Scottish English week continues with another fantastic guest post, this time about learning Scots by Mairi MacDonald.
Bunker and slitter*. Two new words I’ve learnt recently. I’m not learning a new language, just slowly improving my own. Considering I was brought up in Scotland and I have a Scottish accent, my knowledge of Scottish English or Scots is pretty poor. Many believe that it is a language of its own whilst others believe it is a dialect of English. Whatever the answer, the connection between the two is deep rooted.
There are plenty words I hear frequently but would never use. “Ken”, meaning ‘to know’, has evolved into a slang, an unthinking tag at the end of every sentence, similar to the English “innit”. I wouldn’t say “bairn” (a baby, child), though I’d expect to hear it while out and about. I do say “aye” and “wee” and sometimes “och” but I’ve never ever heard anyone say “Hoots, mon!”
Scottish English was discouraged at school, apart from a brief spell every January when we’d have to learn a Burns poem. Perhaps the teachers were afraid that when we went out into the wide world other English-speaking people wouldn’t understand us. Perhaps it was a class thing – after all educated people simply don’t say things like “Ah yistae be a nanny but ah’m no’ a nanny noo, eh naw.”**
This past bias against Scots I feel was misplaced. Placed in the right hands, Scots can be a very demanding and creative language – just read anything by Hugh MacDiarmid. Whatever the reasons for this suppression, things have clearly moved on since then; on a visit to my son’s primary school I was pleased to spy an A to Z illustrating Scottish words cheerfully displayed on the walls of the dining room – A is for “aipple” (apple), O for “oxter” (armpit), S for “slater” (woodlouse) etc.
Scottish English stems from our distinct history and its impact on our language. Take the Scottish pronunciation of mouse (“moose”), house (“hoose”) and out (“oot”). These examples are closer to Old English and other North European languages than standard British English. Partly because of our historic links with Scandinavia and partly because we didn’t have a 1066 and us Northerners missed out on the Normans tweaking our language, at least for a little while. The Scots language began its slow decline with the Union of the Crowns (1603) and gained speed after the Act of Union (1707) where standardised English was introduced as the language of education, law and politics. In spite of this, more old words have survived longer in Scotland than in other parts of the UK and strong regional varieties have persisted.
So it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at Scots. And don’t worry if a face-to-face encounter with the language leaves you with a blank stare; we’re all students of our own language in one way or another.
*A bunker is a kitchen worktop and slitter is a verb which means ‘to eat or work messily’.
**“I used to work as a nanny but I don’t any more.”