The offending word was circled in red pen: ‘outwith’
The note in the margin read ‘Do you mean, WITHOUT?’.
A first class student for the past three years, I sat in my dissertation tutorial growling as my frustration increased. ‘No. I mean ‘outwith’. It’s completely different. You know? Outwith? To be outside the borders of something stable, outside of something that is defined?’
I was met with a blank stare from my lecturer.
‘Sorry Laura, there isn’t such a word. I’ve never heard of it.’
‘But… you must have… it’s used all the time, it’s a legal word, it’s a really posh word! It definitely exists. Can I look it up in this dictionary, I’ll show you.’
I leafed through the Oxford English Dictionary, that great brick that my lecturer used to hold up pamphlets and paperbacks in a makeshift library on his desk.
But the word wasn’t there.
I was incredulous.
How could this be? This was my very best English, and I was bloody good at writing. My entire sense of self was predicated on how impressive my vocabulary was. I was an archetypal swot, I’d been in England now for nearly four years and had even mastered how to modulate my speech so that I didn’t have the constant annoyance of repeating every single thing I said…
‘Maybe it’s a Scottish word?’ He shrugged.
I wasn’t expecting that, and I was shocked at how much it stung. I was proud of being one of the only Scots on campus, but I didn’t write like a Scot, that was ridiculous, I wrote properly.
How could this be? How could I not know?
I felt that my intellect had betrayed me. How could this word not be English? It wasn’t a word I associated with my scrappy childhood in Fife. Yet it was true. For everyone else around me, it didn’t exist. This word that seemed so proper, so apt, so wonderful in its perfectly encapsulation of the entire conceptual thrust of my dissertation was missing from the English language.
‘Then I feel sorry for you,’ I said. ‘It’s a great word and it’s exactly the one I need. I’m very careful to choose the perfect word from amongst all the possibilities and this is the only word that describes what I’m trying to say.
To give him his credit, he agreed that the word was perfect and that I’d write a glossary at the back to explain the term to non-Scots speakers.
Outwith. The concept of a point outside of the frame, outside of the lines, or outside of the received paradigm or definition of normality.
That my very best English and grammar was and would always be outwith the norms of English speech, began to dawn on me.
Folk would sometimes helpfully say, ‘The way you structure sentences is a bit odd… Did you know you often write as if things are still in the process of happening? You do an odd thing with tense, and an odd thing with subject – verb – object order, did you know that?
No, I didn’t. I don’t.
It’s outwith my ken.
Kis thir ur hings ah just cannae and willnae evir see. Thitr ootwey ma kennin. Kis ah wisnae broucht up way Innlish is ma furst tongue, ah lernt it it aff ma teachers an aff the telly.
Ah went tae skale in the eighties, in it yon time, thir wisnae a hing whaur we done grammar. Ye jist didnae. In thon deys, grammir wisnae the rage wi educationalists, the hinkin wis thit bairns learnt it natral like, off their maws in off their faimlies. It the skale we kent aboot daein wurds, in namin wurds, in describin words. We kent aw about spellin, in onomatopoeia, in metaphor, in similes in aw that. We kent about whit wurds tae pit in place ay the wurds we yaised it hame. Whit we didnae ken, wis whit it aw looked like, whit wis the muckle picture, an whaur we fittit intae thon.
Whin ah wis seeventeen, ah met The Gael. Eh wis, it the time, the furst luv ay ma life. He wis bricht, braw, he wis it the University, in he wantit tae be a poet. Wurnae that many laddies ah kent thit wantit tae dae scrievin like ah did. Eh hud a sense ay hissel thit wis grand, an kent whae eh wis and whauraboots he wis fae. Oh, in it was braw in fair birled ma head and ma hairt. Mair thin braw tae him, his leid wis the maist important hing in ehs life.
Ah envied thon. Ah wantit tae feel thon wey about masel in ma faimly in ken thit haein the things tae say that ah did, didnae mean thit ah wis stupit ir a scaff. Mebbes whit like he wis wid rub aff, an ah kid be masel weyoot whit wis fir me gauin by me. Ye didnae git intae Cambridge if ye wir fae ma skale wi a name like mines, ye widnae even git intae ony university if ye even spoke like ah did. Bit if ye wir a Gael, ye kid go tae University in speak the leid ay yir ain fowk, in get a degree in thon. Eh telt me Gaelic wis the language of poetry, o the soul of Scotland, o the land in the colours in the textures o this place.
