Thursday 17 November 2022

How many can speak Scots as well as Emma?


Why do Scottish nationalists make such fools of themselves over language? Anyone who has heard Emma Harper attempting to speak Scots in the Scottish Parliament would conclude firstly that she did not write the text she was reading, secondly that she did not understand it and thirdly that she was unable to read it. She demonstrated therefore the opposite of what she was attempting to prove.

Poor Emma is becoming the President Biden of gaffes despite being only in her fifties and therefore not having the excuse of senility. She obviously thinks that promoting a language she barely speaks herself is important. The reason is because language difference is the foundation of nationalism.

When Poland was partitioned and divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria Polish national identity continued because the people continued to speak Polish. If they had all forgotten their Polish and learned German and Russian instead then it is doubtful that Poland would have been reborn in 1918.

It is of course the case that there are international boundaries where people speak the same language. Spanish speakers in Latin America live in a number of different countries. So too there are states where many languages are spoken. Nation states exist for a variety of historical reasons some of which are quite accidental. But the history of nationalism shows that one of the main justifications for either unifying separate states or separating is language.

German unification depended on the idea that various peoples who spoke varieties of German were speaking the same language and were therefore one people. Poland’s separation from the German, Austrian and Russian Empires depended on the idea that Poles were distinct from Germans, Austrians and Russians and the main way in which they were distinct was linguistic.

Scottish nationalists would therefore be delighted if Scots spoke a language or languages different from the UK as a whole. Imagine if the whole of Scotland spoke Gaelic. Well in that case we would be just like Poland. It would be very easy indeed to argue for Scottish independence and the Scottish people would be obviously different from the English. The difference would be linguistic.

Imagine on the other hand if the whole of Scotland spoke Scots. In that case people from the other parts of the UK couldn’t make themselves understood in Scotland and if they moved here would have to go to Scots language classes just as if they moved to France, they would have to learn French. But while there was a time when the Scots language was widely spoken and was very different from standard English, this is not remotely the case now.

I grew up in a small village in Aberdeenshire and spoke Doric (Aberdeenshire Scots). But even then, the people who lived in the small villages spoke more Doric than those in the small towns but rather less than those in more isolated farms. Now I speak Doric if I meet a fellow speaker, but rarely do and the vast majority of conversations take place in English with a Scottish accent.  

No one speaks like Emma Harper tries to do not least because her text comes across as fake. It’s like whoever wrote it for her was looking up in a dictionary desperate to come up with a Scots word for “helicopter”.

In all my life I have only ever properly spoken Scots in Aberdeenshire. I never met anyone in Edinburgh who spoke Scots apart from a few words. The Doric of my childhood had a rich vocabulary and a distinct grammar. I’ve never heard the equivalent anywhere else in Scotland. But even that Doric language was not really a full language like Polish.

I couldn’t write about physics or chemistry in Doric I just wouldn’t have the vocabulary. In fact, I could barely write about anything because I wouldn’t know how to spell the words I could say. Emma Harper absurdly wants to bring back the yogh ȝ in fact called yoch in Scots. Perhaps she also wants to bring back other letters from Middle and Old English to confuse matters further. If we used some thorns þ and some eths ð we could turn Scots into Icelandic, but it probably wouldn’t help poor Emma’s pronunciation as she struggles even with the alphabet we use at present.

If you read Scottish literature even from the late 19th century you can hear a natural language that was spoken by everyone. Novels like the Little Minister or Sentimental Tommy written by J.M. Barrie show a rich, beautiful Scottish language, but none of us speak like this now.

When I have heard Scottish nationalists attempt to write poetry or prose in modern Scots it is simply embarrassing because of the paucity of their language. Such people cannot even understand Walter Scott’s characters yet claim to be reviving Scots. Sorry, but using weans doesn’t make you a Scottish poet even if it is a useful word to rhyme with drains. The poetry of Burns comes from the fact that the language he wrote was the language that he spoke daily. It means that his poetry is natural, because his was a lived language. No one writes like that today in Scots, because no one lives today in Scots.

We no longer speak Middle English and don’t much regret it. I can read Chaucer with a glossary, but would probably struggle to understand it spoken. Middle English evolved into Scots and four hundred years ago was as different from English as Dutch is from German, but ever since King James became heir to throne in England Scots has been in decline and has gradually been moving towards English.

I absolutely understand Scottish nationalists regretting this, but language evolution has been going on since language began, which is why we no longer speak Middle English.

Aberdeenshire used to be isolated. Everyone was from nearby. But in the past decades people from other parts of Scotland and other parts of the UK moved here. They couldn’t understand Doric so we modified our language to make communication easier. We went on holiday more often and learned to speak a language which could be understood outside Aberdeenshire.

I learned to speak English and a few other languages and so for me language and identity ceased to be closely connected. Language is a useful tool for communicating with others. Emma Harper when she speaks Scots communicates with no one not even Scots.

There are two candidates for the separate language that would justify Scottish separatism. Gaelic is a separate language, but no matter how many road sings are translated into Gaelic (which as a council in Monmouthshire says is confusing not merely to me but to others too) it does not translate into increased numbers of native speakers. So, Gaelic won’t do. Scottish nationalists get stuck after mispronouncing Alba gu bràth.

The other candidate is Scots. How many of us really speak Scottish? If you mean do I have a Scottish accent, you might have 5 million. If you mean do I use some Scottish words, you might have 2 million. If you mean I can write an essay wholly in Scots without looking up the dictionary, you might have less than one hundred. Having red hair unfortunately does not a native speaker make.

There are fewer fluent Scots speakers than Gaelic speakers. If that’s Emma Harper’s justification for her Scottish nationalism then she and all the wee lassies reading poetry on Youtube might reflect that the difference they are manufacturing with England won’t change the fact that we are linguistically closer to our neighbour than at any time in our history. Perhaps it is for this reason some of us are so desperate to pretend we are different.