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Gonnae gie’s a brek, Eck? Language, Politics and National Identity

August 3, 2013

In the 2011 census for Scotland, Scottish residents were asked which of the following they could understand, speak, read or write: English, Scottish Gaelic or Scots. I found this question impossible to answer, as it suggested that Scots is a different language from English in the same way that Scottish Gaelic is. I speak a Scottish variety of English, but I still think I speak English. Even if the question was interpreted to mean that Scots is a variety of English, what box would I tick then? If I ticked the Scots box then I couldn’t tick the English box, because I don’t use an English dialect or accent. But I still think I speak English. I’m sure you can understand my confusion.

It seems that I wasn’t the only person who had problems with this question. When testing the questions in 2009, IPSOS MORI found many of their subjects expressed confusion, puzzlement and even amusement that the census should include a question that distinguished Scots from English. It also became clear that the term “Scots” meant different things to different people. For some, it was the kind of antiquated literary language as used by Robert Burns, while for others it was just English with a Scottish accent. Some respondents even interpreted Scots as a kind of “bad” version of English. However, the researchers suggested that including Scots in this question was unlikely to cause much concern, largely because many respondents saw its inclusion as “a bit silly” rather than anything else.

IPSOS MORI concluded as follows: “The question will not yield any meaningful data on Scots and potential data users should be made aware of this.” So basically they felt the question was useless in terms of gathering any information about language use in Scotland.

However, the report went on to say: “We cannot see any way to solve this problem in the context of the census.”

The implication here is that the census was being conducted within a context that required some sort of inclusion of Scots as a language, irrespective of public perceptions of this. As the census was conducted by the General Register Office for Scotland, an office controlled by the Scottish Government, it’s logical to conclude that this requirement came from the governing Scottish National Party. Scots is regarded as a UK minority language as covered by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, in the same way that Scottish Gaelic is. But should it be? Gaelic is very obviously a different language, but isn’t Scots just a variety of English?

Identifying whether a language is a language in its own right or a dialect of something else is more difficult than you might think. Here are some examples which might help to illustrate this:

Most Chinese people, and anyone in the Chinese government, will tell you that there is one Chinese language, with a number of different regional dialects. While they share the same alphabet, as spoken languages most of these “dialects” are mutually unintelligible; the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese have been described as equivalent to the differences between English and Turkish.

When Czechoslovakia became a nation in 1918, Czechoslovak was established as the official language, with Czech and Slovak regarded as dialects. When the Czech Republic and Slovakia separated in 1993, Czech and Slovak were once again established as separate languages.

Similarly, since the break-up of Yugoslavia the language that used to be called Serbo-Croat has now been separated into four different languages: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. However, all four are mutually intelligible.

While Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are officially regarded as different languages, they are really part of a dialect continuum. This term was first used by Leonard Bloomfield and is used to describe “A range of dialects that vary slightly by region, so that the further apart two regions are, the more the language differs.” So the variety of Norwegian spoken close to the Swedish border, for example, is closer to the variety of Swedish spoken just across the border than it is to the variety of Norwegian spoken in the south of Norway. All three are more or less mutually intelligible, however. Nevertheless they have different names and are officially regarded as three different languages, largely because they “belong” to three different countries.

It’s clear from these examples that politics and “nationhood” can have a big impact on whether or not a dialect becomes a language. In 1918 Slovakians didn’t all suddenly start speaking Czech, nor did they all suddenly change the way they spoke in 1993. Czechs and Slovaks can understand each other as well as they could 20 years ago (if they want to), but officially they speak different languages. The identification of Slovak as a language in 1993 was a political decision, not a linguistic one. Similarly, the notion that there are only dialects of a single Chinese language, despite the huge linguistic differences, is a way of keeping a linguistically diverse nation together. The quote “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”, popularised by Max Weinreich, certainly seems to ring true. Establishing a linguistic variety as the language of a country can help to assert national identity, and is therefore a useful tool for uniting or dividing groups of people. The linguistic difficulty in identifying when a dialect becomes a language is a problem for sociolinguists, but very convenient for politicians.

