We need to talk about how we talk

web-scotland-national-corbyn-2It 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.


Comments (37)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Richard says:

    “Write it, speak it, celebrate it. But use it wisely.” Know your place.

    1. Jim Bennett says:

      Aw Richard! What an unfair characterisation of a very thoughtful article.

      1. Richard says:

        Seriously, no-one has ever proposed “promoting Scots at the expense of English” – this is a straw-man argument which plays to the cultural cringe.

        It comes off as an attempt to slap a people down in case they start to get above themselves. You can have your parochial “pretendy” language for one night in January, but that’s it. The rest of the time you must use a “real” language.

        1. Chris Welton says:

          Perfect analysis, Richard.

  2. Redgauntlet says:

    I don´t believe that people make a choice about learning English over Irish Gaelic, much less because it is the “international language”….this is a myth, people don´t learn languages in such a way, certainly not in post imperial Ireland. English is the language of the Anglo-American empire and has been for about 150 years, and so of course people take to it – think of the cultural icons in English, think of the mass media…

    ..where people make a choice, that is to say a conscious decision, is when they decide to learn almost any other language but English. I mean either Gaelic or Scots in our case, but also Portuguese or Romanian or Chinese or whatever language you like.

    I applaud Mathew Fitt´s efforts, but I have serious doubts about his view that everybody should write Scots just as it comes to them. At informal level that is fine of course – millions of people do that already in English when they send an SMS message or an email – but the success of a language is bound up with its perceived authority. If you don´t have a standard form and orthography, then people will tend not to use it in formal situations….effectively confirming it as a a dialect.

    Also, we Scots may all mutually understand variant spellings of the same words and vowel sounds, but people outside of Scotland will not. I mean, how would you learn Scots unless we have a standard form?

    1. Bernard Thompson says:

      People don’t make a choice about their first language but they do make a choice about the languages they teach and speak around their children and even in many (and I suspect most) parts of the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland, the primary language of choice is English.
      And, yes, English is the language of the Anglo-American empire, which is why it is the closest thing to an international language and why many international companies – not just Anglo-American ones – insist on a good knowledge of English from all their employees and some even stipulate that English should be spoken on-site, regardless of the local language.

      “If you don´t have a standard form and orthography, then people will tend not to use it in formal situations….effectively confirming it as a a dialect.”
      This is a key point, I think, because, once you have a standard form, you open the way for some use of the language to be considered “wrong”, which invites repetition of the same harsh judgements that have so pained Scots speakers for generations.

      1. Redgauntlet says:


        As Graeme Purves notes on this thread, Scots has been bedevilled by this idea that somehow a standard form amounts to a tyranny. Well, if that is the case, every language in Europe is tyrannical. People constantly flout standard form in English, in all kinds of situations, as they do in Spanish by the way, and most languages I am sure.

        James Joyce did it, T.S Eliot and D.H Lawrence used it, most of the great writers reflect popular speech….none of them would have written a formal letter in popular speech though…say for a job application, or a letter to the newspaper….so if you don´t have a standard form, then you are relegating Scots to a dialect and effectively ruling it out for a large part of human social life. The language of the pub, but not the parliament…

        Plus, it is plain naive to imagine that an American, let alone somebody with English as a second language, would recognize “I kin” as “I can”, for example….how would they recognize “I kin” as “I can” unless they knew the vowel sounds of working class Scotland? Which means that this idea that everybody write phonetic Scots effectively makes it a language for the Scots and those who know Scotland. Well, I don´t agree with that. Languages belong to anybody who wants to learn them.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      The development of Scots has been bedeviled by resistance to a standard orthography. The idea that everybody should simply do their own thing is a lazy and self-indulgent evasion. No other language community has seen that as a sensible way forward.

      1. tartanpigsy says:

        This exactly.
        This is something that needs done as a starting point.
        We can have as many spoken dialects of Scots as exist but it is an essential first step to create standard spellings and grammar rules like every language has.
        I lived a few years in The Netherlands in the early nineties.
        They have ABN, Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands, which was established at the end of WW2 to preserve the Dutch language from the influence of their larger neighbour who had just been occupying them physically and culturally for the previous 4 years.
        We’ve had 300+ years, time we got started.
        I’m open to correction on exact detail of ABN but that was the jostling of it.

  3. Darby O'Gill says:

    Where does ‘Doric’ fit in?

