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The Current State of Scots

Observations by John Corbett, submitted to a Scottish Executive Committee investigating Scots Language Provision

1. The current linguistic situation

The current linguistic situation in Scotland is complex. The complexity encompasses the use of different language varieties. These varieties in turn have spoken and written forms, and may be described from a range of perspectives: the accent(s) associated with them, their vocabulary and grammar, the uses that the variety is put to (public and domestic), the region, social class, ethnicity, age of typical speakers, etc. Still, out of this complexity, the following generalisations can be made:

‘English’ in Scotland ranges from a written standard variety disseminated by the education system. The written standard variety usually influences the vocabulary and grammar used in the speech of those Scots who like to consider themselves ‘educated’. Standard English in Scotland differs little in vocabulary and grammar from Standard English varieties elsewhere, but the accents of Scottish English are clearly distinctive.

In Scotland, as elsewhere in the English-speaking world, there are non-standard spoken varieties that have their own norms and conventions, and serve to indicate affiliation to different communities, defined by a complex of factors such as class, age, ethnicity and gender. These varieties are often stigmatised as ‘uneducated’ by those whose speech adheres more to the norms of standard English, particularly when used in writing. However, non-standard speakers adhere to non-standard forms because they have prestige within the communities to which they prefer to affiliate.

Closely related to English, Scots still is still used in speech and writing in Scotland. Although Scots is used as a literary medium by some, there is at present no written standard variety (i.e. there is no prescriptive form of Scots codified in dictionaries and grammar books, disseminated through and enforced by the education system and used as a matter of course in public documents). No such variety has ever evolved in Scotland.

Scots, therefore, is largely restricted to speech and therefore is often equated with non-standard English. Like non-standard English, it serves to indicate affiliation with particular communities, defined by factors such as region, social class, and age. However, Scottish characteristics may or may not be stigmatised as ‘uneducated’ depending on largely on the political affiliations and linguistic prejudices of the individual. Scots speakers can point to a distinctive literary tradition and linguistic history to justify their use of certain linguistic features. Over the years, the educational system has been ambivalent about Scots: first trying to eradicate it, and then advocating tolerance.

Gaelic is obviously an indigenous language of Scotland; however, it currently has few native speakers and fewer still of those are monolingual. It nevertheless attracts government support as a minority language. In many ways it is easier to argue for support for Gaelic than Scots, since its status as a different language from English is more clear-cut and the community it serves is also distinctive.

Community Languages
Various immigrant languages are also spoken by ethnic communities within Scotland: Urdu and Chinese being the best established. They are little studied but are probably having an impact at local levels where there are large numbers of Urdu/Chinese speakers.

2. Scots Language Groups

Current Scots language groups tend to have emerged from cultural and political nationalist movements in the 20th Century. They are of various types and have different objectives. Among the best known are:

The Dictionary Projects
Cultural nationalism can be said to have driven the two great dictionary projects of the last century, the Scottish National Dictionary (SND) and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST). The former was financed and organised by a limited company run as a charitable organisation (the Scottish National Dictionary Association) and the latter by major Scottish Universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Stirling, and Aberdeen). As DOST comes to publication and the Joint Council of Universities winds up, there is a move to merge the two projects into one new body, provisionally entitled Scottish Language Dictionaries (SLD), with substantial core funding from the Scottish Arts Council. If the application for funding succeeds, the SLD project will act as a major research archive, and a source for individual dictionary projects.

Scots Language Society, Scots Tung, Aiberdeen Scots Leid Quorum, etc
These are ‘activist’ societies, to promote the written and spoken use of Scots, the best established and most influential of which is the Scots Language Society (SLS). It has various branches, holds annual collogues, and publishes the long-running magazine, Lallans (supported by the Scottish Arts Council). The activist societies tend to focus on the establishment of a common, national, homogeneous, literary Scots, based on historically verified speech forms. This form of Scots (once identified) would be available for dissemination through education, and usable in public documents. The assumption is that the promotion of Scots necessitates the kind of standardisation process undergone by English, in order to create a prestige written standard that (like standard English) would also form a model of ‘good spoken Scots’. This assumption is not universally held, and can cause hostility from those who feel that a standard Scots would necessarily exclude them as non-standard Scots speakers and writers. There is also some debate about which variety of contemporary Scots would serve as the basis for standard Scots e.g. NE Scots or Central Scots?