So, back to Scotland – what was going on with this census question? Is the SNP trying to establish Scots as a different language from English in order to promote Scottish national identity?

Let’s look at the case for a Scots language from a linguistic point of view. There’s the accent, obviously, and while many different varieties of pronunciation exist within Scotland, there are enough consistencies for a Scottish accent to be reasonably easy to distinguish.

There are clearly a large number of vocabulary items as well that are peculiar to Scottish speakers – wee for little, aye for yes, blootered for drunk, to name but a few. In addition, Scottish varieties of pronunciation can lead to words being spoken in such a way that they may not initially seem to be English words – home becomes hame, head becomes heid, over becomes ower etc. There are also a lot of lexical phrases that can be described as Scottish, so for example the “English” phrase “Can you shut the window please?” would more likely be something like “Gonnae shut the windae?” Another lexical difference is how Scottish people use English words with different meanings – we have our dinner in the middle of the day and our tea in the evening, for example, though this is perhaps as much cultural as it is linguistic.

As for grammatical differences, there are a few, such as the mixing of the second and third forms of some verbs. It wouldn’t be particularly unusual to hear these sentences in Scotland:

-I done it yesterday.

-I’ve gave him it.

-He’s came up and belted him ower the heid.

(The last one is just an example and is not intended to enforce stereotypes, by the way).

None of these differences is enormous, but they do exist and it is certainly true that some varieties of English as spoken in Scotland are unintelligible to some users of English in England. I don’t know for sure, but I’d imagine the differences between these varieties are similar to, or even greater than, the differences between the Scandinavian languages described above. It could therefore be argued that on this basis it’s legitimate to talk about a Scots language rather than a Scots dialect.

The Scots Language Centre is a website, supported (unsurprisingly) by the Scottish Government, which aims to promote the Scots “Language”. The site presents Scots as a language in its own right, describing it as “mainly a spoken language with a number of local varieties, each with its own distinctive character.”


Now, this is where I feel the linguistic argument in favour of a Scots language starts to unravel. The fact is that the varieties spoken in different parts of Scotland are not just different from standard English, they are also very different from each other. These differences are sufficiently big that Doric, say, which is spoken in the north-east of Scotland, can be unintelligible to someone from Glasgow, and vice-versa.

If Scots is actually a collection of dialects, how is this different from English? Think about the varieties of English that are spoken around the world and how different they are from each other. The English spoken in Cape Town is very different from the English spoken in New Orleans, which is very different from the English spoken in Vancouver, which is very different from the English spoken in Mumbai, or Singapore, or Lagos. But English speakers in these places don’t say they speak South African, or American, or Canadian, or Singaporean, or Nigerian. They speak South African English, American English etc. They are all varieties of English in the same way that Doric or Glesga or Dundonian (or Yorkshire or Scouse) are varieties of English.

Going back to the political argument, we could probably identify some kind of dialect continuum of English in Great Britain. The Scottish Borders, where I come from, has some lexical and grammatical items that are similar to Geordie. I’ve certainly heard Ant (or was it Dec?) say “he’s went” on national TV. Those in favour of a Scots language may argue that Scandinavia, the former Yugoslavia and the Czech and Slovak Republics provide ample precedent, so why not draw the line where the border is and declare a Scots language? But then again, what about the variety of English spoken by Boris Johnson as opposed to the patois spoken in the East End of London? There are clearly huge differences there, perhaps bigger than the differences between any Scots dialect and standard English, and that’s in the same city! How would you draw a line there? The answer is you wouldn’t, because there’s no political motivation to do so. However, there does appear to be a motivation amongst Scottish Nationalists to promote Scots as a separate language.

