Thursday 17 March 2022

Can I speak Scots?


I was recently asked on the Census about my ability to speak Scots. I said that I did and did so very well. I can speak, read and write Doric, the Aberdeenshire variant of the language because I grew up speaking it as a child and in many ways, it was my first language. But the question still left me a bit perplexed, because I was unable to define what knowing Scots amounted to.

At the beginning of lockdown, I set myself the task of learning Polish. My husband grew up in one of those border regions of Eastern Europe where Polish is still widely spoken although it is no longer a part of Poland. This is one of the complexities of Eastern Europe that we are not always aware of here, because such border complexities and continuums don’t exist on our island.

I know exactly what it is to speak Polish. There is a standard version of the language, which I have been learning. There are grammatical rules. There is a vocabulary. If I use Duolingo I can test my ability to read and write Polish. I am right or I make a mistake. But how do I test whether I speak Scots?

Can I read Scots? Well, it depends. I struggle with anything written much before the 19th century. There are lots of words in poems by Robert Burns that I either don’t know or would pronounce differently. I have read all of Walter Scott, but I quite frequently need to look up the glossary. I also recognise in the dialogue that Scott writes that I have never ever spoken Scots in the way that his characters do. Their vocabulary is far richer than mine ever was and they have a Scots word for nearly everything.

Growing up in a small village in Aberdeenshire quite a long way from Aberdeen I spoke Doric more fluently than people in the larger towns and much more fluently than the people in Aberdeen. We had a wide vocabulary for farming. We said numbers differently from English people. We would sometimes not even be understood in Aberdeen if we spoke particularly broadly. But people who lived outside of the villages were even broader than we were. So, which of us spoke Scots?

I remember typical conversations would involve a mixture of English words and Scots words and we wouldn’t always use the Scots word even when we knew it. We would switch between. I don’t remember ever using only Scots words. Nor did I always speak English words with a Scottish pronunciation. No one did.

Can I write Scots? I have only ever done so as a sort of game or a joke. The problem is I don’t know how to spell Doric words. I end up just spelling them phonetically. Fit like? Foo ye dein’? But I have never seriously written a letter or an email in Scots, nor have I tried to reproduce a Scottish accent when trying to write dialogue. It always turns out like Mark Twain trying to reproduce how black people spoke while sailing down the Mississippi.

There was a time when Scottish people routinely wrote in Scots, but this was hundreds of years ago. I have never written so much as a shopping list, let alone an essay in Scots and few Scots have since the Union of the Crowns unless to make a point that they can. Even in the eighteenth-century Scottish thinkers wrote in English. Scottish literature has usually been in English apart from dialogue and some poetry. Few if any Scottish speakers actually write in Scots even if we theoretically can do so.

Can I speak Scots? Yes. But I rarely if ever do so now. Whenever I meet a fellow Doric speaker, I routinely speak Doric. But I am rusty now. The fluency I had as a child comes back quickly, but it’s not the same. Then everyone I knew spoke Doric all of the time, now fewer and fewer have the knowledge of the language that I did as a child. Sometimes I say words other people don’t know and vice versa. It depends on where you were brought up and when.

Now if I sit on a bus going to Peterhead or the Broch, I find myself hearing really fluent Doric only when people are going to the end of the line. The larger towns and villages near to Aberdeen no longer really speak Doric. The children barely speak it at all.

Outside of the North East few Scots can really speak the Scottish language fluently. I remember people from Glasgow and Edinburgh visiting when I was a child who were completely baffled by the language spoken in rural Aberdeenshire. For them speaking Scottish was little more than an accent, some changes in pronunciation and a spattering of vocabulary.

If you read documents from Jacobean times there is no doubt that people in lowland Scotland spoke a language very different from English as different as German and Dutch. But the Scottish language that has come down to us today is a mere remnant of this. We have been losing its vocabulary for more than four hundred years.

Attempts to write in Scots today nearly always strike me as artificial as if the vocabulary comes from a Scots dictionary rather than from lived experience. There is no standard Scots language that we all could learn like I am learning Polish and there is nowhere I could speak it after learning it.

If Elizabeth the First had given birth to a son and Scotland and England had gone on different paths, we might now be speaking a Scottish language that was not mutually intelligible with English. But we don’t. Every Scot understands standard English and the language we usually speak every day is as understandable to other British citizens as Brummie, Geordie or Scouse.

I can still speak a form of Scots that few even in Edinburgh, let alone London can understand. It has a distinct vocabulary and grammar, but I almost never speak it. I would not dream of trying to write a scientific article in Doric, nor have I ever read one. I can’t speak Doric anywhere else than in rural Aberdeenshire, because no one in the Central Belt would understand me.

The Census will eventually tell us that there are this many Scottish speakers in Scotland, but many of them will only speak English with a Scottish accent and a few Scottish words thrown in like they do sometimes in the Scottish Parliament.

Some political points may be scored, but the truth is that there are zero monolingual speakers of Scots over the age of five and the number of truly fluent speakers of Scots who could hold a conversation using only Scottish vocabulary is I strongly suspect fewer even than those who could hold a similar conversation in Gaelic.

By all means spend resources on reversing a language decline that has been going on for centuries, but you will no more stop it than you can stop getting old. The SNP are desperate for a separate language to fuel their separatism, but the truth is that the overwhelming majority of Scots speak only English.


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