Can Scots be English?



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, 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.


11 thoughts on “Can Scots be English?

  1. Surely though you could make a reasonable argument that Scots and modern English are *both* dialects of some older tongue, and so you could just as validly say that English is a dialect of Scots …

  2. No, I don’t think you can make that case. If you did you would have to say that Scouse is the dialect of Scots spoken in Liverpool, that Cockney is the dialect of Scots spoken in London, that Strine is the dialect of Scots spoken in Australia. This would be a very odd way to proceed because it would suggest there was once a language called Scots which developed distinct local characteristics as it spread south from Scotland across the UK and then the world. No-one disputes that English spread north from England to Scotland and gradually took on a local flavour. That makes Scots a variety of English.

  3. Hi Pauline, I just started reading (got a link due to this Queen’s English nonsense) and felt like leaving a comment. I’m an undergraduate at Glasgow Uni and in the department, we make a distinction between Scottish English and Scots, though we do acknowledge that the lines are fuzzy. More generally, some of the problems encountered by people who want to encourage the use of Scots is that Scots never developed a standard written form like English. I suppose the closest it ever came was during the time of the Makars (aka the Scottish Chaucerians), but even then they had three quite distinct styles. And then of course our printing industry fell well behind the progress of the English industry, and of course there were other political factors that left Scots without a standard form. So yes, I think a lot of people don’t see more modern Scots developments like "youse" as Scots; you’re more likely up here to be told in school that it’s sloppy ‘slang’.

  4. As an English A level student I find this really interesting! Where do you draw the line between one language and another? Could you say the difference between English and Scots is the same as the difference between Scots and Scottish Gaelic? But you would call them two different languages….so why not Scots and English. Or is it purely a cultural thing, are those who want Scotland to be independant more likely to call Scots a seperate language.

  5. <HTML dir=ltr><HEAD> <META content="text/html; charset=unicode" http-equiv=Content-Type> <META name=GENERATOR content="MSHTML 8.00.6001.18928"></HEAD> <BODY> <DIV dir=ltr id=idOWAReplyText39501> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV> <DIV dir=ltr><FONT color=#000000 size=4 face="Times New Roman"></FONT>&nbsp;</DIV></DIV> <DIV dir=ltr id=idSignature30085> <DIV>&nbsp;The difference between Scots and English is vanishingly small compared to the difference between Scots and Gaelic.&nbsp;Scots and English are close cousins in the Germanic language family, while Gaelic is their&nbsp;distant Celtic cousin. There’s a common Indo-European ancestor, but so remote that there&nbsp;is scarcely any family resemblance.&nbsp;That’s why is it uncontroversial to call Scots and Gaelic, or English and Gaelic, separate languages.</DIV> <DIV>But drawing the language line between one way of speaking and another is not an exact science. It could depend on how much of the vocabulary and grammar is shared. English and Scots share lots; Gaelic and Scots share very little. But politics always makes things more complex. A national identity often demands that your way of speaking be considered distinct from that of people living across the border from you, as in Belgium and The Netherlands, even when there is actually little structural difference.</DIV> <DIV>So, can Scots be a&nbsp;language distinct from English? Linguistically, not really, but I think it depends&nbsp;less on linguistic analysis than on whether you consider Scotland to be a different county.</DIV></DIV> <DIV> <DIV style="LINE-HEIGHT: 18px; WIDTH: 600px; FONT-FAMILY: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; FONT-SIZE: 12px" class=PosterousEmail></DIV></DIV></BODY></HTML>

  6. About your example of Dutch/Flemmish, that’s not completely true. Dutch and Flemmish are mostly indicators of distinct terminology and accent, not of a distinct language: they are under the same language union. This is pretty much like Brazilian and European Portuguese, not so much as the Scandinavian languages. We still call the language we watch on the Belgian television Dutch, as much as the Flemmish do call it like that. It only gets distinct in local dialects and some different defaults in preferences of terminology.

  7. How insulting, did I just read that Scots is a regional dialect of English just like Geordie. Excuse me but Scotland is a COUNTRY full of regions not an other English city. Scotland has itself regional dialects. Scots itself is a Language but most Scots speak Scots-English (A dialect) and code switch. If we where to speak pure Scots all the time no one (maybe even ourselves) would know what we where talking about. You call Scots a regional dialect then you’d have to call Scots-Gaelic one too.

  8. I don’t think you could have read this with much attention. I was at some pains to show that you can call Scots a language only on political grounds. Linguistically, and like it or not, it is a dialect of English. I’m sorry you take offence at my use of the word regional, but I had no political comment to make on the status of Scotland. It is sometimes said that a language is a dialect with an army, however.

  9. Hi,I must take issue with the "X is a dialect of X" construction used here (and pretty much everywhere else, all the time). It implies that one dialect is the ‘parent’ of the other. As you rightly point out politics and linguistics become blurred at boundaries such as these, so why use a charged expression such as the aforementioned when you’re attempting to describe the situation dispassionately? It might be better to say something like "Scots and English are closely related dialects" (implicit – of equal linguistic standing). The dominance of ‘standard’ English today was by no means assured when these two dialects diverged from their shared ancestor, so to imply that it is the ‘parent’ dialect in the relationship is disingenuous and probably a bit offensive to Scots speakers. Still, as I said, everyone does it, all the time. It seems us Anglophones just can’t shake off our enormous collective linguistic ego.

  10. Can’t agree with you, I’m afraid. If English is a collection of dialects (which it is) then it is fair to call Scots a dialect of it, just as Geordie is, and Cockney and Kentish. This is not to claim that Scots is a dialect of Standard English, which it is not, and I have not made any argument that implied a parent-child relationship. Modern Standard English is as much a dialect of English as Scots is. The assertion you are making, that Anglophones have an enormous collective linguistic ego, makes no sense whatsoever in the context of this piece…..

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