Scots into Strine

Over the weekend, I was off being taught how to teach English. It was a bit exhausting, admittedly, because it was a 20-hour course, but it was fun and I learnt a lot and got to “teach” a few lessons to the class.

One of the activities we did, though, was aimed at getting us to understand what it’s like to be an intermediate learner reading a text and understanding most, but not all, of the text. In order to simulate this, there were about ten Scots words interspersed throughout the text.

(I could already understand about 80% of them, but that’s not the point. Actually, I have a slight problem with Scots in that I can read and understand it just fine, and know a lot of the words and phrasing quirks, but sound like an idiot when I try to speak it. Maybe I just can’t get the accent right. But let’s not talk about that now…)

But, funniness of a text with random Scots words aside (I chortled to myself the whole way through the first time – I wasn’t expecting it), what was even more hilarious was the list of translations/definitions my class came up with:

Birled roon – spun around
Blether – chinwag
Braw – bonza
Crabbit – cranky
Fankle (in a) – tizzy, tiz
Gallus – cocky
Richt (+ adjective) – dinky-di
Skiver – bludger
Teuchter – country bogan
Wabbit – dead beat
Wheesht – oy, listen up!

Sigh. Australians. What do you do with them? Who else would translate one set of dialect words into another dialect?

Just as a final note, some of these translations happened once we got a bit silly. By that, I mean “dinky-di” and “bonza”. A lot of the other words, such as “cranky”, “tizzy”, and “bludger”, really were the first translation the class thought of – although, personally, I said that “skive” is the same here and the translation of “blether” is “blather”. Apparently that’s just me, though.

Is Scots a Language?

Depending on who you ask, “Scots” can be an accent, a dialect, a language, or a group of languages. I tend to think that it is a language with dialects of its own. So, assuming this, what exactly is Scots?

Scots is a Germanic language which is closely related to English.

Scots is spoken in the Scottish Lowlands and part of Ulster (which is in Northern Ireland).

Scots is mutually intelligible with English – but in the same way that Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese are mutually intelligible, or German and Dutch, or Danish and Swedish and Norwegian. You never hear anyone saying that any of those aren’t languages! This mutually intelligibility causes confusion amongst English-speakers, who are often taught that English (due to its beginnings as a creole) has no closely “mutually intelligible” languages (although Frisian was considered for a long time to be mutually intelligible with English). Of course, one has to question how many “languages” English can really be broken into if one uses the standards employed by the rest of the world for defining a dialect from a language.

Scots is also known by a variety of other names, such as “Braid Scotch”, “Lallans”, “Ullans”, “Doric”, and many other local dialect names.

Scots isn’t Scottish English, which is just English spoken with a Scottish accent. Nor is it Scottish Gaelic, which is a Celtic language closely related to Irish and Manx.

Scots has a number of dialects of its own, including “Dundonian”, “Glesca/Patter/Banter”, “Doric”, “Ullans” and “Lallans”.

Scots had a remarkable impact on “Strine” – that is, (colloquial) Australian English.

Scots was brought to Scotland around 1070, by Malcolm II of Scotland (also known as “Ceann Mòr” or “Canmore”, which means “Big Head”) and the the English princess Margaret. There was a lot of fleeing involved – first by Malcolm Canmore, who fled to England during the reign of Macbeth but then overthrew him in 1057 with the help of the Anglo-Saxons (English), and then by Margaret, who (along with many other Anglo-Saxon lords) fled to Scotland during the Norman conquest. She, along with many other Ango-Saxon lords, considered the Scots to be backwards and uncivilised, and refused to learn Gaelic, forcing English to become the main language of the court and government (it had previously been Gaelic).

Scots was used in the royal court and government of Scotland for over 500 years until 1603, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England and became King James I of England. With the royal court now in England, the language used switched from Scots to English, and Scots was soon regarded as nothing more than a dialect of English.

Scots was known for a very long time as “Inglis”, which probably contributes to the confusion between the two languages. In the same way, Gaelic was known for a very long time as “Erse”, which means “Irish”.

Scots has retained a lot of German influence which has been lost in English, mostly due to the Norman conquest. That isn’t to say that Scots doesn’t have any French influence – but it happened later, from a more modern and ‘official’ French dialect, rather than the Norman dialect which influence English. A lot of pronunciation of Scots words is much closer to German than to English, and there are a number of very German words which aren’t used in English.

One of the most convincing (for me) pieces of evidence that Scots is a language rather than a dialect is this: when a child grows up with Scots-speaking parents in another English-speaking country (say, Australia or America), s/he often continues to speak Scots with his/her parents and the local accent with everyone else. Compare this to an English- or American-speaking child in Australia, who will often choose one or the other and stick with that in all situations, and to a foreign-language-speaking child in Australia, who will often become bilingual and speak their parents’ language at home and Australian English everywhere else. Which situation is it closer to?

Of course, once you accept that Scots might be a language in its own right, you’re then faced with another question: are Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects of Scots, or are they languages, too? They’re both substantially different from other Scots dialects, but very similar to each other – their influence comes more from Old Norse (“Norn”) than it does from the early “English” Anglo-Saxon dialects from which Scots is descended. Not knowing much about Shetlandic or Orcadian, I’m not going to go there, though.

As Max Winreich, a Yiddish-speaker, once said: “An shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un an flot.” – that is, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Thus, we can assume that, once Scotland gains independence, Scots will become an officially-recognised language (they’ll probably make it an official language of Scotland or something – we can only hope that they give the same treatment to Gaelic).

Well, I hope I’ve made sense. Just a couple of thoughts from yours truly on the Scots language.