Thursday 16th April 2015: How old is Scots language?

This question is quite difficult to answer about any language. How old is English language? Language exists on a spectrum – it is hard to identify when one language ends and one begins geographically, historically, linguistically. That is so much a part of the problem that Scots has – can we and should we define the moment when Standard Scottish English ‘becomes’ Scots. The same is true historically – when does Anglo Saxon, the common ancestor between modern Scots and English, ‘become’ Scots or English?

The Anglo Saxon language came to Scotland in the seventh century AD. So in one sense, we could say that Scots began then. The seventh century is certainly an important date in its history. But is that Scots? A problem that we have when looking into whether that was indeed ‘Scots’ is that Anglo Saxon is also sometimes called Old English. So many people will say that the language spoken then was English. But if ‘Old English’ conjures up images of men in breeches and Shakespeare for you, think again. Here is the start of the most famous piece of Anglo Saxon literature, Beowulf, written down:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena   in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga,   þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas   ellen fremedon!
Oft Scyld Scefing   sceaþena þreatum
monegum mægþum   meodo-setla ofteah;
egsode eorl[as]   syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden;   he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum,   weorð-myndum þah,
oðæt him æghwylc   þara ymb-sittendra
ofer hron-rade   hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.   Þæt wæs god cyning!

Now, sometimes different languages LOOK very different but when you hear them you can totally hear the connections, or understand the gist. You often get that with 15th or 16th century Scots – looks impenetrable but spoken can often sound much more recognisable. Yeah. Not with Anglo Saxon/Old English. Here is that same bit of Beowulf spoken:

Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it not English?

The Anglo Saxon language spread from the south east of Scotland and embedded itself in the lower parts of Scotland – the borders, east coast, north east and the Sutherland area and Northern Isles. Part of its spread was due to conscious displacement by David I of Gaelic speakers in the new burgh towns, so the language of the power became that Anglic langauge. Many Gaelic speakers learned the powerful language, the Gaelic language retreated slightly. But the higher land continued to be dominated by Gaelic, much, much more widespread than it has been in living memory. For example, Kinross, where I’m from, is solidly lowland (biggest loch in the Lowlands, lads) but the name – from Gaelic ceann + ros – shows that it was once Gaelic speaking. So tell anyone having a go at the Gaelic place names on station signage to (LOWLAND) PIPE(S) DOWN.

The question of the age of Scots is not made easier by the fact that early speakers of the Scots-ancestor-language referred to themselves as ‘Inglis’, or English, speakers. In, say, the 12th century, ‘Scottis’ referred to the ancestor of what we now call Gaelic. The first person to use the word ‘Scottis’ to refer to the Anglic language that we now call Scots was Gavin Douglas, a poet and cleric born in the 15th century. He was referring to the translation he did of Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots, Eneados, the first translation of any major Latin or Greek text into any Anglic language. Douglas, fairly uniquely for the time, set up a contrast between ‘Scottis’ and ‘suddron’, the language of England. Fun fact! Eneados is the first ever citing of the word ‘scone’ in the OED.

Maybe we date Scots from the moment that a modern, contemporary Scots speaker would be able to get by with a historical speaker. In that case there’s certainly a case that a 15th/16th century speaker like Douglas or Dunbar would be able to get by with a current inhabitant of Easterhoose. But would they get by differently with a Standard English speaker? Would, because Scots has been relatively more conservative than English, a Scots speaker do better with a fourteenth century ‘suddron’ speaker like Chaucer than a twentyfirst century Standard English speaker would? And if so, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Yeah. Complicated.

Basically: Scots is older than a lot of people think. If it’s age gives it weight for those who think of it as a poor debasement of modern English, then send them here to me and I will complicate this even more for them. Mary Beard, the Roman historian, and I are in agreement on many points. And now, using her words, I stand to say: “What is the role of an academic, no matter what they’re teaching, within political debate? It has to be that they make issues more complicated. The role of the academic is to make everything less simple.”

Sorry, not sorry.



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