2007 - 2022

Shrieking Privilege

scotsspeakers2011When you’re accustomed to privilege equality feels like oppression. A carefully constructed argument using the every day example of workplace relationships that was widely shared on social media explains in straight forward terms what happens when those used to having their status and rights taken for granted encounter an obstacle – in this case someone not prepared to be pushed out of the way. The person used to being granted leave of way suddenly feels oppressed and suggests that it’s the behaviour of the other that needs remedied.

Appropriately I found this article on my facebook news feed the day after the Daily Mail and Stephen Daisley, an STV digital content editor, launched bitter attacks on the Scots language. Their shrieking sounded a lot to me like privilege meeting equality.

The background to the story is this – the author of the Mail’s schlock piece had recycled an old story about the Scots element on the Scottish Government’s web site which the Times had already covered a couple of weeks ago. Essentially there had been some formatting and editing errors on the government’s web site and as a result some of the Scots content didn’t make sense. Words had been strung together and there were some grammatical errors. The words that had been strung together ended up being described by journalists as ‘made-up’. Being made-up is the key charge that those hostile to Scots often level at the language and clearly they were thrilled to find evidence of it.

The not so subtle sub text to this charge is that Scots itself is not real, it’s a figment of some rabid and politically motivated imagination. There are many problems with this argument – the principal one being that the words aren’t made up at all. Possibly some are slightly out of date and maybe used slightly clumsily but they are real words – you can find them in a dictionary.

Indeed most of the people who write in Scots have generally eschewed the creation of neologisms, unlike, for example, language campaigners in Friesland who have a special department at the Fryske Akademy dedicated to the creation of Friesian replacements for words loaned from English and Dutch.

The words themselves are very real but, and this is where critics might have made some sensible observations, the register is one in which Scots is not usually found. Scots like most languages which have ever been spoken has not developed the range of registers that languages like English, French and Swedish have. It hasn’t developed in that way because a range of political, social and economic factors meant it didn’t undergo the processes which have lead other languages to be used in a wide variety of situations. The study of these factors happens within the academic discipline of socio-linguistics

But not having developed a wide range of registers is not unique to Scots. As speakers of minority languages have grown to understand the nature of linguistic prejudice – namely that it is groundless in linguistic terms and merely a manifestation of cultural, economic and political relationships – so we have increasingly sought to have our language forms represented in places that were previously off limits. In the case of Scots this has taken the form of a few pages on the Scottish Government’s web site. Sometimes placing Scots somewhere like that, rather than say in the Broons or Oor Wullie strip cartoons, means that the authors of the material need to create a type of language – a register – from scratch. When you write this sort of material in English that’s not part of the deal. The language is already well-known, it follows certain conventions, is replete with stock phrases and expressions. When you produce something similar in Scots it can and usually does look clumsy, awkward, gauche. But so what, does that really matter? Possibly, and those critiquing the Scottish Government’s web site could quite reasonably have looked at and criticised the register, but instead they focused on editing errors and in some cases the archaic words used.

That’s because the editing errors served a purpose which was to construct a narrative round the claim that the entire language is ‘made up’. Editing errors are editing errors and no matter how hard you try they’ll never be ‘made-up’ words. The use of archaic or seldom used language is another question that ought to be discussed and might have been the subject of considered and thoughtful responses. But of course those doing the criticising – if their subsequent tweets, posts and articles are anything to go by – have a very limited knowledge of basic linguistics. Not that that stops them from acting like experts but then again arrogance and ignorance are well-known bedfellows and concepts like slang, language, accent and dialect found themselves all mixed up in a stew of soor-faced silliness.

Anyway, in what world should ‘made-up’ and seldom used words incite such hysterical responses? It’s hard to imagine anything less harmful to the general human condition than encountering a few unusual words now and again. The underlying problem isn’t the words it’s the challenge to linguistic and cultural orthodoxies that their appearance on a web site presents. Orthodoxies tend to be accepted uncritically even by those who imagine themselves to be thoughtful. Sometimes when given points of view are challenged the responses can be massively out of proportion to the new information received.

