Schrödinger’s Leid?

Tak heed! The jottins in aneath are scrievit in Scots – nae the Scots o the early makars, nor the Lallans o MacDiarmid. Gin it’ll gar ye greet gin this is nae the wey you’d scrieve it, or girn far there’s a ‘f’ an you’d hae pitten a ‘wh’ or a ‘quh’, then STOP NOU! There, ye’ve been telt! For there’s mair nor the ae wey tae use Scots the day. Tae monie o us it’s the local idiom abeen the graimmar an vocabular that maks the language a ‘leid’. But flytins ower fit we spik, an fit tae cry it, gings back a lang wey.

In 1596 Father James Dalrymple owersett Bishop John Leslie’s The Historie of Scotland fae Latin intil Scots. Fit we learned fae Dalrymple wes this: “Thay quha this day with vs speik the ald Scottis toung [..] thay have keipet the toung hail Vncorrupte”. The issue o corruption o the language is ane tae tak tent o. Bein sib tae English, fowk aft tak the notion at Scots maun be English “ill-spoken”. But lang afore David Hume raxed his hairns for weys tae be mair civil an decreyed the speech o Lowland Scotland, some fae England thocht mair o the leid nor he. As Yorkshireman Henry Saville scrievit in 1604, gin Scotland an England wedd thegither as ae kingdom, it wuid help the English reverse the corruption o their speech:

“The Scots and North People of England speak more incorruptly than the south [which speech] is become more mingled and degenerate from the ancient tounge, as will easily appear to him that shall compare the two dialects with the German, mother of them both”

But fit did Saville ken o languages? An Oxford graduate an scholar o Greek, Saville wes ane o the chiels at owersett the King James version of the bible. Aince based in the Netherlands, he wes versed in a nummer o the Germanic leids. Fit is mair, he’d baith heard the claik o the Court o King James, an doubtless read the warks o William Dunbar, Robert Henryson, Walter Kennedy an Gavin Douglas. Indeed, he kent mair anent the Scots leid nor monie fowk in Scotland the day, especially fowk sic as Lord Robertson or Alex Massie. Thir fowk are amun a bing o unfriens o Scots – culture an language deniers – lately haudin forrit at nae sic a leid exists.

Truth be telt, A’m dumfoonert bi the fankle fowk are getting thirsels in ower this stramash. Ae quine in Edinburgh (fa wes “working class” divent ya ken!), an some cove fae Ullapool scrievit tae the papers an telt us their truth. Ye see, neither they, nor their kith nor kin spik Scots, an sae, wi unco authority they’ve adjudged at it disnae exist. “Nobody speaks like that” says wir unfriens “because I do not speak it, it cannot exist”. Are thir fowk nae mair nor threipin vilipendars? Ye see, this isnae the first time A’ve been telt there’s nae sic a thing as Scots, an doubtless, it’ll nae be the last. Sae a feel A maun interpone.

In 1996 A dargit on a socio-linguistics project tae forgaither data on fou monie fowk either spoke, read or micht scrieve in Scots. A followed the EU model o quota-samplin, spierin 450 fowk bi age, gender an social status. Afore this wark, gin a chiel micht ettle tae ken fou muckle fowk in Scotland kent Scots, we had nithin but haivers. Some fowk said ilka chiel in Scotland spoke Scots, fylst ithers said nane did ava. An fyles, aa nummers in atween were pitten aroun as fowk preferred. The results o ma darg gied oot at somewey near twa million fowk in Scotland could ay spik or scrieve in ane o the Scottish dialects. “Dinna be feel” A wes telt, “at canna be richt!”. Fit we’d shawin wes at the aulder the age group the mair fowk spoke Scots, but in particular at the North East of o Scotland an the Northren Isles wes heartlands wi weel abeen 50% o the population claimin fluency.

