Scots as ‘folk-speech’

Murison, D. (1964) The Scots tongue: the folk-speech, Folklore, pp. 37-47

An old paper but interesting in that it links to my previous posts on the analysis of The Broons and reveals some of the deep roots of anti-Scots prejudice and the middle class attitude that prevailed when I was learning the language in the late 1960s.

Murison starts with the familiar story of Scotland’s loss of status in the 18th century when “it gradually became a mark of social prestige to speak English with an authentic accent and Scots was more and more restricted to the context of the domestic, the familiar, the sentimental, the comic – in fact to the ambit of folk-life“.

This is what Murison calls ‘folk-speech‘ and he characterises it in quite specific terms i.e. “the fondness for the sententious utterance, the epitomising of common experience in a short, vivid or pithy staement, which in content may be nothing more than a truism or platitude, passing for folk wisdom“. The oddly patronising tone continues;”folk-speech will be coloured by emotion, animation, emphasis, the desire for dramatic or picturesque effect“. We then drift into broad judgements of the speakers themselves, “another feature of folk-speech is the frequency of contemptuous or perjorative words…for anyone who differs in any way from an accepted norm” and this can be linked to “a kind of primitive tribalism, the feeling of belonging to a closed community which produces suspicion or dislike of the stranger or of anyone not conforming to the norm“.

Maybe it was OK to haiver like this 50 years ago, and perhaps times have moved on but it is interesting how judgements on Scots slipped so easily into judgements on the speakers’ “primitive tribalism.

I think this type of language, in an academic paper no less, goes to the heart of why the Scottish middle classes rejected Scots in such a remarkable way. While appreciating the richness and history of Scots as a ‘cultural resource’ the educated classes detested the actual people and communities that spoke it. Murison observes correctly at one point that “popular speech gives names to what is of significance to the people“, but the impression is clearly given that their ‘significance’ in his eyes is pretty insignificant.

However it certainly is true that the Broons comic strips were full of exactly this kind of language. There is of course a long tradition of dismissing this type of familiar linguistic use as ‘trivial’ – it is unfair to pick on Muirson who was writing in the context of his time – but in fact from a linguistic standpoint this is where this is where most of the conversational work gets done. What is of significance to speakers, if not to intellectuals, is everyday interaction and this is where Scots has survived.

If you ignore the old fashioned – albeit still prevalent – attitudes, though, the article is full of interesting thoughts on Scots vocabulary. I leke the idea of Scots having “100 different words for the earwig” and all the terms for traditions such as ‘first fit’, ‘hansel’ and older ones like ‘heidwashin’ (no about nits, but a good-luck ritual). he goes into the roots of many words too; ‘bools’, ‘gowf, ‘peevers’, ‘carline’, ‘bejan(t)’ etc.

Murison ends on a down beat tone, though, he says all this variety needs to be recorded in dictionaries as soon as possible before everything is lost as  “whatever the speech of this country at the beginning of the next century, it is very doubtful it will be anything that is recognizably Scottish, at least in the ordinary historical meaning of that term“.

Whether Murison’s gloomy prediction has actually come to pass is a matter of opinion, but he perhaps inadvertently points to some of the attitudes of our own scholars that have contributed to that very change.

“Language wars” Part 1 – The causes of war

The first part of a discussion based on a reading of French linguist Louis-Jean Calvet’s Language Wars*.

Calvet neatly turns Clausewitz‘s famous maxim on its head. If “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means” then linguistic intervention by forced multilingualism, deliberate neglect or even inapproriate planning is to Calvert just another means of war. And the aim, like any conventional war, is to gain or maintain power. Calvert reminds us that most countries (including Scotland) are multilingual and most of the planet’s speakers have been and a majority still are multilingual too. Even self-declared monoglots “use different forms of [their] language, and the choice of one form or another comes down to particular functions” (p56).

Monoligualism is therefore something of an unnatural why do people try to enforce it? Calvet gives a range of interconnected reasons.