And in this case the common sense point of view about language held by many in the commentariat and elite society in Scotland combines with a sense of language entitlement to produce frothing at the mouth expressions of reaction and shameless provincial ladder climbing. It’s privilege bumping into the tiniest teeniest manifestation of equality and claiming oppression.

Daisley for example claims that Scots is ‘pretend slang’ though of course such a suggestion is utterly meaningless in linguistic terms. In another tweet he exhorts speakers to use their language ‘at work, in job interviews, at the bank’. Of course those are exactly the places people do speak Scots. In some parts of Scotland Scots is the lingua franca – it’s what you speak at work, in job interviews and in the bank. The notion that ‘the way I do things is the only legitimate rule against which all other things must be measured’ is not novel. Indeed it is very widespread but it doesn’t suggest the presence of an enquiring mind. Nor does it reveal the truth.

The existence of Scots in our linguistic landscape – the term language experts use to describe language in its written form in places like street signs, information notices and business names – reveals the presence of the language in contemporary life and the existence of a large Scots speaking community. Take the Scots word ‘piece’ for example. If it wasn’t widely known how could we have a sandwich shop chain called ‘Piece Box’ or an internet café with the name ‘Bites and Pieces’. How about ‘Bawbags’ underwear, signs urging visitors ‘tae sneck the gate’, words like neep, tattie, loon, quine, hoose, fash, fitbaw – the list goes on and on. Scots is all around you – look and listen and you’ll find it easily.

And let’s mention too the facebook groups for Scots speakers: ‘Wir Midder Tongue’ for Shetland Dialect speakers, ‘Doric Tongue’ for North East folk, the always lively Scots Language Forum group, and Scottish Memes and Banter, a hugely popular social media group awash with Scots language words and expressions. Those are some of the locations ‘contemporary Scots’ can be found and, you know what, with the exception of a few adventurous creators of neologisms, the language used in these places is not ‘made up’ at all.

This country is one of the most interesting, lively and exciting linguistic spaces in Europe. We have a thrilling range of language forms. In every street, every train, every boring old supermarket you can encounter a symphony of voices and accents. Wonderful voices replete with the cadences and words of our long language history. Words and expressions that would have been used and understood by those who preceded us centuries since. Scots jumbles alongside the arresting accents and idiosyncratic grammar of Scottish Standard English. Many of our place names reveal the Gaelic and Brythonic past and in the islands Gaelic and Scandinavian influenced Scots live on. How wonderful it all is and what a splendid linguistic space we are privileged to inhabit. It’s something that makes us unique and special and, really, what could be wrong with that?

There’s nothing wrong with criticism. It’s hard to take and easy to give. But let’s accept that it’s really only legitimate when the people dishing it out know what they’re talking about. Until they do my advice to them would be ‘haud yer wheesht!’




Comments (48)

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  1. Drew Campbell says:

    A fine article, Michael. Language is highly political, of course, a potent but insidious form of domination and subjugation. A language that survives suppression, assimilation or continuous condescenion, however, can emerge as an especially potent catalyst to rebellion.

    English itself offers a prime example of that phenomenon; its usurping of the court after a long period of Norman French was a necessary concession by the ruling class and marked a decisive shift in the centre of power to London, where it remains. Fur noo.

  2. John Mooney says:

    Did you expect any other response from Daisley? The clown assumes he is a leading commentator on the Scottish political scene when in effect he is a third rate “Labour”apologist with delusions of Mandelsonian proportions,bloody hell he even makes Torrance seem reasonable (I promise to Wash my mouth out with soap with regard to the Torrance part) Daisley must be the most unknown no mark within the so called “Scottish”political scene,a legend in his own lunchtime! LOL.

  3. kimberley says:

    great article and very informative!

  4. Alf Baird says:

    Excellent article, thanks.

    “minority languages” in most nations are enshrined in law, and so is the teaching of minority languages to the relevant indigenous populations. Scotland (and Scots language) is the exception (in UK), for political reasons, as Drew notes above. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act is as far as Holyrood would take indigenous language, for now.