Association for Scottish Literary Studies
The Association for Scottish Literary Studies is another organisation largely made up of volunteers, but with two paid staff, a general manager and part-time secretary. It receives core funding from the Scottish Arts Council, and publishes various texts each year, mainly to subscribers: one hardback volume of Scottish Literature (sometimes with a strong Scots content, as in the acclaimed two-volume edition of the poems of William Dunbar), the annual New Writing Scotland, and the academic journal Scottish Language. The ASLS Language Committee organises conferences on the languages of Scotland (mainly Scots and Gaelic) and various of its members are involved in academic and educational support for the study of Scots. The ASLS Schools Committee also holds an annual conference and provides educational materials for teachers. For example, a new ASLS anthology for the 10-14 age range will be jointly published with the Scottish Children’s Press (with SAC assistance). It has prose and poems in a variety of local forms of Scots (Dundee, Aberdeenshire, Glasgow) as well as English and one poem in Gaelic.

Scots Language Resource Centre (SLRC)
The SLRC was originally based at AK Bell Library in Perth. This was set up with a grant of 30 000 from the Scottish Office, and then subsidised by Perth and Kinross District Council, as well as by the SLS. In the past two years, funding has been subsidised by the Scottish Arts Council. It originally shared some of the aims of the SLS (i.e. the promotion of Scots in the public domain), although it was run by a committee with a wider range of interests and experience. It set up a web site and employed staff to handle queries, and ran events, sometimes in conjunction with SLS. However, after the local government subsidy was withdrawn, the SLRC regrouped and the organisation is presently chaired by Professor Richard Johnson of Stirling University. Professor Johnson also directs the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching. Under Professor Johnson’s chairmanship, the SLRC has moved more towards stimulating debate on language planning issues, and actually producing materials, e.g. Scotspeak, a manual for actors wishing to produce different varieties of Scots on stage. The SRLC comes up for review next year, and without further SAC funding, the future of the SLRC is unclear.

Institute for the Languages of Scotland (ILS)
This is an ‘umbrella body’ that seeks to bring together several of the current language groups (e.g. Dictionary Projects, SLRC) with some of the academic activities going on in Scots (eg work done by Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies, and Glasgow University’s Scots Corpus). The ILS applied for Scottish Executive funding, and was turned down, which may have dealt it a body-blow. Originally it sought to represent all the languages of contemporary Scotland (Scots, Gaelic, Community Languages) but, given that Executive support already exists for Gaelic, it might regroup and apply again for funding specifically to support Scots. Currently under the chairmanship of Dr Margaret A. Mackay of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, the ILS has been granted funds from the Carnegie Trust to perform a feasibility study on how best to co-ordinate current projects on Scots.

Scottish Cultural Resource Access Network (SCRAN)
SCRAN was set up with lottery funding to make electronically available to educational and private subscribers a wealth of information on Scottish culture. In the first phase of its development it was explicitly ‘non-text-oriented’; however, it has been involved in the digitisation and dissemination of spoken Scots and Gaelic, e.g. 300 poems recorded by poets have been digitised. It has also been involved in the digitisation of some of the archives of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. As the funding basis changes, SCRAN might become more active in the provision of educational materials relating to Scots, eg a CD-ROM for schools based on 18 poems in Scots, Gaelic and English, is about to be produced.

Cross-Party Group on the Scots Language
This body is made up of a selection of the above bodies and so perhaps not surprisingly suffers from a lack of focus. The debates in the CPG resurrect some old debates in a new format: the substantial proportion of activists in the group promotes the wider use of Scots in the public sphere, whilst running up against the problem that English is the ‘natural’ medium of public communication in most of Scotland today. However, it is a useful medium for bringing a range of linguistic, educational and cultural initiatives to the attention of MSP’s.

3. Language in Education

The Scottish Office Education Department’s National Guidelines on English 5-14 (1991) state that primary and secondary children should learn about the diversity of accents, dialects and languages in Scotland. The major initiative over the past few years has been the provision of the Kist materials by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum. These materials included an attractive pupils’ book, teacher’s book, photocopiable worksheets, and audiocassettes. The take-up of these materials was reported to be high in Scottish primary schools; however, it is necessary to keep these materials in print, and update them where necessary (e.g. put the audio material on compact disc).

