Systemic Spelling


A pragmatic approach to Scots orthography


Maist o the thinkin ahint Scots spellin in the past - maybe no sae muckle the Scots Stylesheet - haes been ideological. RWS (Recommendations for Writers in Scots) wis mad keen tae sinder Scots frae English; SLD (Scottish Language Dictionaries) is keen tae present Scots efter whit Iseabail Macleod caas ‘modern usage’, but anent spellin that raelly means whit I caa ‘Anglophonetics’. Nane o the twa o thaim (nor onie ither except a aerly an forgotten ane bi J. Derrick McClure that only daelt wi vowels an tae some extent the ane in Innin ti the Scots Leid) haed a richt grip on the strynds o the language itsel. RWS haed nae linguistic backgrund an aa the thinkin ahint it wis ideological an naitionalistic - that bein whit wey it appeals tae (some) fowk in that wey o thinkin. The SLD haes the linguistic backgrund, but it’s aa in a postmodernist sociolinguistic vein an no ettled at biggin up a hale leid for onie practical purpose.

Tae concentrate on SLD, this comes oot in the fact that the spellins in the Scots School Dictionary is even mair inconsistent nor the notoriously inconsistent English. That wis whit RRSSC wis ettled at reddin up, maistly. For example, English spellin haes ‘waiter’ but SSD ‘maitter’ wi twa Ts. Scots spellin haes ‘glaikit’ but SSD ‘jaicket’ wi CK. If ye war gaun tae follae maistly English-like spellin practics in Scots, ye wad be spellin thir anes bi analogy wi English - ‘maiter’ an ‘jaiket’ - cause English disna forordinar hae doobled consonants (CK is jist doobled K) follaein dooble-letter vowels like AI.

The SSD spellins is jist altered English - no English-style, but nae style ava, aither English or Scots or oniething ither nor jist dialect. This creates mair inconsistencies nor English, blauds naitural spellin bi subliminal analogy, an creates a situation whaur the only authority is the dictionar that ye wad hae tae refer tae wird for wird cause it’s that inconsistent ye wadna haurdly ivver ken hou tae guess. The fact that ye wadna get yer heid chowed for spellin it ‘wrang’ disna alter the fact that it habbles the human need for analogy that’s wired intae wir harns, an jist laeds tae uncertainty an unco-raivelment, nearhaund makkin shuir that haurdly oniebodie will can come tae be richt lieterate in Scots. A language that’s dreeled intae ye an that ye see aa the time, like English, can get awa wi inconsistencies like that, but Scots canna. It’s like: Lat thaim eat cake, but dinna gie thaim the recipe. Keep thaim in the dark an shuil sharn on thaim efter the Mushroom Grower's Patent Formula.

The’r some fause dichotomies in this scenario. Ane is the differ atween ‘phonetic’ an ‘ideographic’. The ‘phonetic’ ane means that ye maun hae a single standard leid wi a single standard pronunciation. The ‘ideographic’ ane means that ye hiv tae lairn ilka written form individually - like Chinese - an sae ye can hae onie kynd o pronunciation an write it the same wey. English haes baith phonetic an ideographic elements, but nane o thae twa is possible for Scots. The ideographic needs a estaiblished leid that ye lairn ower years o education - that’s whit wey English can thole sae monie semi-ideographic elements. The phonetic ane needs ae dialect tae be the standard pronunciation, that wad pit maist Scots speakers richt aff, an quite richt tae.

The trouble is that thae twa is aften seen as aither-or, as gin it wis aither a strecht chyce atween thaim or a random kynd o mixter o the twa, like English. But atween thaim, the’r a level that’s nivver mentioned tae Mushrooms - the phonological, an mair siccar hidden still, the diaphonological. Keep thae concepts in the cloistered haliedom o academic linguistics, sanctifeed in academic jargon an hocusy-pocusy symbols that the masses canna understaund (see Deuchterism) an ye can laeve the fause phonetic-ideographic dichotomy tae swing frae ae side tae anither, an mixter thegither in random weys, withoot ivver sattlin doun intae the kynd o wirkable form that it micht get frae the Zanussi Principle - the application o science. The thing is, tho, that ance ye’v applied the science, the end-uiser wadna need tae understaund  the technicalities. A spellin that inhauds the technicalities can jist be uised, like a washin machine that’s stap-fou o electronics. But wi’oot that, ye’r maistly washin the claes wi a tub an paidle.

Twa-three examples.

UI an EU.

In SSD, thir is mixed thegither wi ither an wi antrin dialect spellins, sae ye get - as heidwirds or first English-Scots maks - ‘buik’ but ‘leuk’; ‘puir’; baith ‘shuir’ an ‘shair’ as weel as NE maks wi ‘ee’ for ‘sure’; an a hale bourach o differin spellins - ‘yaise’ , ‘yuise’, ‘yuisfae’ but ‘uisless’, etc - for the different maks an compoonds o ‘uise’ (v) an ‘uiss’ (n). The fact that this gies a bodie nae analogical precedents tae follae shaws up in maist writers faain back on the ‘shair, yaise’ maks - e.g: Robertson’s ‘if ye’r no shair, yaise this narrative as a guide,’ or spellins like 'luik’, e’en tho the SSD spellin is ‘leuk’.