    “to understand the nature of linguistic prejudice” is really to understand what cultural racism is. This should be made clear to those who ridicule Scots language. “claims that Scots is ‘pretend slang’ ” is an insult to all Scots speakers.

    “The use of archaic or seldom used language” does not reflect the use of Scots language within Scotland, for Scots language is especially widespread, and commonly used. However written Scots is not taught to Scots pupils within schools in Scotland, which is discrimination by the state itself, and effectively results in a general suppression of indigenous language.

    “let’s accept that it’s really only legitimate” is a statement that reflects the fact Scots language is not yet enshrined in law; it should be.

    What is required is a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ – and on this issue Holyrood must ‘act’ as it did with the Gaelic language Act. Only then will ignorant people cease such discrimination and cultural racism against the Scots language.

  5. Maren says:

    I took a number of excellent linguistics classes on Scots at university and much appreciate your well-argued and informative article – sadly such a cogent defense of the language is far too rare. Coming here from Germany, I could never have imagined that I’d be the one to educate my husband’s Scottish family on their native language. Despite the fact that they used a great many Scottish words themselves, they nonetheless constantly admonished the kids to speak proper English and were much surprised when I disagreed with them.

    Still, I thought – no I expected – my kids to learn far more about their native language at school here in Scotland than I could have done at university abroad, but in reality, Scots is reduced to a narrow selection of poems, mostly to be recited on Burn’s day, with no real study of the language or its history at primary or secondary level. Much, much more needs to be done to teach the Scots about their own language in my view, but pages in Scots on government websites are a step in the right direction at least, even if the SNP should and could have done more by now.

    1. Kenny says:

      Thank you Maren. I was in Konstanz, Germany for Hogmanay in 2014. Naturally we settled down to watch Dinner For One, but when I looked at the TV listings, I could see the play in English but also translated into High German, Swabian and Bavarian. There is nothing controversial about that, nor about there being another language, Swiss German, just across the border. Yet here, we have serious journalists angry at the idea that anyone should dare to act as though Scots of any form should be granted any legitimacy whatsoever. Swabian does not threaten the German nation; indeed, the recognition and celebration of difference within it seems to be a source or strength. Moreover, with the exception of a few oddballs in Bavaria, there is no seperatism fuelled by it.

      Now try to imagine Only An Excuse translated into English, Shetlandic and Doric for broadcast in different parts of the country. For many, the idea is literally unthinkable because we have been taught for centuries that not only are these not languages but mere dialects or slang, but that it is uncouth, stupid, vulgar, ignorant and even racist to pretend that they are. We must be the only country in the world where being fluently bilingual (as most of the northeast and the islands is, as well as large parts of lowland Scotland) is a sign of idiocy while speaking just one tongue and hating your native language is a sign of sophistication.

      “Cultural racism” is the wrong term. Scotland has undergone linguistic cleansing and cultural colonisation. Saying that out loud makes me “anti-English” and a “blood and soil nationalist,” but until we accept the reality of what has been done, we cannot begin to undo it.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        “Cultural racism ……can be defined as societal beliefs and customs that promote the assumption that the products of a given culture, including the language …..are superior to those of other cultures.”

    2. Maren says:

      Yes, that’s certainly true today, Kenny, and German culture is much richer for the many different voices now heard on stage, radio and TV. It wasn’t always like this, though – my personal hero, Lene Voigt for instance, had her work banned twice, first in Nazi Germany and then in the early years of the GDR. She translated the German classics, which were and are much revered, into the Saxon dialect and was accused of defacing and blighting them. Today her work is widely available and performed often, to much enjoyment.

      Mindful of this article, by the way, I took the opportunity tonight to raise this issue with my son’s school. I was asked what else I would like to see the kids learn and wrote down that they should know about their country’s language and its history. The response was very positive: I was asked if I was willing to come in and do this myself and I said yes. Might have to find someone who can actually speak Scots as my knowledge is more academic than practical, it’s a start. Apparently, the new Curriculum for Excellence leaves such matters to individual schools to decide, so that would be an opportunity worth pursuing elsewhere, would it not? I mean, in the absence of a nationwide policy (or until we get one).

