Three notes: 3, on Scots

(A couple of weeks before Xmas, while I was waiting around to be chosen for jury duty, I was reflecting on the relation between the work I was doing on Scots in my old school, and the latest manifestations of literary engagement with Scots, both within and outwith Scottish literary circles.

This one took slightly longer than I had hoped to sketch out because the two elements I was hoping would shed light on each other – the pedagogical and the literary – took a little more time than I had supposed to be aligned. Whereupon, of course, we began to exit from the Daft Days and, as Twelfth Night approaches, encounter the impatience of those obliged to oblige us to resume our duties. I think that means there’s a lot more to be said on the topic.)

When I was working as Scots Language Ambassador with kids from my old school, Grove Academy in Broughty Ferry, our discussions about Scots were probably more helpful for me than for them.

As you might imagine, very few pupils from a predominantly middle class catchment area were interested in stating that they spoke Scots, so a distinction between use and recognition vocabularies proved very useful: everyone was prepared to understand far more Scots than they said they spoke. The old assumption that it is a working class speech, in other words, remains intact. It was my job not to get them speaking Scots, however, but to recalibrate their classification of it to suggest that they already spoke more Scots than they might realise.

We started with some basic category divisions. Working from the old Dundonian tricolon of jute, jam, and journalism, we tried thinking of Scots as being composed of three elements, accent, vocabulary, and grammar. We also considered it as ranging across three categories, Dundonian, a more general Scots, and Scots English.

A final group of three that enabled further vocabulary-building arose from the distinction that while one type of Scots may be spoken now, we were also well aware of words or phrases belonging to our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, then adding to that the idea that some words from any of these categories had other origins (ie were loan words). That gave us a overall grid as follows:

accent | vocabulary | grammar

Dundonian | Scots | Scots English

contemporary | historic | loan

Of course, some of these terms were less familiar than others, but these were bright kids, and it didn’t take more than a few examples to kick off discussion:

Eh | dreich | awa the messages

peh | pech | outwith

radge | chittery bite | cundie

Crucially, the addition of an historic or etymological level added a degree of analytical rigour to the discussion (as well as the possibility of literary usage), especially in the key area of identifying what might be uniquely local or culturally Scottish about what we were saying or could remember hearing or having read.

Food was a good topic, as was weather or mood, and one example that proved very useful was street names, where I opposed the local examples of the West Port and the Nethergait. Working from the unexamined or default principle that anything not recognisably Scots must therefore be English, people conjectured that the West Port referred to a former dock area, while the Nethergait must have something to do with some medieval gate into the city.

I then pointed out (in my role as fascinating Professor Pedanticus) that there had never been a port at the West Port, but that the city gate (or, in French, ‘port’) had indeed been there, and, while there was never a gate at the Nether-, Over-, Murray-, or Seagate, we did have a word for ‘walk’ derived from the Scandinavian: ‘gait’.

The possibility that ‘English’ and ‘Scots’ might be more subtly intermingled opened discussion up in a way that related directly to the more distanced or nuanced understanding the pupils already had as to what Scots might be.

What this nuanced understanding related to most strikingly for me was a remark made by Dave Coates in his review of Harry Giles’s excellent new collection, Tonguit:

‘[Note also that, as with Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Tonguit’s unglossed use of Scots is an assertion of the language’s place within a broader spectrum of Englishes, and is its own small subversion of the dominant mode; moreover, the ‘magpie’ (Giles’ descriptor) nature of this Scots asserts a plasticity and openness within that national tradition. The book seems to find in its Scots a linguistic space relatively unsullied by the centralised authority of standard English, which in Tonguit is more often than not the language of corrupt business, government and cultural paternalism…]’

I very much like this point, as I’m a subscriber to the idea of the plurality of Englishes, and indeed that idea of a spectrum of use and recognition was exactly what I’d been trying to discuss in my old secondary school. As for a sociopolitical ‘linguistic space’, I appear to be on record as stating ‘Scots is a language capable of doing more than English, capable of doing something different from English that criticises and, ultimately, extends English’ – though I can’t now remember where I first said something so bolshy.

