User talk:Derek Ross
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Scots Language: Inconvenient Truths
As a contributor to the Scots Language pages of Wikipedia I thought you would find this little essay on the subject of interst.
I don't know if you will share my conclusions, but all the facts are indeed facts.
But if having read it (and I hope having double-checked the facts for yourself) you will perhaps share my concerns that the Wiki pages are currently somewhat less than encyclopedic.
Best wishes Cassandra
SCOTS LANGUAGE: Inconvenient Truths
“Who is so deafe or so blinde, as is hee, That wilfully will neither heare nor see?” John Heywood 1546
In recent years the view that Scots is a language distinct from English has not only gained widespread acceptance, but it has also been granted political and legal recognition.
Few people seem to question this idea. But does this linguistic Emperor have any clothes? Is the ‘Scots Language’ fact or fable; serious history, or just the romantic vision of politicised poets and poetry-inspired politicians?
The Scots Language Centre highlights two key publications in the 19th century:
“John Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language published in 1808 is the first Scots language dictionary to be published.” (1)
“James Murray’s The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland was published in 1873. Having mapped out the dialects of Scots for the first time, and a chronology, Murray founded the modern study of Scots.” (2)
Both publications include detailed commentaries on the history of the Scots Language.
Jamieson begins by stating that:
“I do not hesitate to call that the Scottish Language, which has generally been considered in no other light than as merely on a level with the different provincial dialects of the English.” (Notwithstanding Jamieson’s apparent nod to a similarly titled, and earlier, but never published, manuscript by James Boswell).
In other words, in Jamieson’s view, in 1808 Scots was not considered to be, nor to have been, a language distinct from English.
Despite at least one continental visitor to Scotland in historic times apparently reporting that the language of Scotland was different from that of England * , the historical record indeed provides scant evidence that Scotsmen prior to Jamieson’s day ever believed that ‘Scots’ was a distinct language from English – despite a common, but never universal, practice from the early 16th century until the late 17th of substituting the name ‘Scottis’, ‘Scots’ and ‘Scotch’ as the name for the language of the Lowlands in place of its historic name of English or ‘Inglis’.
Rather the historical record confirms that Scotsmen understood that Scotland and England shared the same language:
“There is nocht tua nations vndir the firmament that ar mair contrar and different fra vthirs, nor is inglis men and scottis men, quoubeit that thai be vtht in ane ile, and nychbours, and of ane langage” - The Compleynt of Scotland 1549.
“It was told me as a fact by some of the chief lords of Scotland, that were the Queen of England a man, instead of being a woman as she is, they would rise (si solleveriano) and come spontaneously to place themselves under her dominion; as speaking all the same language, they desire nothing more than to find themselves in like manner under one and the same prince, and in one united island.” Giacomo Soranzo, Venetian Ambassador in France, to the Doge and Senate. Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 6: 1555-1558 (1877), pp. 1041-1095.
“...hope that 'this famous Ile may be as conjoined in hearts as it is in continent with one sea, uniformity of language, manners and conditions” The Privy Council to the Lords of the Congregation 28th July 1559 Calendar of Scottish Papers p235
“...natura autem deum omnium rerum parentem opificemque sequuta Scotie et Anglie regna lingua moribus religionis consensu et vnitate inter se concordia infra vnius insule ambitum inclusit...” James VI to Scottish Parliament 26th April 1604 Procedure: commission; asking of instruments.
“Thairfore, since by the good providence of God bothe nations are in ane illand, speake on[e] and the same language, profess on[e] and the same religion and ar united under the same head and monarch” Instructions from the Parliament of Scotland to ‘there commissionaris’ at London 26th November 1645.
Jamieson however disagreed, setting out in his dictionary the explanation for his dissent in a long ‘Dissertation on the history of ‘the Scots Language’.
He argued that Scottish dialects formed a language distinct from English because they had a wholly different genesis, being descended independently from ancient Gothic in remote antiquity. Any resemblance between Scots and English was coincidental.
The Dictionary of National Biography subsequently described Jamieson’s Gothic theory as ‘obsolete’ and ‘of interest only to antiquarians’.
The DNB’s editor was being kind: though Jamieson’s word hoard may be of considerable historical interest, his pet theory was eccentric nonsense, something which was perfectly evident to informed ‘antiquarians’ even in 1808. (‘Jamieson’s Gothic theory’ was in fact first popularised almost 20 years earlier by John Pinkerton – a sometime forger of ‘ancient’ Scots poetry – in his ‘Dissertation on the Origins and Progress of the Scythians or Goths’, though the idea can be traced back earlier still, not least to Robert Sibbald’s 1710 work ‘The history, ancient and modern, of the sheriffdoms of Fife and Kinross’.)
Murray’s ‘The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland’ (1873) is of a wholly different order.
