Whether Scots is even a language, rather than a dialect of English, remains controversial. According to a 2010 study commissioned by the Scottish government suggested “for most adults in Scotland, Scots is not considered a language.” The study found that 64% of people felt that Scots was either not a language, or merely a dialect of English, compared to a minority of 29% who considered Scots to be a language. However simply because it is not widely considered a language by the majority of the population, does not necessarily mean it is not a language. The biggest difficulty in determining the status of Scots is the lack of clear criteria as to what makes something a language rather than a dialect. Scots is clearly similar to English, yet there are distinct differences that separate it from the English language. Both are West Germanic languages that developed simultaneously and due to similar immigration patterns to Scotland as to England, they developed in similar ways. Arguments in favour of Scots being a legitimate language largely fall into two types, the first compares Scots with other languages and the second looks into the history of the Scots language. Scots was used by law-makers and officials in Scotland prior to the Union of Crowns in 1603. Noblemen, officials and even the Kings of Scotland spoke in the Scots language. ‘The Kingis Quair’, widely thought to have been written by James I of Scotland is written in Middle Scots, an older form of the language. These two lines from ‘The Kingis Quair’ are a good example of Middle Scots: “Of this and that, can I noght say quharfore,/Bot slepe for craft in erth myght I no more.” This languages has similarities with middle english (‘y’ replacing ‘i’ in ‘myght’ for example), yet has its own distinct set of grammatical rules that seperate it from English. The ‘quh’ before ‘quharfore’ is one such distinctly Scots example. ‘Quh’ was used as an alternative to ‘wh’ in middle Scots and is utilised as such throughout the quair. This rule can be further observed in the poetry of Alexander Montgomerie. Montgomerie was writing in the late 16th century, but the ‘quh’ rather than ‘wh’ is still utilised by the poet. “Quhen with a quhisk sho quhirlis about hir quheill” Middle Scots continued as a language for far longer than Middle English did. It was not until the Act of Union that Middle Scots shifted to modern Scots.
Proponents of the argument that Scots is a language, such as the Scottish government’s education website, point out the similarity between Norwegian and Danish. ‘Scots Online’ a website dedicated to the promotion of the Scots language, provide an example sentence in Norwegian and in Danish. First in Danish: “Kan ikke brukes i forbindelse med dimme utstyr eller elektronisk av og på mekanismer. Ikke egnet til bruk i helt lukkede armaturer.” Compared with Norwegian: “Kan ikke bruges i forbindelse med lysdæmper og elektronisk tænd-sluk-ur. Ikke egnet til helt lukkede armaturer” Norwegian and Danish are as similar as Scots is to English, if not more so, yet, as Scots language proponents establish, Danish and Norwegian are considered distinct and separate languages. Danes and Norwegains can understand each other, with little difficulty. The same cannot always be said for native Scots speakers and some English speakers. Scots occasionally have to modify their speech to be understood by those with little knowledge of Scots. According to proponents of Scots being a language, this implies that if Danish and Norwegian are legitimately separate languages, then so to are Scots and English. Yet this still does not conclusively prove that Scots is a language. Denmark and Norway are separate countries from one another, and each use their respective languages exclusively at official level. Both languages have standardised dictionaries and grammatical rules, neither face the problems created by a lack of defined standardisation that Scots faces.
