Tag Archives: dreich

Bad language in Scotland?

Last night I went to a very interesting talk at the British Library by author and publisher James Robertson about The Guid Scots Tongue.

It was a bit like Scots comic Stanley Baxter’s legendary series of Parliamo Glasgow sketches in his 1960s and 1970s TV shows. But with genuine academic credibility.

James Robertson seemed to confirm that Old English developed into Middle English south of the border and into the “Scottish” language north of the border and that, ever since then, people have bemoaned the ‘fact’ that Scots is dying.

I remember Melvyn Bragg saying in his ITV series The Adventure of English that, before Henry VIII, English was a dying language only used by the underclasses. The upper ruling elite spoke Latin and Norman French. But, when Henry decided to split from the Roman Catholic Church so he could knob the wife of his choice, he created the Church of England and commissioned ’The Great Bible’ – the first authorised translation of the Bible into English not Latin. This was distributed to every church in the country and rescued English from its decline and possible extinction.

Last night, James Robertson pointed out that, when King James VI of Scotland took over the English throne in 1603, became King James I of England and brought the Scottish court to London, one of the things he did was to commission the 1611 translation of the Bible into English – the Authorised King James Version of the Bible – which was distributed to every church in England, Scotland and Wales. Ironically, it was never translated into Scottish and this strengthened the hold of the English language in Scotland.

My mother’s grandmother could not speak English until she came down out of the hills. She was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland and spoke Gaelic – pronounced Gaah-lick not Gay-lick. She only learned English when she came to the village of Dunning in Perthshire. Or, some might say, she only learned “Scottish” when she moved to Dunning.

Historically in Scotland, after a certain point, Gaelic was the language of the Highlands and so-called “Scottish” was the language of the Lowlands.

I have never believed there was such a language as “Scottish”. To me, it’s clearly a dialect of English (as opposed to Gaelic which IS a different language). Wikipedian debate will no doubt run for decades about it.

If you disagree, haud yer wheesht, dinnae fash yersell aboot it and try no to be too scunnered.

Most languages, dialects and accents are a dog’s dinner of sources. Fash apparently comes from the Old French fascher and ultimately the Latin fastidium. Scunnered apparently has its origins in Middle English. Nothing is pure, not even Baby Spice. Only the French try (unsuccessfully) to keep their language pure.

I was born in Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. My home town pipe band played on possibly the dreariest song any Beatle ever wrote. When I was three, we moved to Aberdeen in north east Scotland. My parents had friends along the coast in Banffshire where the locals speak to each other in an almost totally incomprehensible dialect which theoretical academics now apparently call Buchan. I call it bloody incomprehensible.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, I think I saw a comedy show entitled 100 Shit Things About Scotland though I can’t seem to find any reference to it. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. But one of the 100 shit things about Scotland I thought I heard was the fact “There are some accents even WE don’t understand”.

Bloody right. Buchan fer yin.

When I was eight, we moved to Ilford in England – it is theoretically in Essex but actually on the outer edge of East London. Over the years, I’ve lost my accent; I never chose to.

So what I’m trying to tell you is I’m interested in language. Perhaps you guessed that.

On the version of the recent Census form distributed in Scotland there is, for the first time, a question about whether you can read/speak/understand not just Gaelic but also the so-called “Scots” language – though how many supposed Scots language variations there might be I cannot even begin to imagine. The words people use in Dundee, Glasgow and Thurso are very different.

There are some great common words. Dreich is almost un-translatable into English in less than an entire paragraph. Crabbit is just a great and appropriate sound. As is Peelie-wallie and many others. But there are amazingly diverse words all over the UK – Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have wild variations in words, let alone Tyneside, North Norfolk, the Black Country and Devon. They are not separate languages, though.

English is a wonderful language because it has so many variants and has hoovered up so much from other languages – cascade, table and situation are all unchanged in spelling from the original French but pronounced differently. The arrival of radio, movies and then television may have homogenised the English language and be slowly eliminating a lot of dialect and accent variations but, with English now the de facto world language, there are going to be hundreds of variant languages growing up in coming years to rival past pidgin English.

Indeed, this seems to have already happened with BT call centres in India. I don’t know what they are speaking, but it’s no form of English I recognise.

Perhaps I am just mare than a wee bit glakit.

Several times in bookshops, I have picked up Irving Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and looked at the first page then put it back on the shelf. It looks too difficult to read, though lots of English people have, so it must just be wee me. I remember at school in Ilford, for some extraordinary reason, we had to read Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary and I found it incomprehensible in places; heaven knows what my English classmates made of it. They never said. Must be just me.

When I edited Scots comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography Handstands in the Darkwhich reads a bit like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and the movie Gladiator – the two of us had to decide how to write quoted dialogue which could be printed on the page, as she was brought up in East Glasgow where dialect, slang and strong accents prevail. Should we write it with all the dialect words intact or spell words phonetically? Both of those would mean it might be difficult for readers in London, let alone New York or Sydney, to understand.

Eventually, we decided to slightly Anglicise the dialogue but to include Scots words which would be easily understandable to non Scots… and to print some words phonetically so there would be a feeling of accent – for example, we printed the “police” as the “polis” throughout, because that is how it is pronounced in Glasgow and it is a distinct yet not too confusing word. It felt like you were reading genuine Scots dialogue, even though it was slightly Anglicised. I was wary of using the Glasgow word close, which means an indoor stairwell, because, in Edinburgh, it means an outdoor alleyway.