Despite a seemingly prodigious knowledge of classical history John Jamieson was an enthusiastic, amateur with seemingly less knowledge of genuine Scottish history than of Roman and Greek. By contrast his fellow Scot, James Murray, was an intellectual prodigy and professional philologist. Before his death in 1915 he would be the recipient of multiple international honours, and be acknowledged as the world’s most eminent lexicographer.
In investigating the history of language in Lowland Scotland James Murray recognised that fact and fantasy were frequently mixed.
To address the problem Murray takes up almost the first 100 pages of his book in order to carefully tease out the many strands of the centuries-long story.
In contrast to many more-recent histories, whose authors are seldom so scrupulous when presenting their evidence, Murray’s book delivers in fine detail an ice-cold cascade of surprising, and sobering, revelations and observations.
Hard-headed and objective, Murray takes up scalpel and microscope to strip his subject to the bone - displaying, dissecting and demolishing one erroneous belief after another in pursuit of strict historical truth.
For example, on the oft-quoted pledge of 16th century ‘Scots language’ poet Gavin Douglas to “Kepand na Sudron bot our awyn langage”, Murray comments that the claim is “very curious, in the light of the fact that no Scottish writer - indeed, so far as I know, no Northern writer, of any period, either in England or Scotland - has employed so many genuine Southern forms.” Under Murray’s finely-focussed lens Burns too is examined and found wanting. Murray concludes that ‘Scots’ was never more than a commonly-used alternative name for the most northerly manifestation(s) of Northern English, the common dialect-group extending from the Humber to the Firth of Forth.
Murray’s book, still in print, though rarely referred to, remains a standard work.
Almost reluctantly, the current on-line edition of the Dictionary of the Older Scots Tongue acknowledges that ‘James Murray, Sir William Craigie [DOST Ed 1931-56] and A. J. Aitken [DOST Ed 1956-86] refrained from claiming language status for Lowland Scots. They were aware of its geographical continuity with the dialects of the north of England. Others, including David Murison [Ed Scottish National Dictionary 1946-76] and Prof. J. Derrick McClure**, have made the case for considering Scots to be a minority European language’. (3).
The introduction to Grant and Dixon's ‘Manual of Modern Scots’ published in 1921 however confidently told readers that ‘Scottish was the language of the University, the School, and the fashionable courtiers... The language was used all over Scotland in official documents, Session Records, Town Council Minutes’. Yet remarkably the only evidence which the authors present, their proof of the once-upon-a-time existence of ‘pure court-Scotch’, is a quote from a 19th century romantic novel by Sir Walter Scott.
From the 1920s however the idea that Scots-is-a-language was actively promoted by Hugh McDiermid (the pen-name of journalist and political activist Christopher Grieve), and by others, not least fellow SNP traveller Lewis Spence (whose other interests more-prominently included magic, mysticism and Atlantis). ‘Mad or sad or visionary’ and ‘a wild haired chauvinist English hater’ according to Neil Oliver’s 2009 History of Scotland: communist, sometime fascist, always an extremist, McDiermid was also a ‘full time Anglophobe’ (his own description) and was one of the founders of the SNP (1934). McDiermid’s ‘Scots’ poetry has ensured his enduring reputation amongst latter-day Scots Language enthusiasts. MacDiarmid himself however referred to his poetry as written in ‘Synthetic Scots’ and seemed ‘comfortable with using a hodgepodge of old Scots, current dialect and English’. In the inter-war period communists, fascists and nationalists alike promoted and refined the use of propaganda for political ends. In 1922 McDiermid wrote lamenting Scotland’s lack of “a propaganda of ideas”. He subsequently became ‘obsessed with language and believed that Scotland should re-adopt the archaic spellings and speech of the 15th century’.
The meme that ‘Scots’ had once been (and thus might still be) a language distinct from English thus seems to have its modern roots only in the 1920s before ‘going viral’ since the 1970s.
For example today’s state-supported Scottish Language Society was founded only in 1972 – and was at that time the less-ambitiously named Lallans Society***.
Thus the problem facing anyone seeking to produce an objective and comprehensive report on the subject of ‘the Scots Language’ is how to reconcile the history of language in Lowland Scotland as set out by James Murray and his successors with that of later revisionists.
That difficulty is made even clearer by Prof James Costa’s 2009 paper ‘Language history as charter myth?’ (4) which identifies current concerns about modern intrusions of Scottish myth and dogma into recent historical narratives, issues surprisingly similar to those identified by James Murray.
No one who reads Murray’s 19th century work or Costa’s of the 21st will do so without finding that they raise a multitude of questions.
Checking contradictory statements against primary sources is of course the best way to resolve such conflict.
