Sweary Words & Difficult Understanding

(An orthographic discussion on Facebook about a localised sweary word in, I think, east coast Scots, led me to think some more about a few of the points I meditate on regularly as a writer who works in a kind of amalgam of Dundonian and literary Scots. As hinted at elsewhere in this blog, I’m gathering thoughts around the nexuses between poetics, translation and pedagogy, and one such link has to be the way that, as a Scots-writing poet, I’m always sort of translating, occupying what I described almost twenty years ago as ‘the region of the forked tongue.’ So these are just a few initial scattered thoughts in search of argumentative glue…)

‘A scone in the puss is always helpful!’ (not actually a Lochee proverb.)

A friend was asking me the correct spelling of the word ‘puss’ – a fairly abusive Scots word for the face that was practically a swear word when I was growing up in Dundee. I told her that would be a Scots orthographical matter, which means, as Father Jack unwittingly hints, there’s no real ortho- aboot it, just varying amoonts of precedent. Depending on whether that precedent is literary or not, one spelling might have achieved a certain degree of status or stability. Urban terms, particularly sweary urban terms, are often unlikely to have achieved either.

The provisionality of this seems very familiar when discussing Scots, which is always hovering on the verge of being seen as entirely subjective in a manner that readers of poetry might find find familiar. Much like the meaning of a poem, the status, appearance and role of Scots is often more slippery than the simple fact of its existence in millions of mouths and ears, homes and shops, streets and pathways across the country.

There are a number of issues this creates for both readers and writers of Scots, which have a bearing on the status and stability of the literature being created in and across Scots and its two fellow Scottish languages, English and Gaelic.

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It’s seductively easy for people to think of Scots as unnecessary, because we have English – rather than thinking we also have English. It’s like thinking we don’t need an independent Scotland because we have the United Kingdom, or even that we don’t need to be generous (or to worry about greed), because we have money.

A universal-seeming medium in which we all can be immersed is immensely tempting. It’s comforting to think about language as we like to think about logic or mathematics, assuming that the simplest route must prevail, that the most general model must also be the most necessary, or elegant.

It’s a bit like the assumption that the logic of atheism will make the religious impulse extinct through debate: a refusal to see fundamental structures of thought and feeling as anything other than social constructs; a less than logical confusion of the applicability of rational thought with the role of irrational impulse.

Language likes to be diverse. It is as committed to spate as to drought, creating new dialects as readily as dying out. Language users are either unaware of their contribution to this; go with its powerful flow; or seek to dam, divert or otherwise control the currents they believe they can stand aside from, but are in fact immersed in.

In Scotland we are submerged in the media of a world language, English, and surrounded in terms of place names by the archaeology of a minor one, Gaelic. Millions of us speak a minor strain of that world language, generally but not universally known as Scots, which is sufficiently different to be classifiable as another language, and sufficiently similar not to be regarded as such. The sociopolitical background to the usage of Scots means that most English- and Scots-speakers alike are uneducated about its nature, and most written texts – everything from signage to legal contracts to newspaper columns to works of literature – either don’t use it, or don’t consciously register its use.

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In a sense, everyone who reads Scots – Scots and non-Scots alike – is translating it. It’s simply too peripheral as a written language, not taught enough, for anyone to acquire an absolute fluency in reading it, especially as it is as much an accumulation of distinct dialects as it is a national language. Its irregular unsettled nature is both a source of anarchic energy and an impediment to easy understanding. Written, as opposed to spoken, Scots, even when what is spoken aloud is the same as the text that’s been written down, is for difficult understanding. That is at once a great weakness and a peculiar source of strength.

Difficult understanding is how we might describe what goes on when we read poetry or philosophy, or a foreign language we’re not quite fluent in, or a specialist jargon we’re nearly familiar with. Quite a lot of what we read necessarily falls into this category, and it’s a type of yahooism to expect it all to be simplified for us. Still, it’s both strange and unfortunate that, simply by writing something down which, as Scots speakers, we’d be perfectly familiar with if heard aloud, it becomes as strange to us as it sounds to non-Scots speakers.

What these discourses share is difficulty at the local level, within as much as across clauses and sentences – they are unable or unwilling to achieve that transparency of language we associate with, say, journalism or genre fiction – media in which we don’t expect at every juncture to stop and consider (or admire) the phrasing.

In some cases that reluctance is to do with a suspicion that the irresistible flow of narrative, the unquestionable patterns of story, might be in themselves problematic – that the very ease and translucence of the whole teleological impulse is a seduction and a mirage we would do well to resist or at least to question.

In some cases that suspicion may well be justified, especially when we find the narrative is one which has marginalised and derogated our speech to the point where writing it down appears to be foreign to us. But of course the lure of locality – its nostalgias and its lyrical impulses – can be just as lulling and illusory.

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To stop pussyin aboot (wasting time through irritatingly fussy or indecisive behaviour), and return to the specific instance of ‘puss’ above, there’s a significant disjunction between possible readers we must take into account. Most Dundonians/Scots would favour ‘puss’ pronounced with a short ‘u’ and recognise the word as Scots from context.

Most non-Scots, however, would recognise a familiar English synonym for ‘cat’ standing out from a far less familiar context – and so perhaps mispronounce and therefore misinterpret it. (And most non-UK speakers of English or speakers of English as a second language would be bewildered enough to have faces resembling what they wouldn’t identify as the proverbial sconed puss.)

This is what leads some Dundonian/Scots users, following the example of Tom Leonard, to phoneticise. But that – ‘puhs’? ‘puhss’? – might alienate Dundonians, Scots & non-Scots alike. And where do you stop? The consonantally similar Dundonian word for pie, ‘peh’ (like the Russian letter ‘п’), might be pluralised as ‘pehs’. But careful listeners would register a slightly harder sibilant governs many of Dundee’s plurals. Is ‘pehz’, as the comic writer D.Phillips preferred, OK, or are we over-elaborating to the point where a new reader would suspect we were over-compensating as well? Fux ache.

The underlying insight here is that writers in Scots have to consider who their reader or readers is or are at a more fundamental and self-evident way than a writer in English, who will frequently have to consider register, but only occasionally has to trouble themselves over matters of spelling.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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