It’s a sare fecht.

Look, I could go on for hours about this. Think yourself lucky it stops here.

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Filed under Books, Comedy, History, Travel

Britain is full of immigrants

Allegedly, the USA is the ‘Land of Opportunity’ where any immigrant can arrive with nothing and create a new life for himself or herself with unlimited potential. But you cannot become President if you were not born in the USA.

What’s that all about?

I have a British friend whose parents were Indian – they arrived and settled here in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. She told me (and I admit I was surprised) that she had never experienced any racial discrimination in the UK. She never encountered it until she lived in the USA.

It does seem to me – in a vast generalisation – that the US is a land of separated peoples. They define themselves as Irish-American or Swedish-American or African-American and they tend to retain their original nationalities in social clubs and by living together in areas, sometimes ghettos.

In Britain, after a couple of generations, people define themselves as British.

People talk about Britain having a 2,000 year history – since the Romans invaded. But that’s bollocks. The Romans didn’t even control the whole of Great Britain – the main island of the British Isles. They invaded and controlled what is now England, the lower part of Great Britain; for a very brief time they controlled parts of what is now Lowland Scotland (Hadrian’s Wall is south of the current border); they never fully managed to control Wales; and, as many have, they pretty-much gave up at the very thought of controlling Ireland.

Last century, actor Gordon Jackson was the definitive Scotsman. He played the butler Hudson in the original ITV series of Upstairs, Downstairs and, whenever movie-makers wanted a Scotsman in their film, he was their first call. He epitomised Scottishness.

Occasionally I used to work with one of his sons. When he (the son) reached his 40th birthday, he told me that, the older he got, the more Scottish he felt.

“Where were you born?” I asked.

“Hampstead.”

Hampstead is in North London. But then, if you are the son of Gordon Jackson, you are going to feel Scottish. His mother was Scots too and, though brought up in London, they had a holiday home in Pitlochry.

I remember standing in an office in the London Weekend TV tower looking out at a misty, drizzly South Bank and Westminster scene and saying to this Son of Gordon Jackson:

“Now that is dreich.”

“Definitively dreich,” he replied.

Dreich is a Scots Gaelic word which is virtually impossible to define in English. You have to see what it describes if you want to understand it.

There is an interesting theory that the Welsh – or, at least, the people in the middle of Wales, the mountainous parts, the parts that ironically get at bit uppity about being called British and insist on keeping the Welsh language afloat – are actually the only remnants of the original British, pushed back into that western bump of Great Britain by successive invaders from the south, east and north of the island.

The original British were killed-off or bred out of existence perhaps 1,500 years ago.

Basically, everyone in Britain is an immigrant except, possibly, the forefathers of a few Welsh people.

In the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, the point is often forgotten that King Arthur was killed. The invaders, in reality, won. The losers possibly fled West.

My surname is Fleming so, at some point, my forebears came from Flanders/Belgium/Holland. But, despite an uncalled-for English accent, I am Scottish. The Scots and Irish are allegedly Celtic but, to my eyes, are clearly Scandinavian – pale skin, light hair, sometimes freckles. I used to have dark brown hair and a ginger beard. That’s Scandinavian.

The Welsh are said, like the Scots and Irish, to be Celtic; but the Welsh are in generalised physical terms nothing like the Scots and Irish – they tend to have dark hair, for one thing.

The Celts, again in very general terms, came from Central Europe. So they are sort-of German though, when I worked in the Czech Republic, the locals reckoned the Celts had actually come from what is now the Czech area of Central Europe.

The Anglo-Saxon English are from what is now Germany – the result of invasions by the Angles and the Saxons.

A Danish TV director I know, who worked with both me and Son of Gordon Jackson, told me he once drove round Yorkshire and recognised most of the names of the towns and villages: they were either recognisable Danish names or bastardisations of Danish names.

Hardly surprising, given that Denmark ruled most of England for so long.

To be a racist, you need to be ignorant of history. To talk of “racial purity” anywhere requires a deep ignorance of history. To talk of “racial purity” in the UK requires a remarkable level of crass stupidity.

I am old enough to remember TV documentaries about the last Yiddish language newspaper closing in the East End of London. Some of the street signs there – around Brick Lane – used to be in Yiddish; now they are in Bengali. Limehouse in East London used to be a Chinese area. Now there’s a little Chinese area in Soho (artificially created, it has to be said, by ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone). Everything is constantly changing.

The English language has thrived on constant new inputs from foreign languages; it is constantly changing. The ‘British people’ (whatever that means) have thrived on constant new cultural inputs and there is constant, vibrant change. Britain is constantly being re-born. Unlike the USA, we seem to have integrated and assimilated our immigrants over time. Admittedly we have had longer.

Britain, depending on how you define it, didn’t even exist until 1603 (when James VI of Scotland became James I of England) or 1707 (when the Act of Union was signed). The flag which the British Army flew at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 in support of their Hanoverian monarch was not the current Union flag. The current so-called ‘Union Jack’ did not exist until 1801 when another Act of Parliament united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland.

If/when either Northern Ireland or Scotland breaks from the United Kingdom and becomes independent, then the flag will have to change again.

No-one in Britain is, when it comes down to it, actually British. We are all immigrants. The British are long-dead, except perhaps for a few distant relatives in Machynlleth.

What “Britain” means is a moveable feast.

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Filed under History, Racism