Houanivver, UI an EU (for the sake o airgument, cause in theory onie symbol wad dae, but thae anes is the maist kenspeckle) is no equievalent - ye need baith. The orieginal /UI/ phoneme (comin frae Anglo Saxon lang ‘o’, that cam tae be ‘oo’ in English) split up in differin weys in differin Scots dialects dependin on whither it cam afore velars (K an CH) or no. The results (uisin my spellins wi non-IPA soond spellins in quotation marks, an representative IPA in square brackets) is like this:

                        /UI/                      /EU/           
                       (puir, muin, ruif)   (leuk, beuk, leuch)

Dialect A        ‘i/ai’    [ɪ/e:]           ‘u’         [ʌ]

Dialect B        ‘ee’    [i(:)]             ‘(y)oo’   [(j)ʉ]

Dialect C        ‘ü’      [ʏ(:)]            ‘(y)oo’   [(j)ʉ]


Thare micht be intermediary dialects, whaur ye get ‘puir’ sayed ‘pair’ an ‘beuk’ sayed ‘book.’ But the pynt is that, in whitivver dialect ye’r speakin aboot, /UI/ is pronunced ae wey an /EU/ anither wey. That is, whitivver dialect ye speak, the soonds afore K an CH is different frae the soonds afore ither consonants (except ye’r actually pronuncin the English cognate); an tae spell thaim the same wey will raivel oniebodie ither nor a tradietional native speaker that speaks broad Scots as a completely different leid - an hou monie o thaim is thare nouadays? It’s jist exactly the mixtered Scots/English continuum that's aften spoken aboot that necessitates a siccar, diaphonological spellin, cause ithergaits the’r nae wey tae teach whit wirds is sayed whit wey in whit dialects except bi a lang process o aither academic wittins or rote-lairnin o individual spellins for individual wirds - an nane o that is possible for Scots the day. Diaphonological spellins is the only possible practical wey tae shortcut the technicalities an brig the gaps atween baith different dialects, an the extremes or the bourachie o the ideographic an phonetic dichotomy (that I think on it as Anglophoneticist v Hieroglyphicist) an cleck a spellin that can be lairnt an applied ower dialects.

Gin ye dinna dae this, an lippen tae fowk jist pronuncin spellins the wey thay speak, ye’r up a gum tree tryin tae lairn Scots writin tae oniebodie that haesna a siccar naitural dialect - an even some that haes - cause the process is jist faur ower lang an convolutit, an ye’ll get English maks perceived as Scots. For example, spellin ‘leuk’ jist as ‘look’ wad dae aaricht in dialects whaur it’s pronunced the same as English - but it wad exclude anes whaur it’s tradietionally pronunced ‘luk’ or ‘lyook’, sae the English pronunciations will win oot. Siemilar-like, the Burns spellin o abuin as ‘aboon’ gies ye the idea that it’s pronunced ‘oo’ tae rhyme wi ‘toun’ or siclike - but in naitural Scots dialects it’s pronunced ‘abin’, ‘abain’, ‘abeen’ or ‘abün.’ It disna rhyme wi ‘oo’ wirds (whither spelt OO or OU) in onie dialect ava.*

Mairotower, gin ye stert spellin wirds that disna hae the /UI/ soonds wi UI spellins, ye raivel aabodie anither wey. Baith RWS an SSD gies wuid as the preferred Scots spellin for the cognate o English ‘wood’. But this wird is pronunced ‘wid’ in baith the NE an Shetland - if it wis a /UI/ wird, it wad be pronunced ‘weed’ i the NE an ‘wöd’ in Shetland. This suits Central dialects aaricht - whaur the’r nae differ atween the pronunciation o I an UI in short environments - but canna adapt tae onie ither dialects. This increases the perception o ‘Scots’ as a Central Belt entity, an the UI spellin as meanin aathing or oniething.

Wi aa thae common wirds - wuid/wid, luik/leuk, etc - haein inconsistent spellins, the orra 5% - that soonds like no awfu muckle as a number - is eneuch tae mak shuir that nae siccar identification atween soond an symbol sticks in oniebodie’s harns, an suin spreads raivelment tae the hale jingbang, like yeast in a barrel o malt.

Tae illustrate the hypothetical upside o diaphonological spellins - gin ye haed the spellins ‘beuk’, ‘leuk’, ‘leuch’, ‘puir’ , ‘shuir’, ‘ruif’, ‘muin’, ye wad jist hae tae tell bairns frae the NE that EU is pronunced ‘oo’ (or ‘yoo’ if it is) an ‘ui’ is pronunced ‘ee’. Deid simple - nae bather ava. Jist a twa new conventions tae lairn an we’r aff doun the road like a cuddie wi a dram in. As it is, ye canna tell naebodie whit’s pronunced whit wey, an the cuddie is tied tae the pole an its ribs stickin oot. A bittie mair complicate in some dialects - wi the SVLR sinderin atween ‘ai’ an ‘i’ pronunciations - but maist o that is English-derived complications that wad vainish ance Scots wis perceived as a leid its lane, an e’en afore that it wad be a hale lot simpler nor it is evenou. (Thare’s a feow kinches, like hou tae spell ‘shoud/shuid’ an ‘coud/cuid’, but thay’r the exceptions that pruves the rule!)