Bha mise an tòiseachaidh aig ionnsachadh na Gàidhlig, beag air bheag. Bha mi lorg agus cleachdadh fiosrachaid faclan boidheach… smúid… sgoinniel…glas…
I began to learn Gàidhlig because I wanted to have the taste of the language so that I could fully know the man I fell in love with. I found words that explained sensations, textures and places I knew in my Fife landscape but didn’t have words to describe in Scots. ‘How can that be?’ I wondered. How can we have grown on this land and yet not had the word glas, a word that is as perfect a concept as ‘outwith’, a word that describes the quality of light, depth and the heathering of colours and light that you get through a misting or a deep greenish grey sea… a melancholy, a cold cosiness. It is often translated into English as the colour ‘grey’, but it’s not grey as we understand it, it’s not an objective state or a colour in terms of pigment. It’s more about a quality of light and the way it is diffused in a kinda opaque transparency – glas is better thought of as a texture, and it covers a spectrum of green-grey.
I told the Gàidheal about how the Edinburgh folk called us Teuchters (or, Choochters) and walked him to my favourite place in Fife – Downing Point. It’s at the end of long walk along the shores of my river Forth, before they’d built all the footballers houses down there. The grass was springy with peat underfoot, and there were bits of dune that almost became like machair-land, and the whole place had a wildness and a contemplation to it in which I felt more at home than anywhere else in the world. I didn’t have the language to describe the complexity and differences I could see in this landscape, but I didn’t need to because he got it. He understood.
So it hurt me to the core, when he said to me that us lowlanders had never spoken the Gàidhlig and that ours was the language of English. ‘Scots is a dialect of English,’ he said matter-of-factly. I bitterly disputed this, but had no learning with which to back it up. I was seventeen and he was a university student. He had a strong grasp on his home culture, mine was confused and polluted with negative associations, both twee and of class. I didn’t know back then that the marks in the caves at East Wemyss that I loved so much were Ogham inscriptions, or that linguistic scholars now believe that the reason Pictish language has not survived is that it was so similar to the Gàidhlig spoken by the clans from the West that when they became the kings of the whole of Alba for hundreds of years, the people of the lowlands probably just absorbed the tongue of the Gàidhealtachd, and certainly had spoken the Gàidhlig tongue for hundreds of years if not more. No one wrote down the language of the poor.
The Gàidhlig was his from birth, but it was also mine. It is mine through my ancestors, it is mine through my blood and my land and in the rocks and the names of places still standing in Fife, all over Scotland. It just takes a little more work and a nurturing to revive it in me.
Which oddly, is almost where I also find myself nowadays – with Scots. Ma mither leid.
I was asked by a Norwegian national (an amazing woman who is a fluent Welsh speaker and recent learner of Sami, the language of her father’s inuit tribe) ‘Where in your body do your languages sit?’ She told me stories of elderly Welsh people who would make a gesture of a cupped and strangling hand over their mouth when asked where their Welsh was, representing the years of oppression of their native language. We agreed that English lived in the front of our heads. I always found it puzzling that it was so hard for me to express myself with a proper English grammar – the words and the ideas come easily, but the structure remains a mystery to me. Writing in English is a constant act of translation. With sadness, I recounted to her that my Scots is in the back and base of my spine. It’s deep within me at the core of my being and my memories, but it’s so long since I’ve had people to speak it with me on a day-to-day basis it’s become neglected, and to speak it I have to concentrate to free my memory and my muscles and channel it to my mouth. I have the best success at this when I’m emotional, drunk, or giddy with the flytin and the banterin o a faimly gaithrin.
Twenty years ago the Gael broke up with me, and I broke up with Gàidhlig, and I didn’t think much more about it in the intervening years whilst I worked to acquire Polish, Italian, and Japanese. I always knew I’d wanted to raise my children bilingually and after marrying another monoglot speaker of the now-globally-dominant English, I had optimistically pinned my hopes on working really hard to brush up my French.
Turns out it’s not as easy as that. Those of you who are linguists will already know this, but I discovered that unless you are fully ‘immersed’ in a language, a child (or to a lesser extent, an adult) cannot absorb the grammatical structures or enough vocabulary to ever be able to speak the language beyond the level of a three year old. That was about the level of my French, after learning it for four years at high school and dipping in and out of the language for 25 years hence.