    1. Alastair says:

      Fit? or “fits”?

    2. Richard says:

      Nowadays, it tends to refer to the variant of Scots spoken in the North East.

      Originally, Doric or Dorian was a dialect of Ancient Greek. To the “refined” Athenian ear, Doric was a rough, unsophisticated and parochial dialect, spoken by rough, unsophisticated country bumpkins. The term was later (19th Century) applied to Scots as a whole; the implication being that it was a rough, unsophisticated and parochial dialect of English, spoken by rough, unsophisticated country bumpkins.

  4. Kenny says:

    The tragic part of this is that most native Scots speakers were also fluent in English (or least Scottish Standard English.) As a nation, we convinced ourselves that such bilingualism was a sign of our ignorance and so we ruthlessly set about eradicating our native tongue in favour of our sister language from south of the border.

    There is little that can be done now to save lowland Scots. Any revival would, by necessity, have to be carried out by people who really aren’t native speakers. What most people have now is a smattering of Scots vocabulary and not much else. Also, we still have elites (at Scottish and UK level) who will still sneer at any attempt to promote Scots, much less revive it as a living language.

  5. Alastair says:

    Trouble is, Scots is not just a single entity. The National article was written in Lallans – a quite distinct entity from my own dialect – Doric. Ignoring Doric – and possibly other dialects – leaves you open to the same criticisms as those levelled at others who ignore “Scots”.

  6. MBC says:

    It’s Lingua Franca, by the way.

  7. Alf Baird says:

    This scriever disnae hae a clue, or seem tae realise that maist Scots (surely a lot mair than 1.6m) can spik baith Scots and English, whit means we’re a’ready bilingual. The problem is fowk cannae scrieve in Scots becaus they huv been preventet fi daen sae bi the institushuns o’ the British state. Fowk need tae realise that Scots are discriminatet agin in wir ain laund. Ah’ve fund learnin tae scrieve in Scots unco saitisfeein an no sae fickle at a’.

  8. Gordon McShean says:

    I may be naive, but I’ve spent 60 of my nearly 80 years trying to develop a simple, phonetic structure of spelling that might allow the transcription of English and dialects some recognition and status as some sort of “Lingua Franca.” And – observing that the slow acceptance of the language’s internationally may have been more due to the label “English” than the fact that it is hellishly complex – I’ve searched for a name acknowledging its potential. So far, my favourite is Wurld Toc.

    My fascination with Scottish representations was influenced by having had family in Orkney, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, but growing up in Glasgow. One had to be adaptable! Then, having to leave Scotland in my teens because of my nationalist activism (I wrote about that in my memoir RETIRED TERRORIST), I experienced communications complexities in exile in US occupied Germany, then in Eastern, Midwestern, Southern and Western US States before settling in New Zealand in the 1980s. It was a delight to be able to view our language(s) from so many differing perspectives!

    I never allowed my Scottish language base to leave my consciousness, but there were periods in my life when I found it useful – practical – and exciting to take on the other vernacular tongues I heard around me This contributed to my fascination with the development of my practical phonetic spelling system, and I wrote from New Mexico to the Carnegie Foundation in the 1960s, hoping to obtain backing. It was ironic that a programme set up by another Scot who found succor in America failed to recognize my genius!

    Although I’ve never returned “home,” I believe I’ve stayed in tune. I’ve been pleased to see Scots’ continued interest in the language – not only from a historical viewpoint, but also on the basis that they are a dynamic part of developments in “English”; perhaps they may even contribute to the development of Wurld Toc – if I can only succeed in getting my ass into gear!

  9. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Bernard’s comparison with the Irish language is an interesting one, in more ways than he mentions. It could be profitable for Scots language advocates to consider it.

    The younger generations of Irish people take a lot a pride in, and get a lot of social kudos from, speaking Irish among themselves, even while English is their main day-to-day mode of communication. Writing well in Irish is a mark of a good education, useful for securing a professional career.

    This is in stark contrast to their grandparents, for whom Gaeilge was seen as part of their national identity, but a bit embarrassing. It was associated with the poverty and illiteracy of the remote countryside, and the unrealistic chauvinism of patriotic activists … just as Scots is now seen here as the preserve of country bumpkins and the urban underclass (and unrealistic activists) by many.

