“The Broons” – how ‘Scots’ are they? (Part 2)

To start the analysis I collected the data was in two corpus collections;

  • The 1940s collection of 5292 words (15 texts)
  • The 2006/7 collection of 3073 words (13 texts)

The research also had access to the Open University’s version of the British National Corpus (BNC-OU) , a spoken (i.e. conversational) corpus of 1,035,176 words of spoken English for comparison. I used ‘concordance’ linguistic analysis software to look for systematic variation (and similarities) in the two vernacular collections in comparison with each other and the English BNC-OU. Here is what I found.

  1. Overall structure: The comics can be interpreted as ‘pseudo-conversation’ in that they attempt to tell a story. Moreover, they are aimed for the most part at children, so some clarity and brevity in the storytelling might be expected. For example, there is little ellipsis of whole words and phased, though there is much shortening of functional words e.g. “ye’re”, “he’s”. Questions are quite common, in the first 10 comics in V1 they occur in 12% of the speech bubbles. There is almost no use of tags (“is it no?”), presumably for brevity. Disfluency is frequently represented by false-starts, hesitators and pauses (indicated by dashes) e.g. “It’s like this – look!” and “Oh – er – p-pleased tae meet ye.” Inserts such as “Ach!” and “Oh!” are likewise frequent. The use of “an’” (and) as a link between utterances is particularly noticeable, mimicking the real-time production of natural conversation. The main characteristic of the test as representing “speech”, though is the vernacular range, and this will be addressed below.
  2. Orthography: The lowland Scottish phonological system is distinct, complex and challenging to transcribe authentically as fiction (e.g.Corbett 1997, Hagen  2002). Watkins adopts a what would now be considered a non-standard though consistently-applied orthographical convention (although spelling conventions are often hotly debated), for example using Burns-like apostrophies to indicate ‘missing’ letters in Standard English e.g. “o’”, “a’richt” and “Gran’paw”.
  3. Phonology: Some of the Scots vowel system are represented e.g.”hame” (home), “lang” (long),“cauld” (cold), “oot” (out), “tae” (to) and “ony” (any) but common pronunciations are missing such as “ah” for “I” and “oo” more generally in words such as “soond”, “poond”(but “mooth” and “hoose” do appear) and “ai” in “caird” (though “pairt” appears). The tendency for Scots to clip some final consonants is represented in e.g. “bein’” (being – the “ing” is never used in the early comics), “an’” (and), “no’” (not) and “a’” (all), hence “a’richt” and “Gran’paw” above. The tendency for the hard “ch” sound in “nicht”,(night), “brocht” (brought) and “michty” (mighty) is sometimes represented.
  4. Grammar: The most noticeable grammar differences is the replacement with the shortened form “-n’t” in standard conversational form with “-na”, hence “dinna” (don’t), “canna” (can’t). There is a trace of the distinctive Scots use of the definite article in “the nicht” (tonight). The irregular “strong” verb forms are generally not used apart from “kent” (knew) and “telt” (told). Modal verbs, apart from “hae tae” (have to) are generally in the standard form, although there are common vernacular equivalents. Watkins does use interrogative forms, however, such as “wha?” (who?), “whaur” (where?) and “whit?” (what?).
  5. Vocabulary: The Broons uses a distinctive vocabulary but by no means uses all the lexical repertoire available to many of its readers. Typical vocabulary is  “aye” (yes), “but an’ ben” (country cottage), “bonny” (pretty), “bairn” (child), “bide” (stay), “dub” (puddle), “claes” (clothes), “ken” (know), “mind” (remember), “Maw” (Mum), “Paw” (Dad), “ower” (too as well as over), “picters” (cinema) and “lassie” (girl). The exclamations such as “Jings!” and “Crivvens!” have already been mentioned.

Were there differences between 1940s and 2006/7 text? In this study while slight changes are noticeable, they are not simply indicative of a loss of vernacular forms.

  • In the original 40s strips there was considerable variation in vernacular use, some were more ‘anglicised’ than others, for no apparent reason.
  • Much of the core “functional” grammar and lexis seemed unchanged (although the “-na” endings had changed to “-nae”, suggesting an influence of Glasgow dialect).
  • The 2006/7 strips dealt with more modern subjects (television shows, cars, sky-diving, telephones, survivalism etc) so more general lexis is to be expected.
  • There was an influence of modern phraseology e.g. “cheap as chips”.
  • Some “new” Scots phrases appeared “Weel!”, as well as more “Scots” spellings “feenished” (finished), “groond” (ground),”puir” (poor), “eediots” (idiots), but some were tending towards anglicisation e.g. “juist” (just) was spelled as “jist” or often “just”. “Sae” (so) was morphing into the standard form and some of the rarer words in the early strips such as “dub” (puddle) were missing from the later sample.

