First Census data analysis

regionalPeople have started to analyse the figures from Release 2 – Downloadable Files where files were available as Excel spreadsheets, csv) and PDF Format. The ones that interest language activists most are:

The Census Results Interactive Map gives an interesting snapshot of Scots speakers by region (see above). Again as predicted by the GRO(S) map. The type of raw data available:scotsbyregionThe Scots Language Centre also produced a short analysis of the main figures and points raised in the reports released on 26 September 2013. SLC Analysis of Census 2011 for Scots which will be discussed later.

Scots Language Census figures out – 1.54 million speakers!

nrs-logoThe long-awaited results from Scotland’s Census 2011 was published today at 09.30 hours by the National Records of Scotland (NRS) . Release 2A provided “key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language (including Gaelic), Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland”. Note Scots was not mentioned. There was a media briefing by Tim Ellis, NRS Chief Executive and Registrar General for Scotland and Amy Wilson, Head of Census Statistics at New Register House in Edinburgh.

I was luckily enough to be working from home so was able to follow the release on the Scots Language Centre’s Facebook page. At 8.15 Michael Hance teased us with ” Hearin affa interestin rumours aboot the nummer o fowk that said they cuid speak Scots in response tae the census quaistions. Details nae oot tae 0930“. By 9.45 he posted “Exact speaker feegir: 1,541,693“. “WOW! bet that’s higher than ANYBODY thought!” replied one poster. But in fact it was “nae aw that far awa fae whit Horsbroch an Murdoch funnd whan they did thon study for the GRO(S) in 1996“.

As I posted “OMG. The gemm haes jist chynged.”

But had it, really? Language activists swarmed to the just-released NRS web page Statistical Bulletin Release 2A – 26 September 2013. The two key documents were the Release 2A Statistical Bulletin – PDF (with a range of figures and tables from Release 2A available download) and the Key Points NRS news release.

The Bulletin said (p 27) “In 2011, the proportion of the population aged 3 and over in Scotland who reported they could speak, read, write or understand Scots was 38 per cent (1.9 million). For Scotland as a whole, 30 per cent (1.5 million) of the population aged 3 and over reported they were able to speak Scots. The council areas with the highest proportions able to speak Scots were Aberdeenshire and Shetland Islands (49 per cent each), Moray (45 per cent) and Orkney Islands (41 per cent). The lowest proportions reported were in Eilean Siar (7 per cent), City of Edinburgh (21 per cent), Highland and Argyll & Bute (22 per cent each).

Fantastic, “30 per cent (1.5 million) of the population aged 3 and over reported they were able to speak Scots“, at last the magic data we had all been waiting for!

But hang on, the very next paragraph said; “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. Researchcarried 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 ‘research’ mentioned was the 2009 Ipsos MORI survey to test draft test the impact of including Scots as a language question in the Census. Among other things the survey found “understanding of what is meant by ‘Scots’ is very varied and there is considerable confusion about the meaning of the term“(p 8). Bear in mind this was before the Aye Can campaign to address this very issue. However NRS had evidently taken this ambivalence, not as a starting point for public debate, but as an excuse to ‘cleanse’ the Census data of the Scots results.

Scots had just been ‘disappeared’.

Glesca gaun aw Cockney?

EastEnders ‘changing Scots accent’Researchers looking at how television viewing can lead to accent changes have claimed Glaswegian fans of EastEnders are picking up Cockney dialect. Linguists at Glasgow University said the study proved that actively watching TV could speed up language change. They said pronunciation, typically associated with London English, was being increasingly used by Glaswegians who regularly watched the soap.

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via Bbc

Scots as a personal journey – Part 3 Modern Scots

The final step in my odd journey back to Scots took place in a university library in Manchester. I was working down there, perhaps unconsciously following a trajectory started by my parents a generation before. Before the days of the web and Facebook  people actually used to communicate with text-based bulletin boards groups and I was a member of one called soc.culture.scottish. It was about Scottish politics, and occasionally the threads (lines of discussion) got a bit heated. One such thread asked if Scots was a dialect or a language. It seemed obvious to me that it was a language, but as the discussion progressed over several days I realised that although I was taking a stance I did not really know much about Scots other than it was something I had spoken at least to some extent as a child.