One of the most useful historical records of language in Scotland, available on-line only since 2008, is the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707. It is a fully searchable database containing the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament from the first surviving Act of 1235 to the Union of 1707. With the exception of one single (and ambiguous) sentence, the parliamentary records do not contain any evidence which supports the view that ‘Scots’, despite the name, was ever considered to be a different language from English - instead they only confirm the exact contrary. (5)
Meanwhile words themselves sometimes obscure as much as they reveal. Three which cause particular problems in explaining the unfolding story of language in Lowland Scotland are ‘Inglis’, ‘Anglisisation’ and ‘Scots’.
Murray went to some pains to point out that simple historical differences in spelling do not imply different meanings. Thus whilst one may correctly write ‘Until the 16th century Lowland Scots called their language English, which was most-commonly spelled ‘Inglis’, it is wholly incorrect to write, as many now do, that ‘Until the 16th century Lowland Scots called their language Inglis’. Whether due to lack of care or by intention such inappropriate use of ‘Inglis’ inevitably conveys the misleading implication that the word meant something subtly, or even substantively, different to Scotsmen than when spelled as ‘English’.
The implied distinction becomes even more misleading when one notes that the spelling E-n-g-l-i-s-h is not even recorded in England before 1585. (Historically a multitude of different spellings were used in both countries e.g. Cursor Mundi c. 1300 ‘Þis ilk bok es translate into Inglis tong to rede for the love of Inglis lede, Inglis lede of Ingland for the commun at understand’ or Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum 1398 ‘ Seint Gregory seith ynglysshe children to sellyng at Rome..and herde þat þey were Inglysshe’).
A second source of misunderstanding is the word ‘Anglisisation’. In one of his published lectures the late A.J. Aitken refers to “Anglisisation or, as some prefer, standardisation”. The neutral word ‘Standardisation’ however does not appear to have found much favour in current Scottish literature. Yet Anglisisation is a word which comes heavily freighted with misleading implications of cultural imperialism. The word has been used for so long (though in fact only since 1707, and then in a different context) that few, if any, seem to pause to question its utility let alone its factual basis. Yet in what sense is Anglisisation the correct word to describe the evolution of language in Scotland? If Scots was already an ‘Anglic Language’ how can it be said to have been ‘Anglicised’. Indeed, if as Murray concluded, ‘Scots’ is simply Northern English by another name the term seems even less helpful. Furthermore, since exactly the same, and equally unfamiliar, concept of language ‘homogenisation’ was simultaneously being introduced to all regions, dialect-speakers and social classes in both Scotland and England, what term can one use to describe the exactly identical process ‘south of the border’ other than ‘standardisation’? One surely cannot say that language in England too was subject to ‘Anglisisation’?
(A related complaint is that early texts from Scotland have been ‘Englished’ before publication i.e. later standard English spelling has replaced the original. This conveniently ignores the fact that the same practice is equally commonly applied to similar-aged texts written in England – have they too been ‘Englished’?).
The introduction of the King James Bible in 1611 is widely (dis)credited with being a fount of ‘Anglisisation’.
A number of modern works about the Scots language quote the Reverend James Kirkwood who in 1703 (having by then been residing in Bedfordshire for 18 years) wrote “Does not everybody know that in our English Bibles there are several hundred words and phrases not vulgarly used nor understood by a great many in Scotland who have no other Translation.”
The quote is used to suggest that Lowland Scotsmen and women had trouble understanding the Bible in English. But the real point is missed: the Bible has some 6,000 head words (plus a vast number of proper nouns) and a total vocabulary of around 20,000. Thus, even if the Minister is to be believed, ‘Scots’ and ‘English’ actually shared some 90% of the Biblical vocabulary. Yet even that is misleading: English Ministers too made exactly the same complaint – and for the same reason – that the translators had retained many Latin and Greek words where no English equivalent was available.
As for a supposed replacement of Scotland’s native orthography with that of England’s in the 16th and 17th centuries, such an assertion rests on there actually having been earlier formalised orthographies, genuine and distinct standardised spelling conventions, in both countries. This was hardly the case anywhere in either England or Scotland. The author of the Compleynt of Scotland for example typically manages to spell the simple word ‘Latin’ three different ways in almost as many lines – not one of them as ‘Latin’. Shakespeare famously never spelled his own name twice in the same way, and never once as ‘Shakespeare’. The original spellings in the King James Bible and its predecessors such as the Geneva Bible reveal not so much a fixed orthography but something almost better-described as a spelling free-for-all – a fluid situation made even less-fixed by the still-evolving alphabet. In fact not until 1769 did the familiar standard ‘traditional’ Bible text appear: it differed from the 1611 text in around 24,000 places (Not least in that King Iames now becomes King James). In reality a long-developing, and highly desirable, standard orthography came to all parts of the Great Britain simultaneously during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Last is the barrier to understanding imposed by the changes to the meaning of the word ‘Scots’ over the course of time.