A copy o ma wark landed on the desk o Ian Mate fae the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS). Ian wesna fashed the ae wey or the ither about Scots afore this, but he spiert us gin A wuid ging doun tae Edinburgh an deliver ma research tae a clique o government fowk. This A did. They preined back their lugs; an ane or twa gied a snort o derision – ithers teen tent o the scientific approach. Ian hissel thocht tae pit ma wark tae the proof in twa weys. Thousans o fowk were spiert bi telephone anent their use or itherweys o Scots. The results surprised the GROS, for, like monie fowk nae versed in the dialects o the airts o Scotland, they thocht at the wey they spoke maun be the ae wey for ilkanither chiel in the land. But tae mak siccar o fit he wes learnin, Ian ettled tae tak us on a journey the length o Scotland “in search of the soul of the nation” he aince said. An sae a group o socio-linguists an GROS staff recorded hunners o face-tae-face interviews across the Lowlands an the Northeast o Scotland.

In ilka forgaitherin we claikit in English, Scots an a maxtur o baith (an jist the aince A spoke Gaelic wi an auld chiel fae Skye). Fyles A haed tae translate fae Scots intae English for the GROS staff. A wesna surprised at yon aince we landed in Aberdeenshire. But fit gied me a linguistic fleg wes twice haen tae ging the ither wey – owersettin fae English intae Scots – sae as fowk micht unnerstand fit they’d been spiert. Baith times wes on the Buchan coast, an the GROS team wes sae teen bi ane o the aulder fowk at we let the tape recorder ging ere she’d telt us aa she’d needed tae. Fae her we learned o the physical skelpin’s she’d teen fae teachers keen tae unlearn the wee quine her native Buchan dialect. Fan A spiert gin this wes fitwey she’d nae spik tae Ian in English she gied a grin an said it wes just she’d nae spoken English in near 40 year.

Ilka interview wes recorded; ilka ane transcrievit an pit in the public domain. An the ootcome o the exercise? The GROS report (1996) concluded at ma nummers for spikkers fae the year afore wes near bang on. It wes estimate near 1.6 million spak Scots as their mither tongue. Sae efter twa systematic surveys, baith gied near the same result. An there’s the differ atween the vilipendars an the GROS; research wes deen, pit tae the proof an sustained. Then the big ane; the government spiert anent Scots ability on the census in 2010. Ilka househald in Scotland wes spiert anent Scots wi the same results returned – aince mair. The heartlands in ilka survey is ay the North East an the Northern Isles wi strang enclaves in Fife, the Borders an Ayrshire.

Nou, A’m nae ane o yon chiels at ettles tae suffer Scots upon thir fowk at dinna want it. But dinna tell me it disnae or didna exist, for tae me it clearly daes. But richt there is the crux; Scots is nae unlike Schrödinger’s Cat – a language at baith exists or disnae exist in the ae kist at the ae time – it depends on far ye bide, fit ye’ve read an fou open yer lugs an heid are tae learnin. Tae them at say there’s nae sic a thing as Scots, they micht try tae keik intae the kist afore they gie oot onie mair gypit haivers. For inside lies a thousan years o literature, scrievins, poetry an sang, forby screids an screids o research tae gie the leid the proof. Massie et al michtna like it, but that disnae mean it isna there. Nou the thing is, are they feart or sweirt tae keik intae the kist?

Steve Murdoch is Professor o Historie, University o Sanct Aundraes

Comments (46)

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  1. Hamish says:

    Shairly Alex Massie, efter scrievan yon, must ken deep doon he’s a heid-the-baw.

  2. Tammas Clark says:

    A braw airticle, Steve – muckle thanks for aw yer laubours!

  3. baronesssamedi says:

    Ivvery word understood. Save ‘vilipendars’. Like mony, I could spik the leid but mibbe no spell affa weel. Weel done!

  4. Redgauntlet says:

    Fantastic, brilliant, I wish I could write it…and Hume spoke mair Scots than Rabbie!!!