How different is this from the ‘standard’ English collection?Using the concordance program, the top 50 corpus items were listed from the BNC-OU conversational corpus and compared with the top 50 items in the 1940s collection. Starting with the BNC-OU benchmark, the 1940s list shared 58% of the terms, but 18% were equivalent vernacular forms (e.g. “tae/to”, “ye/you”). In other words there was only a 40% match in the most common words. In the 1940s corpus, 14 items (28%) had a distinctive Scottish orthography

tae, an’, ye, o’, no’, a’, oot, ma, Paw, wi’, juist, Maw, Jings, wis.

Interestingly in the newer corpus, this had climbed to 18 items (i.e just over a third).

tae, ye, an’, o’, whit, a’, ma, oot, aye, no’, hae, ye, jist, dinnae, ken, wis, aff, aboot

In other words, by this criterion The Broons had actually become more vernacular.

I then compared the most frequent 100 words. The results were similar. 33% of the top 100 words were identical between the BNC-OU corpus and the combined 1940s and 2006/7 corpus and 22% were the vernacular form equivalents. Again looking at the Scots forms in the two corpora, in the 1940s collection again 28% had a Scots orthography but in the contemporary collection a striking 37% of items were Scots. Again the trend is apparently quite opposite that identified by Hoyer.

How were the words used? Bronislaw Malinowski (cited in Hewings 2005 p14) argued that choices of words and grammar were dependent on culture and (sociocultural) context. These choices may be subconscious, but are nonetheless motivated. In the case of Scottish vernacular language, diglossia and accommodation theory may be highly influential, and the Broons can be considered a case where lexicogramatical choice (initially by Dudley Watkins) was used to construct an identity for his characters. By using concordance software, the quantitative extent of this becomes clear, but what is the qualitative role of vernacular variants? The distribution may of course be arbitrary or historical, but that would undermine the idea of linguistic choice. Looking at the most frequent vernacular words in the combined Broons corpus, is it possible to determine their function?

tae, ye, an’, o’, whit, a’, ma, oot, aye, no’, hae, yer, jist, dinna(e), ken, wis, aff, aboot, weel, mind, ane, wee, Paw, ye’ve, twa, cannae, fae, Hen, nae, doon, Jings!, oor, mair, efter, ower.

Most are functional words; noticeably the only verbs are mental processes “ken” (know) and “mind” (remember). There is also the affirmative “aye” (yes), the affectionate diminutive “wee” and the exclamation “Jings!”. Personal and possessive pronouns are represented; “ye” and “yer”, “ma” and “oor” as is the question “whit?” (what?). There are three negatives “nae’” (no), “dinna(e)” (don’t) and “canna” (can’t) and a judgmental adverb “ower” (too). Running a concordance reveals that four times out of 10, “dinna” is a negative command. Similarly “hae” (have) often  – 22% of the time according to a concordance search – appears in the modal expression “hae tae” (have to). Two words are personal nouns (“Hen” and “Paw”).

Thus even this small set of words there is a strong sense of personal interaction and judgement. Much of the dialogue is in question form, personal pronouns are common The modal verbs almost always have vernacular elements e.g. “ye’ll need tae”, and “hae tae”. Likewise, attitude is indicated by asserted evaluations such as “This’ll no dae”, “Jings!”, “Ye auld gowk!” and vernacular phrases such as “wee” and the diminutive suffix “-ie” as in “hoosie” are commonplace. Informal constrictions, particularly contractions such as “that’s” (a phenomenon shared with colloquial English) further reduce social distance are use as are intensifiers, particularly the evaluative  “ower”. This linguistic features are used to reduce the social distance between the characters and the characters and the reader.

The comic book mode is quite highly structured. A theme is usually set out in the first few panels, and thematic progression occurs through repeated language and visual clues, leading to the inevitable denouement. Each strip is a mini-morality tale, usually variations of “pride comes before a fall”. The importance of word choice here is that complex situations have to be explained quickly, so using the readers’ linguistic and cultural references can make this process more efficient, aid identification and reduce communicative distance (i.e. seem more immediate).

In my view the debate about Scots language and writing has suffered from the neglect of this rich linguistic field from established linguists. The curious role of The Broons and Oor Wullie deserves more attention and it is encouraging that linguists (from outside the British Isles, it should be emphasised) are now beginning to work with this resource. I believe for example the continuous debates on Scots orthography have (deliberately?) overlooked this enrmous collection of popular texts.

Maybe the argument is that the vernacular of The Broons is simply not ‘Scots’. The use of concordance software allows us to say that The Broons is about 50% Scots, considerably more than many Scots speakers would use in everyday conversation. However the intriguing idea emerges whether the “differences” i.e. vernacular words have some special communicative value. By looking at the most common non-standard terms in I suggest that they cluster around fundamental mental and processes relating to personal interaction. Moreover I found that far from eroding, vernacular forms in The Broons, although they had indeed changed, were actually about 10% more prominent, quite a significant increase.


