Shades of Gray

Alastair Gray seems to have caused a stushie in Scotland with his contribution Settlers and Colonists to a new collection  Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. The controversy seems to have been stirred by a deliberately sensationalist Scotland on Sunday review on 16 December Alasdair Gray attacks English for ‘colonising’ arts. Cue predictable attacks on ‘anti-Englishness’, which has even reached far-off London with a typically patronising article by Deborah Orr today in the Guardian Scotland should not be wasting time on blaming the English any more with the strap line ” Alasdair Gray’s contention that there are too many English people working in Scottish culture jobs reveals a disappointingly parochial attitude”.

If you actually read the essay, Gray wasn’t being anti-English at all, but was being critical of neo-colonial attitudes of the Scottish establishment. Scotland. As Kevin Williamson and Mike Small remark in the Bella Caledonia post Why Alasdair Gray matters (and why he must be smeared)

The substance of Gray’s essay is to ask why such a disproportionate number of people in senior administrative positions in the arts are not Scots … and whether this is having a negative effect on Scottish culture. This is an important question… if journalist or commentators think that there ISN’T a problem with self confidence, inferiorism and the profile of Scots in senior positions in Scotland today, they aren’t paying attention”.

I’ll return to colonialism, neo-colonialism and post-colonialism and how it may apply to Scotland at a later date but there seems to be a real connection with what Calvet calls ‘linguistic imperialism’. Gray refers to this obliquely in his essay, at one point Bill Patterson’s Scottish accent is unacceptable to a BBC chief and remarkably “hardly anything Glaswegian was presented in Glasgow’s Year of Culture” in 1990.

Lesley Riddoch picks up this point in a follow-up blog post What connects Alasdair Gray, Dirty Dancing and Gary Tank Commander? when she tries ” not to further analyse Alasdair’s piece – but to pick up on a very important subject that lies at its heart, sadly lost now in all the furore“. This is what she says;

Do Scots believe they look and sound like winners, or leaders or folk able to apply for, win and shine in top jobs? My experience is that an overweaning concern about “sounding common”, not being able to speak “properly” in public, using bad grammar and “not knowing the right name for things” are the nameable aspects of a deep problem that stops many Scots taking the next steps in their lives and careers. It’s not necessary for anyone to be actively discouraged. The knowledge you’ve never seen someone with a working class accent or the Scots cadence of Easter Road or Govan reading the news tells you all you need to know.

According to Lesley Riddoch, then, language and attitudes to our own way of speaking lie at the very heart of the Scottish psyche.

Ulster Scots 2011 census figures

The findings from the 2011/12 Continuous Household Survey (the NI census) for Ulster Scots have been released and make for quite bleak reading. Figures show that:

  • Just over one in every seven (15%) of the population has some knowledge of Ulster-Scots.
  • Approximately one in seven (14%) can understand spoken Ulster-Scots, while fewer people can speak, read or write Ulster-Scots (4%, 4% and 1% respectively).
  • A tenth (10%) of the population are interested in learning more about Ulster-Scots.
  • There is a higher proportion of Protestants than Catholics who have knowledge of Ulster-Scots (21% and 8% respectively).
  • People living in the least deprived areas are more likely to have knowledge of Ulster-Scots than those living in the most deprived areas (15% and 10% respectively).
  • A higher proportion of people living in rural areas have knowledge of Ulster-Scots than those living inurban areas (20% and 12% respectively).
Ulster Scots 2011

From Blether region blog

The blog The Blether Region gives a quick analysis: “As readers will be aware, the headline census figure for “some ability in Ulster-Scots” for Northern Ireland was just under 8.1%. Nine of the 26 local government districts in the territory reported above-average percentages on this question and therefore have some claim to be Scots-speaking areas.They are as follows: Ballymoney 29.43; Ballymena 22.15; Moyle 21.71; Larne 19.20; Coleraine 15.93; Ards 13.27; Antrim 09.57; Carrickfergus 09.39 and Newtownabbey 09.13″. In an earler post the blog he explains why these results shouldn’t be so surprising.

And as I commented on Facebook, we might expect much the same when the Scottish figures come out.

“Ye ken fowks A fear we maun readie oorsels for sic law nummers in Scotland an aw fae the census whan it is furthset. Gien thae disjaskit Ulster feegurs A’d forsee us gettin aboot *hauf* o whit wis estimatit by the 1996 survey i.e aboot 15% o Scottish fowk awnin they speak onie Scots, wi ainlie Aiberdeen, Tayside, Fife, and the Borders abuin-average ‘hertlands’. A howp A’m up the wrang dreel, but A fear no.”

