imageLike most people with an interest in ‘the language question,’ I welcome the sudden growth in awareness since the referendum. It’s great that we’re having debates about Scots in newspapers (and here on Bella) rather than specialist journals or thinly populated seminar rooms. The whole conversation feels more accessible and democratic, actually plugged into some of the vernacular energies it tends to champion.

But the fact that much of the new pro-Scots enthusiasm is fuelled by populist nationalism has its downside too. Alex Massie’s column in The Times earlier this week is right about the current tendency to reduce language to just another front for political mobilisation. It’s always been a shibboleth to some degree, but the question of Scots is now becoming hyper-politicised in crude and distorting ways. As the Edinburgh linguist Pavel Iosad remarked during the last Twitter-spat about this (when The National published its front page in Scots), it’s as though language is just something to have opinions about, a source of ammunition for two entrenched ‘sides’ sniping at each other about something else. There are whole shelves of good books on the history of Scots, Gaelic and the standardisation of English, but they seldom feature in these debates.

The weightless and sometimes clueless quality of these arguments is not only depressing but potentially damaging, tending to shrink rather than expand the expressive possibilities at issue. (And yes, the very weak level of general knowledge about the history and development of Scots – and for that matter English – raises long-standing questions about the education system.) In the larger public arena to which the discussion has shifted, Scots is becoming reduced to a nationalist totem. This has as much to do with how Scots is passionately defended (broadly, as the embodiment of authentic Scottishness and cultural difference) as how it’s attacked by disdainful commentators (as a deluded or sinister revivalism deeply out of touch with Scotland’s overwhelmingly Anglophone reality). As it deepens, this dynamic begins to limit what the language can be made to do – or rather, what the reader/listener is prepared to allow it to do.

So it’s becoming harder to recall that it’s entirely possible to write a Unionist poem in Scots, and that English is by any sane standard a Scottish language too, not some Sassenach imposition from outside. (In case it needs saying, Polish and Urdu and Irish are also Scottish languages in this sense.) Douglas Dunn’s gently polemical verse-treatise ‘English, A Scottish Essay’ has more to say to us than ever before (‘English I’m not. As language, though, you’re mine’), but struggles to gain a hearing when Scots and English are treated as a proxies for constitutional skirmishing. This is more than a shame. There are hugely interesting and inventive things happening in contemporary Scots writing – from Bill Herbert to Jenni Fagan to Matthew Fitt to Harry Giles – but in a ‘literary’ space which feels increasingly remote, and at times out of kilter, with the waving of linguistic flags on social media and in public life. Whatever it is, Scots is more than a badge of affiliation to be kissed or spat on.

All of this being said, ‘literary’ concerns are only one, arguably minor, part of this debate. This issue does not arouse fierce passions because Scotland is full of sticklers for not confusing Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDiarmid (who were famously on opposite sides of the Scots issue). Any number of textbooks or talking-heads can calmly insist that of course there’s no linguistic basis for snobbery about accents, or that standard English is just another dialect of English – the one that ended up with all the institutional authority. The scholarly consensus doesn’t, by itself, address the deeper problem.

I’m not a linguist but it’s obvious that the heat generated by this topic has much less to do with spelling and grammar than with feelings of pride and contempt. As in other parts of the UK, many generations of Scottish schoolkids had it drummed (and if necessary strapped) into them that their way of speaking in the playground or at home was sub-standard, a sign of their inferiority. ‘Linguistic insecurity’ is a bad and baseless thing, but saying so doesn’t instantly cure people’s deeply engrained sense of inadequacy. A more human phrase for linguistic insecurity might be ‘false shame’, which is what the Hampshire lexicologist W.H. Cope called it in the 1880s, observing the first generation of children to come through universal primary education. Cope believed in the standardisation of English but was disturbed to see pupils freshly cleansed of their local speech wincing with embarrassment at the dialect of their parents. Blogs like this can briskly dismiss ‘is Scots a dialect or a language?’ as a tedious, largely irrelevant, borderline incoherent question, and point out that nearly all value-judgments about language are really aimed at its speakers, without ever laying a glove on false shame.

The history of that shame – and of resistance to it – has more to do with class than nationality. But it’s true that ‘improvers’ and standardisers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of them Scots, associated the spread of ‘correct’ English with achieving full acceptance as North Britons. In A Treatise on the Provincial Dialect of Scotland (1779), Sylvester Douglas (Lord Glenbervie) treats ‘the idiom particular to Scotland’ as ‘a provincial and vicious dialect of English’, and hence, as Lynda Mugglestone observes, ‘particularly open … to the hegemonies of England in linguistic as well as political ways’. The legacy of these ideas persisted much later than we might expect. John E. Joseph cites a schoolroom primer on standard English published in Glasgow in 1960. Under the heading ‘Barbarism’ is listed ‘The use of Scotticisms : – as gigot, sort (repair), the cold, canny’. As Joseph remarks, this ‘amounts to the authors of the book telling its readers that, insofar as the language reflects who they are, insofar as it belongs to them, it is barbaric, and that if they do not want to be perceived as barbarians, they must do away with these features’.

