Tuesday 14th April 2015: What makes Scots language Scots? – and where is the apostrophe? PART 1

What makes Scots language Scots? - and where is the apostrophe?

Before I start I just want to say: GOD BLESS WIKIPEDIA, AND ALL WHO SAIL IN HER.


This question has had me puzzling. The issue of Scots language is complicated by the fact that the very word ‘Scots’ means many different things, a point highlighted by Johann Unger in The Discursive Construction of the Scots Language (much of the summary of the history of Scots that I use here comes from Unger’s very useful summary in that book as well, anything that’s not in there is horrifically unreferenced – do I not listen when I teach academic writing?). It could refer to:

  1. the Scots language
  2. the people who live in Scotland
  3. something which originates in Scotland

It means that a phrase like ‘Scots education’ could mean education in Scots language, the education undergone by Scottish people, or the education system within the country of Scotland. But who said that talking about language would be easy given that we’ve only got language to use?

So, I’ve taken the first part of this question to mean, what is identifiable about Scots language that differentiates it from other languages? The ‘other languages’ we are talking about are pretty much just the one language – English – which is such a close relative of Scots.

There are a number of ways to identify Scots language. You can look at its history, or you can look at the ways that it is different from English. Though the first option seems a bit stuck in the past, the second option still presumes the worth of Scots is somehow in relation to English. It would seem odd for us to try to prove how English is different from German, as if German is the important one and English the bastardisation. But, that approach has uses when we are trying to explain the language to someone from outside Scotland, or even someone inside Scotland who is under the impression that there are only two languages spoken here: Gaelic and English, with good and bad speakers of the latter. Man, I can already tell this is working up to a huge post. Maybe I should set a word limit on these. ONWARDS!

The history of Scots begins with the introduction of Angles languages from the north of England into Scotland in the 7th century AD. At that stage there was a very fluid continuum between the Angles language in Scotland with the language in the north of England. Indeed there are still many links between the language varieties of the two areas, as Isobel McArthur points out succinctly in her show ‘How to Sing It‘ where she jostles between her natural Scottish accent and Scots language, and her natural Mancunian accent and language.

As political and geographical lines kept the groups fairly isolated, the languages developed independently. The language in the north of England was influenced by the south of England (among other influences), and the language of Scotland was influenced by French, Dutch, Frisian, Gaelic etc. Of course the interaction between the Angles-derived langauges continued, but by the time of Mary Queen of Scots, she spoke only Scots and French. So different was her Scots from the English of the English court that the English ambassador and had to request the both used French.

By the time of Mary’s reign, Scots was beginning to standardise a little, under the influence of the ‘Makars‘, Scots poets who wrote in the Middle Scots of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, often highly influenced by Latin. If you want to hear some of that poetry, you could do worse than downloading this literary Edinburgh walking tour app which features my voice and a poor interface. But during Mary’s reign the shift to a more southern influenced language had already begun. The Reformation brought promise of a direct connection with God and scripture, and that meant bibles not in Latin but in ‘the vernacular’. The ‘vernacular’, in this case, mean the bible southern English, translated as it was by southern English exiles in Geneva. John Knox, a founding father of Scottish Presbyterianism, also studied there, and emulated the thinkers that he admired so much in his use of the language of the south east of England.

The move of Scottish language towards the southern sister of Scots language was hastened when James VI took his court south, and those who wanted to get ahead wanted to fit in in London. The time between the union of the crowns in 1603 and the union of the parliaments in 1707 saw the watershed move of Scots language from the position of ‘official’ language of state, church and law, suitable for public and private use, to a language which is suppressed, mostly spoken, and mostly used in the private sphere.

The decline from that point, because it still had far to fall from public approval over the next 400 years, is maybe for another post. It is possible to argue, though, that the separate history of Scots is one of the things that makes it ‘Scots’. That separate history did not end with the union of the parliaments, as I am sure we will explore later, but the fact that the language has well over a thousand years of history, and had official status for centuries, is something that I found very surprising when I first learned it.

The second option for identifying Scots as Scots, is, in the words of David Crystal, piling up the ways that Scots is different from Standard English and seeing how big the pile is. That pile would include vocab differences, syntax difference, discourse differences. For Crystal, and for me, that pile is big enough to constitute a separate language. To have a look at those, I can recommend Modren Scots Grammar by Dr Christine Robinson (who kindly allowed me to interview her as part of my research) and Scots Grammar by David Purves, which is a wee bit older. Even just dipping into both is great fun.

This post is about to break the 1000 word mark (this is like university essays all over again – I lied in every single essay word count in 6 years of higher education), so I’m going to split it in two and we’ll look at Scots and apostrophes next time. Or another time. Not now though, go and have a think.


The Scots History section of the Scots Language Centre website.

This much more succinct video by the Scots Language Centre (they manage it in under 20 minutes!).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s