We need to talk about how we talk
It was with some fanfare and no little controversy last week that a column in the Scots language was launched in the National by Matthew Fitt (who co-edits Bella’s own Scot’s language section which preceded the National’s).
Language is a peculiarly culturally-sensitive topic. The words that pour fourth from our mouths reveal much about us; not just through what we say but how we say it. They can denote nationality, regional origins, educational level, political affiliations and social class, to name but a few factors.
Each time we dare to utter a few phrases, we leave ourselves open to the inferences of strangers, often based on their prejudices. No wonder Lincoln said: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” The words we choose or how we pronounce them can be used in the most cruelly divisive ways.
It is now more than a century since George Bernard Shaw had Henry Higgins declare: “Men begin in Kentish Town with 80 pounds a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.”
But if language is socially divisive, it is also perversely democratic in that it invites snobbery against and from all the diverse categories represented by any particular variant.
My own speech, when I was younger, was most often described as “polite”, the product of a decent (state) primary school and the instructions of parents who would once have been described as “respectable working class”.
When I went to the secondary comprehensive, my manner of speaking was generally acceptable, though the wider social mix and variations in speech made me wary of standing out. It was one thing to be considered polite – an adjective of grudging tolerance, rather than a compliment – but I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk the attendant derision and social exclusion of being marked as “posh”, far less a “snob”.
So, like many of my peers, I flitted between in-class and out-of-class speech that spared me the teachers’ ire as well as the worst snarling from the kids whose parents, presumably were simply “working class”, with no apologetic adjective.
My speech is, I believe, unmistakably Glaswegian, something which has occasionally caused me some amusement.
Once, when in Dublin a stranger remarked that I didn’t have a strong Glasgow accent. A fellow denizen (whom I had never met) overheard and piped in, but in rather more gutsy tones, “Aye, it is Glasga, by the way.”
It struck me at the time how the way we speak could be seen as a differential identifier and symbol of commonality – even affinity – at the same time, depending on the perspective of the listener. So much for accent and dialect.
Though I am not sure that there is any reason to consider a dialect as inferior to a language (yes, dialects may be variants on a parent language; but so what?), Scots has long been recognised as a disgracefully-maligned language distinct from English.
“You say that if I want to get ahead, the language I use should be left for dead. It doesn’t please your ears,” the Proclaimers sang.
Many have been scarred by hostile reactions from schoolteachers and others, to their natural form of speech, their crime often being nothing worse than emulating the language of their loved ones.
On the intrinsic link between language and national identity, one of the most strident expressions came from the Irish rebel leader, Michael Collins in The Path to Freedom: “They destroyed our language, all but destroyed it, and in giving us their own they cursed us so that we have become its slaves….
“How can we express our most subtle thoughts and finest feelings in a foreign tongue? Irish will scarcely be our language in this generation, not even perhaps in the next. But until we have it again on our tongues and in our minds we are not free, and we will produce no immortal literature.”
Strong words, but what exactly should we do about it? Should the Scots language, unlike Latin, ancient Greek or even Esperanto, be allowed to wither on the vine – absolutely not. Should it be championed to encourage its further use? I’m not so sure.
It certainly should not be acceptable to patronise or abuse people using any language, far less one of the officially recognised languages oftheir country. And by implication, the majority Anglophones in Scotland should be considered no less fully Scottish than the speakers of Gaelic or Scots.
Mr Fitt notes: “Whitever its future, the 2011 census recordit 1.6 million that coont Scots as their language or ane o their languages. Undemocratic is the ainly wey I can find tae describe the continued marginalisation o the leid o sic a large percentage o citizens.
When put like that there seems a powerful case for increased recognition but there also remains the question of why more Scottish people don’t choose to call themselves Scots-speakers, even as a secondary language.
Why, though Irish has “First Official Language” status in Ireland, have the overwhelming majority of Irish people not chosen to throw off the “slavery” of English in favour of Gaelic?
I would suggest that, the most compelling reason is that the vast majority of Scots and Irish recognise that being native English speakers is a huge advantage internationally.
However, my experience of being a Scot abroad is that there is a pervasive presumption that Scottish people speak in a manner that is almost impenetrable to the non-English-native ear. I have grown tired of meeting people from numerous countries (including the United States) who on finding I am from Scotland predictably respond: “Really? But I can understand you!” Typically, they recount anecdotes of hearing Scots speaking and thinking they were German.
And this, I would suggest, is not to be dismissed lightly. Because those seeking employment outside of Scotland may not be aware that their job applications may often be rejected, without their credentials even being considered, as HR managers and prospective employers presume that they will not be able to understand the candidates.
If that is not remotely fair, neither is it the responsibility or a practical expectation of people in other countries to educate themselves on the realities of how Scots speak.
Nor is it their duty to discern between language and dialect, accents, idioms, vernacular, colloquialisms and slang.
As long as Scottish people do not make the mistake of promoting Scots at the expense of English, the “Mither Tongue” can take its place as part of the richness of Scottish cultural expression.
However, it would be folly to promote Scots as an alternative to the nearest thing to a “Lingua Franka” that the world has (though ironically, English has no word for it).
It is now only 23 years since the Velvet Divorce that brought about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics. Until that time, Czechs and Slovaks understood each other’s languages with ease.
Now, however, it is commonly reported that many younger people from the two countries struggle to understand each other, the issue being far more pronounced when Slovaks speak to young Czechs. A Slovakian friend tells me that his teenage children, brought up in the Czech Republic, cannot understand his parents.
And, surprisingly, despite the fact that he is a manager at an international software development company, he found it almost impossible to understand the Slovakian language interface on his parents’ computer when asked to solve a problem.
Few, if any, are currently advocating dispensing with English but when emotions run high, when language is conflated with national identity, rather than being a factor in its expression, there may be the temptation to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
That would be a tragic and colossal error for future generations of Scots. We would do well to remember that the fact that a language is named English does not, by default, mean it belongs to the English alone, far less equate to enslavement by it.
The Scots have contributed to the development of English just as surely as to the shared currency of the two countries. English can rightly be considered to be a shared asset and one which is highly valuable.
“To see your own words, they way you speak written down in a book or in a newspaper is a powerful thing,” said the National’s editorial and few would argue with that.
Write it, speak it, celebrate it. But use it wisely.