The original use of the word ‘Scots’ or ‘Scottis’ to refer to Scots Gaelic is well attested to, as is the increasingly common (but never exclusive) practice amongst Lowlanders from the last decade of the 15th century onwards for using ‘Scots’ as an alternative name for their language instead of ‘English’. Despite a great deal of speculation the reasons for that change in fashion are quite unknown: one catalyst though seems likely to have been an increase in anti-English feeling exacerbated by the military disaster of Flodden (1513) and its political and military sequelae in subsequent decades - whilst that novel usage of ‘Scots’ is widely claimed to have been popularised by the patriotic poetry of the above-mentioned Gavin Douglas, not least his most famous work Eneados, a vernacular translation of the Aeneid, composed in the same year as Flodden, though not printed until 1553. Despite his modern reputation as a writer of ‘Scots’, Douglas would however on his death in 1522 be memoralised by fellow Scottish poet or ‘Makar’ David Lindsay as a noted writer of ‘our Inglis rhetorique’ i.e of English. Douglas’ now-celebrated ‘Scots language’ was in reality a pastiche, a mix of 14th century Chaucer-inspired Middle English and of contemporary 16th century Scottish rustic – a still-familiar poetic device employed to create a pleasing patina of synthetic antiquity.
Earlier, Scottish poet William Dunbar (1459-c.1513) would write:
O reverend Chaucere, rose of rethoris all, As in oure tong ane flour imperiall, That raise in Britane evir, quho redis rycht, Thou beris of makaris the tryumph riall; Thy fresch anamalit termes celicall This mater coud illumynit have full brycht: Was thou noucht of oure Inglisch all the lycht,
Yet even in the same year as Flodden, and of the composition of Douglas’ Eneados, supposedly in ‘Scots’, Polydore Vergil wrote “In some thinges there is no difference or dissimilitude [between the Scots and the English]: for there tongues are all one, the features and attire of bodies like, like hautness and corage in battayle, and equall desire of huntinge to the nobilitie, even from their childhode”.
(The first reference to a ‘Scottis toung’, and the only simultaneous mention of it alongside the ‘Inglis toung’, in the record of the Scottish parliament, does not however occur until 1543 – and then in ambiguous circumstances, since read in wider context it is almost certainly still a reference to Gaelic. The first unambiguous use of ‘Scottis’ as the alternative name of the vernacular Lowland language does not appear until as late as 19th August 1568 – interestingly just a year after one of the most learned men of the age, the French philologist, polyglot and philosopher Joseph Justus Scaligerus, visited Holyrood and recorded that “Les Escossois et Anglois parlent mesme langage Saxon, vieux Teutonique, ils se servent de mesme Bible, et ne different pas plus que le Parisien d'avec le Piccard” (6).
Nearly 40 years later that common ‘Saxon’ language would again be mentioned – with an emphasis not on differences between Scotland and England but rather between northern and southern Britain. In 1604 the Englishman Henry Saville wrote:
“...both nations using the one and almost the same dialect, to wit the Saxon language. And the Scots and north people of England speak more incorruptly than the south, which by reason of the Conquest and greater Commerce with foreign nations, is become more mingled and degenerate from the ancient tongue”. (Galloway and Leveck: 1985:213))
Popular changes of nomenclature for patriotic or sentimental reasons are hardly unknown: German Shepherd dogs became ‘Alsatians’ after the first world war; in the 1920s the official state language of Illinois became legally ‘American’. Neither innovation made the slightest difference to the fact. Nor does there appear to be any credible evidence that 16th or 17th century Scotsmen believed that a commonly-used synonym actually made ‘Scots’ a different language from that of England.
By the 18th century however another change to the meaning of the word ‘Scots’ or ‘Scottish’ had occurred. That generic, overarching, all-inclusive alternative term for the language of the Lowlands was discarded in favour of its original, name - English. ‘Scots’ now acquired a much narrower meaning: i.e. just those dialects and rustic forms of the common language geographically associated with Scotland. Thus in 1786 Robert Burns published his ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ and not ‘in the Scottish Language’.
Emotive claims of historical legislation intended to eradicate the ‘Scots language’ through education are misleading. Such policies never existed, nor needed to exist: English became a statutory, and uncontroversial, core curriculum subject in schools because English was and always had been the language of lowland Scotland. The Scottish (and later British) Government did however have such a policy regarding Gaelic. Scotland’s own School Establishment Act of 1616 expressly provided for Highland education to be in English (rather than Gaelic or Latin); it used the name English (‘Inglis’) in the Act because English was the state language of Scotland. In the 20th century one particular source of claims of a hostile government educational policy towards the ‘Scots language’ would appear to be a few sentences in a single, and obscure, document - Primary Education: the Advisory Council on Education for Scotland, published in 1946. In essence it simply, if somewhat testily, stated that, [exactly as in every other part of Britain], the (Scottish) Advisory Council considered dialects (‘Scottish language’) to be an unsuitable medium for teaching a national curriculum. Given the date it seems likely that the strongly-worded advice (not a policy) was uttered only in reaction to utopian proposals by political radicals that primary education be conducted in Scots dialects.
