William Shakespeare spelled his own name in so many different ways (none of which were S-H-A-K-E-S-P-E-A-R-E) that, most honourably of all his glories, his variant signatures have their own wikipedia page. Mind, if we knew the variant ways in which he brushed his teeth, there’d be a page about that. When Shakespeare was writing, that variation just wasn’t an issue in terms of the reader. Despite the fact that English had been undergoing a series of attempts at standardisation for two hundred years by then, it still had another two hundred years to go before you could properly say that this is the right way and that is the wrong way to spell something.
When I spoke to David Crystal about the show, I wanted him to tell me that languages can exist in a healthy state of non-standardisation forever. I wanted him to say that Scots doesn’t need to lose its variation in spelling. And he did agree (YAY!) but he also said, quite distinctly that all languages move towards a standardised written form (BOO!). It takes a while, and purely written language varieties like ‘Standard English’ don’t need to dictate what the spoken languages sound like, and all the variation there, but it is a natural part of language development to have a standardisation of spelling. When I said that it wasn’t an issue that in Shakespeare’s time there was so much spelling variation, he corrected me. It made it much harder to read. It’s harder to communicate. In spoken language, if someone uses a pronunciation you don’t know, or a word, you can ask for clarification. In written language, what you see all you got. The standardisation of English, for Crystal, was inevitable. That’s Crystal Clear™.
Now, when we look at Standard English we realise that the spelling is not ‘standard’ at all. Enjoy this classic:
The dough-faced ploughboy coughed and hiccoughed his way to Peterborough.
That is a NIGHTMARE. But what we’re saying is that in our current system, if you wrote ‘The doh-faced plowboy coffed and hiccupped his way to Peterbura’ in a newspaper, the subeditor would red line that bad boy. Even now, WordPress is squiggly lining it to all hell. To get to the ‘Dictionary’ spellings of those words, though, was the journey that English went on from the 1400s to the 1800s.
Here’s the Crystal stages of language standardisation:
- writers, poets and novelists decide their own systems, which gain influence
- policy documents and political powers start using those spellings
- those spellings gain power and credence, with weapons like newspapers and dicionaries
Top down standardisation doesn’t quite work, although it tries and tries and tries. I tell you where they love top down standardisation – France. They have a weird approach to language. And by weird, I mean aggressive and fairly dangerous. These guys pick all the allowable French words and how to spell them. You know. They choose. Those old white guys. That’s why they hate Senegalese French speakers who come to France, or Rwandans. Those speakers don’t abide by The Rules. For French national service, you used to be able to go to Canada to teach French to the Quebecois. It was a national service to stop the Canadians from speaking Canadian French, and to make them speak God’s Own French.
So in answer to the question, ‘should Scots be standardised?’ I’d say: no. There’s no should here. If it survives long enough, though, it probably will.