So national identity is undoubtedly part of the picture; but it needn’t be the whole picture. We should question how language is entangled in all dimensions of power, and attend to all the different ways living language can be sneered into silence. It isn’t a stark choice between ‘Scotland speaks English – get over it’ and the dubious idea that the predominance of English-the-language proves Scotland’s perennial victimhood at the hands of England-the-country. Douglas Dunn captures the need to avoid this slippage, riffing on the awkward doubleness of ‘English’:

Not nationality but language. So,
What’s odd or treacherous other than the name?
Not that I like the name – all my bon mots
In somewhere else’s tongue! Why scourge and blame
History for what had to happen in it
When you can’t cancel it, not by a minute,
Not by a year, never mind an epoch?
Go back, reclaim the past, to when we spoke
Each one of us as quintessential Jock?

The quest for a kind of primordial Scottishness via linguistic revival is a dead-end, but we can cherish local and living language in other ways, for other reasons. With every other tongue spoken around us, we can celebrate Scots and Scottish forms of English without insisting that their value inheres in their Scottishness.

There is of course an opposing view. In an essay of 1970 the poet Tom Scott completely reverses Dunn’s view, arguing that

the English language is a record of the experience of the English people and is alien and largely antipathetic to that of the Scots. A writer using English is identifying himself with English experience, is governed and taken over by it, and ultimately not only frustrates his own true nature, but ends up as at best a second-rate writer in that alien tradition. … If Scotland wins free of English power, but is still captive to English literature and language, we have gained only the net the fish has broken from. Our people will still be cut off from their psychological depths by an alien consciousness, still be essentially ruled from London.

This is ‘language essentialism’ in the service of cultural nationalism, taken all the way to its rather chilling conclusion (whereby Scotland can only become fully itself by somehow ‘winning free’ of a language used by 99.82% of its population, according to the last census). This extreme form of language nationalism is rooted in German romantic thought, and an idealised conflation of national language, community and consciousness. ‘The mental individuality of a people and the shape of its language’, wrote Wilhelm von Humboldt, ‘are so intimately fused with one another, that if one were given, the other would have to be completely derivable from it. … Language is, as it were, the outer appearance of the spirit of a people’. These ideas have a very chequered history within nationalist movements, and tend toward the condition Dunn’s poem describes as a ‘Balkanised brain’: a hunger for ethno-linguistic boundaries that will bring the political map into alignment with borders supposedly already there in the souls and psyches of national subjects.

But borders and tongues seldom match up in this way, and we should be careful not to mis-cast English as the red-coated enemy and ‘other’ to Scots. (While we’re at it, pause to notice that there is no single ‘Scots’, but a patchwork of social and geographical varieties.) As Pavel Iosad wrote in the New Statesman, ‘the consensus among academics, if maybe not among laypeople, is that historically Scots is indisputably a sister language of English, sprung from the same Old English root, with a liberal admixture of Scandinavian speech, through the dialects of what is today the north of England’.

I don’t suggest for a moment that we can or should separate language from politics. But it’s entirely possible to validate marginalised language and fight ‘false shame’ without indulging in ethno-national fantasies about English being ‘alien and antipathetic’ to Scottish people. We have spectacular examples of how to refuse this choice – above all, in the work of Tom Leonard – but look also to the work of English-based poets such as Tony Harrison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard, Kate Tempest, Daljit Nagra. There are as many ways of creatively politicising language as there are varieties of language itself. Flag-waving language nationalism is one of the least interesting out there, and self-defeating to boot.

References and further reading

Scots Language Centre

Scots Language Forum (Facebook group)

Jennifer Bann and John Corbett, Spelling Scots: The Orthography of Literary Scots, 1700-2000 (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)
John Corbett, J. Derrick McClure and Jane Stuart-Smith, The Edinburgh Companion to Scots (Edinburgh University Press, 2003)
James Costa, ‘Language, Ideology and the Scottish Voice’, International Journal of Scottish Literature 7
Tony Crowley Standard English and the Politics of Language, 2nb edn. (Palgrave, 2003)
Douglas Dunn, ‘English, A Scottish Essay’ in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence, ed. by Scott Hames (Word Power, 2012)
Matthew Fitt, But n Ben A-Go-Go (Luath, 2000)
Joshua A. Fishman, Language and Nationalism (Newbury House, 1972)
Harry Giles, ‘The Futur o Scots’
Manfred Görlach, A Textual History of Scots (Winter, 2002)
Scott Hames, ‘On Vernacular Scottishness and Its Limits: Devolution and the Spectacle of “Voice”’, Studies in Scottish Literature 39.1 (2013): 203-224.
Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language [1836], ed. by Michael Losonsky, trans. by Peter Heath (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Pavel Iosad, ‘What does the Scots language have to do with Scottish identity?’, New Statesman, 11 Jan 2016
Charles Jones, The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language (Edinburgh University Press, 1997)
John E. Joseph, Language and Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
Billy Kay, Scots: The Mither Tongue (1986; Mainstream, 2006)
Tom Leonard, Definite Articles: Selected Prose 1973-2012 (Etruscan, 2013)
Lynda Mugglestone, Talking Proper: The Rise and Fall of the English Accent as a Social Symbol, 2nd edn (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Tom Scott, ‘Characteristics of Our Greatest Writers’ in Akros 12 (1970): 37-46.