I was working in one of the universities so naturally (Google had not been invented) I trotted off to the library. And there in a dark forgotten shelf I found two dusty tattered books that I can reasonably say changed my life. They had been published in 1915 and 1921, and according to the paper record tabs that were a feature of library books at the time, neither had been taken out of the library since the mid-50s. I opened them up, one after the other and peered in the yellow pages. It was like finding a long lost treasure. The 1921 one was called “A manual of modern Scots” and over nearly 500 pages explained in great detail the grammar of the Scots I had spoken as a child. The examples were drawn from Scots literature from the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries. The authors, William Grant and James Main Dixon had painstakingly gone through published Scots narratives and Scots dialogue in otherwise English texts and constructed a grammar from it. The astonishing thing was the structures they described were exactly the structures we used in the 60s and 70s, we bairns were not just making stuff up, we were using common vocabulary and grammar structures stretching back at least 250 years. A secret language.

Heady stuff, but the best was yet to come. The 1915 book was called “Lowland Scotch” and was written by a religious man with a strikingly fundamentalist beard (there was a blurry picture in the front) called James Wilson. Wilson had written another grammar, but had taken a completely different approach from Grant and Dixon. He had actually done some field work in a village in the Strathern district and basically written down what people had said, using an charming and functional orthography of his own devising. Where had he carried out his studies? In Dunning, where I had gone to primary school. Reading through Wilson’s lists of words and phrases I could hear the voice of the older Dunning folk in my ears. Some of the terms he had carefully recorded had inevitably been lost in the intervening 60 years but this was undoubtedly the authentic sound of my childhood soundscape.

I crouched in the library and spent hours reading and re-reading over both volumes, still unable to believe what I was before my eyes. Both books, so different in approach were telling me the same story. And then I sat back and looked out of the window (something of a habit) at the darkening Manchester sky. Scots wasn’t a just a dialect, as I had long suspected anyway, but had a clear and consistent grammar which had been reasonably stable for generations. It had a very clear orthography, Grant and Dixon had just averaged out the varieties of literary spelling. It even had Wilson’s delightful phonetic system, still my favourite way of representing Scots, if such a thing was ever needed.

Yet all these things were hidden from the people who spoke it. Nobody brought these books into school when I was a child, nobody told us a grammar and wordlists even existed. Both books fell out of print and even nowadays many Scots language enthusiasts don’t seem to have heard of them.

The discovery of those books started me on a journey. I wrote one of the earliest Scots web sites (wabsteid, in Scots, a word I am pretty sure I coined), but went on to take a degree in English language just to study the history of language, sociolinguistics, advanced grammar, and even the analysis of discourse.


Scots as a personal journey – Part 2 Homage to Catalunya

Knowing Scots had an indirect effect on me; I became fascinated almost obsessed by language, how people express themselves. I studied French and German in my spare time. I became fairly fluent in Spanish too and while learning that language in Aberdeen (of all places) met a lass from Barcelona, and whom I later married. Through her I picked up almost by accident another language, Catalan.

I didn’t know much about Catalan at first. At her family get-togethers her family aways spoke to me in Spanish, or Castilian as they preferred to name it. I began to realise though that as the boozy evening progressed I often lost the power to understand much what was being said. I thought it was the strong Catalan wine at first but it eventually dawned on me (I said I was a slow thinker, remember) that they had just forgotten I was not a local and had all switched seamlessly to their own tongue.

Catalan is a curious tongue. People say it halfway between Spanish and French but that is not really true. Half of the vocabulary, the longer words mostly, is almost identical to Spanish. A quarter seems pulled from the other Latin languages, French certainly, but just as much Italian and oddly enough maybe even a sprinkling of Portuguese. The last quarter (if you are still counting) is a range vocabulary and grammar fairly unique to itself. The challenge for learners is that it is the Catalan quarter that is the most spoken portion. That said intelligent Castilian speakers living in Catalunya claim to be able to understand it in a few weeks and learn to speak it competently in quite a short time. This closeness with Castilian has contributed to Catalan’s troubled history. Although a language with a long historic pedigree it was often condemned like Scots as an uncouth and unpleasant peasant dialect, and sometimes under the breath still is. Maybe that is why I developed an affection for Catalan’s thick vowels and frank phrases and for a while could ‘xarlar’ away reasonably well. At the time though, nearly 20 years ago, Catalan was a language rarely learned or spoken by foreigners. Sometimes I’d strike up a conversation with a random Catalan soul at a party or bar and they’d just stop and look at me in astonishment, as if a dog had just got up on his hind legs and started speaking. But I was getting used to it by then.

