Game for learning Scots

29th November 2002 at 00:00
On the eve of St Andrew's Day, Eleanor Caldwell reports on a fun way to extend your language pupils' Scots vocabulary

The Scots language has always been alive and well in Burns country. However, the bard might have looked askance at some of the pupils' comments on home-made posters in the English department corridor at Auchinleck Academy in Cumnock, East Ayrshire. "Yer caur's hackit" for one.

The teachers vent their own feelings in equally straightforward tones on the walls of their staff base. "Ah'm seek" and "haud yer wheesht" would be ideal on a Monday morning, aimed at pupils who are not "plunkin'

it".

Principal teacher of English Helen Sullivan sees it as important that children keep a strong hold on their own language and also learn about the Scots of other regions.

One second year class has been preparing for a Scots edition of the Call My Bluff game. The pupils have worked in six groups of four; each group has been given a word for which they had to prepare a set of four definitions, one true. Mrs Sullivan explains that she used a Scots dictionary and thesaurus to seek out particularly obscure words which none of the pupils were likely to know.

They were encouraged to work together and use their imagination to devise plausible and apparently well-researched definitions. As a stimulus for ideas, the class watched the Channel 4 Learning series Haud yer Tongue, which looks at the variations and origins of regional Scots.

The first group starts the game in serious and plausible tones. "Whaup" might be a verb or a noun. In 19th century Glasgow, for example, boxers might have been advised to "jist whaup him wan". On the other hand, as a late 18thearly 19th-century dance, the whaup was perhaps enjoyed by all. Another explanation of whauping is running very fast. Interestingly, the definition of a wading bird, like a curlew, is correctly guessed by three of the other five groups.

"Flaggert" flummoxes most of the teams. An 18th-century knife for cutting bales sounds quite convincing, as does a northern Scots description of tiredness and untidiness often attributed to women, as in: "She's lookin'

fair flaggert." Only one group picks out the correct definition as a type of flowing garment.

The plausibility of all the proposed definitions is impressive, as are the pupils' straight-faced deliveries.

In their one minute group consultations before giving an answer, the teams are obviously trying to apply methodical reasoning for their decisions. A word sounds Gaelic or its onomatopoeia gives away its meaning.

However, sometimes it is pure guesswork. "It jist came aff the tap o' ma heid," says one girl. whose team favours "blaeflum" as a 16th-century pulley system for heavy horses, a term apparently emanating from the north-west Highlands. They have rejected the explanation of a musical instrument played in ancient Greece in the worship of Poseidon, and the correct answer of a type of joke or hoax conducted for the entertainment of others.

In most cases, pupils say, their decisions are based on the definition which is given in most detail. "Forfochen" is a good example. The bluffing team offers not only detailed definitions but also alternative pronunciations, involving a combination of Gaelic, southern Irish, Edinburgh and Glasgow origins and ranging from fishing to an annoying child. In the end some are still duped and miss the true meaning: being exhausted from fighting.

Some of the more imagined definitions are more attractive than the true meanings. A small pink flower called a "wersh" conjures more pleasant images than the sour acid flavour of a bitter orange. And if a sneck is a large rabbit trap used by poachers in South America, does that mean there is a sneck on the sneck (door latch) to make sure they are locked in properly?

The class will now work towards including these and other new words in future creative writing, Mrs Sullivan says. They already use reading resources such as The KistA'Chiste, Learning and Teaching Scotland's anthology of Scots and Gaelic poetry, prose and drama.

For future games of Call My Bluff, Mrs Sullivan plans to allow the pupils to find their own words for definition, using a combination of the Scots dictionary, thesaurus and the Internet. Word definitions in Scots would create an extra tier to the game.

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