That’s no problem, if you have a native French, Mandarin or Arabic speaker at home, but useless if you’re both speakers of English. The dominance of English is such that it stands firm in the way of being able to achieve immersion in just about any other place in the world (Sadly, if your French is as ‘horrible’ as mine, in France you will only ever be addressed in English no matter how hard you try)
This should be quite a depressing thought for those of us who have visions of raising wonderfully competent speakers in ‘useful’ languages such as Mandarin or Arabic.
For me, however, that realisation was a gift.
Finally, I could be released.
It didn’t matter how ‘useful’ either of the native languages of Scotland were, what mattered was that immersion was possible (for as long as the languages survive, at least). It wasn’t just a romantic or emotional notion that led me to decide to school my children in the language of Gàidhlig, it is an entirely practical notion too. My kids will have an opportunity I never had, to achieve a proper acquisition of a new second language because they will be immersed, every day of school, in Gàidhlig. They will acquire exceptional language skills, irrespective of the language we spoke at home. What a wonderful gift, and one I feel very grateful to be able to give them.
What a wonderful thing to bestow upon the future generations of Scotland, the chance to develop a paradigm outwith the monoglot future of English language dominance, and the chance to absorb and nurture our native cultures and concepts which would otherwise disappear.
My children won’t have the vacuum of language that I experienced whilst standing on Downing Point, they’ll have the words for the exact composition of the ground underfoot and the weather brewing. They’ll have 50 words for rain, 100 words for earth, and 1000 words for the concepts that are uniquely Scottish.
Strategies for preserving the Gàidhlig language are streets ahead of those for Scots, so those of us who care about the Scots Leid would do well to get in about it and understand how we can apply some of that learning to revaluing the culture of Scots too.
I don’t experience the languages as being mutually exclusive and I don’t see it as being an either / or choice. To think that Gàidhlig is being promoted at the expense of Scots is to look at the problem the wrong way, English is being promoted at the expense of Scots. In Ireland there’s a GaelSgoil in every town – there are only three Gàidheal-Sgoils in the whole of Scotland and no schools for Scots. We need more, and we need them both.
We are lucky to have the Gàidheal Sgoil Taobh Na Pàirce around the corner from us in Leith, and it was parent pressure that succeeded in establishing the existing schools in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Sleat. I would love to encourage others to join together to campaign to establish Gàidhlig and Scots speaking schools across the rest of Scotland.
Ma weans are gey spoilt wey thir Granny in thir Dey tae spraff wir Scots leid wey thim. Thir kennin ay ma leid ull no be dingied. Bit till thirs a wey ay learnin the Scots grammar in the skale, thirll be nae point in kiddin oan thit spraffin Innlish in the skale is goannae gie thir Scots a haun. If onyhing it’ll jist dae tae thaim whit it did tae me, skelp it oot the heid in doon intae a wee skelf ay yir spine.
It’s been a bit of a revelation for me to read that Creative Scotland has a new Scots Language commitment, I’m heartened at the affirmation of ma mither leid, and I have hopes yet that more folk might come to value Scots language alongside Gàidhlig. There are Scots language courses beginning to spring up, and it’s astonishing how easy it is to learn a new language with the technology available these days. The husband and I are learning Gàidhlig together and what’s surprised me is the more I learn about Gàidhlig the more I’m learning about ma ain leid. Whilst Scots has evolved constantly Gåidhlig has been more preserved and it gives us a stronger sense of what the common ancestor languages of Scotland might have looked like. Linguists give tell that grammatical structures of a language remain as the oldest layers from previous languages and so Scots grammar could give clues to what the ancient languages across Scotland once were. Over the centuries, words in Scots have been loaned from many other languages, but the fact that its grammar is still distinct from English suggests its origin is different. Maybe it’s the human tendency to see connections but I keep finding resonances and grammatical patters that are familiar in Scots in the language of the Gàidhlteachd.
‘Is it no?’
It is, aye, in hings like the reflexive pronoun ‘thu fhèin’
Thinkin masel aboot thir Verb – Subject – Object sentence order…
Mind yersel in keep an eye oot fir thon if ye gie it a bash.
Uill… Feumaidh mi falbh.
Well… That’s me away.
Cheerie the noo.