(Dialects, dialect writing and dialect poetry, are far from being peculiar to Scotland. Wright's English Dialect Dictionary, published in six volumes between 1898 and 1905, contains no fewer than 70,000 entries – by contrast James Boswell’s unpublished 18th century manuscript dictionary contained a mere 850 Scots words. Wright’s work includes a whole multitude of supposedly ‘Scots’ words that are, or were, equally encountered in England. The earliest English dialect dictionary was in fact published by John Ray in 1674.)
In the 20th century a further misuse of ‘Scots’ has occurred. The terms Older (or Early) Scots, Middle Scots and Modern Scots, first coined by Murray in 1873 as no more than chronological/geographical categories, a ‘shorthand’ used simply to locate written material in time and place were, within a decade of his death, being written of in ways that suggest that the writers mistakenly assumed that the names of these ‘library categories’ had by virtue of their mere existence somehow validated or confirmed as fact a distinct historical Scots Language. For example the late 14th century Scottish epic, John Barbour’s ‘The Bruce’, written in Middle English in the Early Scots period was now misleadingly being described as ‘written in Early Scots’. (Indeed, as JD McClure points out, Barbour would have been mystified to be described as a writer of ‘Scots’; as far as he would have been aware he was writing in English, exactly the same language being used by his English contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer.)
The publicly-funded Scots Language Centre meanwhile offers: ‘Taken altogether, Scottish dialects are known collectively as the Scots language’.
Does this make logical sense? Language in Britain, both written and verbal, has changed almost beyond recognition since the 16th century. Can one imagine a hypothetical ‘English Language Centre’ in England writing ‘Taken altogether, English dialects are known collectively as the English language’ and excluding modern English from its definition? Or a ‘Campaign for Real English’ claiming that English became so ‘corrupted’ after the first Stuart monarch came down from Scotland to occupy the throne of England in 1603 that only English literature and spellings from before that date represent the ‘pure’ English language?
Of course, just as one can never step in the same river twice, so all living languages, their variants and their dialects, continuously evolve and mutate. There can never be, and never was, any such thing as a ‘pure’, or indeed a ‘corrupted’, language - only snapshots of change-in-progress captured at different moments in time.
The definition offered by Scots Language Centre would make at least a kind of sense if two words were added ‘Taken altogether, Scottish dialects [of English] are known collectively as the Scots language.’ Two inverted commas might help even more.
Assertions by the Ministerial Working Group which presented its case to the Scottish Parliament in 2010, that the Scots language has no standard form in the 21st century were profoundly mistaken. Whatever the Scots language may or may not have once been, it has simply evolved to become today’s ‘Scottish English’, or to be less sensitive to nationalist feeling, plain modern English – that is ‘the standard form’ of the Scots ‘language’.
Meanwhile anyone familiar with the rigorous evidential standards demanded by science or the law will be forcibly struck by the presentation techniques employed by Scots Language enthusiasts. The scientific or judicial methods of enquiry are inverted: evidence appears to be carefully selected - ‘cherry picking’ - to support the desired end, rather than it being the evidence, and moreover all the evidence, which leads to a natural, logical, conclusion.
Sophistry and rhetoric - advocacy rather than dispassionate, forensic analysis and disinterested judgement - are characteristically deployed: a preference for less-likely but favourable historical explanations in place of the more-probable but unfavourable; the wholesale omission of unwelcome evidence; anachronisms, false assumptions and false analogies; the use (and misuse) of arcane technical terms; pathos, platitudes and patriotism. Even a modern version of Procustes’ bed is called into service, stretching or chopping the commonly-understood meaning of the word ‘language’ in the struggle to force it to fit the frame.
The English speak English, the French speak French and the Germans German. Therefore Scotsmen must have once spoken Scots. The ‘logic’ is seductive.
To many scientists and lawyers these forms of argument, nearly all arising from a single false premise, are depressingly familiar from Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (USA 2005), and from earlier related cases, all the way back to the notorious Scopes trial of 1925.
Today even amongst the best of Scottish academics can be found peculiar examples of fatally flawed logic, and of ‘necromancy’ - the confident reporting of the previously un-recorded thoughts of Scotland’s distant dead.
Interestingly many of the members of the Ministerial Working Group on Scots, which made the case for increased state funding, seem to have had a direct commercial or professional vested interest in the promotion of ‘Scots’. Large sums of public monies are now spent on promoting the ‘Scots language’: there are no similar salaries, sinecures and subsidies for ‘heretics’, those who might question the prevailing orthodoxy.