Both the argument from history, and the comparison with other languages provide compelling arguments in favour of Scots being a language, but they are by no means conclusive. When compared to other regional variations of English, e.g. the traditional Yorkshire dialect, there does not appear to be any difference. The traditional Yorkshire dialect (that is now sadly almost non- existent) was as distinct from English as Scots is, if not more-so, yet few would argue that Yorkshire is a language. Similarly the language spoken in the North-East of England shares as much with Scots as it does with English, and has an entirely unique set of linguistic rules and words, again ‘Geordie’ is considered a dialect, not a language. The one difference between these dialects and Scots is that Scotland is considered a nation. Historically it was a separate country entirely, and many proponents of the Scots language argue that as Scotland is still a separate nation (albeit one in a Union with the rest of the UK), Scots is therefore separate on a political level. Whether the status of Scotland as a nation, and Yorkshire as merely a region, affects whether the respective dialects are languages or not is unclear. Without a specific definition as to what makes something a dialect and makes something a language it is difficult to determine. Whether or not it is a language is unclear, however it is currently recognised as a language by both the Scottish and British governments, so for the rest of this essay I will be working on the assumption that Scots is, indeed, a language. However even if it is not a language, the case for it being historically significant is sufficient evidence to its place in schools. Scots has clearly been significant in both the history and culture of Scotland, and it would be a case of double standards to omit the learning of Scots merely because of the inconclusive nature as to its status. Whilst 64% of Scots, according to the study mentioned above, may not believe Scots is ‘really’ a language, 55% of Scots believe the language/dialect should be taught in schools.
It is worth questioning whether there is a political agenda behind the increasing role Scots is taking in education. It is not a coincidence that this increase in cultural nationalism in education is occurring under a nationalist government. This is clearly the case. Whether this is occurring due to a genuine belief that cultural nationalism is important, or due to a notion that increased cultural nationalism will lead to increased political nationalism and thus help the current government win support for their core philosophy, is less clear. Anne Sobey, in her essay, establishes that: “It is recognised in Scottish nationalist circles that, without an increased sense of ‘Scottishness’ which would allow cultural separation from England, political independence would be difficult to achieve.” This begs the question, is the increased role of Scots (and other aspects of Scottish culture) in schools an attempt to create cultural separation from England? It is worth comparing Scots with the other non-English language of Scotland: Gaelic. Gaelic Medium Education in Scotland is being increasingly promoted by the Scottish Government, to the extent that last year they published their intention of setting up Gaelic education in every state primary school in the country. This may be a case of the government’s nationalist agenda being used to foster a cultural separation between Scotland and England. Unlike Scots, which is legitimately spoken across the country, Gaelic is confined to very small, sparsely populated parts of Scotland. Gaelic has not been spoken in lowland Scotland for centuries, and parts of Scotland have never spoken Gaelic. Encouraging Gaelic medium education in areas of the country that are predominantly Gaelic speaking should be encouraged, and every effort should be put into helping the survival of the language in these areas. Yet Scots is a different matter.
Nationalism for political benefit is potentially the driving force behind increasing the teaching of both Scots and Gaelic in schools. For Gaelic this creates the problem of an unimportant language being taught to people who have no background or cultural ties to the language, yet Scots is clearly different. Scots is spoken across the country, and 85% of people in Scotland speak Scots to some extent. Unlike Gaelic, Scots is clearly a language that has practical use and is utilised by most Scottish pupils on a day to day basis. Although nationalism for the sake of nationalism in education (and generally for society) is a negative thing, if it helps deliver education in the language that many Scots feel more familiar with, then (in this case) it is clearly beneficial. Anne Sobey notes this in her essay: “A huge gap exists between the Scottish experience and the English language”. Without the use of Scots there is a fear of creating a two-tier linguistic system for pupils, who are forced to learn in a language that is not, necessarily, their first language. There has been little research done looking into the impact of conducting lessons in Scots to pupils who speak Scots as their first language, however what little there has been has wielded positive results. One study by Matthew Fitt and Cathrin Howells, which looked into the impact of Scots being taught at a Glebelands Primary School in 2005 showed an improvement in the behaviour of pupils Scots speaking with low attainment levels. It is clear that teaching children in the language that is more familiar, or native to them, is beneficial.