    3. Graeme Purves says:

      ‘Interested, but saddened, to learn that the Scots language is still kept in the Burns cabinet in some of our schools. Back in the 1966, I was awarded the Burns Certificate at the Royal High Primary School at Jock’s Lodge in Edinburgh. The certificate was awarded on the basis of a Scots vocabulary test. I hadn’t read a word of Burns, but all four of my grandparents spoke Scots (Borders, Fife and Aberdeenshire), so I was familiar with the vocabulary. I felt a bit of a fraud!

  6. Andymac says:

    Made-up words: how aboot a Scots neologism? – daisley (n): a hauf-ersed nyaff wi’ delusions o’ intelligence. See “nyaff”.

  7. Alan Stewart says:

    As I understand it, Scots is widespread in Scottish law. Case closed.

  8. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Those who thole overcome and the Scots have been doing that for an awful lang time. I love to hear Scots spoken and read in all its rich diversity.

  9. panda paws says:

    I find the claim that Scots isn’t a language ludicrous. Look it has “made up words”. English has many made up words that are now fully accepted – sexting, twerking, Brangelina etc. Does that mean English isn’t a real language? I remember being up in the North East and one of the tourist attractions had written handouts in different languages. I said “Doric, I’ll take that one”. The guide said I’d never understand it. Suffice to say he was wrong!

  10. Alf Baird says:

    The state’s suppression of Scots language is an ongoing British political scandal, but the reason is clear:

    Give them their language (and culture)
    They’ll want their land
    Give them their land
    They’ll want their nation

    Language, Land, and Nation; arguably the three fundamentals of any people/culture. We are getting ever closer on the issues of land and nation, but language/culture is lagging behind. Language is a key lever to and component of nationhood. We should not ignore it as we do.

    1. David Sangster says:

      Yes, Lenin believed that language was the only true basis for revolution. Gaelic was actively suppressed after the Jacobite rebellions, but Scots just slipped away as trade and traffic increased between the nations and ambitious young Scots took the high road south. However, to take up your earlier point, I can assure you that Scots, particularly poetry in Scots, is taught in schools, but remains somewhat under the radar as a voluntary commitment by “English” teachers. And nobody’s out policing “playground Scots”, though excessive Anglo-Saxon is rather frowned upon.

  11. Gordon McShean says:

    Interesting… and clever! But “engaging” it was not, until the last 4 paragraphs. These made it worth while to have stayed with you. Give us some more similar discussion, please!

    1. Michael says:

      Sorry that it was a slow build for you but I felt it was important to address some of the linguistic issues and set the scene. But glad you got there in the end and felt it was worthwhile.

  12. James Dow a voice from OZ says:

    it is not so much our language that creates annoyance for some, but it is our language attached to our distinctive identity that really gets them going.

  13. Peter Shepheard says:

    Dictionary of the Scots Language

    Why not give all the enenlightened deniers a link to the Scots Language Dictionary?

    Try this: http://www.dsl.ac.uk

    or this link page that has been on the Springthyme website for several years:

    Just enter any word you like – and enjoy an interesting read.

  14. DC says:

    The same things are said about Welsh – which was here for a thousand years before anyone (Henry VII actually) decided that there should be a language called English, made up out of Saxon and French, and that it be formalised by means of a dictionary (the Oxford). The intention of the ‘articles’ referred to is to undermine, not inform.

  15. Rowan Roddenberry says:

    One finds that insecure writers often lead the charge of language suppression, which is understandable, yet still inexcusable, considering they have so much personally and professionally invested in the prestige language.

  16. Matt Seattle says:

    All of which is why I knew that this

    HAD to be in Scots, and as a non-native speaker I thank Michael and the Scots Language Forum, and Thomas Clark and Brian Holton, no strangers to these pages, for helping the process.

    1. Matt Seattle says:

      … and the Bella Caledonia edition

      1. Brian Fleming says:

        Thanks for that Matt. It’s so beautiful, one of the best things to come out of the referendum campaign. For this exile Scot who has dreamt of Independence for most of my 61 years, this is balm to the soul.