Something happened to Catalan though during my seemingly endless trips to Barcelona. After the death of Franco and the devolution of the Spanish state, once even more centralised than the British one, to the autonomous regions, Catalan had been picked up by the Generalitat, the Catalan government, as a cause celebre. Why? Two aspects of Catalan society very different from Scotland is that the language was always spoken by a substantial portion of the middle classes. Only in the North East of Scotland are there middle-class speakers of Scots like my administrator ladies in Aberdeen. This means with the partial exception of Doric there a no middle-class champions and therefore no push to get the status of the language lifted. Say what you like about the middle classes, they get things done if it is to their benefit.

Moreover Catalan was seen as the main carrier of Catalan identity. Catalonia shares a long land border with ‘Castilian’ Spain and although the Catalan culture is rich it is the language that defines it. So Catalan was something to be increasingly nurtured and developed through the 80s and above all taught in Schools. My then wife was of the last generation not to be taught wholly in Catalan. Her father, by the way, was not taught Catalan at all under the Franco regime and although could speak it elegantly was completely illiterate in his own tongue. When he gave us handwritten shopping lists and the like they were always in meticulous Castillian Spanish, the script of prestige.

So what was the effect of this enormous task of linguistic re-engineering? At some time I noticed the ‘default language’, the language shop assistants and waiters automatically use in Barcelona, began to switch to Catalan. I realised that by the late nineties you could, and many did, live completely in a Catalan bubble. Catalan TV, which was comparatively good, Catalan language newspapers, Catalan books and Catalan public services. Only cinema remained, and remains, the last bastion of Castilian purity.

Metropolitan intellectuals are generally dismissive such ‘nationalistic’ projects, but as an outsider I was drawn to the energy, the sheer ambition of trying to redefine the identity of a whole country. Language was not the only, and probably not the most important, element of change, but it was one of its primary visible and audible symbols. And language nationalism is a relatively  ‘soft nationalism’ anyway, inclusive in the sense if you care to learn the language you can usually join the club, even if it is in the talking dog category.

Inevitably Just as I had seen Catalonia through Scots eyes I slowly began to see Scots through a Catalan context. Catalan’s troubled relationship with Castilian became equated with Scots’ problems with English. But Scots was nothing like as well developed as Catalan, was it? There were no grammars, few useful dictionaries….


Scots as a personal journey – Part 1 The Doric Ladies

I loved the the view of the North Sea from the departmental office window. The room was on the fourth or fifth floor of a modern tower and you could watch the dark clouds form up on the horizon then steadily move towards us, relentless as zombies, bringing in chill winds and fresh rain from Scandinavia. Sometimes the oil rig supply ships would emerge too as if from nowhere and gradually grow in size as they made their way back to Fitdee and the port of Aberdeen.

The office was run by two immaculately dressed ladies of a certain age. They ran a tight ship, friendly and efficient and I had chatted and joked with them many times. This day I was waiting for a printout or something. Disconnected, in a dwam my mother used to say, just staring out to sea.  The ladies were just talking between themselves. Something caught my ear though. They weren’t talking in English, but in Doric, the dialect of the North East. They were describing in some detail the various other members of staff. I listened for a while, then thought I’d better make a confession.

“Ye ken a can unnerstaun aw that ye’re seyin. We aw spoke the same wey whan A wis a bairn doon in Pairthshire an Fife”.

The blethering stopped. Both looked at me in astonishment, as if a dog had just got up on his hind legs and stated speaking.

“That’s impossible, only Aberdeenshire folk speak the Doric”.

“No it isn’t, you say ‘fit’ and ‘and I’d say ‘whit’ and stuff like that but it’s much the same otherwise”.

But they were having none of it, it was as if I had broken their secret code, intruded in a private matter. In the rest of my time in Aberdeen, though they chatted and joked as normal, they never spoke the Doric in my company again.

The episode bothered me, not just because I tend to fret when conversations don’t turn out well but there seemed to be something else going on, just on the edge of my mental horizon, some question that should be answered. It took some time, nearly a decade,  for the question even to form, I’m not a quick thinker.