  • Religion – In the Bible story of the tower of Babel multilingualism can be interpreted as a value-judgement – a ‘punishment from God’. The ‘shibboleth’ story links linguistic difference as the mark of the ‘other’. Many other religions are also closely associated with language purity; Sanskrit, Arabic, Hebrew etc.
  • Classical languages – In the West Greek and Latin were considered superior languages and anything else  -including English for a while- was the base tongue of ‘barbarians’ (literally the ‘other’ who did not speak Greek).
  • Ideologogy of superiority – “Confronted by language differences, men have always felt the need to demonstrate the excellence of their own language and the inferiority of others” (p.44).This is especially true in a diglossic situation where one language is the language of power. The ideologogy of superiority unsurprisingly and readily shades into prejudicial and racist judgements of the actual speakers of other languages or varieties. Remember Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion; ” A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live.”
  • Nationalism – language is seen as a major marker of belonging, and can be used as a tool for liberation or of oppression. Again the underlying issue is power. As Calvet indelicately puts it “if the barbarians gain power anywhere, their language, which was previously considered inferior can become the prestige language“. The original rise of English, French etc can equally be interpreted in this way as can the post-colonial resistance to them.
  • Modernity– using a language like English can be a way of psychologically rejecting or transcending ‘conservative’ parental cultures.
  • Utility – Similar to the modernity argument is the utilitarian view that learning an international language such as English – often to the exclusion of the parental language – ensures the economic wellbeing of the offspring. Multilingualism is sometimes seen as a barrier to full proficiency and integration, especially among immigrant communities.

In the next part of this discussion I will look at the ‘front line’ of the language war.

*Calvet, L-J. (1998) Language wars and linguistic politics, Oxford University Press

I also did a short Amazon review of this book…. gave it three stars!.

Scots – a wowf in dug’s claes?

A’m a biologist by tred an in 1983 A mind readin an ootsaunin airticle* in the “New Scientist” that haes aye stickit in ma mind as a kinna orra metaphor.

It wis aboot Italian wowfs. Noo Italian wowfs is raither rerr noo, no bein gey faur ben wi the local fowk that hae a tendencie, nae surpreese-like, tae shuit at thaim. But the wowfs haes stairtit inbreedin wi wull or ‘feral’ dugs wi an orra ootcam. Accordin tae ae researcher, “the offspring behave like wolves and look like dogs…this ‘camouflage’ give them a tremendous competitive advantage because, as ‘dogs’ they can approach garbage dumps in populated areas or herds of sheep whithout anyone taking special notice, much less reaching for a rifle“.

Syne the wowfs may weel survive aifter aw – but as dugs!

Whit’s the pynt? Weel whan A think o Scots a think o thae Italian wowfs, survivin in a ill-wullie enviornment by luikin like somethin a bit mair couthie. Like a language that jouks gettin stamped oot by soonin jist a bittie like a hamit dialeck.

[Vocabular: tred – trade, wowf – wolf (also ‘oof’), faur ben – popular, ill-wullie – hostile, couthie (here) – benign, hamit (here)-  innocuous]

* Hansen, J. (1983) The wild dogs of italy, New Scientist, 3 March 1983,590-591

Image: New Scientist

A guid St Andra’s Day tae ane an aw

A’v nivver got whit wey St Andra’s Day isna celebratit muckle mair. Luik at the stushie (an siller) makkit oot o St Paitrick’s day, e’en in Scotland. A doot mibbie comin jist aifter Halloween – aye a muckle do whan I wis wee – an nae lang afore Yule the timin’s no aw that guid. An we hae Hogmanay then Burns Nicht tae luik forrit tae in January. Bletherin awa on Facebuik ae bodie thocht St Andra’s Day was mair for posh folk an aw (“is it no a load o balls…”). A dinna ken but shairlie there eneuch Scottish entrepreneurs oot there tae big it up a bittie. A’m aye up for anither pairtie, fowks. Like the weel cuil Scottish lion on Google the day, tho.