Anon. (2007a) The Broons, D.C Thomson & Co Ltd, London
Anon. (2007b) The Broons and Oor Wullie 1946-1956 The Golden Years, D.C Thomson & Co Ltd, London
Corbett, J. (1997) Language and Scottish literature Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Hagen A I (2002) Urban Scots dialect writing, Peter Lang AG, Bern
Hewings A (2005) Corpus and grammatical description in K A O’Halloran and C Coffin, Book 1 E303 English grammar in context, The Open University, Milton Keynes

“The Broons” – how ‘Scots’ are they? (Part 1)

“The Broons” and “Oor Wullie” remain significant icons of Scottish popular culture, stretching back some 70 years. The most distinctive feature of both comic strips, still published weekly in the The Sunday Post newspaper is the use of Scottish vernacular language. The one-page comic strips were created by Dudley D. Watkins, who continued to draw and write them until his death in 1969. Watkins’ visual and linguistic style has been faithfully replicated by the publisher since then.

According to Brightwell (2006) the language was closely aligned with publisher D. C. Thomson’s overall editorial policy of ‘realism’, intended to attract the large Scottish urban audience. This was remarkably successful. Brightwell continues, “Both strips, written in broad Scots dialect, were hits; the Scottish public rapidly took them to their hearts, and there is little doubt that they played a major part in the paper’s phenomenal success. In 1971, shortly after Watkins’ death, the Sunday Post had an estimated readership of just under three million, a staggering 79 per cent of the adult population of Scotland”.

This saturation market penetration has a unique socio-cultural aspect. For most Scots, these strips were and remain the only mainstream and regularly available written representation of their spoken language. Given that there was a deliberate focus on authenticity we can assume the dialogue, although wholly fictional, is at least to some extent representative of the way people speak or spoke.

Given that this copious resource (of nearly a million words per strip) stretches back over some 70 years, it is surprising there has been so little interest in it from linguists. In one of the few academic studies of these texts, German linguist Anne Hoyer investigated the process of lexical change in “Oor Wullie” (Schwartz, 2007). She acknowledges the “Scotticisms” in the cartoons function as instruments of national identification but through computer based corpus analysis that the vernacular elements had been eroding over the years to be replaced by Standard English. A ‘corpus’ is a large collection of digital texts, often transcribed from printed or spoken material.

As part of an Open University assignment in 2008 I investigated Hoyer’s claim with respect to The Broons. I created a 8,000 word corpus of texts in “The Broons” spanning two periods of approximately 60 years apart: late 1940’s (represented in a selections of reprints) and 2007 (from that year’s Broons annual). I then did a frequency analysis to undertaken to identify patterns of distribution of vernacular forms when compared with standard English conversational texts (as represented by an OU corpus). I also wanted to find out whether some of the methodologies of corpus analysis could shed light on the sociolinguistic aspects functions of “The Broons” as socially positioned texts.

Why has this remarkable resource been so ignored? It was suggested above that right-wing publisher D.C.Thomson deliberately positioned the comic to appeal to a certain audience. It is still widely thought among Scottish metropolitan intellectuals that “The Sunday Post” itself represents a particularly conservative and sentimentalised vision of Scottish life. Scottish historian and intellectual Tom Nairn’s harsh 1960’s quip that Scotland would only be tolerable when “the last Kirk minister has been strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post” is for many still a potent trope. Even some Scots language enthusiasts view the Scots of the Broons with distain.

However, given the unusually onerous linguistic role “The Broons” and “Oor Wullie” comics have (as virtually unique written representations of vernacular culture), the “Scottishness” of the texts is an issue that corpus analysis may illuminate, again as Hoyer suggests. The problem is that the Scottish ‘vernacular’ is notoriously hard to pin down as it functions neither as a language nor a dialect. (See Style-shifting and codeswitching in Scots – what is it and why does it matter?).

The concluding aspect of my study was more challenging, and went beyond what Hoyer was attempting in her PhD. The hypothesis was that the role of vernacular forms in the ‘affective’ domain (informal,emotionally rich discourse) may be the main social reason for their survival. If corpus analysis revealed that vernacular lexis and grammar were ‘doing the communicative work’ in these affective areas, we have the basis for both a quantitative and qualitative analysis to predict where vernacular will tend to persist in the ‘cline’ identified by several Scots linguistic studies.

An interesting question is the authenticity of the data itself (transcribed from the speech bubbles of the strips). Should the texts be regarded as works of fiction or as representative of genuine spoken dialogue? Clearly the partial focus of this study on sociolinguistic aspects would demand that the dialogues is to some extent ‘authentic’ and representing realistic linguistic and not purely invented as an artificial language by Dudley Watkins and later authors.