  17. Bibbit says:

    There are two other tongues of Scotland, seldom remembered by non-travellers.

    ‘Cant’ (Scots, Romani and Gaelic etymology) spoken by Scottish Lowlands’ travellers.

    Beurla Reagaird: (Gaelic etymology) spoken by the Highlands’ travellers.

    They are mutually unintelligible to each other.

    1. Brian Fleming says:

      Thanks Bibbit. That’s interesting to know.

  18. Julian Cheyne says:

    it is worthwhile noting that English is itself an ancient ‘Scottish’ language as it came in an early Germanic form with the Angles in the Kingdom of Bernicia in south-east Scotland not long after the Gaelic Kingdom of Dalriada and long before the Scandinavians of the north or the emergence of the Scottish kingdom.

  19. Kathleen Jamie says:

    You need look no farther than the poets and dramatists. Edwin Morgan’s translation of Cyrano de Bergerac is glorious. Brian Holton’s superb translations of Chinese verse will soon be published. Wm Lorimer’s Scots translation of the New Testament is majestic, a true work of art. These works are unknown to the decriers of Scots, who are deeply Philistine. (Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels but hae nae luve i ma hairt, I am no nae better nor dunnerin bress or a ringing cymbal.’- Quite.)
    Question – why do so many Scots writers work in translation, rather than making original works? (Original works also exist, of course.) I think it’s because translating into Scots obliges us to extend the reach of the language, in register and in emotional range. As Michael Hance suggests, that’s the challenge. Personally, I translate the poems of German poet Hölderlin, because he can be more rhetorically ‘high’, and more ardent than my emotionally cramped Scots upbringing would otherwise allow. Thus the language grows, and our ability to feel and think grows with it.

    1. Michael says:

      Thanks Kathleen, I’m the secretary of the W L Lorimer Trust so am familiar with the New Testament in Scots. Would you believe it, there’s even a New Testament in Scots Facebook page where you can listen to regular readings from the Gospels? There will be readings throughout the week to mark the end of Lent and the arrival of Easter.

    2. Alf Baird says:

      Scots bairns foremaist need tae learn tae scrieve the wirds o the leid in the clessroom (i.e. no juist tae spik the wirds in the playgroond, in the hoose, or on Burns Nicht). Awthing wid follae fi thon an bairns and aw fowk wid faer mair unnerstaund a Scots makars scrievens then! Eddication is necessar oan written Scots an is oor richt an Scots hae a richt tae wir ain leid at aw times. At the meenit Scots bairns an aulder fowk tae are bein peventit fi a fou an richt eddication o Scots leid. Thon’s doon-haudin wir fowk an leid an cultur an aw. Like wi thon Gaelic language waukenin up, Scots fowk need a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ an aw so there’s nae mair messin aboot wi the leid an we get aw thon sortit oot fir guid. Ower tae youse in Holyrood an Language Meenister Allan – shift yersel son, wir aw ahint ye!

    3. Michael says:

      Here’s a link to the New Testament in Scots Facebook group


      1. Kathleen Jamie says:

        Ha! Teachin ma grannie tae sook eggs. Thanks for the Facebook link, the reading is wonderful.

  20. Michael says:

    Thanks for the encouraging and supportive comments. Mind an jyne in the discussions on the Scots Language Forum Facebook group. Ye’re aw welcome.

  21. Archie says:

    So why is the article, apart from the last three words, and almost all the comments, written in English ? Seems like almost everyone here agrees that standard English is the way to go when you actually want to communicate something ?

    Can you tell me with a straight face that Alf Baird’s long comment above, written in something that is presumably meant to represent some version of “the Scots language”, is as easily intelligible as the comments written in English ? Yes, we can work out what he’s trying to say, and it’s only marginally harder than reading French or Spanish – but why make life harder than it needs to be ? ( I notice that when Alf comments on other articles, he too writes in the language – English – that readers will understand.)

    Insomuch as Scots is a language at all ( not sure why it has any better claim than the Geordie or Liverpudlian dialects) , it’s not one that makes much sense in a written form nowadays.

