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Literary Language and Scottish Identity

John Corbett

References are given at the end of the document.

  1. Shibboleths
  2. Our first reading for today is from the Book of Judges, Chapter 12, verses 5–6 in a recently-published version by John Manson. The Gileadites have been fighting the Ephraimites at the River Jordan. They’ve been fighting for so long that they’re muddy and dishevelled and can hardly tell one from the other.

    And the men o Gilead
    tuik the mountain-passes o Jordan
    bifore the men o Ephraim:
    and this wis the wey o’t,
    that whan the men o Ephraim
    wha haed wun free
    frae the men o Gilead
    said, Lat me gang throu;
    the men o Gilead telt him,
    Ir ye a man o Ephraim?
    Gin he said, Na;

    Than they telt him,
    Juist say Shibboleth:

    and he said Sibboleth:
    fur he c’uldna mak his mouth say it richt
    Than he tuik him,
    an killt him at the mountain passes o Jordan:
    and at thon time
    forty-twa thousand men o Ephraim wir killt.1

    ‘Shibboleth’, which possibly meant in Hebrew ‘stream in flood’ or ‘ear of corn’,2 comes down to us today as a word that signifies someone’s regional or social origins. It is a badge of identity, a badge displayed with sometimes fatal consequences. Closer to home, and much more recently, shibboleths again crop up in the title story of Walking the Dog by Bernard MacLaverty, an Irish writer living in Scotland. One night, outside Belfast, a man and his dog are abducted by two gunmen, who say they represent the IRA. A verbal sparring match ensues in which each tries to probe the other’s identity. The gunmen ask the man’s name (‘John Shields.’ ‘What sort of a name is that?’), they ask the school he went to (‘It’s none of your business.’), and they ask, directly, whether he is a Protestant or a Roman Catholic (‘I’m ... I don’t believe in any of that crap. I suppose I’m nothing.’) Finally one of the gunmen says:

    ‘Let’s hear you saying the alphabet.’
        ‘Are you serious?’
        ‘Yeah – say your abc’s for us,’ said the gunman.
        ‘This is so fuckin ridiculous,’ said John. He steeled himself for another blow.
        ‘Say it – or I’ll kill you.’ The gunman’s voice was very matter-of-fact now. John knew the myth that Protestants and Roman Catholics, because of separate schooling, pronounced the eighth letter of the alphabet differently. But he couldn’t remember who said which.
        ‘Eh ... bee ... cee ... dee, ee ... eff.’ He said it very slowly, hoping the right pronunciation would come to him. He stopped.
        ‘Keep going.’
        ‘Gee ... ’ John dropped his voice, ‘ ... aitch, haitch ... aye jay kay.’
        ‘We have a real smart Alec here,’ said the gunman.3

    The episode in the Book of Judges and the MacLaverty story both show clearly some of the means by which we construct tribal identities. We can construct these identities on the basis of shared experience (we go to the same schools, do the same jobs, pray at the same church, read the same newspapers, enjoy the same leisure activities), and we can do it semiotically (we wear the same clothes, adopt the same hairstyles, and speak the same variety of language). Anyone who does not conform is banished beyond the pale, or worse. None of these identifying characteristics is (pace the Book of Judges) necessarily essential. Unlike the Ephraimites with their shibboleth, John Shields, in ‘Walking the Dog’ can make his mouth say both ‘aitch’ and ‘haitch’; he just cannot remember which version his kidnappers would prefer. Shibboleths, as John Shields recognises, are a ‘myth’ in the way that Roland Barthes uses the word ‘myth’, to mean an arbitrary sign that is invested with a social meaning beyond the literal (as a shibboleth is no longer a ‘stream in flood’ or an ‘ear of corn’ but a marker of tribal boundaries).4

    All of which is really to say that there are obvious ways in which we can draw upon language variety, as one resource amongst many, to construct a powerful sense of community. For example, we can focus on shibboleths (s/sh, aitch/haitch) as linguistic markers of community boundaries – they may seem at first glance insignificant but they act as badges of identity, excluding or including, and we have a limited degree of control over them.

  3. Tribe and Nation
  4. If we consider the literature and languages of Scotland at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is clear that (even if we wanted to) we would have a tremendous problem in identifying simple, workable shibboleths. This difficulty has indeed always been with us. Once you move from the particularities of tribal identity to the complexities of a multicultural nation, the range of identities and potential markers of identity becomes huge. Scotland, of course, has always been multicultural, a melange of Picts, Scots (or Gaels), Saxons (or Angles), Norse, French, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Polish, Pakistani, Chinese ... to name a few. What shibboleths can we possibly all share? Particularly, what kind of literary language can we all claim ownership of? What kind of language binds us together as a single, national community?

    Much of Scotland’s literary history (though by no means all of it) can be seen as a contest to establish and promote one language variety that will ‘speak for’ the nation. And much of Scotland’s literary history can equally be seen as a rebuttal of the claims of these language varieties. What I want to do for the rest of this talk is consider some of the historical debates about a distinctively Scottish literary medium, see how they inform some current writing, and speculate about future possibilities, the ‘shape of texts to come’.