There is no easy answer to this. There are a number of arguments and counter-arguments. It seems reasonable to assume that Watkins attempted to mimic the speech patterns of urban Scots, and that the sheer popularity of his creations would indicate some identification on the part of the readership with the language, and therefore some degree of linguistic validation. On the other hand, The Broons is an artistic, possibly over-sentimental, creation and the language is deliberately part of that ethos. The use of characteristic ‘bowdlerised’ expletives such as “Jings!”, “Crivvens!” and “Michty Me!” are sometimes taken as indicators of the inauthenticy of the language. The reverse could equally be true – these terms were not invented (and are clearly based on various blasphemies) and in fact were the only way Watkins could indicate the robustness of the vernacular language.

The texts may also be inauthentic in another sense; Watkins may have had to compromise ‘Scottishness’ for readability. Thus for example although the final ‘g’ is dropped in words like gettin’, seein’ etc, the equally common written Scots conventions of dropping the final ‘d’ and replacing ou with oo (e.g. soon’ for sound) are avoided.

Nonetheless in the absence of genuine corpora (transcriptions) of spoken Scots there is an academic tradition for using fictional dialogue in Scottish literature as the basis of linguistic analysis, of which Hagen’s (2002) review of urban Scots dialect writing is a good example.


Brightwell G (2006) Dudley Dexter Watkins [no longer available]
Hagen A I (2002) Urban Scots dialect writing, Peter Lang AG, Bern
Schwartz M (2007) Research on Oor Wullie Initiated in Heidelberg

Style-shifting and codeswitching in Scots – what is it and why does it matter?

Understanding the concepts of style shifting and codeswitching are fundamental to explaining the spoken dynamics of the Scots Language. In this post (based on an academic assignment, hence all the references) I will outline what they are and explore the differences and similarities between them with reference to shifting/switching between Scots and Scottish English.

The first point is both style shifting and codeswitching focus on how speakers draw on their linguistic repertoire (Holmes, 1992:21) to communicate shared social meaning in a linguistic community. Variation in speech pattern is used primarily to convey personal identity and to negotiate social relationships (Swann, 1996:324).

  • Speakers may deliberately or unconsciously shift between different accents or varieties of their language depending on context and style refers to these choices of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
  • Codeswitching is associated with multilingual communities where individuals changeover between languages (codes), according to social factors such as identity, relationship negotiation and perceived prestige of the code itself.

Explaining style-shifting

Style shifting is considered a fundamental axiom of sociolinguistics (Bell, 1976 as quoted in Wardhaugh 2002:18). Bell claims “there are no ‘single style’ speakers of a language, because each individual controls and uses a variety of linguistic styles and no one speaks exactly the same way in all circumstances”. One of the key sociolinguistic variables that has been shown to influence style shifting is the degree of formality of the context. Speakers use more ‘high prestige’ forms in more formal situations and ‘vernacular’ alternatives in less formal contexts. Formality is of course subjective but in a discourse can be indicated by the subject matter, the physical setting, the occasion and the relationships, differences and relative statuses of the participants. Various linguistic features shift, including vocabulary (the use of slang and dialect words), grammar (use of the passive tense) and pronunciation.

Bell drew on the classic work of the American linguist William Labov who in the 1960s studied the occurrence of the non-prevocalic /r/ from different social-class backgrounds in New York (described in Wright 1996:277-279). He found that speakers were consciously aware of prestige accent features (in this case articulating the /r/) and tended to use them more in speaking styles demanding a high degree of attention, for example reading out word lists, than in emotionally engaging personal narratives.

Holmes (1992:14) describes this as a contrast between affective, informal emotionally rich discourse and more formal referential styles. In groups, however, several researchers suggest that speech patterns tend to converge when speakers want to show a degree of social solidarity with either the interlocutor (so-called ‘accommodation theory) or more generally the audience. Accommodation theory suggests the opposite can also occur; conscious linguistic divergence can be used to emphasise difference in status or identity (although I will argue this is more a feature of codeswitching). As Swann (1996:310) notes “style is likely to operate in more than one dimension, allowing speakers access to a more complex range of social meanings”.

Codeswitching – two languages?

Style shifting may occur across sub-varieties of one regional or social dialect or between different dialects; however codeswitching implies two distinct languages coexisting throughout a linguistic community clearly providing speakers a much wider linguistic repertoire. Codeswitching is often associated with diglossia where each language (or variety) has a specialised social function, usually with one regarded as a high (prestige or formal) variety and the other(s) as low. Myers-Scotton (1996:334) however identifies a more complex interplay between English and Swahili in East Africa which is closely related to the construction of social identity. One language or the other is usually expected or as linguists say ‘unmarked in a particular context, but sometimes the speaker makes a conscious unexpected or marked choice. This is usually an attempt to renegotiate an aspect of the relationship between speakers, for example to express solidarity or underline authority. Each code therefore refers to or ‘indexes’ a shared social meaning; “a particular set of rights and obligations that will hold between participants in an interaction” (Swann 1996:334).