Other Scots materials are being produced and proposed for this age level A Braw Brew edited by Liz Niven, and a lottery-funded application by Matthew Fitt and James Robertson, to produce materials for primary schools. The first of a proposed 3-volume ‘English Course for Scotland’, Turnstones 1, has recently been published by Hodder & Stoughton. It uniquely aims to integrate Scots fully within the English curriculum at this age level and is well calculated to serve the 5-14 National Guidelines on Language.

The educational materials produced at primary levels reflect the range of language varieties available in contemporary Scotland they give examples of urban and rural varieties of Scots, as well as Shetlandic and (in the Kist) some Gaelic. However, to my knowledge there has been no research done on the educational impact of the Kist materials and their ilk how widely are they being used, and what influence have they had on the linguistic attitudes of pupils and teachers?

Secondary Education
HM Inspectors of Schools’ report on English in the series ‘Effective Learning and Teaching in Scottish Secondary Schools’ (1992) indicates that Scottish English and Scots should be recognised as significant and distinctive varieties of language, and that it ‘should be the essential aim of English teaching throughout secondary school to develop the capacity of every pupil to use, understand and appreciate the native language in its Scots and English forms’

The Higher Still programme of assessment for ‘English and Communication’ (1997) contains a rationale for ‘substantial emphasis on Scottish texts and the languages in which they are expressed.’ Accordingly, the study of a Scottish text is made compulsory at all levels. At Advanced Higher level, new optional units in ‘Scottish Language’ and ‘English and Communication’ allow for substantial exploration of language issues.

The new AH language options made their debut in 2001, and no-one opted to take them. Given that teachers would have had to construct new curricula with little information, this is not surprising. However, as the new exams bed down, it is to be hoped that pupils will be encouraged to study towards them. Several events are planned for the autumn of 2001 to raise the profile of the exams amongst teachers the ASLS Schools Conference in October and a conference promoted by the SLRC at Newbattle College in November.

Guides on ‘English in Scotland’ and ‘English and Communication’ are currently being prepared by a senior academic for use by teachers. Although I have only seen an early draft of the former, and an advance copy of the latter, neither is likely to attract teachers to the language options. Neither at present is closely related to the examination as it is currently constituted, and the advance copy was densely written and suffered from typographical errors that rendered some parts misleading and others incomprehensible.

Other teachers’ resources are currently being produced: the Languages into Language Teaching (LILT) project provides an electronic glossary on CD-ROM of linguistic items for use by both English and Modern Languages teachers. Again, this is not targeted at specific examinations or levels, but aims to be a more general resource for teachers wishing to update their language knowledge and gain access to broad teaching suggestions. Some information on aspects of Scots is included on the CD-ROM.

Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS)
Learning and Teaching Scotland is a recent body subsuming the earlier Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (SCCC) and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET). Over the years, the SCCC issued practical guidelines on the uses of Scots language and literature in the classroom:

  • Scottish Literature in the Secondary School (1976) had a crucial appendix on language by AJ Aitken
  • Scottish English the Language Children Bring to School (1980) gave advice on Scots in early schooling
  • Developing Scottish Literature at Higher Grade and CSYS (1990) were among various staff development and exemplar material issued to back up the Standard Grade and Revised Higher programmes
  • The Kist/A Chiste (1996) was an adventurous package designed to support the language recommendations of the 5-14 programme, and included a handbook on the teaching of Scots and Gaelic at this level
  • Using Scottish Texts (1999) offered a comprehensive set of support notes and bibliographies for Higher Still English and Communication, and included a fell section on Scottish Language materials by Liz Niven.

More recently, however, the activities of SCCC have been less supportive. In 1998-9 they suppressed a report on Scottish Culture; anecdotal evidence from those involved in the SCCC meetings at the time report that hostility to the Scots Language elements doomed the report. The LTS website fails to contain substantial information on Scots. Information on The Kist is absent, although the publication is still commercially available from Nelson Thornes. Reference is, however, made to the electronic Scots School Dictionary, and the Scottish text bibliography for Higher Still.

The prospects look better for the formal study of language in Scotland than they have ever done. Further progress will, however, require the provision of more and better resources support materials and in-service training than are currently available. LTS clearly has a role to play in the provision of materials that give detailed support to the emerging language curricula.

