Why does Holyrood stay silent on Scots?

13th April 2001 at 01:00
It's the natural language of the home, street and playground but the nearest thing it has to a textbook is Oor Wullie and the Broons, says Nigel Grant

Do you know how many Scots can speak the Scots language? We have figures for the numbers of Gaelic speakers (such as they are) but none for Scots.

Nowhere in Scotland's officialdom is there any recognition that Scots exists as language. In schools, it is often regarded as "dialect", "slang" or just "bad English". When I was a child (a long time ago), we came across some Scots (a little Burns and Border ballads) in English lessons, reinforced by Oor Wullie and the Broons outside schoolwork. No one gave us any indication that Scots grammar existed, nor any idea of good Scots or training in its use.

It was assumed that if we spoke Scots it was because we could not speak English, at least not properly. I'm a Highlander. In my youth, there was some Gaelic and English, not much Scots. Respect for English grammar was instilled into us, but not pronunciation. For that, correct English grammar with a Scots accent was to be used or at least aspired to.

At the outset of my teaching career, I taught English in Glasgow schools, and met spoken Scots for the first time, although it was Glasgow Scots, which the children were not allowed to speak and made ashamed of.

Later, I came across it in Edinburgh, and picked some Edinburgh Scots up from the local kids. Not from their parents, though. They spoke English habitually; in fact, many of them were English. Even among Scots, it was assumed by most of them that properly pronounced English was the normal language for educated people and for all purposes. There, too, Scots language was thought to be working-class and bad English (except for a few who spoke Scots habitually and had well-defined political positions for the use of Scots. But they all spoke Standard English with a Scots accent).

Consider our new Parliament. There was talk, just before it opened, of having Scots, Gaelic and English all used on the first day, and I published an article (in Scots) outlining the speech that could be made by the oldest member, very brief, in Gaelic, Scots and English. I knew who would be the oldest member - Winnie Ewing, whom I know personally - and faxed a copy of the article to her, the day before the Parliament opened, with an explanation on what it was about.

Winnie spoke in Gaelic and English, in terms similar to those Ihad used, at least in those two languages, but I have no way of knowing if my article had any effect on what she said. (The words could just as readily come from her own thoughts as from anything from me.) I have noticed on television the signs in Gaelic and English in the Parliament, but no Scots, and none of that has been used in the Parliament at all (at least not so far).

Political independence in the 17th century saved Portuguese from staying a Spanish dialect, and the autonomy of Catalunya seems to be going much the same for Catalan.

Most people there understand Catalan, and are more and more prepared to use it. They use it for shopping, church services, political meetings, the universities as well as schools, theatres, the cinema, football matches, conversations in the street or in bars and of course the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan parliament). Everybody learns it in school for at least three teaching hours a week (they can do more if their parents wish, from just over the three hours right up to a programme d'immersio where all teaching, except for Spanish lessons, is in Catalan).

Well, we have our Generalitat now, and something like the self-confidence which the Catalans could show. We have our own national language - indeed, two, Gaelic and Scots - but few try to learn Gaelic and there are very few who recognise that Scots exists as a language at all.

The lack of official status for Scots or its use in the educational system means that no one has been taught to use it. Even worse, there is no standard, in spelling or in grammar, no sense of what good Scots could look and sound like. Very well, there is poetry and drama and some fiction, but almost no expository prose, without which the language is stunted.

We will have to learn other languages, and one way of doing that is to make use of our mother tongues and give them more standing. Scots is very close to English, but is not identical to it. All we need to do is to recognise that Scots is a language and treat it with respect. Nothing else need suffer in consequence. Also, it is not difficult.

This is a question of attitudes, a matter of getting one of the languages of our people recognised for what it is, something which has needed doing for quite some time.

Nigel Grant was formerly professor of education at Glasgow University. He has just published "Multicultural Education in Scotland" (Dunedin Academic Press).

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