Course: Corpus Linguistics

A’v signed masel up fur this MOOC frae Lancaster University. A’v bin warkin awa on a wee dcitionary o ‘modren’ Scots but am awaur that it needs a bittie validation. Thinkin aboot daein some corpus wark on a muckle collection o Scots texts tae get frequencie leets etc. Wid gie us an idea o whit wirds fowk is actuallie yaisin.

Corpus linguistics: method, analysis, interpretation – Lancaster University – FutureLearnOffers practical introduction to the methodology of corpus linguistics for researchers in social sciences and humanities

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Wabsteid: Ngram and the ‘dialect’ debate

Cam across this tool frae Google. an posit this on Facebook

Scots: language or dialect? There’s only one way to find out: FIGHT!
Frequency diagram of phrases “Scots language” vs “Scottish dialect” from Google Books’ endlessly fascinating Ngram Viewer.


Doesn’t tell us much without the context but it does appear that the use of the word dialect in combination with Scots is remaining much the same and the use of the word language in combination with Scots has increased recently.

Scots grammars and standards

broonieIt may come as a surprise but the grammar of spoken and literary Scots was first described systematically almost a century ago when two comprehensive grammars were published within just a few years.

James Wilson’s fascinating but largely forgotten 1915 field study Lowland Scotch was based on interviews with inhabitants of the Perthshire village of Dunning and uses a marvelous phonetic orthography to capture the sounds of the vernacular.  This was followed by William Grant and James Main Dixon’s 1921 classic Manual of Modern Scots that takes a completely different approach focusing on a meticulous analysis of the literary language over two centuries from the late seventeenth century. Between them these two works provide a remarkably consistent and cohesive snapshot of the spoken and written language before the First World War.  Unfortunately both these essentially ‘descriptive’ grammars were out of print for decades so failed to make the impact on Scots they should have.

Nowadays both are available online, so have a look at the Leebrarie section of this site for links.

From the late 90s a range of ‘prescriptive’ grammars for Scots appeared, 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 online Wir Ain Leed, essentially a reworking of Grant and Dixon. 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. Christine Robinson’s  2012 Modren Scots Grammar has a notably different focus and introduces grammar to children (and their teachers) through the medium of Scots.

Especially over the last 40 years there have also been numerous small-scale studies of language use in Scotland, usually published in (for the public) rather obscure academic journals. However much of this was drawn together by Alexander Bergs in Modern Scots, a detailed review of literature which essentially updates Grant and Dixon based on more recent sociolinguistic research. Bergs is perhaps the most definitive published descriptive grammar of Scots to date, though is hard to obtain.

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.

In the absence of a ‘circumscribed’ standard we have is what some have called a ‘circumstantial’ standard, but it is a standard nonetheless.

 [Adapted from the introduction to the Scots Learners’ Grammar]

What is Scots grammar anyway?

bubbleGrammar 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 any language have an instinctive feel for these structures, learners usually need some formal guide. In the case of Scots, even fairly fluent native speakers are likely to be unaware of the language patterns they are using as they are almost never taught. It is only when the ‘rules’ are written down can speakers and learners appreciate how rich Scots grammar is and how much it differs from standard and colloquial English.

Scots is usually spoken and often written in some mixture with English. Knowledge of grammar helps speakers and writers distinguish between the Scots and English components. In such mixtures ‘good’ Scots is commonly misidentified as ‘bad’ English, so it is important especially for teachers and writers to be able to tell the difference between the two.

Of course a common root and many centuries of close contact between Scots and English have ensured that the grammars of the two tongues are broadly similar.  So what does ‘good’ Scots actually mean? Grammar forms evolve but are not random inventions. The ‘good’ forms usually derive directly from traditional printed Scots usage and have proved to be remarkably consistent over both time and geography.

Spoken and literary Scots grammar has actually been documented in detail for almost a century but care still has to be taken, as there are many traps for the unwary. Despite an increasing number of publications, the grammar of Scots, like its orthography and vocabulary can still be considered as being somewhat fluid. Inevitably authors – including myself with a Central Scots background – are strongly influenced by local dialectical variations, so there are inconsistencies between the various accounts.

Grammar links Scots with its historic pedigree but also ties the various dialects of Scots together. Pronunciations and even vocabulary may vary from Shetland to Ulster but as Christine Robertson rightly notes in her 2012 grammar for children “We hae mair things in common than we hae keepin us apart. Ane o they things is grammar”.

