(Originally a forum post on how to defend the view that Scots is a language.)


Defending Scots as a Language


Q. How do you argue against people who say that Scots is just an accent and some different words?

I think the situation becomes clearer when you compare Scots, not with Welsh or Gaelic, but with languages such as Catalan or Frisian which are closely related to the dominant language in their countries.

A friend of mine visiting Barcelona commented that 'They don't speak Spanish there - they speak Catalan. It's a mixture of Spanish, Latin and French.' The idea of Catalan being a mixture wasn't strictly accurate, and nor was the idea that Catalans don't speak 'Spanish' - they speak Castilian ('normal') Spanish as well as Catalan. The important point was that, on visiting Barcelona, my friend had come away with the impression that they spoke their own language which was different from 'standard' Spanish, even though that language is closely related to Castilian Spanish, and, in different political and cultural circumstances, could easily have been dismissed as just dialect, bad Spanish, or whatever - as it was in the time of Franco, when it was banned.

I also remember seeing a programme where a Catalan commented that he didn't speak Catalan very well because he had been brought up to speak Castilian Spanish. How many residents of Edinburgh, when interviewed on a foreign TV programme, would apologise that they couldn't speak Scots very well because they'd been brought up to speak English?

The difference from the Scots situation is that Catalan has been given its own orthography and standardised form. It is taught in school where it is used as a medium, not just as a special subject, and there is all manner of written and oral media in Catalan. Scots, per contra, is semi-officially ring-fenced as a language uniquely suited for the expression of literary anarchy, taking over from English at the point where it disintegrates. The means which have enabled Catalan to be recognised as a language are precisely those which are repudiated by the entire Scottish political and cultural machinery, including many if not most of those who are in positions of authority with regard to the Scots language itself.

I would say that there is no point in trying to defend Scots against nay-sayers. As presented by the Scottish academic and literary establishment it is precisely just a different accent and words, which can be adopted at any point and to any extent by anyone who has need of its uniquely anarchic and disreputable attributes. It would be completely unfair to expect anyone to defend, completely against the odds, a language which has already been sold unequivocally down the river by almost all the authorities at almost every level.


P. Scots should still be defended as a language in spite of the attitude of the Scottish literary and academic establishment.

It is extremely difficult to defend Scots as a language when many if not most of those who rule the roost when it comes to defining how it is presented denigrate precisely those aspects which normally enable a form of speech to be seen as such. I have come back (call me Lazarus!) - probably briefly - from about ten years retirement from language issues - ten years ago, I would have taken this point of view. It became clear, however, that Scots had been left in the hands of those who were determined to retain its 'less than respectable' status (a direct quote from a prominent Scots writer who is held to be one of the foremost promoters and defenders of Scots) so that its register differences from standard English could be 'exploited' (another direct quote) by writers and academics such as themselves. It might have been possible to ignore such opinions if they were, even ostensibly, in a different 'camp' from those of Scots promotion. When they are the received orthodoxy of Scots promotion itself, it is possible neither to ignore nor to circumvent them. I refer to this scenario as 'Tods tentin yowes.'

The question is - where, to whom and to what can you appeal to defend the idea that Scots is a language, if it is explicitly stated to be a repository of unrespectability occupying the disreputable registers; if all of the normal means of establishing it as a language are denounced; and if disagreeing with this opinion - even bringing it to public attention by quoting it - brings - as it did in my case - the disapproval of your local 'dialect' promoters down on your head?

By 'all the normal means of establishing it as a language' I mean, for example, the succinct statement of Einar Haugen:

'... the activity of preparing a normative orthography, grammar and dictionary for the guidance of writers and speakers in a non-homogenous speech-community.'

This was quoted by J. Derrick McClure in 1980 - that's, let me see, thirty-two years ago? - in 'The Scots Language - Planning for Modern Usage' - and amply illustrates why defending Scots as a language is pointless on the basis of the present situation - which I would describe as farcical. If you read this paper, and then reflect on the fact that most if not all of the sensible suggestions contained in it - based on the knowledge of real experts in the subject such as Haugen - have been swept aside in favour of an approach which emphasises its role as a Cinderella argot to the extent where a phrase such as 'normative orthography' has practically the status of a swearword and invites accusations of fascism, then I can't see what basis there is for simply stating that it is a language. It has become less, not more, like a language in the last thirty years. Waiting for it to evolve into one might, at this rate, take longer than the evolution of Homo Sapiens since the Big Bang. It's more like the cosmological model where the universe starts to run in reverse.

Whether Scots is a language or not isn't an either/or question. As McClure has stated elsewhere, it is in some respects a language and in some respects not. Becoming a fully fledged language would depend on it being treated as such - whereas the main emphasis of at least the last ten, if not the last thirty, years has been in the opposite direction. The guy down the chip shop might claim to be Elvis. But if he looks like Jonathan Ross and can't sing Diddle Diddle Dumpling, he's going to have difficulty convincing anyone but himself.