Middle Scots
Early Modern English
(Late) Middle Scots
A serious study of any
language must take into account the history of the people who speak it.
There is no language that exists independently of social and political
context. The fluctuating status of Scotland over the past 700 years
has had an enormous influence on the language and upon people’s attitude to
rather convenient term (OE) for the common ancestor has caused a great deal
of the confusion that exists around Scots: confusion that has led to the
refusal by many authorities (linguists included) to accord Scots the status
of anything more than a dialect. Yet Scots has many dialects of its own,
mutually intelligible to some degree but with sufficient phonological and
lexical variation to show that each is as systematically different from the
others as they all are from English.
Scots has distinct general phonological and morphological features, common
to many, but not necessarily all, of the dialects, and a syntax and
vocabulary that differ significantly from English.
These differences are the points of most interest to students of Scots. They
want to know just how Scots and English differ and, fortunately, such
illustration is easy because the systematic nature of the variations
immediately proves false the informed but frequently uttered opinion that
Scots is simply a lazy variety of English. If it were simply a matter of
slovenliness, the differences would be more random than they clearly are,
thus a lot more difficult to identify. Scots has many structural
correspondences with English, just a few examples of which follow:
In their phonology, Scots speakers make a clear distinction between the
initial sound in <which> and <whether> and that in <witch > and <weather>.
We have retained from OE the /x/ phoneme in <loch>. Under the Scottish Vowel
Length Rule (SVLR), vowel sounds vary in length according to their
phonological environment; thus we can hear a difference between the vowels
in <grief> (short) and <grieve> (long), <seem> (short) and <see> (long) as
well as those vowels that occur before /r/, and those at a morpheme boundary
- the pronunciation of <brood> differs from that of <brewed>.
Vowels are unrounded in words like <stone> (<stane>) and <go> (<gae>) and
are not diphthongised in <hoose> and <roond> because Scots vowels took a
different direction from the English ones during the Great Vowel Shift.
Syntactically, the Scots modal verbs show several different nuances. Scots
speakers are rather puzzled by the alleged impoliteness of not using the
verb <may>, preferring <can> or <could> + <please> when making a request.
While <shall> and <should> have particular force in legal language, the
English rule about using them with first person pronouns is irrelevant to
Scots. When forming negation, <never> can be used to express just one
instance of not doing something. Negation on a continuous basis is easily
expressed by <never ever>.
It is in the vocabulary that the difference between Scots and English
remains at its strongest. Every variety of Scots has its own words (from
many sources) that are not only absent from English but might not even be
found in any other variety of Scots. There are too many exclusively Scots
words to select particular ones for exemplification.
Readers should refer to The Concise Scots Dictionary edited by M. Robinson
The main stumbling-block for Scots today is that most people (and this is
true of native Scots as well as other nationalities) cannot and /or do not
distinguish between the variety of English that has become the Scottish
Standard (SSE) and is a dialect of English and Scots, which is the
descendant of OE. This problem was much in evidence among the audience of
the IoL conference. Every time an article is printed in the press from some
commentator claiming that Scots simply cannot be a language, or that it
might once have been one but 'you never hear it nowadays', it becomes
painfully apparent that this lack of distinction (which many dictionaries
and encyclopedias also fail to make) persists. In the central belt, of
course, Scots and SSE are drawing closer together, adding to the difficulty.
In addition, any group of Scottish school children, when asked about their
experiences of learning Scots, will respond in the way they would if asked
about learning any foreign language. In addition to the long sighs and
pained expressions, words like 'boring', 'irrelevant' and 'rough' still crop
up regularly. This is the inevitable legacy of over a century of being told
to 'speak properly' because English was good and Scots was not.
Today, Scots is, for the most part, an oral language. Modern Scots retains
many dialects, particularly in areas away from the major cities. The Scots
of central Scotland is very different from that of either the north or the
south: the language of the east displays characteristics absent from that of
the west and vice versa.
For many of us who live in 21s* century Scotland, Scots is our second
language. While we might understand the local speech, written Scots is as
foreign to us as German or Dutch and it hardly exists outside the literature
classroom. Although Scotland is a separate country within the UK, now with
its own parliament, its official language is English. This important fact
has made the natives ambivalent to Scots - after all, why labour to learn
something you can never use in your writing or your job and which marks you
down socially in your speech?
In schools, there are several immediate difficulties in getting students
interested in Scots, not least the fact that it is still only an option in
the curriculum and easily avoided in the exams. Add to that the near
impossibility of making parents see any worth in its study when it has no
official status, when even our national newspapers are written in (English)
Standard English. The Scotsman has a weekly column in Gaelic but no Scots
equivalent. For many of us, therefore, Scots is something we come back to
post-school, when we can choose it rather than having it forced upon us as a
serious academic option on the one hand, while being told it is substandard
on the other.
There are fewer difficulties in persuading nationals of other countries to
attend a Scots course. Germans and Americans are particularly keen, for
obvious reasons. Scots is a Germanic language so native German speakers take
to it with ease. Americans are eager to learn the language of their
ancestors. Other nationalities study it as keenly as they do all languages,
showing an enthusiasm that all UK modern languages teachers must wish their
students to display.
Gaelic, Scotland's other native language, has been officially granted
'endangered' status and government funding has been made available to rescue
and preserve it. Perhaps the day will come when Scots is accorded a similar
profile and restored to full cousinship instead of being treated as the
embarrassing relation that nobody likes to mention.
Karen Angelosanto is a structural linguist who specialises in Scots, spoken
and written English and contemporary English grammar.