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.

If you are interested in finding more about the Scots Learners Grammar, a guide designed for teachers and writers of Scots,  you can download it from one of the links on the left.

[Adapted from the introduction to the Scots Learners’ Grammar]

Academic article: Benefits of bilingualism

“Speaking a single language beyond one’s native tongue is enough to do the trick.”

A doot Scots’d coont fine weel as a language.

New Study Shows Brain Benefits Of BilingualismThe largest study so far to ask whether speaking two languages might delay the onset of dementia symptoms in bilingual patients as compared to monolingual patients has reported a robust result. Bilingual patients suffer dementia onset an average of 4.5 years later than those who speak only a single language.

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Missing, presumed deid

missingThe day before the Census figures were released, showing that Scots was remarkably alive, commentator Gerry Hassan published a thought-provoking piece called Scotland’s comforting stories and the missing voices of public life.

He writes “There has been historically and to this day a burgeoning chasm in how culture in Scotland is represented and reflected back to us in the media and in particular, broadcasters. I am thinking of culture in the widest sense as an all-encompassing term which covers much of what it is to be Scottish and know what it means to be Scottish: our histories, traditions, voices and languages“. Thus “the diverse, fascinating and challenging world of Scotland culturally just doesn’t gain adequate coverage, representation or time on BBC Scotland or STV“. Incomplete, skewed self-representation has a psychological consequence according to Gerry Hassan, alienation; a ‘sense of disconnection’, and ‘learned helplessness’.

Michael Hance, Director of the Scots Language Centre made an interesting blog response The missing pointing out that there were one and a half million Scots speakers ‘the missing’, and the NRS cover-up simply perpetuates their voicelessness. He wrote “A member of the Scots Language Centre’s facebook group described it (I think correctly) as, ‘one of the most important stories in modern Scottish cultural history’”. I think that was me, BTW! He continues”But more than just suppressing good news and interesting data the NRS has quietly given Scots speakers and the wider community a message. And the message is this: ignore the responses to the census, they don’t prove anything, the people who said they were speakers are not to be trusted; they didn’t understand the question, they don’t know themselves well enough to answer it correctly, Scots is just English, it doesn’t exist.”

The mechanism of suppression is then elaborated. “In this, NRS follows an established pattern with which Scots speakers are familiar. If the state and its agencies pretend Scots doesn’t exist, somehow or other it will just go away. This is how schools treated Scots for over a century, Scots wasn’t banned in the classroom like Catalan was in Franco’s Spain, it wasn’t named and legislated against. Instead Scots was simply treated as if it wasn’t there.”  He continues “the tactic used in Scotland, of ignoring the local language or treating it as a mangled and fixable version of something else (‘proper English’) was and continues to be disempowering and shaming“.

This deeply-engrained prejudice is evident the NRS suppression “The notion that Scots and English are just the same thing is so pervasive in our culture that even when a question designed to elicit data about incidence of speakers reveals the widespread use of the language, the first inclination of those who gathered the information is to claim that Scots in the minds of those who answered the question is ‘interchangeable’ with English“.

So what Michael Hance argues here is that the systematic silencing of Scots voices is a form of soft oppression, a form of oppression that the middle class Scottish establishment (here represented by the hapless NRS) can make with a clear conscious. Back in Hassan’s original article the author laments “a long Scots tradition of middle class society presenting a caricatured version of the working class“. A caricatured class, a caricatured culture, a caricatured tongue; all forms of control. This is why Scots is for me personally Scots is so important, as Michael Hance puts it “We are 1.5 million and we will be heard“.

Image: by robpatrick

Was the NRS right to spike Scots?

Q16As we have seen, the consequences of the NRS cleansing the News release of the astonishing data of Scots was profound, hiding Scots (again) from public debate. So, was this action at all justified?

The first thing to do is agree with NRS that Scots remains a contested linguistic entity; it means different things to different people. Is that contestation reason enough to continue to suppress it (as NRS seem to imply), or is that contestation a consequence of its continued suppression? The Census data was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to open the debate, to propel the discussion of Scots into the public arena. But NRS decided unilaterally that it was not to be. Let’s examine their reasoning then in more detail, and pick up the counter argument by the Scots Language Centre, published the same day (SLC Analysis of Census 2011 for Scots).