The Scots Language Centre website helpfully provides a Scots version of its text. So the text quoted above is translated as follows: “Scots is maistly a spoken leid wi a wheen hame-aboot forms, ilk ane wi its ain kenspeckles.”

“Leid”, “hame-aboot” and “kenspeckles” are all words I had never seen or heard before until reading this website. Should I have? If Scotland were to become independent, would I be expected to learn new lexical and grammatical items like this and start incorporating them into my own vocabulary? If there’s a dialect continuum with standard English at one end and Scots as used on the Scots Language Centre website at the other, most Scots are somewhere in between. When do they stop speaking English and start speaking Scots? How many “Scots” words do you need to have in your vocabulary before you can say you are speaking Scots?

Perhaps I need to make it clear that I am not one of these people who thinks that any linguistic deviation from Received Pronunciation is a bad thing. On the contrary, I am very much in favour of Scottish words and phrases being used, and of the promotion of Scots dialects in general. I even teach Scots phrases to my students, and get immense pleasure from hearing them saying that they are in a fankle, or they got a skelf in their bahoochie. I also think it’s good to hear politicians in Holyrood using phrases like “pure scunnered” and “gonnae no’ dae that”; their electorate can relate to this kind of talk and it can only enrichen the language as a whole. We do have a way of speaking that is peculiar to us and that’s great. I’m even happy that we have a website that celebrates this.


It’s understandable that the delineation of languages according to national borders exists in Scandinavia, the former Yugoslavia etc. But in this global society, with the rise of ELF and EIL, disassociating ourselves from English would be shooting ourselves in the foot big-style. We speak Scottish English in the same way that South Africans speak South African English, Nigerians speak Nigerian English, Americans speak American English and so on. In a world where English is becoming an increasingly important lingua franca, where every other nation is trying to learn English in order to communicate internationally, what kind of message would we be sending out if we were to say “actually we don’t speak English, we speak Scots”? Who would want to come and study here, or do business with us? What impact would this have on tourism? Or maybe we would prefer to describe ourselves as bilingual, speaking both English and Scots. I’m not sure what value this would have though and, personally, I wouldn’t be sure whether I was speaking English or Scots at any given time.

Some Scots might not like the name of the English language, but surely we need to get over this. Other countries who were colonised far more recently than us seem to have no problem saying they speak a variety of English.

When the census results about the Language Question are published, it will be very interesting to see if the Scottish Government tries to make anything of the responses about who speaks Scots as opposed to English. After all, the people who designed the questionnaire have said themselves that the question is meaningless.

You could also say that this whole issue is meaningless – whether Scots is described as a language or a dialect is a purely semantic debate. Or is it?

  1. Neil McMillan permalink

    An interesting post as usual Steve. However, I can’t help but feel you are making this issue into a party political one, which is not entirely the case. It is not only the Scottish government which defines Scots as a language, but Westminster itself, under the same European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages that you mention. In scholarly circles the issue is far from resolved, with one German linguist’s definition of Scots as a “half language” just about summing up the situation, but there are persuasive arguments which back up the official view and lead to the inclusion of Scots on the census question you cite.

    As you point out, this official clarity conflicts sharply with the Scottish public’s confusion on the issue and I would argue that this is at the heart of the matter. For me, and it should be noted that I did study Scots formally, the simple fact that “Scottis” was once the language of state in Scotland, defined officially as a “leid” or language distinct from English, and in the process of being standardized orthographically, settles the issue. After the Union, however, Scots was supplanted as the dialect with an army and navy behind it and could not compete with its neighbouring close relative – not least when prominent Scottish thinkers like David Hume began regarding their own “scotticisms” as vulgarities and aimed to obliterate them from their writing.

    Scots was revived as a literary language at different points in time – which explains the identification between Scots and Burns you mention – but even Burns would slip into English when he wanted to sound more authoritative or intellectual. Scots tended to become a language of sentiment and not of thought, despite the best efforts of Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance of the early 20th century. Despite this, of course, Scots continued to be a spoken language, even up to today, although the populations who speak its various dialects are increasingly aged and isolated.

