It's not a competition

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Glenn Telfer takes an optimistic view of the future of the Scots language

You have to go back to the late sixteenth century to get to the origins of the current debate on the nature and status of the Scots language. Since that time Scots has been slowly but surely undermined by the irresistible imperative of England's cultural prestige and economic might. This loss of confidence in the worth of Scots was most pronounced among society's leaders. The knock-on effect upon other social groups has been a long time coming, for there was something in the nature of Scottish society and the Scots' character that led Scotland to naturally resist this process of anglicisation. But there is no question that, for all the continuing vigour of spoken Scots, this resistance has weakened and this century is the one in which the great erosion has occurred. The loss of the rural roots that sustained the ancient vocabulary and countless dialects, mass mobility, mass media, a British Empire and finally, the greatest bogeyman, public education, have all provided historical conditions hostile to Scots. And so, against a backdrop of the vast and amorphous presence of global English, the Scots language has been brought to its Bannockburn or Culloden. We have many well wishers but the challenge is for us alone.

For teachers and intellectuals the Scots language has been an issue which has blown hot and cold throughout this century. Many have been hostile to Scots, feeling that much of it was bad English and a serious impediment to personal and social progress. Others, better informed and sympathetic, still found it difficult in practice to promote it. For Scots was, and still is, excluded from many areas of life and work.

Those hoping for a revival have seen every promising start come to nothing for they have never got near to tackling the misinformation and prejudices on a sufficient scale. It is traditional to blame the schools for this. And many reading this will easily recall examples of guid Scots punished as bad English. But, given that schools were reflecting society's ignorance and insecurities over Scots as much as shaping it, it is hard to know how to apportion blame or indeed if blame is an appropriate way to consider a cultural trend. Like it or not, Scots was viewed as inferior. Those who were educated were obliged to deny it.

The implications of attacking the way someone speaks - the very foundation of their self and of their culture - are enormous and all of them negative. Looking back we can see clearly now that the denigration of the Scots language has undermined the self-confidence of many Scots and of Scotland too. This lack of political and cultural confidences finds perfect expression in the sad, overcompensated attempts at "proper" English spoken by too many political and public figures. They have been made ashamed. Much of Scotland's bitterness can be found in this shame born of ignorance.

And yet it need never have been like this. The Scots language has no enemies outside Scotland. Scots could have been promoted as a companion to standard English, not its enemy. And it is not a paradox to say that promoting Scots would have made the Scots themselves more confident and able speakers of standard English. For it was the failure to know the difference and encourage delight in that difference that has compromised the ability of many Scots to be confident speakers. Scots is a variety of the English tongue and the differences between it and standard English are easily taught and never forgotten. The argument that Scots, and particularly its urban forms, are bad English is wrong. The belief that promoting Scots would lead to confusion is wrong too. So powerful though were the forces hostile to Scots that we have almost unwittingly and needlessly given away the very thing that makes us what we are and that other people love.

But things change. The political and economic certainties that sustained the cultural status quo are gone. And into the vacuum have come new ways and rediscovered old ways of expressing ourselves. In many ways we have became more global in our tastes and habits and in a parallel development more self-confident about our Scottishness and more needful of things from our past which tell us who we are. I believe that the renewed interest in the Scots language is part of this. I believe that the renewal of interest will not prove to be temporary because of its connection to these social and cultural relocations that are taking place, the vigour of contemporary Scottish culture is a parallel development and reaction to these changes. So although Scots is fighting a battle for its life, it is doing so in a favourable climate.

There are other reasons for believing that this revival will last. The new generation of teachers are much more knowledgeable and sympathetic. And for the first time the goodwill is being translated into policies and programmes for our schools through the activities of the Scottish Language Project and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. The programmes and hopes are realistic; there are no language die-hards, no one talks of returns to some golden past. The current attitude is characterised by a "here it is, take as much of it as you want" attitude.

No one is challenging English, it is a world language and speaking it confidently and fluently is a must. But the evidence that properly-taught Scots does not impede acquisition of standard English has been a big boost in overturning an old fear. The debate over whether Scots is a language or dialect does not really matter so much anymore; for this debate is connected to the lack of confidence that we felt about Scots. What matters is that people recognise the value of Scots and come to see it as a magical link to our past. Knowledge of the language will, I believe, benefit Scotland in all sorts of obvious confidence-building ways and many yet to be discovered ways. We need not overemphasise the practical side of this issue, for what matters, I think, is the delight of the language and the fact that it is a personal and artistic resource unique to us.

The problem for schools has been the lack of teaching material and prose. There have been no introductory texts that lead the student to Scots. Often the leap from standard English to, say, Burns or MacDiarmid is too great and can lead to the student being lost to Scots forever. At last, however, there are some publishing initiatives that are addressing this lack. It seems not unreasonable to hope that the various initiatives allied to the goodwill Scots enjoys will enable the language to enter the next century not staggering on its last legs but with a brave step. And perhaps too some of the ancient vocabulary and magical turns of phrase will be as weel kent to our grandchildren as they were to our grandparents.

Glenn Telfer is working on Argyll Publishing's Scots Legends series for new readers of the Scots language. His Robert the Bruce - A Scots Life was published this year.

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