In the Release 2A Statistical Bulletin – PDF the NRS wrote “The census data on language skills in Scots needs to be carefully qualified. The question on language skills in the census questionnaire was relatively poorly answered. For example, a significant number of respondents provided information on their skills in Scots but did not indicate any corresponding abilities in relation to English, perhaps suggesting they considered Scots and English as inter-changeable in this context.” This seems to refer to the problematic inconsistency between answers to Question 16 “Which of these can you do? [language skills]” and  Question 18 “Do you use a language other than English at home?” – respondents had to write in an answer. (Question 17 was “How well can you speak English?”). The original questions are here. There were 1,537,626 speakers recorded for Question 18 but only 55,817 wrote ‘Scots’ for Question 18. So did the respondents to this question actually consider ” Scots and English as inter-changeable”.

As SLC point out there is quite a plausible alternative explanation “The question immediately predisposes people in their mind to think in terms of the English language on one hand, and perhaps a foreign (non-Scottish) language on the other“. The choices ware English only, Sign Language and other (remember they had to write in an alternative) so ” it is quite understandable if many people simply assumed the difference being asked was between knowing and using English (and therefore excluding a foreign choice) and a foreign language. After all, they had already been asked about Scots, and may have assumed this was only about English“. The immediately previous question 17 was of course “How well can you speak English?”.

The second argument the NRS make is that “research carried out prior to the census also suggests that people vary considerably in their interpretation of what is meant by “Scots” as a language, resulting in the potential for inconsistencies in the data collected“. The SLC provided a forcefully brief response “This claim reveals that because the NRS is itself unfamiliar with the language it makes the assumption that speakers must also be unfamiliar with it and don’t understand. We cannot see that this is based on any scientific rationale and, in fact, linguistic prejudices are being allowed to cloud the interpretation of data that could not be more consistent and clear“. Remember the in preparation for the census, the SLC participated in what they considered a successful  informational and promotional campaign to raise awareness of what Scots is.

Personally I think there is an ambiguity about how people perceive Scots, but that is no reason to suppress interesting data. However it is the last strand of SLC’s argument that is by far the most convincing. Two surveys, fifteen years apart and using very different collection methods found almost exactly the same data and distribution. The fact these two data sets triangulate against the general distribution most Scots specialists would expect, only reinforces the bizarreness of the idea that the Census data is in any way bizarre.

The earlier survey was by the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS), the body from which the National Records of Scotland was partly created. In 1996 the GROS conducted a Cognitive Survey of Scots, touring the country, together with a panel of advisors, interviewing groups around the country. The survey was discussed in an earlier post Who speaks Scots? The 1996 survey revisited. The GROS concluded in its report that an estimated 1.5 million people spoke Scots. The 2011 figure is, remember, 1,541,693. The correspondence between the two data sets is truly remarkable!

I think therefore we can say with quite a lot of confidence that 1.5 million people self-identify with the Scots language. What their interpretation of Scots is is another question but to imply all these people are just a bit confused, as the NRS effectively does, is simply inexcusable.

How to kill a story

gaelicThe Census data was released yesterday on the European Day o Languages, and we found out that Scots has many more speakers than Welsh, Icelandic, Breton, Basque, Estonian, Corsican, Sardinian, Frisian. Michael Hance captured the euphoria “an affa emotional day for me the day. Canna believe it’s raelly happent.”

However the this positive feeling was not to last. The deliberate cleansing of the Scots data from the NRS News release meant that one of the most important cultural stories of modern Scottish history, was completely missed by the Scottish and UK press and TV.

As Colin Wilson put it “Reporting Scotland the nicht hid a nae bad piece aboot the figures for Gaelic, even a cuttie interview wi an activist, bit said naething avaw aboot Scots, nae even that the figures hid been gaither’t for the first time.”

The only BBC News story Census shows decline in Gaelic speakers ‘slowed’ exemplifies the low-key media approach. Although there is a quote from Michael Hance, later the piece focuses on Gaelic (about 60% of the text). An excerpt follows to show the balance.

