One of the small pleasures of Twitter is The National newspaper’s weekly tweet promoting their Scots (as in language) column, currently written by one Rab Wilson. Here’s the most recent one:
The pleasure lies in the combination of a sort of Scots’ grammar and spelling unknown before The National came along, together with good old Queen’s English (‘fully independent regulator’) when the Scots dictionary or the imagination fail. You’ll notice, by the way, that the tweet’s introduction – ‘Tomorrow …’ – doesn’t even attempt a pretence at Scots.
I may be unkind to Mr Wilson here, since I only ever read the flyer, never the column itself. It may be that the words in the tweet are those of the 20-year old in Wolverhampton or wherever it is who manages the Herald Group’s social media accounts. Rab himself claims all his Scots words are in a Scots dictionary and I have no reason to doubt him. Anyhow, I have a bit of a soft spot for him as he seems to like steam trains and his views on the NHS (see his Twitter timeline) must make uncomfortable reading for the SNP.
His Scots is sometimes described by interlocutors on Twitter as faux and here I start to venture into tricky territory of the ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ variety. Is Scots a separate living vibrant language, struggling and in need of state support, a dialect of English, an anachronism, or a modern invention?
I don’t have the linguistic expertise to answer my own question in academic terms although you can find some claimed answers in the government’s guidance for ‘practitioners’ (i.e. teachers) on the use of Scots in schools. Perhaps in a practical way the answer doesn’t matter. People speak how they do and that’s that.
But I do know Scots has fallen victim to the politicisation that awaits anything the SNP can use to highlight and create differences between us and our fellow British citizens.
While I wouldn’t accuse those who drew up that school guidance of overt politicisation, you can inevitably see the nationalist government’s agenda and priorities coming through in it. Here are some examples.
First, although the guidance is adamant that Scots is ‘one of the three indigenous languages of Scotland,’ it goes on to say ‘most linguists and academics today agree that Scots is a language in its own right.’ Hmm, ‘most.’ So its status is not so clear cut, or as academics might say, it’s ‘contested,’ although you’ll find nothing in the guidance which references those alternative points of view.
Second, it claims that recommended activities in Scots can ‘provide an opportunity for learners to use a wider range of language, engaging in critical, analytical and evaluative activities, as well as asking and answering higher order, opened-ended questions.’ But the same could be said for many other languages.
Third, the guidance refers to the government’s ‘1+2 approach’ to languages, an ‘ambition for all children and young people in Scotland to learn two languages in addition to their own.’ I guess a lay person’s interpretation of that might have been that they should learn two foreign languages, perhaps the French and German taught in the schools of my youth. But no,
Schools may choose Scots as an L3 [jargon for the third language children might learn].
So one of our three ‘indigenous languages,’ supposedly spoken by 1.5 million Scots already (2011 census) can be one of three languages to be learnt. This may be a way to overcome a lack of resources for language teaching and to fudge some performance target. It is not a way to prepare young people for life in the modern world.
Fourth, the guidance acknowledges what we all know anyhow, that ‘Scots’ is not a single spoken or written form, it includes ‘eight different “regional varieties” or dialects.’ But, and note this, ‘All have equal status’ and ‘it is important to use a variety of Scots that is known and recognised by learners.’ So all the effort being promoted here isn’t even conducive of learning a consistent way of speaking or writing Scots.
I’m not a naysayer unwilling to recognise the richness of language spoken across Scotland. But precisely the same sorts of claims could be made of language elsewhere in the UK. You’ll see many examples if you dip into the British Library’s online collection of Accents and dialects. Interestingly, if you search for ‘Scots’ there, the first item listed is a recording made 100 years ago in a German prisoner of war camp of 20-year old James Emslie from Aberdeenshire who ‘considers Scots as his mother tongue.’ You can hear him reading the parable of the prodigal son. And do you know what? This native English speaker can understand virtually every word he says, which is more than I can say for some of the written versions of Scots paraded in the media in 2017.
It is clear from examples posted by parents online that primary school children are now being ‘taught’ words at school that they’ll know already from the playground and their pals – ‘bahookie’ and ‘cludgie’ are two I’ve seen. It’s as if the mayor of London, seized by a sudden panic at the decline of cockney, asked schools to build the words ‘bum’ and ‘bog’ or their many rhyming slang equivalents into the curriculum. Part of life’s rich pattern but they don’t need to be taught in school.
All this of course is set against a background of major criticism of the whole Curriculum for Excellence as well as a continuing decline of Scotland’s performance in the OECD’s world rankings in their Programme for International Student Assessment, including … reading:
I’ll await with interest to see how the role of Scots in the curriculum improves this most basic measure of literacy.
Various ironies attend the SNP’s commitment to Scots, not least the fact that you’ll rarely if ever hear an SNP MP or MSP speak or write in the sort of Scots their government promotes. And in an era when the whole world seems to want to learn standard English, they are encouraging a dialect, or language if you will, that the rest of the world would struggle to understand.
I end with Rab Wilson again. He’s recently been engaged in debate with some of his critics on Twitter and although he’s no spokesman for the SNP, two points he made exemplify the problems with what the SNP are up to.
I think part of the answer is that no-one speaks or writes English now as Shakespeare, Milton or Wordsworth did. The SNP need to be careful that in promoting Scots they are not promoting something that is as equally ‘auncient’ and bears little relation to how Scots speak or write today.
And then we have
‘… wrecked bi British imperialism.’ Such a simple view of history and one I’m sure many SNP luminaries would echo. It’s wrong, but that’s nationalism for you.
Still, in reality, governments have little control over how people speak: check the decline of Irish speakers in Ireland despite a near-century of protective legislation and funding for the language. In the long run, people will do what they will, language will continue to become more homogenised, and resources devoted to the political promotion of any particular variety of language is likely to be wasted public money.
For a jaded view of another aspect of the politicisation of Scots see The Scots Language Centre – a wee bittie oot o’control?