The Scots language and identities

As we know much of the current debate around Scottish politics, culture and history revolves around questions of identity. Identity seems to underpin much of the discussion about the Scots language, too. What does it mean to be a Scots speaker? Why have the middle classes generally disowned it? How does ‘Scots’ relate to Doric, Glesca, Ullans and the other dialects? etc.

What is the link then between the language or variety we speak and our identity? In recent years a whole research area has emerged in linguistics around this topic and looking for some insight I turned to the introductory section of the recent academic tome “Language and Identities” edited by Carmen Llamas and Dominic Watt, and published in 2010 by the Edinburgh University Press.

Modern theories of identity suggest ‘Scottishness’ is not ‘essential’ – i.e. not something we have – but constructed on the fly through performing various acts which are associated with the Scottish community i.e. it is something we do. Wearing kilts at weddings, supporting the Scotland football team, speaking with a Scottish accent etc are all  indicators of Scottishness. The context of activity in the community that identity ’emerges’: “it is in interaction that all these resources gain social meaning” (p19).

Language is of course central to identity;”people’s choice of languages, and ways of speaking, do not simply reflect who they are, but make them who they areour very sense of who we are, where we belong to and why, and how we relate to those around us, all have language at their centre.. they signal social belonging ” (p.9)

A lifetime of aural socialisation makes us very acute to the linguistic indicators of group affiliation. Hearing a syllable to two enables us to interpret (rightly or wrongly) one another’s background. We can therefore use aspects of language (accents, dialects and languages) as a cultural tool to position ourselves, for example to show solidarity, separation or social superiority with respect to the other speaker. For example we may try to dominate the other speaker by talking ‘correct’ English which conveys authority/education/status or we may attempt to adjust our tone to that of the other speaker as “it is easier to make a request from someone socially closer than someone socially distant” (p.30). This is what is meant by ‘constructing’ an identity through language.

What accent, words and so on actually do is refer to (in linguistic jargon ‘indexes’) a shared or social meaning external to the language itself. A Scottish ‘pan loaf’ accent is meaningless in itself but to a native speaker may indicate a social or value position, or even a personality-type. This is not merely arbitrary and judgemental; the speaker may actively be using the accent to propose his or her assumed social position. Moreover TV and drama often reinforce the link between accent and character as acting often relies on such off-the-peg stereotypes. Through this conscious and constructed association accents, dialects and so on accumulate a network of connected beliefs and attitudes.

Dialects and languages also have a broader social function to form communities “they are still what bind together communities, from the family to the nation…they carry our personal and community stories” and “in transmitting the memory of who is not part of us, they transmit the meaning of who we are” (both p 10). These group identities thus “define and regulate the role of the individual within the social unit” so although abstract are also, according to Pierre Bourdeau also ‘real’. Membership of groups (especially in-groups and out-groups) form a part of an individual’s concept of herself and therefore have real emotional power. Benedict Anderson‘s idea of the nation as an ‘imagined community‘ is an extension of this idea – what binds a nation together is the shared belief of common membership. The same must apply to a speech community.

Continued membership of a community depends on sharing beliefs and norms (including linguistic ones). According to Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm linguistic nationalism – the promotion and development of national languages – was historically associated with the lower middle classes (teachers, shopkeepers, clerks and the like). These were the ‘norm setters’ who used language to self-identify and demonstrate (by performance) their ‘respectability’ (see Nations and Nationalism since 1780, p 112). In Scotland’s case of course by the late 19th century this class was predominantly English speaking, or at least Scots-English bilingual, so that the ‘norms’ they would promote though education, politics (of the left as much as the right) and commerce would be ‘correct(ed)’ English. Scots would remain identified with inarticulacy and the voiceless ‘lower classes’.

“Language wars” Part 3 – Casualties of war

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

Calvet identifies three ways in which a language can ‘disappear’; though transformation (e.g.different dialects themselves become languages (think of Irish and Scottish Gaelic), extinction, when the last native speakers die (think of Manx and Cornish) and replacement where after a period of bilingualism, the dominant language is the only one commonly used (the now non-Gaelic speaking parts of the Highlands and Islands). If the two languages are sufficiently close (as with English and Scots) replacement can occur by a gradual process of absorption a subordinate language slowly blends into the dominant language” (p 104). In Scotland Standard English is slowly digesting Scots, and even Scottish English.