    The Irish Gaelic revival movement was greatly hampered by attempting to restore the ‘classical’ literary spelling and grammar, even though actual speech had diverged into various very distinctive dialects. This made it all very arcane and artificial to those who were force-fed it at school… native speakers included. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the parallel with Scots on that count.

    The government in Éire came up with a standard orthography and grammar in the 1950s, to be taught in schools and used for official publications – drawing on current speech, and trying to accommodate all the main local dialects. The purists were outraged, but there’s no doubt that this move led a gradual increase in the acceptance and use of the language outside its traditional strongholds. We could learn from that.

    I speak mainly Scots at home, but I only write English. Inventing ad hoc spellings to match my idiolect seems awfy mediaeval: the accepted Lallans vocabulary feels dated and contrived. I mean, does anybody, anywhere actually use words like ‘leid’ in natural conversation? [as in “The Scottis Leid”. “Nickin’ leid aff a roof” is of course common parlance]

    I’d love to be able to write the way I think. I’d love to read books that people who think like me wrote the way they think. It’s not just the words and spelling, the rhythm and prosody of Scots is different to English. The natural turns of phrase are different – expressions that make lovely English are ugly Scots and vice versa. We need to find a way for every speaker, whether Glaswegian or Orcadian, to write the way they speak, while being understood and accepted.

    Let’s find a written Scots that reflects the live language. It has to allow words that sound like their English counterpart, and not scotticise just to prove a point (Inglish or Inglis could both be acceptable, likewise turnup/baigie/neep at the writer’s discretion). Where there’s different local pronunciations, choose the shorter/simpler one: so ‘hae a perty in Eberdeen’, not a ‘pairty’ (maybe). Ban apologetic apostrophes, and shame-based aitches and dubyas: “A widna hae fell when A went fur the ba, gin A wisna fu”. Pick a spelling, but allow the pronunciation to vary: so ‘canna’ can be read as ‘cannae’. And so on.

    It’s more than possible. Every language in the world went from oral to written at some point. We’d just be doing it with respect for the fact that a previous written standard existed. If we don’t go through this process, I can’t imagine Scots persisting as anything other than a patois for the marginalised or a curio for language geeks.

  10. Craig P says:

    The tragedy for Scots as a language is that the time when national languages were finally pinned down and standardised came just after the union. By the end of the 18th century there was a standardised form of English used across the UK and Ireland that is still understandable today. The union had effectively demoted Scots from a language into a dialect. It is not impossible to reverse that, as seen in Norway in the 20th century, but it requires a political and cultural will currently lacking – not to mention the overwhelming UK and international advantage of being able to speak standard English, something that Norwegian has not had to deal with in relation to other similar Nordic languages.

    1. Redgauntlet says:

      The tragedy for Scots went by the name of John Knox, the first Scot who effectively wrote English prose after years of exile on the continent, and who brought back the Bible in English when he returned….

      …Knox and Calvanism were instrumental in the decline of a high form of Scots….Gaelic speaking numbers are much smaller, but as a coherent language with full powers of expression, it has survived much better, and partly that is because the Bible was translated into Gaelic centuries ago…Scots had to wait until just a few years back when Lorimer translated the New Testament into Scots…I´m not sure to this day whether anybody has translated the Auld Testament…

  11. Frank says:

    I get this. And it’s also related to class; when I’m with friends from my working class youth I revert to vernacular Scots (which the older I get sounds phony – it used to be the other way round twenty years ago!), but I can switch depending on the context. That’s the key, being able to switch and not being colonized by one language/discourse. I also pull my children up (nothing serious just the occasional ‘come on now speak proper English child!!) when they cannae instead of can’t, hame instead of home or dinnae instead of don’t! But I’m happy to be accused of cultural snobbery.

    1. Nick Durie says:

      “I also pull my children up (nothing serious just the occasional ‘come on now speak proper English child!!) when they cannae instead of can’t, hame instead of home or dinnae instead of don’t!”

      Why? That seems nonsensical and arbitrary, and based on enforcing an Anglophone norm for no good reason.

      I tell my son when he’s speaking Scots that that’s Scots. I will tell him how to say something in both Scots and English. His mother is from Essex and her grasp of Scots is improving but that of a casual adult learner in the Scottish linguistic environment, not remotely a native speaker. He gets read to in both Scots and English and he’s always told which is which.

