Scots is not thriving, it is little more than a nostalgic parody

27th January 2012 at 00:00
For lovers of the language, it is hard to hear it butchered at school Burns recitals and to see the urgent need for more political action

With Burns Night comes a time of celebration of all that is Scottish, including the Scots language. But the Scots language is fast dying. Of this there can be no doubt.

I write as a loyal supporter of lost causes, and there is almost no lost cause of more personal significance to me than this one. For me, the final testimony to the death of Scots was brought home when my son was seven. He came back from his rural Scottish primary school having been taught, for the first time, something he knew would delight his father: a poem in the Scots language.

My own household is one generation removed from the language of my childhood. I grew up with two linguistic registers - Scots, already by the time of my childhood much compromised, since it was the Glesca rather than the purer Lallans or Doric, and English. For me, the rules were explicit: there was one language for the home, another for the school. And we followed it wisely, like any other minority group that knows when to compromise.

My moment of truth was agonising, with my son's recital of his Burns poem. It was such a desecration of a once living language, my language, that I almost wept. I realised that for Scottish children Scots is now only a "heritage" topic. For example, you do a Victorian heritage project and dress up in its clothes, but you only wear these clothes to celebrate a dead thing. And sadly, you learn your Anglicised Burns to celebrate the dead Scots tongue.

My son won first prize for his Scots recitation. But it was a sullied, bastardised form of the language, corrupted by absurd Anglicisms and a spelling system that declared it was some kind of incomplete English. Worse still, his teacher knew no Scots, so the pronunciation was as excruciating as the English fondly singing Old Lang Zyne.

If we face the facts, rather than a sentimental adherence to the belief that Scots is thriving, we must accept that it is now little more than a nostalgic parody. Most of us only use it in quotation marks. We apologise for it. Why else would anyone ever say something as ridiculous as: "That's a good Scots word"? What we really mean is: "Even though I used a `Scotticism', I can still speak properly". Have you ever heard of anybody saying: "That's a good English word"?

Our attempts to find a "Scottish national anthem" say it all. We borrowed English to frame Flower of Scotland, standing against proud Edward's army, but succumbing in servience to his speech.

Linguistically, Scots stands at no disadvantage in comparison with the related English tongue. The reasons are political and cultural. Politically it was given no status at any time. The language of the nine- tenths majority became the language of our United Kingdom. The greatness of that language has made it the language of the world. The Union, and then the Jacobite uprisings, were landmarks in the decline and suppression of Scots.

Culturally, the defining point came when even the language of the court became that of London and not that which was once spoken in Edinburgh. Our schools followed suit, and Scots moved from being dominant to being marginalised, to being ostracised. Finally, television and the soap opera established a new and cooler norm of speech that sealed its fate.

The only hope for the long-term survival of Scots is structural and political. It is the underlying language of many more of our population than is Gaelic. The starting point is recognition as an official language here on our own Scottish soil. That might at least be a catalyst for new Scots initiatives.

It is difficult to think of any argument - linguistic, educational, cultural, literary or political - that does not support the promotion of Scots.

Linguistically, it is a language in its own right, and is no more a "dialect of English" than English is a dialect of Scots. Its vocabulary is as rich and as extensive as that of English, as may be seen from a perusal of the 22 volumes of the Dictionary of the Scots Language.

Educationally, what school system ever existed that renounced the rich language of its people, that shaped their thinking and their history? Culturally, it is wound into the very fabric of Scottish society, thinking and being.

In terms of literary merit, it boasts continuity from before the days of Blin Harry to after those of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Politically, what nation so despises its distinctive language that it has no formal recognition in its own territory, to the point where it is viewed as inferior speech?

A political initiative may not save Scots, but without one it will surely die. Those same slow corruptions that have gradually transformed the Scots "licht" and "nicht" to the English of the West of Scotland in "light" and "night" are also transforming the language of the young to the point where even the "ch as in loch" is fast disappearing, while our speech relentlessly accommodates to the dominant English or TV cultural norm. Every 18-year-old I know now gets the train to "Ballock".

The end of even the structure of our language is nearer than we believe. The purest speakers of Scots are now our most ancient citizens, and soon the remaining custodians of its vocabulary, idiom, syntax and structure will be those of the working class who are deemed ill-educated and ill- spoken, apart from some among the professional classes in selected areas, like the north east.

Unless decisive action is taken soon at the highest political levels, we are about to listen to "the end o an auld sang".

Tommy MacKay is a professor at the University of Strathclyde and director of Psychology Consultancy Services.

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