    This brings us back to the confusion. Do we even know when we are speaking Scots? At which point along the continuum between Scottish Standard English and Broad Scots do you have to be before you are speaking one rather than the other? What information, what linguistic self-awareness are we lacking?

    In my own case I would find it easy to tick the “English” box. I am not a Scots speaker but I could say I’m a Scots reader. I do feel, however, that I was somewhere closer to being a Scots speaker as a child. And then school happened. Kids were punished for saying “aye” instead of “yes”, or “braw” instead of “good”. The only time you saw Scots written down was in a poem, and the only time you could speak it was when reciting that poem. The punishment aspect to that may have disappeared in today’s schools but I’m sure the linguistic imperialism which promoted standard English as the only valid, proper and appropriate means of communication in Scotland has not.

    In other words, the Scottish education system, Scottish teachers of English and even our own parents and grandparents have been doing a Hume on us for years now, reinforcing the idea that Scots is bad English, or at most an inferior dialect, good for poetry and the pub but nothing else. It’s no wonder we don’t know what to think when we’re suddenly presented it as equivalent to English and Gaelic in an official document.

    It’s probably too late to stop the rot. The website you cite illustrates how broad Scots, outside of the communities in which it is spoken, has become like a near extinct species you’ve heard of but rarely see or hear, and protected only by the faithful. If I contrast that with Catalan, which survived Franco and will survive the latest attempts from Madrid to diminish it, maybe this adds a twist to the Weinreich quote. If a dialect lacks an army or a navy to back it up, what it needs are large parts of the population, in particular those with influence on education and other policies, to do so. Scots themselves, in particular the Scots that shaped Scottish education, turned their backs on the language at the earliest opportunity. Unlike Catalan in Catalonia, Scots has never been the vehicular language of education in Scotland, and likely never will be – and as you point out, probably shouldn’t be.

    As Scots though, whether we speak Scots or not, I feel we should know more about it and value it a bit more, especially in the face of the dominance of international English. This for me is a reason to protect a language and not forget about it, so I was glad to read that you feed a few phrases to your students! Incidentally, you are probably doing more than the Scottish Government you see as behind all this – I see little indication that they are doing anything to raise the profile of Scots as a language.

    As a postscript, I think your argument about dialects deconstructs itself quite nicely. As you point out, the existence of strikingly different dialects does not stop English being a language, so really, why should it stop Scots?

    • I’m really grateful to you for bringing your expert knowledge to this post, Neil, and for such a detailed comment.
      As I was writing it I started realising that there was probably a lot more to it than just an agenda from the SNP. The historical side is one I’m not very familiar with so thanks for filling that in.
      The range of attitudes and perceptions among Scottish people as to what Scots is is a really interesting issue. The fact that prominent Scots have themselves regarded Scots as inferior to English has surely had a massive impact on how it is regarded today.
      To be honest I’ve never really had much sympathy for arguments about linguistic imperialism. if you look at it pragmatically, different communities need to talk to each other which either means the dominance of one language over another or the creation of a pidgin.
      As things stand now, where English is dominating the world in terms of cross-cultural and international communication, I think it would make more sense for Scots to be regarded as a dialect than as a separate language. If anything, knowing that it’s acceptable to use Scots terms in spoken and written English might help to retain these words and phrases more effectively than treating Scots as a separate language with a few people fighting a losing battle to retain its use.
      Like you I find it unfortunate that Scots doesn’t have the same kind of status as Catalan, but the fact is that it doesn’t and I don’t see how it could. We can blame history but we can’t change it.
      Thanks again for your comment. I’m sure other readers will find the points you have made interesting and hopefully they will offer their opinions too.
      Cheers for now,

  2. Hi Scott

    I can’t find Your mail, regarding visit from our Norwegian Magazine. Could you please send me an email to ?

  3. Sorry!! I meant Steve 🙂

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