      The tragedy of Scotland is that we are still (largely now solely metaphorically) battering bilingualism out of children despite its proven educational and social benefits. I don’t really see why anyone in their right mind would correct someone in their care’s use of Scots, rather than simply explain how to say something in correct Scots and also correct English grammar.

      1. Frank says:

        There is nothing nonsensical or arbitrary at all in my position. Society values English more than it does Scots and for me the latter has always sounded parochial. I don’t see the point in encouraging my children to use a language which has no cultural advantage? As for my son, I was being flippant, but he seldom uses Scots and it’s seldom used in the house – or the hoose for those who specialise in bilingualism – it’s probably something he picked up in the playground and too be honest it’s not really an issue for me. Furthermore, as I wrote in my original post, traditional Scots is something I associate with childhood which was a long time ago. I don’t like talking about personal experiences on an internet forum but my position is perhaps shaped by my younger days. I remember being picked on at school when I dared to talk in a manner different from other working class children and I recall being accused of ‘snobbery’, ‘not knowing my station’ or ‘place’, or ‘getting above myself’, etc. I don’t consider myself bilingual and some of the comments I have seen on this site about a tragedy of Scotland, or when you kill a language you kill a people (I’m serious someone wrote that on another thread) always strike me as crudely nationalistic.

  12. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    NB I must emphasise that this post is absolutely NOT a coded barb directed at any current individuals or groupings. My own preoccupation is Gaelic. However, having the following (despondently?) relevant text to hand, I share it. Getting on for a century ago, Hugh MacDiarmid – Dr Christopher Murray Grieve – wrote:

    “It is amusing to find a few Scots assessors at Musical Festivals, and other self-regarded experts – none of them with any work in Scots of the slightest consequence to their credit – laying down the law, in evident alarm at the new tendencies which are manifesting themselves in recent Vernacular literature, that ‘there must be no mixing of different dialects’ – i.e. (for this is what it amounts to), no working back from the bits to the whole, no effort to reintegrate the ‘disjecta membra’ – but despite these stick-in-the-muds, and no matter how long it may take the great body of lovers of Scots to arrive at any conception of the new position, it is happily obvious that Scots has at last – and not too late – been committed to a synthetic process. This is still in its initial stage, of course. Valuable work has already been done, however, and an increasing body of writers is being attracted to the new possibilities. How far the process can go without those concerned in it meeting and mapping out a definite and comprehensive policy it is impossible to say: but it may be that the latter course may yet be taken by an adequately representative group. There is a great mass of problems to tackle certainly before an ample provisional canon can be established and applied. In the absence of that, a good deal of individual effort is likely to be wasted in ultimately unfruitful channels. The development of the Landsmaal movement in Norway – as of the Provençal movement – was coterie work. No coterie of sufficient calibre has yet emerged in Scotland. The few poets and theorists who have so far advanced and the new synthetising tendencies are a very heterogeneous handful – at such different stages of development that useful co-operation between them is scarcely possible; while there is no non-creative worker for Scots with anything of value to bring to such a suggested symposium. Practically all so-called vernacular enthusiasts are still bogged in considerations of dialectial demarcation. Nevertheless the movement has begun, and the ultimate outcome is assured. The history of dialect developments in most other European countries makes it clear that the synthetic principle is bound to triumph in the long run – if complete desuetude is to be avoided; and since the Burns Federation and other bodies are pledged to the revival of Scots, it follows that however improbable any such development may still appear to them, they must sooner or later come round to realise that a synthetic Scots is the only way out. Not only so: but the time is propitious. The peculiar relations now establishing themselves between literature and linguistics make it obvious that a speedy and successful use if synthetic Scots would give Scotland a short cut into the very forefront of contemporary creative experimentalism. Let me illustrate this point by a few references to recent Russian literature…” [etc etc]
    (C. M. Grieve, ‘Towards a Synthetic Scots’, dated 13 Aug 1926, page 117 of a compilation of articles by Grieve, published – with letter responses from others – in non-glossy magazine format by The Scottish Educational Journal. Publication entitled ‘Hugh MacDiarmid: Contemporary Scottish Studies’. [No date – late 1970s?])

    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      TYPO: Second last sentence should read:
      “speedy and successful use OF synthetic Scots”.