I had a slightly odd childhood. My family were into hotels. Not just staying in them but running them. The addiction started slowly. I was born in Edinburgh but by the time I went to school we were in Dunbar, living above a shop and renting out rooms (my room, actually) to holidaymakers. I think it was my mother Muriel who was the driving force. She was an exceptionally bright and insightful woman, from Manchester. She’d met my father during the war when he’d been stationed there as a government munitions inspector. Mum was working on the production line making bullets and Dad had a car, and petrol, so was so something of a catch. Dad always wanted to return to his native Glasgow and Mum followed but being a housewife was never quite enough for Muriel.

We moved Burntisland on Fife’s Riviera coast when I was about nine – bigger house, more rooms to let out. But that wasn’t enough either, after a few years they bought an old bank house in Dunning in Perthshire to they convert to a proper hotel. I went to three primary schools, therefore, in East Lothian, South Fife and Perthshire, all at the time heartlands of Scots speakers. This was why I could understand the Doric of the Aberdeen ladies. Although my mother was English, she delighted in collecting and using Scots words and phrases, often spoken in mock-ironic inverted commas, but spoken nonetheless. So although English was (of course) used in the classroom and on the television I was immersed in the Scots tongue throughout my childhood.

Many people nowadays speak of being punished at school for speaking Scots, sometimes physically by beatings with sticks and leather straps or psychologically through public humiliation. Such is the frequency of such stories the ‘hidden oppression’ of the tongue has become part of its folklore ‘just something that happened’. However this never really happened to me; maybe having an English parent was an advantage, making it easier to slip between Scots and English, but I remember some of the teachers were actually supportive. Our teacher in Burntisland explained to us we were ‘bilinguals’, using one language in the classroom and another in the playground. She would test us on our knowledge of Scots vocabulary; “Can anyone explain what a ‘bawbee’ is?” She made us learn J.K. Annand’s Scots poem “The boy in train” by heart and on a Friday afternoons would read to us from J.J. Bell’s Glasgow Scots stories “Wee McGreegor”. It seems this was an almost unique in this experience in the 70s where skill in Scots was praised not punished. I suspect now our Burntisland teacher may have been a Scottish nationalist.

When I moved to secondary school and on to university, and Scots just disappeared, though I remember thinking it odd that fellow students in the Anglophone bubble of St Andrews were learning long dead Anglo-Saxon. Just down the road I knew a vibrant living tongue was still spoken that would have taught them more about the history and development of English than the dull pages of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer ever could.

Scots proved useful again though when I found myself as a student working in factories up in Montrose, in Arbroath parks (my parents had moved again) and later hospitals around Glasgow. No vernacular talk was a mystery to me, and I could still turn my Scots up to 11 whenever I felt the need.

Like most Scots speakers, I never really thought about it, though it was just ‘a way of speaking’. I suppose I knew Scots was a language of some kind, and not just because the teacher had told us so. The English relatives we visited regularly spoke a strong Lancashire dialect and even as a bairn I realised what we spoke north of the border could never really be a ‘dialect’ in the English style, it was just far richer, more complicated and varied.

Language, power and education

Language and power are closely related; as Christina Chimisso (2003:41) recognises “all cultural identities have to be learned, performed and reproduced”. Heller (1999 p18) sees schools as “important sites of social and cultural reproduction” (p 18) controlled by the state and state agendas and so “as a result, they have often been sites of struggle over state versus local control; for linguistic minorities”.

Chimisso (2003:55) refers to the sociologist and educational researcher Pierre Bourdieu who “had no doubts: the culture and values of school education are those of the dominant class” and so “education mirrors and reproduces existing social structures”. Romaine (2000:205) agrees “as one of society’s main socialising instruments, the school plays a powerful role in exerting control over its pupils. It endorses mainstream and largely middle-class values and language”. The consequence is that “children who do not come to school with the kind of cultural and linguistic background supported in schools are likely to experience conflict”. Linguistic ‘conflict’ of this nature can be internalised and so hidden.

The debate about the Scots language is just the visible tip of a much deeper semi- hidden discourse about the nature of Scottish identity. As Romaine succinctly observes “…the division between standard and non-standard is symbolic of other very deep fault lines in society. Debates about language are thus really about issues of race, gender, class, or culture, and about whose norms will prevail” (2000:224).