Tertiary Education
Extensive undergraduate teaching of Scots is largely confined to the English Language Departments at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. Teaching about the history and development of Scots currently forms part of the undergraduate provision at both Universities; Glasgow also contributes an optional module on ‘Scots Language’ to a taught Masters degree aimed at teaches re-training for the new Higher and AH curriculum. A ‘primer’ to encourage undergraduate interest and research into Scots is planned for publication by Edinburgh University Press in 2002.

Post-graduate research into aspects of Scots takes place at various institutions around the world; however, activity is patchy and could be more systematic. Bodies in Scotland that act as a focus for research are:

  • Elphinstone Institute, Aberdeen University: focuses particularly on the sociolinguistic situation in NE Scotland
  • School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University: focuses on ethnology of Scots folk culture
  • SCOTS Corpus, Glasgow & Edinburgh University: a new grant-funded project to create a searchable computerised corpus of written and spoken contemporary Scots/Scottish English. Funded for two years, initially, it is hoped that this will become a long-term on-going project.

Opinion is mixed about whether these bodies and projects should come together under an ‘umbrella’ body, such as the proposed Institute for the Languages of Scotland. Certainly, the projects would benefit from co-operation, formal and informal, that has not always been forthcoming in the past, whether through institutional politics or simple lack of time. New technologies certainly should help communication between the various university projects dedicated to aspects of Scots.

A general problem lies in where the academic study of Scots should be situated. At Edinburgh University, Scots research takes place in the Departments of Linguistics and English Language, and also in the School of Scottish Studies. At Glasgow University it is in the Department of English Language. While Departments of English Language and Linguistics are the natural ‘home’ of research into Scots, it has been the case that such departments have been under pressure in Scottish Universities an expansion rather than a reduction in English Language/Linguistics provision at Scottish Universities would be required to foster further research into Scots.

4. National Cultural Strategy

The Scottish Executive recently published a National Cultural Strategy that initially promised much. Its first priority, indeed, was identified as ‘Promoting Scotland’s languages as cultural expressions and as a means of accessing Scotland’s culture.’ However, the document itself seems to be ambivalent about its treatment of ‘Scotland’s languages’. While Gaelic is explicitly ‘valued’ and practical means of support are listed (p.25), the history of Scots is simply acknowledged, and no list of funding achievements or suggestions for progress are listed, beyond the encouragement of an Institute for the Languages of Scotland, an initiative latterly denied direct Executive funding.

The practical outcomes of the Cultural Strategy document for Scots appear to be negligible. Funding of the ILS has been devolved to the Scottish Arts Council, where language matters must compete with projects seeking funding from the Literature Committee.

5. Recommendations

The current climate for language education and Scots is more favourable than it has been for some time. However, the situation is still precarious and continued and expanded funding will be necessary to build on the progress that has been made.

  1. Scottish Arts Council funding is crucial for a number of the bodies noted above, namely:
  • the merged Dictionaries Project (i.e. the Scottish Language Dictionaries)
  • ASLS Schools and Languages Committee activities
  • the publication of Lallans magazine
  • the Scots Language Resource Centre
  • the Institute for the Languages of Scotland

    As there is more pressure on the SAC for limited funds, there might well be a squeeze on funds available for activities that promote Scots. Continued SAC funding is therefore essential, and the SAC must recognise its role in the promotion of Scots, and budget accordingly. In particular, the establishment of a Language Committee on a par with the Literature Committee would ring-fence language projects and initiate some welcome stability for key projects such as the Scottish Language Dictionaries.

  1. Support for educational initiatives at primary and secondary level. In particular,
  • continued provision of teaching materials at 5-14 level
  • research into the impact of these materials at 5-14 level
  • support for in-service training and materials production for the new secondary examinations at Higher Still and AH levels.
  1. Support for research at tertiary levels, in particular:
  • Encouragement of current projects, such as the SCOTS Corpus
  • Encouragement of research into language education in Scotland
  • Encouragement of the expansion of language studies in Scotland

There is a desperate need to improve language and communication skills throughout Scotland. This requirement requires a greater sophistication in the way that we teach children to think about and use the range of languages available to them. An enlightened nation needs to deploy all its linguistic resources positively, and encourage its citizens to use them effectively and creatively. We do not have the structures in place to do this; funds will need to be used effectively if we are to create these structures in future.

Copyright © John Corbett 2001


Last updated 18 August 2010.