Sebba (1993 described in Swann 1996:315) noted that in a study of codeswitching among young black speakers in London “a switch from English to Creole marks a sequence out as salient; it stands out; it is part of the utterance that other parties in the interaction respond to”, again emphasising codeswitching’s affective function. The Creole example also highlights that although linguistically speaking, the differences between codes may be considerable (English and Swahili), there may also be switching between more closely related varieties (English and Creole or Scots). This raises the question of how style shifting codeswitching differ.

However, one of England’s leading dialectologists, Trudgill (1983:114) argues in codeswitching “the two linguistic varieties in a diglossic situation are considered to be discrete”, also there is standardisation of each variety (speakers thus know which they are speaking) and “the high variety has in all cases to be learnt as a school language”. This implies that unlike style shifting the speaker has a sophisticated understanding of the linguistic norms and knowledge of the speech community she is in and a high degree of awareness of the code she is using. The really debatable point in Scots use is to what extent the speaker knows what ‘correct’ or standard Scots is. But as Swan (1996:316) notes amyway “there is a problem of establishing clear linguistic boundaries between ‘varieties’ and attributing features unambiguously to one or another”.

The context of Scots

McArthur (1998) analyses the linguistic standing of ‘non-standard’ English varieties, including patois and Scots. As he notes, the linguistic status of Scots is currently very much contested with linguistic ‘separatists’ such as Kay (1993) ranged against pragmatists (e.g. Jones 2002) and conservatives. McArthur usefully finds Scots a middle ground as “an English language, part of his model of a plurality of ‘Englishes’. Jones (2002:5) suggests “the linguistic manifestations of Scots should be seen as a type of scale or cline, encompassing a very broad range of usage and formal characteristics”, but is this cline an example of style shifting or an example of codeswitching?

Trudgill (1983, p112) recognises the distinctiveness of Scots as a bridge between style shifting and codeswitching; “Native speakers of Lowland Scots dialects may switch, in relatively formal situations, to standard English (spoken with a Scots accent of course). It is legitimate to regard this situation as rather different from that of an English speaker who simply switches styles.” He gives three reasons

  • degree of linguistic difference between Scots and English
  • the presence of co-occurrence restrictions (avoiding Scots forms when speaking Standard English)
  • the fact that standard English is the linguistic variety normally learned in school.

Aitken (1979:86) makes a similar point; “Some [Scots] speakers can switch cleanly from one to the other—these people have been called dialect-switchers. Others again cannot or do not chose to control their styles in this way, but they do shift styles in a less predictable and more fluctuating way—these people we may call style-drifters.”  Aitken contrasts the more active change I have associated with codeswitching to the perhaps more unconscious process of style shifting, but places both on Jones’ variation ‘cline’.

All this suggests that in Scotland (and maybe with respect to Creole, too) style shifting and codeswitching cannot easily be distinguished. If so it should be possible to relate and mix theoretical approaches from both to what we know of our bridging example of Scots. Firstly there is a perceived contrast between the Scots ‘vernacular’ and Scottish or standard English ‘prestige’ varieties. Purves (2002) puts this forcibly; “At school, a policy of cultural repression became the norm and generations of children were presented with an image of ‘correct’ or ‘good’ English but little or no attempt was made to present an image of good Scots. Commonly, the natural speech of Scots children was simply represented as a deviation of good English”. Thus we have (in codeswitching terms) a form of diglossia where English is associated with formal contexts such as education and in these settings “Scots will be equated with illiteracy, inarticulacy, low intelligence, or other negative qualities” (Wilson 2002:9). He goes further; “People who normally express themselves in Scots will often, if able, go over to English when talking to strangers, because not to do so might be seen as uncouth or ignorant”. This seems an extreme example of what Bell (1991 cited in Swann, 1996:302) calls audience design but Jones (2002:49) also identifies what he calls the classic ‘Labovian paradigm’ of reducing occurrence of  vernacular forms in Scots (he gives the example of the glottal stop substitution for /t/) with increasing social class and formality. Accommodation theory would however suggest this works on several dimensions. Scots can also be used to emphasise both difference and commonality. Where speakers have the repertoire, Scots is used in affective, informal emotionally rich discourse. Scots is therefore a language of social solidarity. Gumperz (1982 cited in Swann, 1996:302) distinguished in codeswitching between we codes (home and family) and they codes (public and formal contexts). Scots role in the affective domain may be the main social reason for Scots’ survival.

Codeswitching theory also suggests a structural reason for Scots’ survival; the grammars of Scots and English are structurally very similar. Switching can be at the level of the individual word (or even sound); there is no need to wait for the end of a phrase or a clause boundary (Swann 1996:316) so there is a very intimate and often creative mix between the two varieties. This has inevitably led to some loss of linguistic integrity, but its very adaptability ensures the affective Scots repertoire remains embedded and usable, even within what can be argued is an increasingly anglicised matrix. As Kay (1993:151) observes “the closeness and similarity of Scots to English…has been a source of weakness and a potential source of strength”.