  13. Clive P L Young says:

    I speak English. I speak Scots. I normally use a mixture, like everyone does, but can speak perfect Scots English when I need to. It’s called having a ‘repertoire’. Anyone could do it. Let’s move on.
    A speak English. A speak Scots. A normal-like yaise a mixter, like awbodie dis, but can speak perfeck Scots English whan A need tae. It’s cried haein a ‘repertoire’. Oniebodie cud dae it. Lat’s muive on, eh?

  14. Nick Durie says:

    My first thought when I see a headline for the first time in my lifetime in a newspaper written in Scots is to fear for the poor put upon English language, and to concern myself with educating my countrymen as to the very peril that the English language (spoken by 5.32 million Scots, with a few thousand persons not speaking it) now finds itself in at such a frightening juncture…

  15. Redgauntlet says:

    As Tom Scott rendered Villón, in a brilliant translation of “The Testament”….”Oh, where are the snaws ae auld lang syne…”

  16. Redgauntlet says:

    When MacDiarmid, in devoting his whole life to trying to save his native tongue, despite the cloth-eared naysayers, said we had to get “back to Dunbar”, this is what he was referring to. The best poem in Scots ever:

    Lament for the Makers

    I THAT in heill was and gladnèss
    Am trublit now with great sickness
    And feblit with infirmitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Our plesance here is all vain glory, 5
    This fals world is but transitory,
    The flesh is bruckle, the Feynd is slee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    The state of man does change and vary,
    Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary, 10
    Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    No state in Erd here standis sicker;
    As with the wynd wavis the wicker
    So wannis this world’s vanitie:— 15
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Unto the Death gois all Estatis,
    Princis, Prelatis, and Potestatis,
    Baith rich and poor of all degree:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me. 20

    He takis the knichtis in to the field
    Enarmit under helm and scheild;
    Victor he is at all mellie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    That strong unmerciful tyrand 25
    Takis, on the motheris breast sowkand,
    The babe full of benignitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He takis the campion in the stour,
    The captain closit in the tour, 30
    The lady in bour full of bewtie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He spairis no lord for his piscence,
    Na clerk for his intelligence;
    His awful straik may no man flee:— 35
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Art-magicianis and astrologgis,
    Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
    Them helpis no conclusionis slee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me. 40

    In medecine the most practicianis,
    Leechis, surrigianis, and physicianis,
    Themself from Death may not supplee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    I see that makaris amang the lave 45
    Playis here their padyanis, syne gois to grave;
    Sparit is nocht their facultie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He has done petuously devour
    The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour, 50
    The Monk of Bury, and Gower, all three:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    The good Sir Hew of Eglintoun,
    Ettrick, Heriot, and Wintoun,
    He has tane out of this cuntrie:— 55
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    That scorpion fell has done infeck
    Maister John Clerk, and James Afflek,
    Fra ballat-making and tragedie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me. 60

    Holland and Barbour he has berevit;
    Alas! that he not with us levit
    Sir Mungo Lockart of the Lee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Clerk of Tranent eke he has tane, 65
    That made the anteris of Gawaine;
    Sir Gilbert Hay endit has he:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He has Blind Harry and Sandy Traill
    Slain with his schour of mortal hail, 70
    Quhilk Patrick Johnstoun might nought flee:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He has reft Merseir his endite,
    That did in luve so lively write,
    So short, so quick, of sentence hie:— 75
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    He has tane Rowll of Aberdene,
    And gentill Rowll of Corstorphine;
    Two better fallowis did no man see:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me. 80

    In Dunfermline he has tane Broun
    With Maister Robert Henrysoun;
    Sir John the Ross enbrast has he:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    And he has now tane, last of a, 85
    Good gentil Stobo and Quintin Shaw,
    Of quhom all wichtis hes pitie:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Good Maister Walter Kennedy
    In point of Death lies verily; 90
    Great ruth it were that so suld be:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Sen he has all my brether tane,
    He will naught let me live alane;
    Of force I man his next prey be:— 95
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

    Since for the Death remeid is none,
    Best is that we for Death dispone,
    After our death that live may we:—
    Timor Mortis conturbat me.

  17. Redgauntlet says:

    Six hundred years later, six hundred years after Scotland was an independent country and an independent kingdom, Dunbar speaks to us like a ghost, and reminds who we are and where we come from – and where we´re all going to – and the continuity of Scotland….”Clerk frae Trenanet”…”Henryson frae Dumfermilne”…

    …our day will come.