In any event, as the late historian Professor Rosalind Mitchison of Edinburgh University observed, Scottish historians have seldom liked writing against the popular tide. Scotland’s academics are perhaps even less likely to recommend shooting themselves in their state-funded feet. Meanwhile indifference, or perhaps simple politeness, has resulted in virtual academic silence from England: some of the few critical academic papers of recent times have emanated not from Britain but from European institutions, not least from Professor James Costa working at the Institut Nationale de Recherche Pedagogique in Lyon, France.
The easily-verified fact is that the English language, rich in dialects, and in its variant and evolving guises has been indigenous to what would one day become Lowland Scotland in an unbroken line since Anglo-Saxon colonists first established the Kingdom of Bernicia (subsequently part of the of the vast Kingdom of Northumbria, and later still Lothian) between the Forth and the Tees in the 7th century. The Anglo-Saxons arrived at exactly the same time that Gaelic-speaking Scots from Ireland were colonising the north west of what had once been Caledonia, establishing their own petty-kingdom of Dal Riata there. Both doing so at the expense of the native Picts and of the indigenous Britons.
The already long-established Anglo-Saxon ‘Sassenach’ English-speaking population of the Lowlands and beyond was later boosted by waves of refugees from the south seeking sanctuary from both the Norman invasion of 1066, and from its bloody aftermath in the ‘Harrying of the North’. Later still, in the 12th and 13th centuries, further large waves of English-speaking settlers, some reportedly from as far south as Somerset, were moved north by Britain’s now-Norman aristocracy, populating some 50 new towns and Royal Burghs, not least Stirling, Dunfermline, Aberdeen, Perth, Scone, Elgin and Edinburgh.
The Lowlands-based Kingdom of Scotland established by Robert the Bruce and his successors in the 14th century was thus less a ‘kingdom of Scots’ than an independent kingdom of the northern Anglo-Saxons - ‘English’ as they then still called themselves - led by a Norman-French descended aristocracy. Despite its historic name, it was effectively a new kingdom, one within which the actual Scots of the earlier, and original, kingdom of ‘Scot-Land’ in the still-tribal Highlands would henceforth be marginalised – both they and their Scots (Gaelic) language subsequently being referred to as ‘Irish’, and the people described as ‘savages’ by the new ‘Scots’ to the south.
Later the Scottish philosopher and theologian John Major (1467-1550), writing in Latin in the early 16th century, (Trans. Robert S Rait 1901 'An Outline of the Relations between England and Scotland (500-1707)'.) would comment on the differences between Highlander and Lowlander: ‘the wild Scots speak Irish; the civilised Scots use English’
Given enough time language divergence might, at least conceivably, have eventually arisen between England and Anglophone ‘English’ Scotland. The powerful counterforce to divergence in the shape of the printing press, introduced to Britain in the 1470s, would however make quite certain that it never did.
Latin was the focus of Education in Scotland, made statutory in 1496. It would long continue to be central not only to Education but also to the Law and the Church. Following the Reformation however English rather than Latin became at least the everyday language of religion. There is no record in the Scottish Parliament of a ‘Scots Language’ ever being designated ‘the State Language’, nor of ever being considered ‘the national language’ despite oft-repeated modern assertions that this was the case.
Meanwhile, though self-interest may at least explain some of Scottish academia’s current enthusiasm for the Scots ‘language’, it fails to explain the surprisingly limited criticism from Scotland’s other inhabitants.
Maybe the Scots are an unusually gullible people.
That is highly implausible. Scotland not only has an excellent education system, but Scots are also proverbial for their ‘canniness’.
Both Murray and Costa, writing more than a century apart, suggest that national creation myths fill a psychological need. Thus many of those who are not convinced that ‘Scots’ is or ever was a language distinct from English seem at least content to treat those who are excited by the idea with tolerance, or amusement.
And perhaps amusement has a larger part to play. In-jokes are always popular, and within Scotland what could be a better in-joke than getting one over on the EU and the UK Government by having them formally recognise not a language but merely the idea of a language?
Yet jokes can go too far. Not least when they impinge upon the education of schoolchildren.
Teaching about the historic literature of Scotland, the history of language in Scotland and about the dialects of Scotland is undoubtedly a good and commendable thing.
But when genuine history is bent and distorted, in effect falsified, for fun or for ideological reasons, in ignorance or with intent, and then taught to children as fact, then any joke turns sour.
Scotland has a long record of unusually strong affection for romanticised history - the fabricated ‘ancient’ poems of Ossian in the 18th century, the ‘retro-invention’ of Clan tartans in the 19th , or ‘Braveheart’ in the 20th . A host of similar examples can be identified between Walter Scott’s first foray into the literary proto-Disneyfication of Scottish history in 1802 and its literal Disneyfication in ‘Brave’ in 2012.