What style shifting and codeswitching clearly tell us is that individuals are sophisticated (and at least partially) self-aware users of language and will apply all parts of their ‘linguistic repertoire’ to create a rich and adaptable personal spoken identity.

However there is also an additional political dimension to codeswitching which makes it a more powerful concept. Consider the situation of Catalan and Spanish in Catalonia. To a remarkable extent the sociolinguistic situation in Scotland and Catalonia are comparable (Kay 1993:144-147). However the political situation is very different and in this context the notion of conscious and deliberate changeover between codes is a key part of the redefinition of shared social meaning. As with Quebec in the 1970s (c.f. Heller 1996:331), deliberate ‘top down’ codeswitching accompanied by personal choice has increased the contexts where Catalan is the unmarked (expected) option. This has been a major part of defining local linguistic and political identity over the last decade. Thus while both style shifting and codeswitching are very similar when they are reactive phenomena (c.f. accommodation theory), I consider the availability of identity-indexed discrete linguistic varieties enables code switching to underpin a conspicuous proactive and sometimes political role.

If Scots is considered a ‘dialect’ (a non-discrete variety of English), although quite complex and creative phenomena may be occurring, it cannot be a vehicle for proactive social change. As a language or linguistically a discrete ‘code’ (different from English), the opportunity for proactive change opens up. This is why the status of Scots is so important, and the ‘dialectisation’ of Scots can be considered a political process.


  • Aitken A J (1979) Scottish speech in  Aitken A J and McArthur T (eds) Languages of Scotland, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, Occasional Paper Number 4, Chambers, Edinburgh
  • Heller M (1996) Strategic ambiguity: code switching in the management of conflict in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London
  • Holmes J (1992) An introduction to sociolinguistics, Longman, London
  • Jones C (2002) The English language in Scotland: an introduction to Scots, Tuckwell Press, East Linton
  • Kay B (1993) Scots: the mither tongue (revised edition), Alloway Publishing, Darvel
  • McArthur T (1998) The English languages, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  • Myers-Scotton C (1996) Codeswitching with English: types of switching, types of communities in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London
  • Purves D (2002) A Scots grammar: Scots grammar and usage (revised and extended edition), The Saltire Society, Edinburgh
  • Swann J (1996) Style shifting, codeswitching in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London
  • Trudgill P (1983) Sociolinguistics: an introduction to language and society, (revised edition), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth
  • Wardhaugh R (2002) An introduction to sociolinguistics (fourth edition), Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Wilson L C (2002) Luath Scots language learner, Luath Press, Edinburgh
  • Wright S (1996) Accents of English in Graddol D, Leith D and Swann J, English: history, diversity and change, Routledge, London

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crash-candy/2226145803/

Scots as a cultural tool

Daniel Everett’s “Language: the cultural tool” is  an entertaining and convincing riposte both to Noam Chomsky’s notion of ‘universal grammar’ which has dominated linguistics for decades and Steven Pinker’s populist ‘language instinct’. Both these theories claim the capacity and underlying language structure is somehow genetically ‘programmed in’ to the human brain, and that the difference between for example Scots and Somali are so superficial to be hardly worth studying. Above all, Chomsky and Pinker argue that culture is of minimal importance to the structure of languages.

Everett refutes this almost completely, basing his case on his own decades-long fieldwork with the Pirahã people of the Amazon and the emerging evidence from a wide range of other researchers that culture is vitally important to language formation.  Everett argues that language is a tool, highly adapted to a particular culture and well capable of having evolved from non-language cognitive skills. There was simply never any need to evolve a ‘language instinct’ and it is the actually the culturally-contextualised differences between languages, not their underlying similarities (which may be due more to basic cognitive processes than genetics anyway) that help us understand how human language works.

The ‘language as a tool’ notion seems an especially useful way to think about Scots. Everett’s often sprawling book is studded with quotes applicable to our language. Scots has evolved “to meet the needs of our culture and social situation” (p. 3), the very tool “by which we created our social world” (p. 218). But as we use language we “modify it and shape it to serve us more effectively. Language has been shaped in its very foundation by our socio-cultural needs” (p. 218). As a “cognitive tool” for its speakers any language “comes to encode their solutions to the environmental and other problems they face as a culture” (p. 302).

Language and culture are forever intertwined.  Everett views culture as the “external cognitive link between multiple individuals (p. 169). Language is essential to the development of culture as it “results from networked knowledge and behaviour with others and brings meaning from the world” (p. 169). Language is therefore both “a product and a producer of culture” (p. 169) and therefore “there can be no culture without language, no language without culture, and no society without both (p.187) for the simple reason that “culture is present throughout our conversations and stories” (p. 198).