  18. Lawrie says:

    Interesting article and comments. My children are in primary school in Switzerland and we just had the parent/teacher evening meetings for both. Both primary teachers looked pleased when I said we could have the meeting in dialect (the local Swiss German) instead of high German (or English there are some English monoglot parents here who put their children into the state school system). The classroom language from kindergarten up is high German, but Swiss German is anyway very strong. A difference, i think, is that everyone knows the difference between Swiss German and High German. It is confusing to speakers of English as a second language to have (young) Scottish relatives visit here who mix up Scots and standard English, and don’t seem to know the difference. Older relatives understand better and know the difference. When I ask if visitors can speak standard English instead of Scots/standard mix they say they know the difference but it doesn’t change the way they speak, so i don’t know. I hate the way that Scots is disparaged as a slang or wrong, I like very much the way that Swiss German is valued across all sections of society (e.g. i am not aware of any class snobbery towards speakers of Swiss German in the way that you hear some “enlightened” middle class commentators insultingly speak about Scots). I don’t know if there is a standard way to write Swiss German, there is strong geographic variation between regions, and I have only very occasionally seen it in written form (signs on footpaths, script for a play). I think exposure to different languages is a healthy thing for education, diversity, different ways to think. In primary school here they learn two extra languages, French from age 8 and English from age 10, which i think is also a good thing. The children seem to cope fine with a complicated linguistic landscape.

  19. David Sangster says:

    I may not have this completely right, because it’s from memory, but this poem by Alan Jackson has a lot to say on this topic :

    Och, I wish you hadn’t come right now,
    You’ve put me off my balance.
    I was just translating my last wee poem
    Into the dear auld Lallans.

  20. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks to Redgauntlet for posting William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makaris’, a deeply human work which continues to resonate down through the centuries. We did no Dunbar at school in the 1960s, of course, but as a teenager I read Dunbar, Henrysoun, MacDiarmid and so on at home. This poem certainly impressed me and lodged in my subconscious. No doubt its simplicity helped in that regard . There was also the poignancy of the explanatory remark: “quod Dunbar quhen he wes sek”. And probably too doing Latin at school, so that the chill-tolling refrain “Timor mortis conturbat me” (“The fear of death disturbs me”) was within my modest range.

    To be a bit fanciful, it strikes me just now that the simple structure and mind-hooking relentless rhythm of the poem perhaps find an unlikely musical echo in Ravel’s ‘Boléro’ – challenging as it might be to envisage the latter as a ‘funeral’ procession (the eventual terminal black horses pulling that long-feared personal hearse?)!

    Anyway, as to the textual version posted by Redgauntlet, it favours intelligibilty via a rather anglicised spelling for many words. I have the poem in a few books, and the orthography used is pleasingly denser (though of course sense becomes more obscure). For example, here are verses 1, 4, and the last two:

    I that in heill wes and gladnes
    Am trublit now with gret seiknes
    And feblit with infermite:
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

    No stait in erd heir standis sicker;
    As with the wynd wavis the wicker,
    Wavis this warldis vanite:
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

    Sen he has all my brether tane,
    He will nocht lat me lif alane;
    On forse I man his nyxt pray be:
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

    Sen for the deid remeid is none,
    Best is that we for dede dispone,
    Efter our deid that lif may we:
    Timor mortis conturbat me.

  21. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Still with mention of Dunbar as spur, I post the following quote. Not to be contentious (which of course in current context it unavoidably will be), but to alert a new generation to certain historical (shall we say) “complexities” which may as yet have eluded them :

    “If one assumes that ‘the pre-requisite of an autonomous literature is a homogeneous language’ (Muir, p 19) then the creation of a national tradition and evaluation within it will reflect that tenet. Nor is it an unusual idea. Today, minority groups often rally behind a linguistic banner – French for the French-Canadians; Basque for the Basques. Whether the same may be assumed in the case of Scotland the Nation, centuries ago, is another question.”

    “Was ‘Scottis’ the accepted, homogeneous literary language of Scotland in earlier times? Once the historical dimension to that question is opened up and one looks at origins, it becomes clear that the answer is ‘No’. The dialect known as ‘Scottis’ has no claim to be the original national tongue. In fact, if there were any politico-linguistic ‘treachery’, it was that which resulted in ‘Scottis’ gaining dominance over the native Gaelic. At the end of the thirteenth century Malcolm Canmore and David I had intentionally ‘driven Gaelic back to (virtually) the present highland line’ (Janet M. Templeton, ‘Scots: An Outline History, ASLS,1973). Scots originated as Northumbrian English and only grew later into proud distinctiveness, because of the positive sociolinguistic forces inherent in nationhood.”