[Vocabular: stushie – commotion, siller – money, doot – suspect, muckle – big, blether – chat, big –  build]

Analysing the anti-Scots scrievers

Last year I completed a Masters course at the Open University with a module on ‘discourse analysis‘, a subject that sounds formidably intellectual but actually is remarkably practical and hugely relevant to any study of Scots and linguistic nationalism. ‘Discourse’ means the stories we tell each other as a community and in particular the stories the powerful elites tell us about ourselves through the media, education, and religion and so on, essentially to keep us all under control

In an earlier blog post I collected a range of anti-Scots articles going back 15 years or more. These represent the views of Scottish ‘elites’; writers, journalists, politicians and pundits who feel sufficiently uncomfortable by the advocacy of Scots to attack it in print. It can be seen these elites rely on long-established practices – so-called ‘discourses of domination‘ to maintain their power.

Each of their points could be challenged line by line but what is far more interesting is to explore the socio-cultural context of these writers, the drivers and assumptions that motivate them. On the OU course I was particularly impressed by Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), an academic approach developed among others by English sociolinguist Norman Faircough. One prominent CDA advocate, Dutch linguist Teun van Dijk, explains how CDA helps us to uncover “the strategies of manipulation, legitimation, the manufacture of consent and other discursive ways to influence the minds (and indirectly the actions) of people in the interests of the powerful“. It attempts to map out “the strategies of dominance and resistance in social relationships” and uncover hidden ‘ideologies’, according to Fairclough and colleagues “ways of representing and constructing society which reproduce unequal relations of power, relations of domination or exploitation“. Although as you might expect, CDA is often associated with a ‘western Marxist’ stance, it also works pretty well for a Scottish autonomist stance,

In future posts I’ll explore how CDA might work to unpack anti-Scots language arguments but it may be best illustrated for the moment by a non-linguistic example.

Scottish nationalists often express frustration by the way they see asymmetric political access to media, particularly the Scottish press and the BBC is used coercively by the London and Scottish unionist power elites to ‘manufacture consent’ (e.g as suggested by the infamous BBC anti-independence videos see right). This they argue is not simply the fair statement of an alternative political position, but an open abuse of power. The aim is to create and maintain a British ideology. Not exactly hidden, perhaps, but a key CDA insight might be that is British ‘nationalism’ – rarely self-labelled – becomes normative and naturalised to the point of invisibility and Scottish nationalism – invariably labelled as such –  is highlighted as the deviant  ‘other’ to be resisted.This would explain both the subtle and low-intensity ‘institutional unionism’ in so much of Scottish media and why open accusations of bias in, for example, the BBC are usually dismissed out of hand rather than investigated and corrected.

Back to linguistics, in exactly the same way the relentless drive to English-only monolinguism – again never described as such, but that is what it is – has become so normal and naturalised that any advocacy of Scots, no matter how modest, must therefore be deviant and strongly resisted. Gaelic advocacy on the other hand can be accommodated as Gaelic is now so weak it poses no threat to the elites whatsoever.

The problem for the most of us who are not professional politicians and journalists is that according to van Dijk we “lack the knowledge of rules and strategies of grammar or discourse, [we] may not have sufficient knowledge to detect lies and manipulation, or strong counter-opinions or counter-ideologies to argue against and reject influential text and talk“.

It seems to me if we want to argue for a healthy multilingualism in Scotland, where Scots, Gaelic and Scottish English are normalised and dynamic parts of our linguistic culture, tools such as critical discourse analysis might be useful approaches to begin to counter the powerful propaganda of the anti-Scots establishment.


Fairclough, N. and Wodak, R. (1997) ‘Critical discourse analysis’ in van Dijk, Teun A. (ed.) Discourse as Social Interaction , vol. 2, London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi, Sage.

van Dijk, T. A. (1993) Principles of critical discourse analysis, Discourse and Society, vol. 4, pp. 249–85.

How to speak Scots – a wee trick to try

Speaking Scots naturally outside the “hame” environment of friends and family can be challenging. People often lapse into English as they are afraid of being misunderstood or even appearing a bit odd.

There are three interrelated reasons for this.

  1. Scots is still a heavily stigmatised language, so any attempt to use the language at full strength as will be noticed i.e you will be regarded as ‘taking a stance’.
  2. Even in Scots speaking areas, using non-dialectical Scots can also be slightly provocative as people may think you are inaccurately mimicking their speech. This has happened to me!
  3. Only a minority of lowland Scots (some say about 40%) have a working knowledge of the tongue. So if you use 100% Scots grammar and vocabulary, the other person may simply not understand you.