  5. Robert Harman says:

    A mine weel as a bairn bein telt nae ti spik thon wye. Am fae Aiberdeen an have bade in America these past 40 years. A mine fan a first came here an wid ayewis start spikkin wi the same question. A’d ask if they spoke ae tongue among their freens an faimily an an ither een fan they were oot an aboot or at their office? A’d aywis get the same look o confusion sin they hid nae idea fit A wis askin. An a hiv tae say A wis spikin English fan A spiered. A jist thocht abidy hid twa ways o spikkkin.
    At near on sivinty years A’ve sprint maist o ma life spikkin English in the USA an did the same fan A’d gang hame tae Aiberdeen to see ma faimily. At schuil we were aye telt tae “speak English” bit for maist o us that wis aywis a foreign tongue. In my mine schuil wis far ye got the Doric beaten oot o ye quite deliberately. It’s grand tae see it written in Bella an the National. Many thanks fir yer article an geein me the chunce tae start scribe in in ma mither tongue.

    1. Steve Murdoch says:

      Robert ma frien, gin A dinna get onie ither feedback, it’ll be eneuch for me tae mind fit ye’ve scrievit abeen. Haud gaan wi yer Doroc jottins 🙂

  6. Steve Murdoch says:

    A pucklie fowk spierin for ma research fae back in the day. A bittie auld ae nou, but here ye ging (in English). An muckle thanks for the kind words abeen forby

  7. Chic McGregor says:

    Anither richt guid erticle oan the present an some micht say, parlous, state o Scots. Thit ’twas weel scrievit an thocht oot thir can be nae doot an mony thanks fur that.

    Ah wad say, in defens o Hume, he micht weel hae resentit his ane ‘Scotticisms’ bit it a time whaun thir wiz coorses it universitie oan ‘Britishness’ an Scotia itsel wis cried ‘North Britain’.
    He micht weel hae thocht that, tae mak weel kent his ane noshins in philosophie, he mun scrieve it in Sothron Inglis. Bit as monie anither Scot his fund oot he hid in the end tae gain ken firth o the UK afore yon London bubble cuild be piercit. Aye anither exemple o ‘The day the Warild, the morn Inglun.’.

    Bit thirs ae thing that is nippin me, an its is. A wad that an airticle in Scots wisnae aboot Scots itsel bit rither aboot some ither thing a thigither like the Holyrood election or the EU Referendum.

    Is it no in yazin a langich fur sic as yon thit it sties alive?

    1. Steve Murdoch says:

      Couldna agree mair. Ging alang the NLS an tak a kiek at CAIRN. Ye’ll fin peer reviewd historie scrievit in Scots fae the mid-90s fae a nummer o academics, fremmit an Scots. Its nae at fowk dinna wamt tae scrieve Scots, mair at they’ve nae been learnt fou till aspite spiķin or readin it.

      1. Chic McGregor says:

        Thankin ye. Ah’ll dae that.

        1. Chic McGregor says:

          Ehm, a hud a keek it CAIRN an NLS an clicket oan the quorum button bit it wis, … weel lit a bitty like the auld jape oan the dictionary definition. o ‘Recursion’ i.e. For ‘Recursion’ see ‘Recursion’.

          1. Chic McGregor says:

            Sae Ah hiv tae gang til Sanct Andras fur a gander. Ony plans tae mak it mair accessible nar it is the noo? Oan line?

          2. Steve Murdoch says:

            A’ve spiert the Scots Language Resource Centre gin they micht contact the scrievers o Cairn tae see if we canna get baith editions oot online. Tak a kiek ta ma Twitter feed tae see snippets o the first edition. @Prof_Murdoch

  8. dcaux says:

    From reading Bella you might be forgiven for thinking that the only subject that Scots is fit to talk about is Scots.

    1. Danny MacTavish says:

      Id like to see articles that dont mention the word “Scots” once and are in Scots. If its written as well as the above but doesnt have to say so, it would be braw.

  9. Danny MacTavish says:

    Something on Donald Trump perhaps or historical allegations of sex abuse at the BBC would do more to encourage the normalization of a Doric way of writing than saying “This is Scots and dinnae say it isnae cos its no English” Even it it was called a dialect of English, it would be one that was expressing ideas about a broad range of subjects less self consciously.