Merk that this approach is no foondit on phonetic or ideographic spellins - thay’r phonological an diaphonological. (Phonology can be ithin ae dialect, diaphonology gaes a bittie deeper intae underlyin systems an wirks across dialects.) It brigs the fause dichotomy atween ideographs an phonetics. This is whit wey the auld-farrant Norse orthography o Faroese - that haes a heist o different dialects - wirks. Thae historical spellins gaes back tae a time afore the dialect differs set in, an sae, altho it micht seem queer tae us tae pronunce ‘ó’ as ‘e’ in a wird like ‘nógv’, it’s consistent in yer ain dialect - if ye pronunce ‘nógv’ as ‘negv’ ye pronunce ‘gjógv’ as ‘jegv’ an ‘dúgv’ as ‘digv’. It wad hae seemed orra frae a Danish viewpynt, but frae the viewpynt o Faroese as a hale, it wirks great. For Scots, it’s no sae muckle a case o gaun back tae auld-farrant spellins as jist walin oot the spellins that we’r areddies acquant wi an distributin thaim tae the richt wirds. This is the 5% that wad mak a spellin for a hale an teachable leid.


OU an OO

Anither example o a different - an less immediately important - kynd, that’s no sae muckle adae wi soonds as adae wi jist orthographic convention, is OO an OU. The SSD uises OO as the defaut spellin for ‘oo’ soonds. But in Scots the’r still a hantle tradietional spellins wi OU - dour, couthie, soutar, souch an the like - apairt frae place names an the fact that some writers haes uised OU mair widely in wirds like doun. SSD haes tae pit [coothie] in brackets efter the Couthie heidwird, cause makkin OO the defaut means the’r nae perception o OU as a ‘oo’ soond, an thae wirds - an the’r mair o thaim nor thon - is aye gaun tae be exceptions that haes tae be lairnt wi rote.

RRSSC proponed (as ae alternative) a strechtforrit rule o thoum for spellin wirds wi a ‘oo’ soond in Scots:

OU for English wirds in OW, e.g. doun, pouer, flouer, etc.
OO for English wirds in OU, e.g: oot, aboot, hoose
OU for wirds wi’oot a obvious English cognate, e.g: stour, gour, couthie, etc.

(Merk that maist wirds wi a ‘oo’ soond in English is UI wirds in Scots - e.g. puir, muin, ruif, etc.)

This maks a easy tae implement rule o thoum wi haurdly onie exceptions. It cements the idea that baith OO an OU is aye pronunced ‘oo’ in Scots, sae ‘dour’, ‘couthie’ etc fits naiturally intae that scheme. It baith recognises the connection o Scots wi standard English an emphasises whaur Scots pronunciation differs frae standard English. The sinderin o OU an OO in spellin haes nae foond in etymology (sae it wadna suit onie rael ‘purists’ onie mair nor it wad suit Embroscotery) but it’s mair practical in the lang run nor onie ither wey, cause it reinforces baith pronunciation an spellin in weys that onie ither solution - emphasisin aither the OO or OU spellins per se - disna. Mairatower, an as a side effect, it gies Scots a written identity that’s no jist antrin alterations tae the spellin o individual English wirds wi nae systemic foond for Scots itsel.

Gin I wis tae say whit wis the underlyin philosophy o aa this, I wad say ‘systemic thinkin.’ The modernist era wis mair aboot bein systematic nor systemic - mair keen tae record an organise wittins (like preenin deid butterflees in a big beuk) nor leukin at hou aathing wirks thegither in a system. The postmodernist era haes abrogatit responsibielity for oniething wirkin ava. Somewey or anither, systems studies haes faan atween thae twa - an nae dout ither - stuils like the proverbial erse - an we’v aa the environmental an economic problems as a ootcome. Scots, like onie language, wirks as a system, an if ye dinna pit ower that system in the written leid - but insteid, represent it as a version o the English system (tho that’s no even that weel representit in English itsel!) like baith ‘purist’ an ‘non-prescriptionist’ propones an ettlins haes forordinar duin ae wey or anither - than ye canna teach it as a hale leid, but only as a random bourachie o antrin variations. Ye micht caa it ‘Scots’ but it wadna mean whit I mean bi ‘Scots.’ An it wadna be even ettled tae wirk.


*DSL - Dictionary of the Scots Language - disna gie the pronunciation 'aboon' - IPA [ə'bun] rhymin wi toun [tun] - ava, the closest bein [ə'byn] em.Sc.(a), Bwk., Gall., s.Sc.; i.e. in dialects whaur the [y] soond is the realisation o the /UI/ phoneme.