Given the all-too obvious distortion of the story of language in Scotland it is difficult not to recognise more than a kernel of painful truth in the words of Samuel Johnson written (about the ‘Ossian’ fraud) more than two centuries ago:
“A Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist, who does not love Scotland better than truth: he will always love it better than inquiry; and if falsehood flatters his vanity, will not be very diligent to detect it.”
Or perhaps one might prefer the greater delicacy of David Hume who wrote on the same subject “Men run with great Avidity to give their Evidence in favour of what flatters their Passions and their national Prejudices.”
In the 21st century an unprecedented convergence of interests - those of a coalition of enthusiasts and zealots, fund-hungry institutions and academics, commerce, and flag-waving politicians (ideologues and opportunists alike) - has turned yet another romance into ‘fact’.
Meanwhile, as the quantity of written material about the ‘Scots language’ has proliferated since the 1970s it has generated a critical-mass of circular-referencing, self-supporting material - a merry-go-round of recycled and seldom-checked misinformation creating a comforting illusion of substance. Costa however notes “it is likely that most texts draw on the same sources, possibly Aitken (2005 (1985)), Murison (1977, 1979), and perhaps Williamson (1982/3)”.
The tale, like all good tales, has grown with re-telling: once-tentative speculation being transmuted into positive assertion. With safety in numbers even normally reputable academics can be found who cross otherwise unbridgeable historical chasms with mere leaps of the imagination. But perhaps one should not be too surprised: as Costa observes, “the divisions between linguists and militants are not as clear cut as usually believed”.
Rosalind Mitchison however warned in 1984 “Historians of any society have to learn to be wary of the accepted myths of their subject. Sometimes these bogus visions of the past are deliberately created or fostered by the governing group. Sometimes they come from an educated but perhaps unsophisticated middle class.... The most extreme and absurd tend to be those connected with nationalist themes.”
In 1841 Scottish journalist Charles Mackay wrote his book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The book chronicles the history of ‘National Delusions’, ‘Peculiar Follies’, and ‘Philosophical Delusions’. A modern edition of Mackay’s book might well include a whole chapter on the ‘Scots language’. (Though Mackay himself would perhaps not have written it. Commenting on Mackay’s own ‘fanciful conjectures’ that ‘thousands of English words go back to Scottish Gaelic’, the 20th century linguist Anatoly Liberman described MacKay as an ‘etymological monomaniac’ adding that ‘He was hauled over the coals by his contemporaries’).
Meanwhile, from Jamieson’s eccentric misconception in 1808, down to today’s state-sponsored confabulation, the genuine history of the story behind the ‘Scots language’ is a subject well worthy of study in its own right. And both folklore and whisky-eyed sentimentality too have their proper place.
But the world deserves better of 21st century Scotland; Scotland deserves better. Above all, Scotland’s schoolchildren deserve better than to be taught synthetic history alongside MacDiarmid’s ‘synthetic Scots’ poetry, learning merely that whole cloth can be woven from wishes – given only enough imagination and sufficient gold.
Today it is an extraordinary irony that Sir James Murray, a man who in life comprehensively displayed and dismantled the myth of a Scots Language, is now lauded as the founder of Scots Language studies. Meanwhile, whether the ‘Scots Language’ is judged as an elaborate joke, an eccentric’s fantasy, the unhappy offspring of academic avarice and uncritical, incurious, iterative ‘scholarship’ founded on faith rather than facts, or merely as a peculiarly persistent political propaganda masquerading as ‘history’, it is equally ironic that John Jamieson’s famous dictionary contains no entry for ‘Scottish’, ‘Scots’ or even ‘Scottis’ Language. Perhaps even he eventually realised that his Emperor had no clothes.
- A frequently-quoted foreign visitor to reportedly mention a ‘Scots language’ was Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala; on 25th July 1498 he wrote a despatch from London to Spain describing King James IV of Scotland.
The English translation, published in 1862, reads ‘His own Scotch language is as different from English as Aragonese from Castilian’.
The original document in the Spanish archives however reads ‘sui su lengua natural Scocessa la qual es con la Inglesa como aragones con Castellano’.
Literally this translates as ‘his own natural Scottish tongue which, compared to English, is like aragonese compared to Castilian’.
‘Lengua natural’ or ‘natural tongue’ has a more nuanced meaning than ‘lengua’ alone. This may be better translated as ‘vernacular speech’, or ‘dialect’.
Aragonese was considered a dialect of Spanish (i.e. Castilian) in Ayala’s time: Ayala therefore intended to convey that the relationship between the English language and James’ ‘lengua natural Scocessa’ was similar.