  10. Murray Shoolbraid says:

    I was pleasantly surprised to find that the makar and professor of Greek Douglas Young had the notion [cheek? or maybe smeddum?] of using Scots in the editing (preface, notes) to his marvellous owreset of The Puddocks. Alas, my own Scots is mostly confined to a word or two (from Fife, like ‘swick’ and addressing one familiarly as ‘sir’) that surfaces when I speak to the family, seeing that I’ve been speaking general English in Canada for fifty years. But reading [and understanding all save that odd vilipendar thing] that so many proudly claim Scots as a mither toung gies me a gey warm feelin. A very guid article.

  11. Fay Kennedy. says:

    It’s wee tasty morsel fur me doon under. Thanks so much. Mair oh it. Ta.

  12. Matthew Fitt says:

    Braw piece, Steve. Mair folk are talkin aboot Scots noo than ony time eh can mind and yours is an undeemous contribution. Thanks tae Bella, eh doot we micht finally be gettin somewhere.

    But warth notin the Scots writin in The National has been gettin as muckle flak fae some Scots leid upheezers as fae the leid deniers.

    Let’s keep the momentum cawin.

    1. Steve Murdoch says:

      Fit Like Matthew, cheers for that. Aye, fowk’ll aye girn at it’s this an no that. A gaed near twa faul laughin the day at a pucklie o the comments on Twitter/FB an email. Here’s ane or twa tae enjoy:

      1. “Scots is made up by nationalists too lazy to learn Gaelic” – A’ll no let them ken A hae a degree in Gaelic, it micht brak them.

      2. “Scots is made up by SNP nationalists to be anti-British” (Div ye hink we micht let them ken at the first political pairty tae publish their manifesto in Scots wes the Democratic Ulster Unionists?). Woops. NB A’m a member o a pairty ither nor the SNP – Vive la Republique!

      3. “People who write in Scots do so because they can’t get published in English”. Richt, we’ll leave at ane here 🙂

      Haud Gaan

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Thanks fir the airticles an links Steve. Wid be guid tae see a degree in Scots Language at Scots uni’s (how revolutionary, to teach one’s own language!), e’en Sint Andry’s, altho it disnae tak mony Scots bairns ony mair. Yin day mibbe.

  13. Alf Baird says:

    Anither braw argiment fer a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ tae preserve the leid an gie ‘Scots’ equaliti wi thon ‘Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005’ an thon ‘Administrative English’ thit we uise juist as mony ither auld foregane colonies still dae. AND tae eddicate wir fowk an no afore time! Or are the SNP’s Meenisters Hyslop an Allan “culture an language deniers” an aw, juist like Massie an Lord Hee Haw an aw thir ilk? Let’s have an end to this cultural racism and the only way to do that is through a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’.

    1. Danny MacTavish says:

      Gin thur wis mair airticles about ither subjects nor it bein an unthirlt leid, they wuild hae mair reason tae see see it as a normal leid nor they dae the nou. Sic politicians are aiblins reflectin the views o the laive o the kintra thit said in the last census thit they didnae spik Scots, and o them thit said they did, I ken a few thit dinnae think thur Scots isnae Inglis tae but the wie they spik it raither nor write or spik in mair formal situations. Are they culturallie Inglis onie mair nor an Egyptian or Syrian thit see thur Masri or Shaami as bein Arabic?

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Whit aboot a’ thon fowk “thit said in the last census thit they didnae spik” Gaelic an still dinnae?

        Ye still siccar yer ‘Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act’ juist the same, an giy few Scots fowk speikit. Auntie Sally agin! Whaur there’s no a wa’ ye build an artifeecial yin.

        1. Danny MacTavish says:

          The diffrence is thit they spik it but dinnae recognise it as a separate leid frae Inglis in Ingland. Wha kens whaur Inglis stairts in stops wae thon “dialect continuum”? Fowk hae the richt tae cry a leid whit they feel comfortable and uised tae daen. Thur are Scots thit spik Shetland and Doric and see it as thur wie o uisin Inglis.

