Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scots and the Census

We received our census form today. One of the new questions on the Scottish Census is a language question, asking whether you understand / speak / read / write in English / Scottish Gaelic / Scots.

As an English person living in an area of Scotland where there is no real Gaelic speaking community, I can confidently state that no I don't read, write, speak or understand more than the very occasional word in that language and I don't feel that there is enough real opportunity to develop lasting skills in it either, though I do occasionally think about doing a beginner's course.

Scots is more difficult. I definitely read Scots, I've just read Hugh MacDairmid's Selected Poems and I regularly read poetry and novels in Scots. I may not understand every word and I get inordinately irritated by people who write in what they claim is Scots but is just a variant spelling of English without actually including any Scots words but I'd be lying to say I don't read Scots. I understand spoken Scots a lot of the time, but give me an Aberdonian with a thick accent and I'd probably not understand a word, but still, I think in general I do understand. Though fingers crossed the Scottish Government won't send a Aberdonian with a thick accent round to check up on my understanding after the census results have been collated. I definitely don't write Scots, apart from the occasional word such as 'dippit' in emails to Scottish friends. The big question is do I speak Scots? Now leaving aside the absurdity of speaking Scots with a Manchester accent, I probably don't, but it depends on who I'm with, and I can pepper my conversation with a good few Scots words other than dippit when I want to, I have also picked up quite a Scots intonation in my speech. I guess I've until Sunday to decide whether or not I speak Scots? Probably not, probably not. Though perhaps I could if I chose to, does that count?


Howard of Belvedere Mountain Express said...

Surely part of the problem with Scots is the old quote about a language being a dialect with an army. Because of the union with England since 1707, my impression is that Scots doesn’t really exist as a distinct language any more. At what point does a strong Scottish accent with a lot of Scots words become the Scots language? The fact that linguistically Scots is very close to English also makes it hard to differentiate.

I think the census question is there to gauge how much interest there is in a language and whether it is growing or shrinking. If you feel you can at least read ‘proper’ Scots well enough to understand it, then definitely you should tick the box.

Similarly I’ve had to question whether I can read, write and understand Gaelic. I’m nowhere near fluent and never will be; I’ve only done five terms of evening classes, after all! But I believe I should probably tick all three boxes, in order to register my interest in reviving the language. And I speak Gaelic with a southern English accent!

Crafty Green Poet said...

Howard your first point is interesting, just read a book about languages and dialects and the politics involved. I think there are separate languages out there which are closer linguistically than real Scots and English.

Yes I think that the census question is there to gauge interest, you're right

5 terms of Gaelic should mean you can tick at least one box for Gaelic

I'll definitely be ticking the read Scots box, its the others I'm not sure about...

Howard of Belvedere Mountain Express said...

There is an experience common to native speakers of many languages, but not those of English, and that is hearing a language which is very close to one’s own: for example, a native Polish speaker hearing Czech or Slovak, or a native Swedish speaker hearing Norwegian or Danish. Just as Czech sounds comical but largely comprehensible to a native Polish speaker, that’s pretty much how Scots sounds to me. I would hypothesise that, had Scotland not been politically united with England for the last three hundred years, Scots would be widely spoken and would universally be called a language, rather than often being considered a dialect, and we would now have that weird mixture of mutual intelligibility and amusement between native speakers of the two languages.

Incidentally, there is a serious self-study book about Scots in Edinburgh Central Library, and it advises the learner against trying to practise Scots with ‘the natives’ for fear that they’ll think you’re taking the piss! That’s the kind of weird and rather unpleasant situation that we’ve reached nowadays with the two languages.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Yes i agree, if Scotland and England hadn't been politically united Scots would definitely be considered a language.

I think that books right to be honest, I only generally use Scots words with people who know me well, partly for that reason

Jim Murdoch said...

I was born in Scotland and have lived my entire life here and yet I don’t think I would tick the ‘read’ or ‘write’ Scots boxes because even though I have written stories and poems that heavily feature a Scottish accent it’s all smoke and mirrors. I hardly use any Scottish expressions and I’m just as likely to use a Lancashire expression as I am a Glaswegian one. Like most people living in Glasgow and the surrounding area I’m comfortable with many slang expressions but I’m not a natural speaker any more than my wife (who’s an American) is a natural speaker and yet she also has incorporated a few choice phrases into her own idiolect. Stick either of us in a bar in Govan and you’ll see who the true Scots are.

Sandy's witterings said...

I don't have to fill the form in this time round since I'm not a householder any more but I did fill in the pages that refered to me - it's just easier that way.

I ticked all 3 boxes - I can speak, write and read Scots. The problem comes really in deciding just what is Scots - there is a certain society, whose name I can't remember, issues literature in "scots" - it's a collection of words from all over Scotland both current and defunt. The stuff's impossible - I doubt there's less than 1% of scottish people could make head or tail of it.

For me, Scots is the spoken language of the region of Scotland you belong to, and varies greatly from area to area. Other areas have word that baffle me and I from time to time use words Scots from other areas have great trouble with.

Finally, you'll be pleased to know, I often have trouble with Hugh Macdairmid and I spent my teenage years in the same town he was brought up in. If you listen to him speak, he doesn't use the same language he writes, nor that of his fellow townsfolk for that matter which is not what he writes either. I have no bother with Burns which seems more honest Scots.

I think I should stop now as this is becoming a bit of a rant.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Jim - yes I'd definitely deny all ability to speak Scots if I were in a bar in Govan and probably wouldn't understand much either. I do read Scots though, a lot (currently poetry in Scots) and wouldn't want to deny that on the census even though i don't understand every word.

Sandy - you make a good point about the varieties of Scots, it does vary a lot from region to region. Then there are the watered down varieties (literature with variant spellings but no Scots words been only one!). Thanks for your comments about MacDiarmid!

Crafty Green Poet said...

Howard, Sandy, Jim - thanks for all your comments, I think you all definitely prove the complexity of the issue!