Calvert suggests you can trace the process. If you consider a language made up of its distinctive grammar (syntax in linguistic terms), vocabulary (lexis), and pronunciation (phonology), the absorption starts with the grammar, then progresses though lexis to phonology. Although the grammar of pure Scots is still quite distinct, the grammar of English has and continues to make substantive inroads, especially in speech. The ‘Scots’ you often hear may in fact only be individual Scots words connected by fairly standard English syntax. Over the years, as it is not taught, the lexis itself begins to shrink and eventually the only trace of the absorbed language is the phonology (in our case Scottish accents). What happens is that “certain phonological contrasts in a language tend to disappear, to be replaced by a haphazard alternation (or ‘fluctuation’) a fact which is evidence of the destruction from within of the whole system” (p.109).

But surely a whole accent cannot be lost? Consider the case of Cornish where in a 2012 article there are fears that the accent is actually disappearing and research in 2005 warned in Scotland even some very distinctive pronunciations such as the rolled ‘r’ and ‘ch’ may be under threat and could be lost “in a generation“.

Before anyone thinks such changes are ‘natural’, Calvert warns again “the death of a language always has non-linguistic causes (power-relations and so on)” (p 109). So in Cornwall the accent loss is attributed to two factors; “Cornwall has been increasingly populated by people from up country over the past 20 years, so it’s not really surprising the accent is now in decline” and the huge influence of lingustically standardised TV a major likely cause of death.

As a aside, TV is clearly a huge linguistic influence but we only occasionally consider its influence on the speech especially of the young. The decisions on language use are hardly ‘open’. Here is an example. According to one ex-writer of the popular Glasgow-based soap River City there was a deliberate and all-too-believable BBC editorial decision to write the scripts not in the authentic Glasgow Scots of the setting, but in near-standard English. Maybe the argument for this was ‘accessibilty’ and the potential of marketing the show outside Scotland, fair enough, but the effect of linguistic ‘cleansing’, when TV is often seen as a linguistic role model for the young cannot be underestimated. Such decisions always have consequences, unintended or otherwise. River City has been broadcasting a deliberately sanitised version of Scottish speech for half a generation. The role of TV, and Scottish TV in particular, in the strange ‘disappearance’ of Scots from the airwaves will no doubt be the subject of a future post.

“Language wars” Part 2 – The war of attitudes

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

What is the nature of the Calvet’s “war”? As discussed in an earlier post to speak a language or prefer the use of a language form rather than another “is always something more than simply using an instrument of communication” (p.63). It is often a sign of identity, of belonging to one group or another.

There is always a tension between the ‘vernacular’ (e.g. in our case Scots) which has evolved to be used with a small group and the lingua franca (English) which allows speakers access to a wider, audience “By choosing this or that form, this or that variant, the speaker indicates where he places himself” (p 57). This placement is achieved by “a regional accent, by the introduction of dialect words in a standard form, or by the use of a different language in a multilingual situation“. These are pretty much the choices open to the Scottish speaker i.e. “the whole continuum of possibilities in the range which runs from the vernacular tendency to a tendency to the lingua franca“.

How the speaker identifies with the various forms depends on his or her ‘language attitude‘. Attitude is the front line in the language war. Take the 2010 survey gleefully reported by the anti-Scots press that “almost two-thirds of the Scottish public do not believe Scots is a real language“,

Calvet describes a parallel situation with Provençal, a variety of Occitan spoken in Southern France. He interviewed an elderly native speaker near Nice but “for her Provençal did not exist, at least not under that name; she thought she spoke ‘lou patois’, that is her vernacular language, and French the country’s lingua franca, relying on a familiar pejorative contrast“. In a depressing attitude similar to many Scots speakers “she insisted on the unity of French, which she contrasted with the fragmentation of Provençal. For she carefully distinguished her ‘patois’ from the patois of other people, which she nevertheless understood perfectly…she preferred to emphasise differences of detail which seemed to her to be of the highest importance” (p57-58).

These attitudes in Scotland and Provence are not ‘natural’ but have been manufactured over centuries by distain, neglect and open suppression. The aim is to chip away at Scots and Provençal linguistic and presumably political identity. In both Scotland and Provence the power elites seem to be winning the battle of attitudes, but then they have been able to put a lot of time and resources into it.

Scots as ‘folk-speech’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Language wars” Part 1 – The causes of war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scots – a wowf in dug’s claes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: New Scientist

A guid St Andra’s Day tae ane an aw

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

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

Analysing the anti-Scots scrievers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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