          1. Danny MacTavish says:

            “Fowk haes the richt” Scots grammar rule I believe.

          2. Alf Baird says:

            Ye’re aye clauchtin at straws man. Makin muntains oot o mowdiehills. Nae wunner oor kintra’s a boorach. A “cannae dae it” attitude is Scotland’s bùiteach.

            Lets juist dae it – gie us aw a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ an be dun wi it.

            Geordies an Egyptians an a ither fows an kintra’s can leuk efter thairsels, nane o oor business.

          3. Danny MacTavish says:

            They dae and theyve as much richt tae define thur wie o spikkin the wie they dae as Scots spikers are tae see thur byleids as Inglis. I support a pluricentric definitions, ie gin a bodie sees thur ain Doric as Doric, Scots or Inglis, thons braw wae me as its up tae thursel tae decide on the maitter. An artificial standard wrutten form wuil help thum see it as Scots but thons no fur me tae impose on Scots leid campaigners and ithers ettlin fur it.

  14. Danny MacTavish says:

    Bodies hae the richt tae view Lebanese Arabic as a spearate langage frae Egyptian Arabic gin they want tae and tae see thum as baith forms o Arabic tae. Racism disnae tak tent o whit wie a speech varietie is defined bi the spikker o it and tae say thit a bodie thit defines thur leid as different frae anither is racist is ad hominum keekh on a muckle scale. It wuild mean thit thur are cultural racists in Gateshead claimimng thit Geordie is a byleid o Inglis and racist Brummies cryin the Yam dialck o Wolverhampton a byleid o thur ain tung. As lang as they support the speech varietie as bein equal, they cuild see it as bein a leid. a byleid or baith and be nae mair culturallie racist nor oniebodie else maugre the skunnerin o fowk thit canne thole a pluricentric definition bi indwallers and spikkers and lairners. Gin the tungs tae bear the gree, itll need the support of them thit haud divergent views on whit it is and whit wie it relates tae ither leids.

  15. Chic McGregor says:

    Streevin tae scriev in Scots, yazin phonetic English spellin tae purtray hoo the wurrds soond in ma memory, it seems tae me tae be a gie sair joab. The soond o wurrds seems tae chinge wi the coantext in subtle wies that isnae accomodatit in the Inglish.

    Fur exemple in the Inglish “I thought I had had that before.” The wird “had” wid be soonded the same wie baith times, bit in Scots (as Ah mine it onywie) it wid be “Ah thocht Ah hid hud yon afore”.

    Siclike coantextual modifiers wid need a wheen o rules an notations fur ony orthographie tae be phonetically readable, like mibbes in the Russian, or whiles, itherwise jist hae deeferint spellins fur deeferint coantexts o the same wurrd thit jist his tae be larnt bae the reader.

  16. Graeme Purves says:

    Noo, that’s mair like the thing!

  17. Brian Holton says:

    Mair proof at naebodie uises Scots onie mair: ma new book o poems owreset frae Classical Chinese ti Scots, “Staunin Ma Lane”, is oot in March (wi a publisher in England, mind).


  18. Elizabeth Thomson says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Steve Murdoch.

    It took me a wee while to read because I have only ever spoken Scots and forgotten so much, but, I understood it except, like Murray Shoolbraid, that “vilipendar thing”! Reading articles like this remind me of words I used as a child until school and the BBC, etc., drove most of them out of my head. Mostly, it brings to mind the sound of my long gone parents.

    Love it; please keep up the good work.

  19. Brian Holton says:

    Thenk ye, Steve, for yir braw piece.

    It’s time an lang past time at we wir speakin out: monie year sinsyne, Billy Kay spierit at Prof. AJ Aitken, editor o the DOST, how we wad cud no loss oor ain tongue, an he said, “Uise it. Use it in season an out o season”. He wisna wrang, either, an A’ve ettlt ti dae the same for mair nor 40 year, baith in an furth o Scotland.