At first sight these problems seem a bit unsurmountable. There is however a way of using Scots in everyday speech that takes advantage of the way Scots is usually mixed in with English.

We are all accustomed to changing the speech we use in formal situations like work to the more chatty way we speak to friends and family. We spontaneously dial up or down the ‘tone’ depending on the circumstances. Most Scots speakers can also easily increase and decrease their use of Scots words and grammar forms in a conversation. How can we make use of this innate ability?

  1. People keen on using Scots pepper their English with ‘markers’, wee words like aye, wee, no or nae (for not), ken (know) and so on.
  2. If the other speaker responds by using Scots themselves, more Scots words, phrases and grammar forms are gradually stirred in.
  3. If either participant gets confused or uncomfortable the Scots words and grammar forms are simply dialed back to more standard English.

This sliding between Scots and English happens all the time, usually without thinking.

If you want to use Scots more in conversation I suggest you just try to do this a bit more consciously. Gradually increase your use of Scots words, phrases and grammar in natural conversation and you may be surprised how many people will be happy to speak at least some Scots back to you.


The ‘secret’ grammar of Scots

Grammar is the glue that holds any language together and is made up of the rules that make our speech and writing comprehensible to others. Although native speakers of a language usually have an instinctive feel for these structures, learners usually need some formal presentation. In the case of Scots, however, even fairly fluent native speakers are likely to be unaware of the language patterns they are using.

It is only when these are written down can it be appreciated how rich Scots grammar is, how it differs often quite markedly from standard and colloquial English and how the forms used today often derive directly from older Scots usage. Given the status of Scots as a primarily spoken tongue, many researchers report a loss of distinct grammatical forms due to convergence with English, but what is really astonishing is how much remains.

Until about 15 years ago anyone wanting to find out about Scots grammar had an uphill task. Only two comprehensive grammars had been published; James Wilson’s largely forgotten study Lowland Scotch based on interviews with inhabitants of the Perthshire village of Dunning, published in 1915 and William Grant and James Main Dixon’s 1921 classic Manual of Modern Scots centred on the literary language. Both these essentially ‘descriptive’ grammars were out of print for decades – though can now be ordered as reprints from Amazon.

However from the late 90s there was a comparative avalanche of Scots ‘prescriptive’ grammars, aiming to set out rules of usage. David Purves’ booklet A Scots Grammar was published in 1997; about the same time as Andy Eagle’s Wir Ain Tung, essentially a reworking of Grant and Dixon, appeared on the web. Also in 1997 Philip Robinson produced the masterly Ulster-Scots – a grammar of the traditional and spoken language, again something of a homage to Grant and Dixon. These reference works were joined in 1999 by Susan Rennie’s Grammar Broonie, a workbook aimed at young learners and in 2002 by L Colin Wilson’s Luath Scots Language Learner, the first-ever Scots language course for the complete novice with extensive sections on grammar. Alexander Bergs also published Modern Scots in 2001, a detailed review of literature which essentially updates Grant and Dixon based on more recent sociolinguistic research, providing us the most definitive descriptive grammar of Scots to date.

It should be noted that Scots being a primarily oral language there is a very close link between descriptive works like Grant and Dixon and Bergs and prescriptive texts. This has been less true of English where prescriptive grammars dominated until comparatively recently when English ‘corpus’ grammars based on databases of actual usage appeared.

As David Purves reminded us in 2002 “in any language revival, an essential stage is the fixing of standards amongst the welter of variation that is always found in the untended garden of natural speech“. So far no ‘official’ body has emerged in Scotland to ‘fix standards’ but the publications above provide the next best thing; a remarkably consistent description by language scholars of how the core grammar of Scots currently functions. This is as close as we currently have to ‘standard’. The somewhat overstated dialectical variation in Scots pronunciation and vocabulary Purves alludes to does not seem to extend to grammar.

The Scots Haunbuik Scots Grammar will be published here very soon.