A decline in the overall number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland has “slowed”, according to the latest results from the 2011 Census. The previous Census results recorded an 11% drop in speakers, while the new figures suggest a 1.2% fall from 59,000 to 58,000. The latest results also show a 0.1% increase in Gaelic speakers aged under 20. The Scottish government said the results were encouraging. The results also include detail on what languages are used in Scottish homes. They suggest that 93% of people aged three and over reported that they used only English at home. About 1.5 million people reported that they regularly spoke Scots. The figures also show 1% of the population – 54,000 people – used Polish at home, while 13,000 people reported using British Sign Language. Alasdair Allan, minister for Scotland’s languages, said: “While the census shows a slight fall overall, we can take real encouragement from the growth in Gaelic speakers under the age of 20“.

The really ‘important’ news story was about Gaelic, the ‘only English’ data (which will be discussed elsewhere) was used as a spoiler for the Scots data and Polish and Sign Language were given equal status to Scots. This is how a story is killed .

The British press showed no interest, only the Guardian story Where in Scotland do people feel the most Scottish? covered the Census at all, and focused on the (admittedly interesting) identity question. The BBC picked this aspect up too, Census suggests most Scots ‘feel only Scottish‘.

Not surprisingly there was no international interest. Even the normally reliable Eurolang NGO followed the NRS line. This was their version; “Decline in numbers of Gaelic speakers has slowed with the census showing a 1.2% drop from 59,000 speakers to 58.000 speakers, far better than the 11% drop ten years ago. The Scottish Government says the figures are encouraging and may show that Gaelic could be about to turn the corner and gradually increase the number of speakers. Comments from all the Gaelic experts here welcome. It certainly looks like the revitalisation effort is beginning to pay off. Mixed messages about Scots though. (my emphasis)”

Michael Hance summed up the treatment of Scots in despair “Aye weel, that wis Scots speakers cleansed fae the telly the streen an near on naethin on the radio bar a report on Radio Shetland. I did get a e-mail tho fae a quine I’m workin wi on anither project. In it she tellt me she’d heard on the news – dinna ken whit station – that jist 1% o fowk spoke Scots. That’s the vairsion that wis gien in the NRS’s ain unscientific an linguistically ignorant interpretation o the data. It means, for example, that o the 8000 fowk in Shetland that said they spoke Scots, jist 80 o them speak the language in the hoose. Sorry, NRS, but that’s keech an we’re nae pittin up wi it“.

Press release: Scots Language Centre welcomes census figures

speakers“Responding to figures released today by the National Records of Scotland which show 1.54 million people speak Scots Michael Hance, Director of the Scots Language Centre, said, “These figures are great news but after centuries of neglect it is time for action to be taken to safeguard the language for the future. The data gathered during the 2011 census gives us for the first time ever information about the number of people who speak Scots, where they live and which demographic groups they fall into. This means that we can begin to plan how to support communities of Scots speakers and to encourage those communities to value their language and pass it on to future generations.’

‘Scotland without the Scots language would be a pale imitation of itself. For centuries the Scots language has been at the heart of our culture, it has helped define us as people and has been one of the key media through which we have expressed ourselves artistically and creatively.’

‘The Scots Language Centre is calling on the government to draw up a Charter for Scots outlining how we can support the language and its dialects better.’

‘Children are the key to the future health of the language and we’d like to see new efforts being made to encourage innovative projects aimed at creating a sense of pride and self-worth amongst Scots speaking school pupils. Sadly we still hear about far too many examples of Scots pronunciation and Scots grammatical forms being ‘corrected’ by schoolteachers and this must stop. Children can easily understand the difference between language forms and have the capacity to learn both Scots and English. The days of attempting to stamp out language difference are over and we must ensure that Scots speakers are treated with respect as custodians of a centuries old language and culture.’

‘We need to see TV programmes aimed at youngsters which echo their own linguistic realities. Oor Wullie and the Broons are Scotland’s favourite comic strips but isn’t it about time we heard them speak.’

‘After many hundreds of years of neglect and active suppression of Scots it is remarkable that so many people can still claim to speak the language. That such suppression included the physical punishment of generations of school children will forever be to Scotland’s shame. We can now do something about righting these wrongs and I hope the Scottish Government will soon begin that process by announcing what measures it intends to take in response to these striking census figures.’

More information:

Michael Hance, Director, Scots Language Centre, A K Bell Library, Perth PH2 8EP
Tel: 07763 927759 or 01738 440199 or 01506 200656
E-mail: – information on Scots language question in the 2011 census.