Though Ayala also lists seven other languages, or tongues (lengua), spoken by James IV, English is not amongst them, an omission emphasising that Ayala takes it as self-evident that English is the common form of ‘Scocessa’.
Elsewhere it is sometimes stated that Queen Elizabeth I spoke ‘Scottish’ without making clear that what was meant by ‘Scottish’ was Scots-Irish i.e. the form of Scottish Gaelic spoken in Ulster.
“She possessed nine languages so thoroughly that each appeared to be her native tongue; five of these were the languages of peoples governed by her, English, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, for that part of her possessions where they are still savage, and Irish. All of them are so different, that it is impossible for those who speak the one to understand any of the others”. From: 'Venice: 7th April 1603', Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 9: 1592-1603 (1897), pp. 562-570. (A report to Venice from Giovanni Carlo Scaramelli).
In a letter of April 14, 1573, Elizabeth I stated, "We are given to understand that a nobleman named 'Sorley Boy' [MacDonnel] and others, who be of the Scotch-Irish race, and some of the wild Irish, at this time are content to acknowledge our true and mere right to the countrie of Ulster and the crowne of Ireland." ( Ref: Calendar of Patent and Close Rolls of Chancery, Ireland p 553).
- Despite the DOST statement about his views, McClure notably concludes his 2010 essay ‘When Did Scots Become Scots?’ by endorsing Francis Bacon’s early 17th century observation that Scots and English represented “a diversity of dialect rather than of language”. (7)
- The phonetic spelling ‘Lallans’ (i.e. ‘Lowlands’) was introduced in 1786 by Burns. As the ‘traditional’ name of a dialect however it can be traced back only to 1946 when radical political activist Douglas Young wrote “As it is convenient to have some term of distinction for that part of Scottish literature which is written in Braid Scots or Anglic, to refer to it separately from Scots literature written in Gaelic, English, Latin, or any other tongue, I suggest ‘Lallans’, adopting the term of Robert Burns.” (Source: OED). Young was an associate of Hugh McDiermid, and was Scottish National Party Chairman 1942-45 (mostly spent in prison); Young and David Murison [Ed SND] were life-long friends and associates. The Lallans Society was founded in 1972: its founding President was SNP activist George Philp; its Vice-President was Hugh MacDiermid. Another supposedly ‘traditional’ name ‘Doric’ also came into such use only in the 20th century; the Greek-derived word ‘Doric’ i.e. ‘rustic’ or ‘rural’, an adjective once used throughout all of Britain by the classically-educated elite, having apparently been mistakenly assumed to be, or perhaps intentionally adopted as, a proper noun by Hugh MacDiermid who first wrote of ‘the Doric’ only in 1925.
(1) Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language www.scotsdictionary.com/
(2) James Murray. The dialect of the southern counties of Scotland. http://archive.org/details/cu31924026538938
(3) Dictionary of the Scots Language DOST - History of Scots to 1700. www.dsl.ac.uk/
(4) James Costa., Language history as charter myth? Scots and the (re)invention of Scotland. Scottish Language, 28 (2009), 1-25 http://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/63/24/32/PDF/Costa_chartermyth_final.pdf
(5) Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 www.rps.ac.uk/
(6) Mitchell A., A List of Travels, Tours, etc., Relating to Scotland: Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh 1901, vol. 35.
(7) McClure JD., When Did Scots Become Scots. www.booksfromscotland.com/Features/Articles-and-Essays/History-of-the-Scots-Language
Dedicated to Wikipedia Editor Mutt Lunker whose unshakeable conviction that Scots is a language first drew the writer’s attention to the Yiddish slogan “A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot”, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” – an entertaining example of Jewish wit, but which, regrettably, turns out not to be a genuine axiom of philology. In exchange can only be offered an equally questionable quip, one commonly attributed to Lenin: “Ложь повторять достаточно часто становится правдой.” – “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth”.
About the Author:
The Author has spent much of a professional lifetime evaluating evidence. The Author’s interest in ‘the Scots Language’ stems exclusively from the discovery that its purported history provides an extraordinary, almost unparalleled, set of textbook examples of the omission, misinterpretation and misapplication of evidence. — Preceding unsigned comment added by 18.104.22.168 (talk) 16:30, 16 September 2014 (UTC)
Hello! I thought you might like to see what the Scots Wikipedia looks like now, I'm an administrator there now (temporary because there's hardly a community there anymore) and have been one for a little over a year now. The main page has also had a redesign since your last edit. I encourage you to stop by, it's a bit of a "ghost wiki". :) --AmaryllisGardener talk 02:55, 19 November 2014 (UTC)
- Cheers, AmaryllisGardner! Looking good. You're right, I should stop by more often. -- Derek Ross | Talk 04:30, 19 November 2014 (UTC)
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