Bateman (2006:11) notes the success of the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act which in 2005 recognised Gaelic as one of the official languages of Scotland “with parity of esteem with English”. Gaelic with about 60,000 speakers, compared with an estimated 1.6 million Scots speakers, has for many years been comparatively well funded and represented in education and the media. The Scottish Government is however still only tentatively considering the status of Scots despite various reports over the past decade making encouraging (and occasionally urgent) recommendations for Scots language planning and funding. Bateman concurs this is essentially a political debate; “endorsement of Scots…has always been easier to achieve in literary terms than in official or legal terms” (p 14), and cites the continuing health of Burns celebrations and a fairly thriving Scots writing scene.

The result is that although Evans found in the 2009 audit of Scots language provision in education “much practice happening on the ground” (p 20), particularly in primary education, such activity was fragmented and “uptake is dependent on local prioritisation of Scots language teaching” and so is difficult to quantify. Scots language had been highlighted within the Scottish Government’s 3-18 “Curriculum for Excellence” as part of the experiences and outcomes for Literacy and English. There is an emphasis on Scotland’s literature and the languages of Scotland but uptake was optional. Thus there was “no apparent consistency regarding educational provision across local authorities from a top-down perspective” (p 20) although he reported “strong interest and growing practice in most of them”. A curious aspect to this is that much work in terms of teachers’ workshops and the publishing of Scots materials suitable for primary school children has come from a commercial publisher Itchy Coo rather from official sources.

Some of the work done is outstanding however; one example from the  Learning and Teaching Scotland website “a primary school in West Lothian is currently exploring ways of introducing Scots throughout the year on a graded scale from P1 up to P7. Kirkhill PS in Broxburn has been working since January with Matthew Fitt, Schools Officer for Itchy Coo, to develop teaching materials and strategies appropriate to the different stages of primary. Head Teacher Anne Moir believes that a more structured approach to Scots among the school community will be of significant benefit to the linguistic development of her pupils.” It concludes “the EU-funded organisation Mercator Education based in Leeuwarden in the Netherlands is keen to see how this particular Scots Language programme develops. It has been suggested that Kirkhill PS may become eligible at a future date to join Mercator’s prestigious European Network of Bilingual Schools”, placing Scots in the wider European context.

I attended a Scots Language Conference at the University of Stirling a few years ago after the 2009 audit was published, and the work then being done with Scots in many individual primary schools was inspiring and moving. Nevertheless it was evident there was little coherence in the provision and the ambivalence towards Scots was captured in a quote from Eleanor Coner, the then ‘Information Officer’ of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. She said: “We should embrace native (sic) languages, if you like, but the most important thing in primary is to learn to read and write and I don’t think we can force much more into the curriculum” (Cornwell 2009).

To conclude it hard not to concur with Eilidh Bateman’s belief that  “without the appropriate backing and funding the required level of language planning and promotion needed to significantly raise the profile of Scots is impossible” (Bateman 2006:21).


Bateman E (2006) Molts noms a un sol amor: many names for a single love, Scots Language Society, Blackford
Chimisso C (2003) What is identity? in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Cornwell T (2009) Support Scots language in our schools, ministers told, The Scotsman online version 28 January 2009
Evans R (2009) Audit of current Scots language provision in Scotland, Scottish Government Social Research, Edinburgh
Learning and Teaching Scotland (undated) Scots language in the primary schoolRomaine S (2000) Language in society, 2nd edition, Oxford Press, Oxford

Catalonia – the return of the language question

Children in Tarragona: 'For a country for everyone, schooling in Catalan' (by R. Segura) CNA

Children in Tarragona: 'For a country for everyone, schooling in Catalan' (by R. Segura) CNA

Comparisons are often made between the status of Scots and Catalan as ‘minority’ languages and Catalan is often regarded as the poster-child of linguistic revitalisation. There are certainly some similarities; Scotland and Catalonia are both historical European nations of a comparable size, self-governing but part of larger states dominated by global languages (English and Spanish) linguistically close to the local variety. The role of the two languages in shaping and defining national identity are quite different, however, and that is reflected in their relative status in public life.