But I can’t help noticing this way of thinking bumps up against other ways of categorising Scots in relation to English, and I wonder if we need to open out these ideas a little further.

If we accept that Scots is a separate language from English in the straightforward way that most would accept Gaelic is, then we also have to admit that we use it in ways that are not simply separate. Most poets who use Scots have made decisions along a couple of lines that we can define and perhaps analyse. As with the classifications I was using in the Grove, three strategies immediately suggest themselves:

The phonetic – marking, as Tom Leonard, then Alison Flett, then Billy Letford have done, a difference in pronunciation that foregrounds accent and, by extension, class.

The glossed – indicating, as Hugh MacDiarmid, then Robert Garioch, then Robert Crawford et al did, a difference in vocabulary that foregrounds linguistic and, by extension, literary otherness.

The interfused – as most of us, including Kathleen Jamie or Don Paterson, do, where there is a degree of deployment of unglossed Scots with the implication Dave Coates suggests above.

There are of course plenty of other strategies and, indeed, syntheses of several of the above, but my point here is anything short of an orthographically regularised Scots, displaying more or less all of the categories listed in the first grid above but without any recourse to glossing (because it isn’t required), is not exactly behaving like a separate language. What it is doing, however, is just as interesting.

Scots behaves in relation to English in a highly individual manner, identifying with and thereby expanding it, or separating from and thereby, arguably, critiquing it – and all modes in between. It does this, of course, and as my experience in going back to school illustrated, because this is how the Scots behave in relation to Scots.

This makes me think again about our use of Scots as part of a spectrum of language possibilities: the class ramifications are clear in Leonard’s usage, where the focus on phonetic spelling as an unorthography has symbolic connotations. In both MacDiarmid and Jamie the focus shifts to vocabulary, and therefore the orthodoxy is transferred to the action of glossing (or refusal to do so).

Arguably (and this is what I used to lecture on the matter some ten years ago) refusing to gloss extends the base vocabulary of a singular/monologic English by domesticating Scots terms within that frame, while glossing – like phonetics, but without either its class identification or, therefore, its appeal to a documentary authenticity – foreignises by identifying and defining Scots as an other.

I suspect, however, there needs to be a further classification of terms: Scots doesn’t have a single class source or a single diachronic usage. Written Scots, by which I mean the literary Scots of the poets, is not, through its access to historic literary examples, necessarily a spoken language at all. (How this differs from regionalism or archaism in English poetic diction relates to the degree of polemic significance attached to continuity and discontinuity in Scottish literature and politics.)

But the two conditions hardly seem compatible, for all that they have been merrily maintained for centuries. Choices of single-malted or teetotal either/or-ness or here-nor-there blendiness in terms of usage remain strategies whether at the levels of social or literary discourse. We are unnaichural natural born heteroglots.

Here, of course, written Scots prose as an ordinary discourse, rather than a fictional representation of dialogue or inner monologue or working class narrative, is the great absence at the feast of languages. As with the default assumption in spoken Scots that everything not immediately identifiable as Scots is therefore English, so with written Scots prose.

Until its complexity, its intermingledness (to derive a principle from Burns’s word ‘intermingledons’) is acknowledged, the chimera of Scots prose appearing in ordinary usage – by which I mean the media – is waved before us.

The nation, like each individual in that class and like me, masel, here, swithers, and should acknowledge that this fact, as Michael Gove once explained to a baffled Commons, winna ding.

What we therefore need in Scots is not a poetics – though that vigorously and diversely exists, and may well signal some of the ways to proceed – it is a prosaics.


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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One Response to Three notes: 3, on Scots

  1. Bill Herbert says:

    Naturally, the day eftir I published this, my auld schoolmate at the Grove, Matthew Fitt, was at least pairtly if no largely behind this:

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