    Gaun yirsel, son, an mair virr to yir elbuck!

    Heard no lang syne in Langholm: “He’s no a right Langholm man. His grannie wisnae frae here, ee sey”.

  20. Cobra! says:

    A’m gled that A finally got the time tae read this! A wis in an argument recently wi somebody on Facebook (wha is a big Gaelic supporter) sayin Scots isna it’s ain leid, an is juist Inglis. It gars me fumin whan somebody says that, thare are seemlar tae ithers, an yese ken whit? Gaelic is ANE o thaim!
    Dinna git me wrang, A’m interestit in the Gaelic leid, A’m learin it massel, an A’m gittin the hing o’t (Tha beacan Ga’idlig agam! … Daed A say that richt?), but a guid few Gaelic speakers seems tae really hiv it anenst Scots, gin yer a Gaelic speaker that isna like that: Braw! A want us tae wirk thegither tae git Scotland speakin it’s leids! Promuivin baith o’em!
    Gin ye ARE like that: Gaun’ae please cut it oot! A can say the exact same thing aboot Gaelic bein an Erse byleid! (Daesna maiter whit the inglis sawed the leid afore or efter, it’s no thair leid!) It’s juist aulder nor Scots (4t Centurar vs. 10t), thon’s really it as faur as A can tell.

    1. Cobra! says:

      *Thare are ither leids that are seemlar tae ithers…

      …A really maun pruifread whit A comment afore sendin….

      1. Danny MacTavish says:

        Its Scots spikkers thursels thit say thur byleid is a form o Inglis ain o thum tellt me thon outside a pub in Embra efter a chat about his Borders dialeck thegither and I jalouse he took pairt in the census on whither he spak it tae so wha kens whither he pit aye or no but he wis spikkin it tae me oniewie).. Thons no the case wae Gaels in Scotland and Irish and hasnae been in centuries. Baith Irish and Scottish come frae Gaelic. Irish is an English nelogism thit becam popular amang Inglis spikkin Irish naitionalists in the echteenth yearhunnert in thur ain struggle fur unthirldom frae British imperialism. It wuild mak mair sense tae talk about Southren and Scots raither nor English and Scots because baith are Inglis leids and ainlie yin o thum has its ain unthirlt stannart orthographie the day wae the ither bein viewed bi a wheen o its ain spikkers as ni bein a separate langage frae the ither. The last time thon wis the case atween Gaelic in Ireland and Britain, it wuild o been kent as a variant o Gaelic bi its spikkers and “Ersche” wis a racist term uised bi Inglis spikkers, ie Scots (Inglis) or Southren (Inglis) spikkers tae redefine the fiwk thit hid been kent as Scots afore theyd stairted referrin thae thursels and thur leid as thon insteid o thur earlier self identifier, ie Inglis.

        1. Danny MacTavish says:

          Fowk no fiwk and nae raither nor “ni” (Is it possible tae misspell in Scots though)

          1. Alf Baird says:

            “misspell in Scots”

            Ye’re leukin fir perfiteness in language? Nae maiter whither Gaelic, English, Scots, Zulu or Afrikaanse etc), ye’ll no fund perfiteness. Ye’ll be waitin a lang time afore ye fund perfiteness. We dinna need perfiteness onywey, we juist need tae mak a stairt.

          2. Danny MacTavish says:

            Thons braw news regairdin ma typos then.

          3. Alf Baird says:

            A widnae fash aboot it. A braw exemple o the need tae huv Scots language medium here, efter 10:20:

    2. Steve Murdoch says:

      Dinna fash min. Tae the Irish govrenment Scots Gaelic is a dialect o Irish. O mair import is tae Haud gaan wi yer learnin an use yer languages far an fan ye can

  21. Ashley Husband Powton says:

    In case onybody’s interestit, James Robertson’s buik oan the history o the Scottish Pairlament in braw Scots

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