    1. Peter Shepheard says:

      Perhaps you need to look at the online Dictionary of the Scots Language – history, definitions, dialects of etc. Of course there is as yet no standard written Scots although attempts have been made.

      Try this: http://www.dsl.ac.uk

      Just enter any word you like – and enjoy an interesting read.

    2. Alf Baird says:

      Scots language is fairly easy and very satisfying to learn especially for those who naturally speak Scots and use it every day, which is most of the population of Scotland. English should really be considered merely as Scotland’s ‘administrative language’, as it is in most former colonies. However other ex colonies always ensure that indigenous languages are also taught, and this is where the Scots are let down as we do not teach our own Scots language. Gaelic is now taught to those who want it and is enshrined in law and Scots should be treated in the same way. I can speak and write fairly good English largely because it wis garred doon ma thrapple at schuil whaur Scots leid wis beltet oot o bairns.

    3. John Page says:

      I think you should read Billy Kay’s The Mither Tongue and reflect if you still hold this view of Scots. In any event it is an excellent read

      John Page

    4. Michael says:

      Archie, I think you need to read the article again. In it I explain why it’s so hard to write in Scots.

  22. Darsie Latimer says:

    What I find most telling, is that of all the thoughtful comments in response to this article, only 2 were written in Scots. This article isn’t wrong, just wrongheaded. Scots exists, barring around 20 or so words, as a form of phoneticism online today. It is barely used in the workplace – “wee” is the only one I could think of getting away with if I had to work for a business that, for example, exported to England.
    We are blessed to live in a world where everyone else makes efforts to learn English. Where does Scots fit in to that in work, or in High School? It doesn’t need an Act of Parliament as in my opinion, Scots doesn’t even exist – the dialect of Galloway being hugely different from that of the Black Isle.
    It needs to be said. Best

    1. Peter Shepheard says:

      Perhaps you need to look at the online Dictionary of the Scots Language – history, definitions, dialects of etc. Of course there is as yet no standard written Scots although attempts have been made.

      Try this: http://www.dsl.ac.uk

      Just enter any word you like – and enjoy an interesting read.

      1. Darsie Latimer says:

        Maybe, just maybe, attempts have been unsuccessful because it is impossible.

    2. Alf Baird says:

      “It is barely used in the workplace”

      Try the farmer in East Lothian or Aberdeenshire, the butcher in Stromness, the bank teller in Stornoway, the fisherman in Lerwick, the B&B owner in Wick etc.

      1. Darsie Latimer says:

        Another post in English, and not sure what your point is. Using one or two regionally specific words in the course of a days work is fine if it’s within your remit of couse, as is speaking in your own time. But that’s hardly any different from a manual or semiskilled worker in numerous English regions, and, crucially, does not a language make. Am sure you know all these people personally, btw.

  23. Andy Mitchell says:

    Beautifully put, Michael, and very interesting. Thank you!

  24. Mislein says:

    Nearly sixty and I realise now how my (and many another) primary school had a most peculiar relationship with the Scots language.
    We would have been severely reprimanded for using Scots in class, spoken or written, but for about two weeks of the year on the run up to Burns’ night we had to memorise a poem and take part in the school’s competition for the best poetry recital.
    Only at that time would we learn the meaning of words we had never heard and would be discouraged from using at any other time of the year.
    This is how you raise your citizens to look down upon their culture and yet permit them to celebrate it in an approved form on special occasions.
    Hogmanay would fall into this category too although then you would frequently hear the wrong lyrics to Auld Lang Syne.

    1. Michael says:

      Over the years I’ve read many heart-breaking accounts of Scots speaking children having their language ridiculed and worse. Very sad, It’s time to right those wrongs.

      1. Alf Baird says:

        “It’s time to right those wrongs”

        Yer richt, an a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ wid be a necessar stairt, an aboot time an aw. Holyrood an thon SNP shoud muive thair airses oan thon Act. Naething mair important culturally tae Scotland than wir Scots leid. Its whit maks us wha wi are efter aw. Leid is wir heid differentiator fae fowk fi ony ither nation. Withoot it we’re naething – stateless and leidless! Whit an affront an willt doon-haudin.

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