To some extent Catalan is not really a minority language in terms of number of speakers or status in the territory in which it is spoken. In many respects it resembles an official state language and Catalans are justly proud of the  post-Franco developments on its legal protection and obligations (e.g Ruiz et al 1996). The 1978 Spanish Constitution made Spanish (or Castilian as Catalans call it) the official state language but the Catalan Statute of Autonomy the following year declared Catalan to be Catalonia’s “own language” and the official language of Catalonia, alongside Castilian. A transformative process of ‘linguistic normalisation’ (language recovery) was then put into place by the centre-right Catalan government. Again this was scaffolded by various laws from the 1983 Catalan Linguistic Normalisation law to the 1998 Language Policy law which states “the Catalan language shall normally be used as the vehicle for learning and non-university teaching”. Significantly the 1983 law makes specific reference to the “prohibitions and persecutions of the Catalan language and culture unleashed after 1939” (Bateman 2006:100) but this was removed for the 1998 law, much to the concern of some language activists who feel Catalan’s history of persecution is an important reason for protecting it.

Normalisation has been a delicate process as there have been very large numbers of monolingual Castilian speakers in Catalonia, immigrants from the poorer regions of Spain attracted by the buoyant local economy. The same process is continuing today with over the last decade large numbers (in Spanish terms at least) of immigrants from outside of Spain (Maragall 2009).  Catalan is now the principle teaching language used throughout primary and secondary education but policies also emphasise ‘linguistic diversity’. Multilingualism is promoted by using Catalan as a basis for acquiring fluency in Spanish and learning other languages as well. By the end of compulsory education pupils should know the two official languages of Catalonia (and be able to read and write in both by age 7) and have a good knowledge of at least one other, usually English.  In the Catalan-speaking Balearic Islands there was even talk of a more ambitious policy of eventual trilingual education with children being taught in Catalan (or the Mallorquin dialect), Castilian and English.

In September of last year, however, the story took a dramatic turn. In the face of growing Catalan nationalism the Spanish Government approved a wide education reform “to fight school failure” by  recentralising part of the school curriculum. The Spanish Education Minister, José Ignacio Wert, of the conservative People’s Party (PP), is infamous in Catalonia for stating in 2012 that he wanted “to Hispanicise Catalan pupils”, and continues to push for a reform that will deliberately undermine Catalonia’s education model described above, which has been in place for more than 30 years.

Unsurprisingly the proposal has caused outrage in Catalonia where according to the nationalist Catalan News Agency (CNA) the Government “fear it would split Catalan society into two separate language communities, breaking apart the current social cohesion and creating a linguistic problem that does not exist at the moment”. Currently The Basque Country, Andalucía, Canarias and Asturias joined Catalonia in their opposition to the reform (the Autonomous Communities that not run by the PP). The 12 regional governments run by the PP supported Wert’s reform.


Bateman E (2006) Molts noms a un sol amor: many names for a single love, Scots Language Society, Blackford
Maragall E (2009) Decentralizing Education in Spain and Catalonia: opportunities and challenges, lecture, LSE London
Ruiz F, Sanz R and Solé i Camardons J (1996) Història social i política de la llengua catalana, Contextos 3 i 4, Barcelona

Scotland: the sociolinguistic context

This post expands a post from a few months ago where code switching and style-shifting were outlined. How do these mechanisms fit into a broader context of language and society?

As Scottish linguist Tom McArthur notes in his 1998 book The English Languages, the linguistic status of the variety of English spoken in lowland Scotland is very much contested. Linguistic ‘separatists’ such as Billy Kay (1993) who promote ‘Scots’ as a distinct historic language are ranged against pragmatists (e.g. Charles Jones 2002) who argue that the original distinctiveness of Scots is so eroded that it is now merely a fading dialect. There is also a surprisingly numerous (and powerful) band of Scottish language conservatives who still consider any vernacular forms ‘bad English’. The Scottish Government’s 2009 audit of Scots language provision in Scotland (Evans, 2009) represents the ‘official’ consensus describing Scots as “one of Scotland’s three indigenous languages and is the second most widely spoken indigenous language in the UK. The General Register Office for Scotland estimated in 1996 that there were approximately 1.6 million speakers of Scots” (p 4). 