Language is made up of an (arbitrary) set of linguistic symbols or signs “socio-cultural contracts entered into by all members of a speech community…these contracts are underwritten by culture, which provides people with external, shared memory” (p.120). The term contract is perhaps misleading in its formality and Everett later quotes the Scottish philosopher David Hume; “languages are gradually establish’d by human conventions without any explicit promise” (p. 205). Everett adds ” we must ‘go along’ with this language contract, assenting to language conventions by our use of them, or we are doomed to be language-less” (p.207). These signs are therefore “cultural tools” which we need – as Scots – to “tell stories and to communicate about a past event, without having to recreate it every time we talk about it” (p.120). We make use of culturally-contextualised non-literal meanings all the time in Scots, cultural keyword and shortcuts which are hard to translate into English.

Culture is about communities  and having a sense of “social belonging” (p. 237), “having a language to learn, one that others have developed for us” (p. 35). “The function of language  is not for the expression of thought but for the social purpose of communication” (p.225) and the idea of an identified language “community” is important. “We do not communicate solely to transmit information but to produce an effect –a behaviour  or a way of thinking – in our hearers” (p.223) so “we need to make sure that the people we want to talk to use the same symbols as we do, and use them in more or less the same way” (p.170), this may be especially in a Scots/English complex where the similarities between the two tongues mean misinterpretation is easy.

I particularly like the following passage (p.170)  which sums up the ‘distributed’ nature of Scots, and indeed of any language.

Each individual possesses a larger or smaller subset of the entire society’s value and knowledge depending on that individual’s experience and intelligence. These internalized values an knowledge then serve as tools to help the individual know what to do, what to expect, how to react, and so on. to the various dangers, pleasures, and other experiences of life without having to develop an entirely original response to each stimulus. These tools enable us to spend less time worrying about how we should live and spend more time living and doing.

Everett also touches on another sensitive area for Scots activists; “once a language is written down it almost always develops two styles, one written and one spoken” (p.142). “Few, if any, writers speak as they write (p. 200); we can make our sentences longer and more complex and use richer vocabulary simply because the reader has more time to interpret them. However “its influence extends into the spoken language as well (p.276). The result is “many languages have been changed by new literature, from idiomatic expressions to their very grammar (p.200).

The ‘tool’ theory implies languages “fit their cultural niches and take on the properties required of them in their environments … some languages are better than others at expressing some things, and … some are capable of expressing things that others simply cannot” (p. 234). Even though languages are adapted to what they do, unfortunately “language seems to come out particularly badly in [the] smorgasbord of uninformed opinions. Everyone seems to have a view about language: who speaks it correctly, which languages are superior and so on (p. 232). Everett reminds us “judgements of the [linguistic] inferiority of other groups have no scientific basis. They are, rather, the reflex of bigoted judgements about the speakers of these varieties” (p.230).

Everett’s approach implies Scots should be considered one of our most important cultural creations, indeed our most complex behaviour, a vehicle for sharing our history, values and ideas. The current form of Scots has been “determined by function” (p.27) but the very survival of that form ratifies its continuing value to Scottish culture. Even quite light use of the language;  cultural-specific pronunciations and, the occasional use of Scots words  can still be “a sign of cultural belonging”, and can take on a “secondary cultural value” (p. 316) of huge importance to the speaker.

As we know, “the loss of language brings loss of identity and sense of community” (p. 305). The reason is its effect on culture ” a living thing that bears the accretions of generations of lives, of our suffering, triumph, defeat of thousands of says of boring routine and the past interactions of people long dead” (p. 323). Therefore he concludes with an example: “The French possess a repository that dwarfs the Louvre – their own beautiful language and the culture that grew alongside and nourishes it (p. 326). The same could  also be said of Scots – perhaps our greatest cultural treasure

Gaelic and Scots – why are they treated differently?

Nihtinen, A. (2005) Scotland’s linguistic past and present: paradoxes and consequences“, Studia Celtica Fennica, No. 2, pp. 118-137

Atina Nihtinen, a Finnish scholar, has written several papers on Scots based on the work she did in the mid-naughties for her thesis on the language of the Shetlands. This paper sets out the broader Scottish contexts, and it is a reminder of how useful it is sometimes to “see oursels as ithers see us”. She explores the widely diverging historic and current attitudes towards Gaelic and Scots, aiming perhaps to explain the differences in funding and status, which to an outsider (and many insiders) appear illogical if not downright bizarre. This is not to ding doon Gaelic; most active Scots speakers, sensitised to linguistic variety, seem to be quite fond of our ‘other national tongue’ and envy rather than begrudge the hugely disproportionate funding it attracts.

How did Gaelic achieve this fortunate position as the symbol of Scottish linguistic diversity while Scots, spoken by perhaps twenty-five times more Scottish inhabitants, remains the neglected stepchild, locked away the cellar?

Remember until the 16h century Scots was the language of state at a time when Gaelic, even then very much a declining minority tongue, was barely regarded as Scottish at all, considered even speakers as a dialect of Irish.

