Can Scots survive a slow slide into obscurity?

10th July 2015 at 01:00

In Aberdeen in the 1980s, where I grew up, representations of Scottishness were often crude or marginal. The Panini football stickers that boys swapped in the playground, for example, featured individual players from English teams. For Scottish teams, however, two players were squeezed on to a single sticker. These footballers were implicitly lesser, even in an era when provincial Scottish teams were beating Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The most recognisable "Scot" on prime-time family television was Russ Abbott's C U Jimmy character, now described on the BBC website as a "virtually unintelligibly Scottish psychopath who would gibber at the audience". Genuine Scots, meanwhile, seemed to disguise their Scottishness to get on. Singer Sheena Easton was infamously barracked after unveiling an American accent on a homecoming to Glasgow; the ascension of Shetland-born Tory chancellor Norman Lamont to the political elite resulted in him shedding his surname's usual pronunciation for a more lofty-sounding stress on the second syllable.

The insidious feeling that being Scottish was somehow substandard also applied to the way many people spoke naturally. I used to have a friend called Danny whose family had moved up from England. He adopted the language of the playground but retained his accent, the effect akin to Joey Essex reading aloud from The Broons.

One day our P5 teacher asked Danny a question, to which he didn't know the answer and replied "Ah dinna ken". This infuriated the teacher, who asked him to repeat what he had said. Danny did, now a little panicked. The teacher's anger grew because Danny could not work out what had triggered it. "Ah dinna ken!" he repeated several times, causing the teacher to crescendo to a frothing rant about how Danny didn't speak properly, sealing the boy's humiliation.

Scots has come a long way since the mid-1980s. It has been formally ratified as a language and legitimised in classrooms, with most educators now agreeing that encouraging expression through Scots can only be a good thing. And yet few schools do much with it outside of national celebrations such as Robert Burns' Day and St Andrew's Day (see pages 16-18).

Much more action is needed to reverse an inexorable decline, which can be seen in microcosm in my family. My dad won prizes as a boy for writing entire stories in Scots. My boyhood speech was only flecked with Doric (the North East's version of Scots), and that was diluted in order to be understood when I moved away from Aberdeen after leaving school. Now my six-year-old daughter is resistant to my sporadic attempts to inject a little Scots into home life, politely informing me that she "doesn't understand Scottish".

Is it all too late for Scots? It will take more than a handful of enthusiastic teachers to counteract the slow disappearance of a language over generations.

henry.hepburn@tesglobal.com

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