    “Unsurprisingly, therefore, lowland Scottish writers from the fourteenth century until the seventeenth almost always claim to be composing in ‘Inglis’ and seek their poetic origins south of the border. Dunbar eulogises his master, Chaucer, in ‘The Golden Targe’, posing the rhetorical question:

    ‘Was thou noucht of oure INGLISCH all the lycht,
    Surmounting eviry tong terrestriall,
    Alls fer as Mayes morow dois mydnycht?’ (st 29: 7-8)

    “Only in two instances do the writers of the time call their language ‘Scottis’. The limitations of the nationalist claims made in this way by Gavin Douglas and James VI will be discussed later […]”

    “Knox and James VI are on a different, theological quest directed at opening the hidden Latin Word of God to the widest possible audience. Where, if at all, does one find contemporary anger at this form of anglicisation? […]”

    “When the prospect of a Union centred in London beckons, therefore, anglicisation may result from the social change itself. When the distinctive tongue of the smaller nation (in this case) ‘Scots’ is itself a dialect of ‘Inglis’ and has dubious patriotic roots, anglicisation cannot simply be viewed as treachery. Yet on that premise the ‘Tradition’ is based and the excision of the Renaissance founded.”
    (The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature 1375-1707, Edited by R.D.S. Jack and P.A.T. Rozendaal, Mercat Press, Edinburgh, 1997, pp xii-xiv)

  22. Gordon Clark says:

    One aspect to this is the divide in written and non-written language. This isn’t a unique situation to have a standardised written language with multiple variants when it’s spoken. The English language has incredible diversity spanning people in several different continents. Some of these are called “dialects” and others “languages” (it makes little difference in practice) and I don’t see any great movement geared toward standardising how the language is spoken in real terms. Any such effort is likely to fail in any case.

    With the written language it’s completely different. The written language isn’t a clear approximation of any spoken version currently in usage today. Many of the spelling principles are based on the way other languages were spoken centuries ago (e.g. the influence of french in words with silent e endings). The idea it’s written that way “because that’s how the Queen speaks” is a bit of a nonsense. It’s written the way it is because there was some merit in having a standardised version and we adopted a hodge-potch of different principles to eventually agree on what that version should look like.

    As such the debate is either a red herring (because nobody is preventing you from speaking Scots in the first place) or somewhat misguided/pointless (a written Scots variant is never going to be particularly useful because there’s a pull toward standardising written languages – it’s about as useful as having a “Scottish metric system” where all the measurements are pointlessly different).

  23. J.J.D. says:

    The writer of the article fully admits to putting on a Glasgow accent so as to avoid shame in high school.

    I know many people who have done this, all of them supine.

    He then goes on to talk about Scots as if it’s not just English with an accent. There’s no grammar changes or anything along those lines. About becomes aboot. What becomes whit. Etc. Anybody can speak it.

    Old Scots, or regional variations of Scots can be very difficult to understand. There’s Norse words in these languages as well as Gaelic, English, French or German words pop up here n there too.

    As for Scottish Gaelic, I’m no SNP or independence supporter but I think it should be taught in our schools. If we have the capacity to teach French, German, Punjabi, Chinese, Spanish, languages that have never been spoken here, then we have the capacity to teach Gaelic.

    Even if it is just the same as Irish =/

  24. Bill Steele says:

    It seems to make sense, if we want to recover our language as a vehicle of our Scottish lowland cultures, that it should be taught in school. In areas where the weans naturally speak Scots when they first arrive in school, then they should be taught all subjects in Scots. They should be taught English as an important second language, along with Gaelic, and this should continue through their primary and secondary education. A very high level of English should be achieved because it is the lingua-franca of the Western world (I’m not so sure about the Orient where Chinese and, perhaps, Japanese seem to vie with each other for that status).

    Children who enter their first year of school naturally speaking English should be taught all subjects in English with Scots being taught as an important second language. Scots should gradually supersede English except in English and Gaelic classes and in other additional language classes.

    There may be a case for all teaching maths and science in English because no separate Scots vocabulary exists for maths and science.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.