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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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