Any description of Scots needs some sociolinguistic context. Speakers draw on their linguistic repertoire (Holmes, 1992 p21) to communicate shared social meaning in their linguistic community. Variation in speech pattern is thus used both to convey personal identity and to negotiate social relationships. Speakers may deliberately or unconsciously shift between different accents or varieties (referred to as ‘styles’) depending on context. One of the key sociolinguistic variables of context that influences this type of change is its degree of formality. Speakers use more ‘high prestige’ forms in more formal situations (such as school) and ‘vernacular’ alternatives in less formal contexts (at home, for example). In groups, however, several researchers suggest that speech patterns tend to converge when speakers want to show a degree of social solidarity. This is why the relationship between linguistic, personal and group identity are exceptionally close.

In this fluid context, Scottish speech is notoriously hard to pin down as it functions sometimes as a full language and sometimes as a ‘dialect’. The Scots Language Centre website rightly notes “Scots use a mixture of Scots and English in their speech, with some using mostly Scots and others mostly English. In this sense the language exists as part of a continuum with Scottish Standard English”. 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“. Britain’s leading dialectologist Peter Trudgill (1983:112) recognises the uniqueness of the Scots vernacular; “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.” 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.”

Conflict however does not stem from linguistic complexity but from perceptions of prestige. 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 what sociolinguists describe as 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”.

Linguistic ‘prestige’ is of course a social construction which can be unpacked further. The primary component is class; Scots is generally associated with working class and rural speakers. This has a profound effect in education where teachers are often from middle-class non-Scots backgrounds. However Scots is also, not surprisingly, associated with a Scottish identity.  Across the English-speaking world, using any non-standard language or variety is generally regarded as an act of defiance or a political stand (Abley, 2005). This seems to trouble Scottish politicians of both the left and the right. As sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine (2000:224) puts it “a fear of divided loyalties and identities – supposedly the result of unassimilated ethnic groups – has underlain the foundation of most nation-states”. The Scottish establishment seems to fear the emergence of what the Catalan sociologist Manuel Castells (cited in Chimisso, 2003:60) described as a ‘resistance’ identity. A resistance identity is where previously-marginalised groups, perhaps Scots speakers, legitimise themselves, often by excluding members of the dominant group (in this case linguistically). He contrasted this with legitimising identity, identification with state and established civil society (in this case the English-speaking establishment) and project identity where groups attempt to change structures of society or the roles of participants in it. The Scots language movement probably fits most neatly in the last group, but there is definitely some aspect of resistance to linguistic uniformity. Political theorist Chris Brown (2005) recognises the important psychological function of this type of identity “assuring us that we are not simply the product of global branding, but can control our own destinies by asserting ourselves as Christians, Scots, Sikhs or whatever” (p195).  It could also be argued that Scots language activists simply want the language to become established (‘normalised’ is the interesting term used by Catalans).


Abley M (2005) Spoken here: travels among threatened languages, Arrow Books, London
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
Brown C (2005) Understanding international relations, Palgrave, London
Chimisso C (2003) What is identity? in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Evans R (2009) Audit of current Scots language provision in Scotland, Scottish Government Social Research, Edinburgh
Holmes J (1992) An introduction to sociolinguistics, Longman, London
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Purves D (2002) A Scots grammar: Scots grammar and usage (revised and extended edition), The Saltire Society, Edinburgh
Romaine S (2000) Language in society, 2nd edition, Oxford Press, Oxford
Trudgill P (1983) Sociolinguistics: an introduction to language and society, (revised edition), Penguin Books, Harmondsworth
Wilson L C (2002) Luath Scots language learner, Luath Press, Edinburgh



Linguistic identity and nationalism

This post expands some of the ideas from my last post and is based on part of an essay I did for an Open University course a few years ago.

On the OU course Christina Chimisso (2003:50) underlined the importance of language as a component of personal identity,

“it is generally assumed that people have a special relationship with one language, their mother-tongue. Moreover, people might find a sense of community with others with whom they can easily communicate, who share the same language”.

Pittaway (2003:149) takes this further, for him language “defines and shapes personal identity” and this makes it “one of the most obvious fields in which European cultural identity is manifested”.