Although there are clear benefits to teaching Scots, there are practical difficulties associated with the language. The biggest of which is the lack of standardisation. Unlike English, which went through a continued process of standardisation, dating back to Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, Scots has had no real standardisation. Dictionaries have been created and compiled over the last few years in an attempt to remedy this problem, however Scots still lacks a complete formal code that other languages have. The most comprehensive dictionary in Scots, the Dictionary of the Scots Language, contains Older Scots, Middle Scots and Modern Scots words, yet includes words from every dialect of Scots. This provides another problem. Scots is made up of many regional dialects, which differ considerably from one another. The Doric dialect of the North East of Scotland, for example, is distinct and separate from the Glaswegian dialect. Take the English word ‘child’ for example, in Glaswegian the correct term would be ‘wean’, yet in Doric it is ‘bairn’. Similarly words such as ‘loun’, ‘quine’, ‘muckle’, ‘fit’, and ‘ken’, all commonly used in the Doric dialect, are not understood by native Glaswegian speakers. All exist within the Dictionary of the Scots Language, however. This is problematic as there becomes no clear distinction between one form of Scots and another, rather the collection of Scots words is a collection of different dialects that are not heard together. The sentence ‘The wean is a quine’ is a sentence using Scots words included in the dictionary, yet it is a sentence that would be heard neither in Glasgow (due to the word ‘quine’) nor Banffshire (due to the word ‘wean’). Teaching Scots one must be careful to ensure that the Scots language being taught is one that is local and makes sense to the pupils in the local area. The benefit of learning Scots in a school in Keith would be lost if the Scots taught was one resembling Glaswegian, rather than the local Doric dialect.
Another significant problem faced with teaching Scots, is linked to the lack of standardisation, and that is how to write in Scots. Scots has not been a written language in any meaningful way for centuries. Although poets have written their poems down in Scots, there are huge discrepancies and differences in how it is written. ‘To a Haggis’ by Burns provides one example of written Scots: ‘Fai fa’ your honest sonsie face’. Burns makes use of the apostrophe in “fa”, something which modern poets or Scots writers would not do. The government education website advises “An apostrophe tells us that something is missing, but in Scots words like greetin, daein, lowpin, snawin etc, there is no missing letter g”. Tom Leonard makes use of the lack of standardised form of Scots by writing in a completely different way: ‘iz coz yi/widny wahnt/mi ti talk/aboot thi/truuth wia/voice lik/wanna yoo/scruff.” These examples are both legitimately Scots, yet entirely different from one another. Teaching Scots, without firm grammatical rules or standardised spelling, is difficult. Yet standardising spelling and creating one correct form of the language is something that linguists are unwilling or unprepared to do. There is a risk that much of the fluidity or natural flow of the language could be lost if certain ways of writing or spellings of words are declared incorrect. Education Scotland are aware of the difficulties presented in writing in a language with few fixed rules, and simply advise consistency. There is a potential problem with teaching pupils to write in a language which does not have any rules, and there is a fear it may have a negative impact on their English writing, a language with a fixed orthography. Interestingly though, according to a study by Celia Craig, conducted in Westhill Academy in Aberdeenshire, the use of Scots actually helped pupils grasp linguistic concepts. She claims “Scots clearly emerges as an enhancing element in pupil acquisition of language and linguistic concepts.”
A further practical difficulty with Scots is pupil’s difficulties in differentiating between Scots and slang. According to the study mentioned above, conducted by Celia Craig: “The S5/6 response at the focus Secondary School featured pupil inclusion of what might be termed teenage jargon words (e.g. “stonkin”, “mingin”) as Scots.” It is therefore crucial to begin lessons in Scots at an earlier age, in order for pupils to be aware of what constitutes Scots, and what is merely Scots sounding slang. These are difficulties associated with a non-standardised language. Without specific rules it can be difficult to determine whether a word is a legitimate part of the language, or if it is slang. ‘Mingin’, the example used by Craig, is included in some Scots dictionaries as a legitimate word. ‘Mingin’ is derived from the Scots ‘ming’ (meaning smell) and is legitimately used as a Scots word in certain regional Scots dialects. Yet clearly there is difficulty in determining whether it actually is a real Scots word, or merely an example of slang. When it is unclear due to the lack of standardisation, it is difficult to accurately teach children correctly. One teacher may consider it a legitimate word, whilst another may not. Reasonable guidelines must be put in place, but must be done so whilst being mindful of the region one is in.