Sometimes there is an easy answer to the question, “What defines a language?” For example, it’s not controversial to say that the language called French is made up of a standard variety and many regional varieties (i.e. dialects) which are all more or less mutually intelligible.
However, it’s not always that neat, and often it gets emotional. Flemish and Dutch are mutually intelligible and they are often indistinguishable, but the national boundary between them means that no-one in either country wants to calls them dialects of the same language. They call them two separate languages. This is exactly the same in the case of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, or of Serbian and Croat. National boundaries tend to trump other definitions. In China, where eastern and western forms of speech are mutually unintelligible, it is nevertheless commonly asserted that there is one Chinese language. This is the same as claiming that modern Romanian and Spanish are the same language even though someone from Bucharest and someone from Madrid are not able to have a chat.
So when we ask if Scottish English (Scots) is a separate language from English or a dialect of English, we are asking a question that could be linguistic (is Scots intelligible to speakers of other varieties of English?) or political (is there or should there be a national boundary involved?) I would take issue with Brian Logan’s Guardian article on Scots
because he tries to make the linguistic case for separation, when really the only case is political. Scots is a regional dialect of English, pretty much as Geordie is, or Scouse, because it has pretty much the same syntax and morphology and pretty much the same vocabulary as other dialects of English. Some of the vowels and consonants are rather different, which takes some getting used to, but that’s about it.
For Logan, in spite of all that sameness, Scots is a separate language, and he uses linguistic arguments for his claim. Scots is distinct from Standard English, he says, because it has different words. He gives examples: lug (ear), puddock (frog), yammer (complain), lum (chimney), scunnert (surprised). But a few distinct vocabulary items do not make a distinct language. We need to see a distinct morphology and syntax, and in the case of Scots, we do not. Here is a line of early Scots displayed on the 16th century house of John Knox in Edinburgh:
Lufe God abufe al and yi nychtbour as yi self. (Love God above all and thy neighbour as thyself.)
This is early modern English is all ways bar the spelling. We have the same words in the same word order, the same imperative form of the verb, followed by the same direct objects. We have the same second person reflexive pronoun. The letter ‘y’ is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon letter ‘þ’ which represented the sound of ‘th’. The ‘cht’ in nychtbour represents the same fricative sound as the gh in neighbour, which had disappeared in southern dialects of English by the 16th century but remained in the north.
Here is another example of Scots, from Logan’s own article: An auld dug snaks siccar. He translates this freely as an old dog’s bite holds fast, but more literally it is an old dog bites hard. Spelling aside, the first three words are identical in form to Standard English, the verb snaks ends in the English third person present tense morpheme ‘s’ (as in bites) and only the last word, the adverb, is distinctly Scots. If you search for more examples of proverbs in Scots on this website, http://www.electricscotland.com/poetry/purves/proverbs.htm you’ll find most of them are pretty easy for any English speaker to decipher, once you get the hang of the spelling and a bit of help with the vocabulary.
It is simply not true to claim, as Logan does, that Standard English and Scots are as distinct as Spanish is from Portuguese, so he should leave the dubious linguistic arguments alone and go after the political one; if Scotland leaves the UK and becomes an independent sovereign nation, Scots can happily be called a separate language from English. Of course, whether the population would happily adopt it as the national language is hard to say. As Logan himself points outs, 64% of people in Scotland already view Scots as ‘a way of speaking’ rather than a language in its own right. He rails against this as the outcome of 400 years of the Scottish people being told that that their way of speaking English was slovenly and nasty rather than legitimately different.
So Logan wants respect for Scots, which is fair enough. No-one should ever be told that their variety of speech is slovenly or ugly or fit to be thrown away. Language, as any linguist will tell you, is neutral. If someone calls a language ugly, they reveal an ignorant prejudice against the speakers of that language, not an informed judgement on its syntactic or lexical structures.
By the same token, it just won’t do for Logan to claim a special virtue for Scots. It’s no more a ‘wonderfully expressive way to talk about the world’ than any other language. It no more ‘leaps from the page’ than any other language does. It is not ‘the most onomatopoeic of languages’, and if it were, we would all be able to guess at the meanings of skelpit, sklaffed and stamagastert, which we can’t. It is not ‘a unique way of seeing the world’ and the ‘tough sardonic history of Scotland’ is no more distilled in ‘A cock’s aye crouse on his ain midden’ (A cock always crows on his own dung heap) than Scottish misogyny is distilled in ‘Mairriage is a creel whaur ye micht claucht an edder or an eel’ (marriage is a trap where you might catch an adder or an eel).
All these assertions are projections of Logan’s fantasies onto Scots. To lose Scots, in the sense that no-one teaches it to their children anymore, would be sad, but it would not be to ‘lose irreplaceable insights into human experience’. No language, no dialect, ever has those.