In his classic monograph ‘Language and nationalism’ (1973) Joshua Fishman describes how communities often regard language as “the most undeniable indicator of uniqueness” (p 53) and even more importantly “a nationality-contrastive or continuative device”. As communities find contrastive (i.e. against some linguistic ‘other’) self-identification via language language identity is often closely linked to nationalism. Language identity, as  Pittaway (2003:158) again expresses it,

“came to form a key plank of the cultural and political nationalism that emerged across Europe during the nineteenth century…it can define a group – a nation – and form the basis of its claim to have a state of its own” (2003:158).

The idea of a community defined and legitimised in terms of a shared language is however a fairly modern social construction.

May (2003) claims the ideal of political organisation based on the linguistically homogenous nation originated with the 1789 French revolution. Hitherto linguistic uniformity had not been particularly important to rulers. According to Benedict Anderson (1983) the industrial revolution via the mass printing of books and newspapers and of course education and literacy consolidated the hegemony of an “imagined” linguistic community. To Fishman (1973:43) mass literacy was essential for a modern society and a common code was simply a consequence of this. Nevertheless in the ‘community’ one language or variety of language usually became dominant, acquiring “a hegemonic position because it was spoken by the ruling class or was the preferred written language” (Chimisso 2003:51).  Pittaway, notes that non-dominant groups in nation states are usually faced with a stark choice “they are either assimilated or develop their own nationalism” (2003:176). As he observes language is “a means of inclusion, yet also forms a means of exclusion” (p 149).

Exclusion and discrimination fuel the formation of linguistically-driven nationalist movements. Heller (1999:7) points out the irony of this process; “linguistic minorities are created by nationalisms which exclude them. At the same time, the logic of linguistic nationalism is available to minorities as a way to resist the power of the majority”. As we shall see later with reference to education linguistic conflicts are therefore at their root power conflicts. Marxist linguist Marnie Holbrow (1999:151) reminds us that ideology is embedded not only in language itself, but how we think about it and the “profoundly social aspect of language means that ideas held about language are interlaced with wider views about society.”

Phillipson (1992) addresses the aspect of ideology he terms ‘linguistic imperialism’. Like Heller he accuses the “ideologues of the French Revolution” who “believed that their ideals would best be achieved by imposing a single language on all, a linguicidal policy” (p 20). Thus French “the international language of the of the European ruling groups” but still a minority language in the France of the 18th century was imposed on speakers of Occitian, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Alsatian etc. He notes ruefully that in France “this policy is still largely in force”. Pittaway (2003:175) concurs with Heller; “the acquisition of and competence in official French became a marker of social stratification.” As an early form of globalisation, linguistic imperialism embeds similar prestige notions of ‘progress’ or ‘modernisation’, generally meaning compliance with currently hegemonic views of economic and social organisation.

Phillipson notes that linguistic discourse often reveals discriminatory and even neo-colonial attitudes.

“Two of the most central labels in colonialist cultural mythology are tribe and dialect. They both express the way the dominant group differentiates itself and stigmatises the dominated group. They therefore form part of an essentially racist ideology. The rule is that we are a nation with a language and they are a tribe with a dialect” (p 38).

He cites Calvet (1974:54) who concludes that traditionally linguistics has failed to define rigorously enough such concepts as language and dialect in relation to social power, thus

“a dialect is never anything other than a defeated language and a language is a dialect that has succeeded politically”.

Power structures are therefore the primary source of linguistic conflict through the imposition (consciously or carelessly) of linguistic uniformity. English has now moved centre-stage and “the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstruction of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages” (Phillipson 1992:47). We can see in Scotland how such hegemony is “advanced by such cultural activities as film, videos and television” (p 59) and is characterised an overwhelming asymmetry of the interaction with mass broadcast from the centre and only a trickle in the other direction.


Anderson B (1983) Imagined communities, Verso, London
Chimisso C (2003) What is identity? in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes
Fishman J A (1973) Language and nationalism, Newbury House Publ., Rowley, Mass.
Heller M (1999) Linguistic minorities and modernity, Longman, London
Holborow M (1999) The politics of English, Sage Publications, London
May S (2003) Language, nationalism and democracy in Europe in Minority languages in Europe eds Hogan-Brun G and Wolff, S, Palgrave Macmillan, London
Phillipson R (1992) Linguistic imperialism, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Pittaway M (2003) Language, identity and nation in Exploring European identities ed C Chimisso, The Open University, Milton Keynes