More resources

  1. The The Aiberden Univairsitie’s Scots Leid Quorum’s Innin Ti the Scots Leid (1995) is a useful 44 page booklet and where I started with the grammar of Scots. Strong on spelling and of course grammar with some useful vocabulary lists.
  2. Alexander Bergs (2001) Modern Scots draws together a wide range of 20th century research on the modern tongue to provide the best detailed descriptive grammar of current usage.
  3. Andy Eagle (2002) Wir Ain Leid [] An extensive re-working and up-dating of Grant and Dixon and currently the most comprehensive work on Scots grammar currently available. Particularly strong on dialects.
  4. William Grant and James Main Dixon (1921) Manual of Modern Scots. A superb attempt to describe a standard ‘literary’ Scots based on contemporary East Central speech and (mainly) 19th Century literature. The wide range of sources include ‘Kailyard’ writers (eg Barrie, Crockett, Maclaren), Bell (see below), Burns, Scott and Stevenson as well as local papers and ‘reminiscences’. Available as a reprint from
  5. David Purves (2002) A Scots Grammar (Revised Edition) published by the Saltire Society, Edinburgh is as close as we have to an ‘official’ grammar for standard Scots. Lots of examples.
  6. Susan Rennie and others (1999) Grammar Broonie published by Polygon, Edinburgh is aimed at children (and their teachers) and is a basic introduction, with exercises.
  7. Philip Robinson (1997) Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, published by The Ullans Press, Belfast. Outstanding scholarship; a re-writing Grant and Dixon for the Ulster dialect.
  8. L Colin Wilson (2002) Luath Scots Language Learner published by Luath Press, Edinburgh, the first Scots language course for the complete novice , has excellent sections on grammar.
  9. Wilson, James (1915) Lowland Scotch Meticulous investigation of the speech of the Perthshire village of Dunning (where I used to live!): pronunciation, grammar, wordlists, sayings, idioms, expressions. Legend has it this was the book that inspired Hugh MacDiarmid to start screivin awa in Scots, and I’m not surprised. Available as a reprint from
  10. The Concise English-Scots Dictionary (1993) and its companion Essential Scots Dictionary (1996) from The Scottish National Dictionary Association and published by Chambers, Edinburgh are the best prescriptive dictionaries available and were used to attempt a standardised spelling for this grammar.

The case against Scots

Whenever Scots dares to raise its head above the parapet, self-important critics line up to take aim. Money for old rope, eh? Here are a few articles that map out the critics’ broad anti-Scots arguments.

Allan Massie– One of the Scots language’s most vocal critics, lays out his case in five articles from 1999 to 2004.

  • Massie A (1999) Scots language is a load of Auld Lallans For the truth, sadly, is that there is no such thing as the Scots language. By that I don’t mean that people don’t speak some variety of Scots, or Scots-English but there is no standard form of Scots either spoken or written.
  • Massie A (2003) Cultural Arena The existence of “what we now call the Scots language” means we can’t be described as a Celtic nation.
  • Massie A (2003) We Scots have a sober and enlightened nationalism – let’s be thankful Bizarre article suggesting that the lack of a linguistic culture to defend has made Scottish nationalism nicer. “For once you start by insisting on linguistic purity, you are all but bound to move on to insisting on other sorts of purity too. Such a nationalist movement is likely to become exclusive and consequently intolerant.”
  • Massie A (2004) Makkin a right mess o’ the Scots language Makkin yer voice heard in the Scottish Pairlament (sic), ….is a truly wretched and dismal little document, though published, I’ve no doubt, with the very best intentions. What it shows, sadly, is the debility of the Scots language today…My own view is that the most we can hope for is that more of us will write and speak English in a Scots fashion, with a good larding of Scots vocabulary. But the phoney Scots of the “Pairlament” document has really nothing to be said for it …The original document  The text of the original document.
  • Exposed to ridicule (Feb 2004) Allan Massie is entirely right: poorly-written documents in some ill-thought-out linguistic mixter-maxter offered as “Scots”, far from doing any service to the language, merely expose it to ridicule, …Language development is not a task for amateurs; nor can it be achieved by slapdash, undirected efforts, however well intentioned. Why, then, is it being left to them? (letter responing to above article)

William McIlvanney, one of Scotland’s great writers adds his support to Alan Massie.

