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Scottish Language

One of the strongest claims a people can make to nationhood is that they have their own language. It has been said that a nation is a dialect with its own army. For a people whose political independence exists only in the past, a unique tongue used among themselves is both a cultural safe deposit box for the present and a potential rallying point for the future. Scotland is unlike other countries in this respect, since English, its present first language, is the native tongue of numerous other states around the world.

But Scots are right to seek assurance of their separate identity in their language, for Scottish English is unique, and very different from the English of England, America or Australia. There are two ways that varieties of the same language can differ. The first is in pronunciation: What kind of accent does a person have? The other is in dialect. What words, and what ways of forming sentences, are unlike those of other English speakers?

Scottish English and the English of England developed from the same medieval mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. Scottish English was well on the way to becoming a separate, standard form of speech--as different from that spoken in London as modern Norwegian is from modern Danish--when a dramatic political and religious upheaval swung it back into line with London English.

There is no such thing taught in Scotland's schools as a "correct" Scottish way of speaking or spelling. Scottish speech and writing are not taught at all in Scottish schools. On the one hand, most modern Scots have the desire and instinct to use at least some Scottish vocabulary and grammar. On the other hand, the TV, radio, movies and books from England and America tell them that to do so marks them as unfashionable or socially inferior.

Most native Scots retain a distinct accent. Although there are common elements, accents differ widely from region to region. The amount of dialect vocabulary and grammar used also varies according to upbringing. The wealthy, people who went to college and people in white-collar jobs tend to use English that is closer to that spoken in London.

Some Scottish words and expressions are used and understood across virtually the whole country. Among them are: dinnae, cannae, willnae (don't, can't, won't), wee (small), aye (yes), ken (know), greet (weep), kirk (church), breeks (pants), lassie (girl), bairn (child), flit (move from one home to another), bonny (pretty), chap (knock), and bide (stay).

Other phrases, though using internationally recognizable English words, reveal their Scottishness not just by accent but by grammar. Scots, for example, will say "Are you not going?" or "Are you no going?" rather than "Aren't you going?" And "I'm away to my bed," often replaces "I'm going to bed."

Beyond these well-used everyday words and expressions, every Scot has his or her extra Scottish vocabulary. In its heyday, the Scots tongue produced enough unique words to fill dictionaries as hefty as any Webster's, and many of these terms survive in one way or another. Scottish writers dip into the pool at will, enriching their English, often finding words for which there are no equivalents in any other language. Gloaming, for instance, means more than just "sunset"; it implies the whole light and atmosphere that envelops a landscape as the sun goes down. The speech of most older Scots is scattered with a selection of such expressions, and varying in degree from family to family, the younger generation follows suit.

There is a haphazard uncertainty about this passing-on process, which makes for awkward gaps in communication not just between the generations but in other relationships. Examples: A Scotswoman comes home from work one day and says, "I'm absolutely wabbit." Her friend will probably know wabbit means "exhausted," but may never have used the word before. A retiree complains to a young veterinarian about her cat: "He just sits there a' day, spanning his thrums." A perfectly normal way of saying "purring" to the elderly lady, but the veterinarian--who has lived in Scotland all his life--doesn't know what it means. A Scots schoolboy reads the first line of a poem: "She canna thole her dreams." He has never heard anybody use the Scots word thole, meaning "endure," and has to ask the teacher about it.

These daily crises in the survival of Scottish English are partly compensated for by the variety of dialect words and phrases that survive in the regions. Glaswegians, for instance, call children weans, not balms. People in the northeast say quine instead of lassie for "girl," and replace "how" and "what" with fa and fit. Dundonians, as the inhabitants of Dundee are called, don't say aye for "yes," but eh. Orkney and Shetland have a deep wellspring of dialect words from their Norse past: Faans is what Shetlanders call a snowdrift; haaf-fish and tang-fish are Orcadian for the two different species of seal that frequent their islands.

Until very recently, the use of the Scots language in public life and in school was frowned on. Ever since Scotland was joined to England, efforts have been made by well-intentioned teachers and pro-London writers to make Scottish speech conform more to the southern pattern. But in the past fifteen years a resurgence of nationalist feeling and a growing respect for writers who use Scots of any kind in their work has given Scottish English a fighting chance. Joy Hendry said in 1985, hailing the publication of a new Concise Scots Dictionary:
" Today, the position of the language couldn't be much worse in many ways, with fewer and fewer people actually speaking it in any reasonably pure form. . . . Yet survive it does.... Like predictions of the apocalypse, forecasts of the demise of Scots in X years have proved false; the beast refuses to die, though weakened by the blood-letting of centuries. ."

One of the pleasures of visiting Scotland is hearing the Scots speak their native language with their particular local accent. And you may learn lots of new words - to add to your vocabulary. " Ken whit I mean ? "

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