Nihtinen, drawing on the work of Horsborugh pins the blame on the Celtic romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries when the post-Culloden Gaels, now forever neutered as a threat to the British state could safely be romanticised. Celticism was developed as and remains today a safe, tourism-friendly largely depoliticised identity. Gaelic is well-funded because of not despite of being spoken by comparatively few people ‘far away’ from the centres of power. Why fund it at all? Funding Gaelic provides a tokenistic fig-leaf of Scottish linguistic diversity; overt linguistic oppression, went out of fashion soon after Welsh activists started burning holiday homes.

Which brings us to Scots. Scots is everything that Gaelic is not; widely spoken by voters all over the lowlands, easy-to-learn, and a far stronger indicator of Scottish identity than Gaelic, wonderful tongue that it remains, ever can be. This makes Scots a political hot-tattie, not because there is a language question per se in the sense of linguistic demands, but that the British state fears that increased Scots awareness leads to an increased sense of Scottishness and they can’t have that, for rather obvious reasons. Nihtinen points to various research showing their fears are maybe well-founded. This is why we have seen ever since the rise of modern nationalism increasing attempts to downgrade Scots, as we have seen regarded as separate Scottish language long before Gaelic as a ‘dialect’. The discourse of dialect is a political not a linguistic discourse but has become so successfully ‘normalised’ that even Scots activists habitually defend themselves  against this trumped-up charge. As evidence for this look 15 miles west of Scotland. In Northern Ireland the British state actually want Scots speakers to feel more ‘Ulster’ so Ullans, the dialect of Scots spoken there, is enormously well funded and seems to have been promoted to full language status.

Nihtinen’s paper is now a few years old but is still an excellent introduction to these bizarre paradoxes, hinting at rather than exposing (as I have started here) the political underpinnings of the Scottish ‘language question’.

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mmmavocado/6682790417

Lowland Scotch

Isna the interwab no jist wunnerfu? Ye can noo buy for jist £22 a verra guid qualitie hairdback reprent o James Wilson’s 1915 ‘Lowland Scotch’.

Basit on interviews wi bodies fae the Pairthshire village of Dunnin (whaur a yaised tae bide, monie year syne), an prentit in 1915 it’s a carefu investigation o pre-WW1 ilkadey speech in thon airt: pronooncin, gremmar, wordleets, seyins, idioms, expressions etc. Fowk sey this wis the beuk that inspirit Hugh MacDiarmid to stairt screivin awa in Scots, an A’m no surpreesed. Wilson’s phonetic orthographie is a joy in itsel an aw!

Lowland Scotch: As Spoken in the Lower Strathearn District of Perthshire (1915)

~ James Wilson (author) More about this product

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Wis awa at a conference in Belgium raicent-like an a speaker wis bletherin awa aboot the spreid o technologie in organisations.

A wis hauf in a dwam until he stairtit on aboot hoo we need tae owercome “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt”.

A luikit up an on his slide wis jist the muckle letters FUD.

As the ainlie Scot in the haa, a doot naebodie cud unnerstaun whit a wis sniggerin aboot.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaFUD was first defined with its specific current meaning by Gene Amdahl the same year, 1975, after he left IBM to found his own company, Amdahl Corp.: “FUD is the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that IBM sales people instill in the minds of potential customers who might be considering Amdahl products.”

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Welcome to The Scots Haunbuik

The Scots Haunbuik aims to provide teaching and learning resources to help you speak and write modern Scots.  Scots is a close realtion to English and used in Lowland Scotland, Ulster, Orkney and the Shetland Islands by an estimated 1.6 million people.

Scots is one of the three indigenous tongues of Scotland. Gaelic is a Celtic language spoken by about 80,000 people in the Western Highlands and Islands and Scottish English, spoken by nearly all of Scotland’s 5.1 million inhabitants, is the dominant medium of communication, education and commerce.

Over the last fifteen years, as interest in and recognition of Scots has grown, there has been a rapid growth of resources on the web and elsewhere. So far however there has been little to help native Scots brush up their own knowledge of this astonishing but little-understood language.

The site will focus on three aspects – speaking Scots, writing Scots and teaching/learning Scots. The aim is therefore educational rather than political but sadly even the modest aim of teaching our fascinating and fun language is sometimes seen as a provocative and political act.

If Scots is to survive in any form, people must learn about it and above all learn to use it. A language variety which is not used on a daily basis is effectively dead, even though it may have attractions as an esoteric hobby. Over the next few weeks three volumes of learners’ materials will be released, The Scots Learners’ Grammar, The Scots Learners’ Dictionary and a guide to Scots idioms.

Those who have read this far will notice that The Scots Handbuik has not so far answered the implied query Is Scots really a language? To some extent this is a non-question. Scots, however we chose to label it and whatever we think of it, is of significant importance historically, linguistically and culturally. It is the closest living relation to English and is the carrier of a key part of Scottish identity. In this sense the Scottish ‘soundscape’ is as essential as the Scottish urban and rural landscape.

Scots says much about who the Scots people are and where we came from. But where are we heading? Scots, in its eventual repression or renaissance, will tell us about that, too.