  • McIlvanney W (2002) Reviving the Scots language But any serious rehabilitation of the Scots language? Forget it. A language lives on the streets and, when its ability to be creatively subversive dies there, so does the language.

Other critical articles

  • K Wilson (1998) Scots: Language or dialect? Kenneth Wilson examines the question of what actually constitutes a language (and decides that frankly Scots isn’t one). Extract from a 1998 Cencrastus article.
  • A Morris (2002) Communication complexities rich in verbal whigmaleeriesThe Scots tongue was something spoken only by the ill-educated who knew not high, true English as probably spoken by God and His angels. Scots, it seemed, carried seeds of social destruction, since those speaking it were likely to become wood-hewers and water-drawers“.
  • MSPs in ‘Lunatic’ Proposal to Teach Scots Language (extract 2003) “This is an appalling waste of time and valuable resources – it’s absolute madness. Scots is not a living language, it’s an entirely artificial construct being promoted by a gang of people who are trying to tell us that what’s effectively slang ought to be taught to children”. Daily Mail (London)
  • Scots fails to cross language barrier (2010) “A key component in any definition of language is that it is held by those most associated with it to be one. But according to a new study, almost two-thirds of the Scottish public do not believe Scots is a real language.” Scotsman
  • Fury over SNP campaign to boost Scots ‘language’.(extract 2011) “Taxpayers are to fund a ‘spending spree’ on the Scots language under SNP plans to hire an army of bureaucrats and erect new street signs“.
  • Crumley A (2003) Boldly going where only Trekkies have gone before, Oregon gets to grips with Klingon The author seems to find amusing the SLRC aims “ti gie a heeze ti the implementation o… schemes for trainin teachers, actors, braidcasters or ither fowk uizin Scots in public… ti uphaud an assist ither bodies wi similar aims an ti mind whit they ar daein”.


Who speaks Scots? The 1996 survey revisited

As part of the 2011 Census, for the first time the people in Scotland were asked to say if they could understand, speak, read and / or write Scots (see the Aye Can site). The results will be available some time next year and will no doubt be the subject of much debate as people argue their validity, irrespective of the result. 

In the meantime the only data available is the 1996 Scots Language Survey. Although the survey is 16 years old it is until next year the only data we have avaiable on how much and where Scots is spoken.

In the summer of 1996 the General Register Office for Scotland, GRO(S), carried out a survey on the Scots Language to investigate the feasibility of including in 2001 census a question similar to the question in the 1991 Census asking the respondent’s proficiency in Gaelic. The survey was the result of a long campaign by Scots language proponents.

How was the survey carried out?

The research was done in two phases, firstly the reaction of a focus group of likely Scots speakers to a Census type question was tested (their responses were correlated to an assessment of their language ability) and secondly commercial polling organisations were asked to test three questions variations on three representative surveys of 1000 people. Thus in all some 3111 people were polled.

What did they conclude?

Not surprisingly the survey found “The language used in Scotland today retains a lot of traditional speech forms, though there is a continuum of speech type in the Scottish population ranging from clearly English to clearly Scots.” The main problem the researchers found was that after years of suppression, people were poor at defining their own abilities as Scots speakers. Thus in the survey report, GRO(S) concluded that the responses to a Census question would be “a self-assessment of a concept which is poorly defined by the public and would measure the prevalence of a speech tradition derived from Scots rather than a particular ability in the Scots language. Given this qualification the results would probably be of limited use to those seeking to meet educational needs.” The report recognised that “the inclusion of a census question would undoubtedly raise the profile of Scots“, but suggested that surveys using some (as yet undeveloped) linguistic test/index would be more useful and appropriate.

How many Scots speakers did they find?

Even given the caveats above the survey found about 30% of the population of Scotland will respond “Yes” to a question of the form “Can you speak Scots or a dialect of Scots?“. This would correspond to about 1.5 million affirming they speak Scots, a figure still widely quoted.

What were the regional variations?

Note there is no data from Orkney and Shetland. Given the strong influence of attitudinal factors (see below), the researchers felt that some of the regional differences may be do to local differences in acceptance of Scots. For example Doric now has a reasonably high status in Grampian and people may be more ready to confess to speaking it.

As an aside, the researchers noted that although the idea that Scots dialects are strongly differentiated was very prevalent, older people who had known people from all over Scotland during the War “denied the existence of dialect differences strong enough to hinder communication”. This notion of major dialectical difference in Scots remains a persistent and harmful myth today.

Age and class

The evidence suggests that Scots speaking is related to age and class. Younger age groups are less inclined to assess that they speak Scots and people in lower socio-economic groups were marginally more likely to say they spoke Scots. However the relationships were surprisingly weak related to region.






How did the census define a Scots speaker?

A person classified as speaking with a Scots accent would use the same words as an English-speaker but sound different; a person speaking with a dialect would chose words that are local variants of the ‘mainstream’ language; a person whose speech was classified as being a different language would use constructions of the language as well as vocabulary“.

The researchers “came to the view that ‘Pure Scots’ did exist at one end of a continuum to English and that many people’s speech could clearly be placed as predominantly stemming from one or the other of the two languages, and that there was much maintenance of traditional speech forms and vocabulary.

Attitudes to Scots

Many attitudinal views about Scots were expressed, and the researchers suspected this may interfere with respondents willingness to respond to the questions. “In Britain – where accent, dialect and class effect language – language ability is very difficult to assess, especially since in an assessment situation, language readily changes“. The report quotes J Menzies’ 1991 paper suggetsing “‘Code-switching’ or ‘dialect sliding’ will be exacerbated:

  • If a mode of speech or dialect is considered slang;
    Where the interrogator does not share a speech code (The researchers found that the presence of a Scots expert in the assessment team “drew out the Scots speaking ability”);
  • Where the language is undergoing a process of assimilation or corruption by a neighbouring (powerful) language – since its inception;
  • Where the differentiation between the two languages (in this case from Anglo-Saxon into English and Scots) was never ‘complete’;
  • Where the language is unrecognised by some of its speakers
  • Where, superficially, the language is not of any apparent use in daily transactions to an outsider and finally, and most powerfully;
  • Where English is viewed as a lingua franca for communication outside the local and family community.

While many thought Scots should be encouraged more in schools, English was commonly viewed as the prestige language of communication. “Good spoken English was related to improved employment opportunities”, indicating a continuing perceived or real prejudice against the language. There was much support for learning more about Scots history and literature, some support for Scots medium teaching, but also for teaching Gaelic as the “true and prestigious language of Scotland”.

How important was the survey?

It should be emphasised that the aim of the survey was not directly to identify Scots speakers, but to test potential Census questions. One problem is that each of the three main surveys used a slightly different question wording. This turned out to have a marked influence on the responses. Nevertheless as the largest survey of its type attempted until the 2011 census, the GRO(S) project yielded useful information, and the use of commercial polling organisations to carry out the surveys made it reasonably objective. The figure of 1.5 million Scots speakers has been widely used, even in official documents.

However, while emphatically recognising the existence of the Scots language as one end of a linguistic continuum the report warned that for survey purposes ‘Scots’ could at the time only be a broad concept because of firstly the linguistic diversity within the Scottish population and secondly the lack of general education and information on what ‘the Scots Language’ actually is. It is likely both these themes will raise their heads when the analysis of the 2011 census starts.


Aye Can (2011) Scots in the census site

Máté, I (1996) Scots Language Research Report, The General Register Office for Scotland, Ladywell House, Ladywell Row, Edinburgh EH12 7TF (Tel 0131 334 4295)

Menzies , J (1991) An investigation of attitudes to Scots and Glasgow dialect among secondary school pupils, Scottish Language, 110 (Winter), Association of Scottish Literature Studies (Ed McLure D)

Scots as a ‘social mechanism’

This wee scrieve frae the kenspeckle Marxist lang-heid Eric Hobsbawm (that deed yestreen) in the Guardian the day caucht ma ee.”The destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late 20th century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.” It made me think aboot Scots, shuirlie ane o Scotland’s maist important ongaun ‘social mechanisms’ linkin oor current sels tae oor fore-fowk.

[Vocabular: scrieve – piece of writing, kenspeckle – famous, lang-heid – thinker, yestreen – yesterday, ee – eye, ongaun – continuing, sels – selves, fore-fowk – ancestors]