  5. Against Decorum?
  6. As well as being multicultural, Scotland has always been multilingual. In the late mediaeval period there were Scottish texts in Latin, French and ‘Inglis’ – and the tradition of writing in Latin continued up until at least the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth century, some writers like Gavin Douglas and James VI explicitly distinguished the ‘language of the Scottish nation’ from that of English (although most of their contemporaries still referred to their language as ‘Inglis’). And there is, of course, the strong Gaelic tradition in Scottish writing, beginning in the 1300s and reaching peaks in the 18th and 20th Centuries.

    The instinct to seek shibboleths in the face of this rich cultural and linguistic diversity has been passionately condemned by Professor Ronnie Jack.5 What single strand of this complex tapestry can possibly function to hold us all together as one nation, a single speech community? Certainly not Scots, says Professor Jack. The desire to equate the Scottish literary tradition with a tradition of writing in Scots (with the grudging addition of Gaelic) is distorting and reductive, and forces us to neglect in particular work in English and Latin. I yield to no-one in my admiration for Professor Jack’s erudition and I wholeheartedly acknowledge the service he continues to do in broadening the canon of Scottish literary texts. However, I worry that his beloved classicism tends to depoliticise the linguistic tradition.

    In brief, Professor Jack has argued that the key to understanding linguistic diversity in Scottish literature is the classical notion of decorum. A concern for decorum lies at the heart of classical tracts such as Horace’s Ars Poetica, a verse epistle in which, for example, he commends to his readers lofty language for tragic subject matter and familiar, yet powerful language for satire:

    Tragedy scorns to babble trivialities, and, like a married woman obliged to dance at a festival, will look rather shamefaced among the wanton satyrs. If ever I write satyric dramas, my dear fellows, I shall not be content to use merely the plain, unadorned language of everyday speech ... I shall aim at a style that employs no unfamiliar diction, one that any writer might hope to achieve, but would sweat tears of blood in his efforts and still not manage it – such is the power of words that are used in the right relationships, and such is the grace that they can add to the commonplace when so used.6

    According to Professor Jack, the language of the Scottish mediaeval makars is a prime example of the continuing influence in Scotland of a classical theory of decorum:

    The complex high style, drawing its coinages mainly from Latin and French, is used for the topics you hold to be the most serious and noble; the middle constitutes the normal style and draws mainly from Scots and Inglis, while the staccato, low style, supplemented mainly by Scandinavian and Germanic loanwords, is used for low subjects, vituperation and farce.7

    From this point of view, the achievement of the 18th Century ‘Vernacular Revival’ was to restore to Scottish writers the full range of registers previously available to the makars:

    Burns and his predecessors did revive something but it was not THE vernacular. English is a vernacular as well as Scots. Nor was literary Scots revived at the expense of English, in a defensive spirit of linguistic nationalisms. The eighteenth century poets accepted the makars’ view that the two dialects had always been intertwined. What they did revive on rhetorical criteria, was the full and varied range of styles by returning Scots diction to interlace as complement and supplement to English within all registers.8

    Now, this view can and does give powerful explanatory accounts of the use of language in many Scottish texts. True, some writers who largely play by the rules of decorum occasionally burlesque them, as in William Drummond of Hawthornden’s Polemo-Middinia inter Vitarvam et Bebernam (c.1645) which constructs a macaronic Scots-Latin to satirise the dispute between two Fife families about a right-of-way. (This poem, and a translation of it, can be found in the ASLS anthology The Christis Kirk Tradition9). Still, even by burlesquing the rules of decorum this poem acknowledges them: the Scots elements in the Latin provide the ‘mock’ in ‘mock heroic’. The problem I have with Professor Jack’s view is that the model of language implicit in the classical model and here applied to the literature of Scotland seems static rather than dynamic, and consensual rather than conflicting. A theory of decorum depends upon a consensus that says: this language is lofty (ie Latin and French), this language is low (ie Norse-derived Scotticisms), and this language is plain. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it stays.

    Many Scottish writers, consciously or unconsciously, refuse to accept this view of language. The whole point of a poem like Tom Leonard’s ‘Unrelated Incidents (3)’ (in which the six o’clock news is read in a Glasgow accent) is not to burlesque the rules of decorum, but, by inverting them, to challenge head-on the social structures and attitudes which maintain them. Social consent, in the view of political theorist Antonio Gramsci (and indeed linguist Noam Chomsky), is always manufactured, always subject to contention and negotiation.10 The dominant forces in society draw upon their resources to persuade the dominated that the status quo is in their interests and should be maintained. The alternative to slaughtering those who say ‘sibboleth’ or ‘haitch’ is simply to persuade them that they are uneducated and vulgar because they utter such deviant forms, and so they had better accept their lowly position in life. Or, in Leonard’s words, ‘if a toktaboot/thi trooth/lik wanna you/ scruff yi/ widny thingk/ it wuz troo.’11 Even the linguistic situation that prevailed in the late middle ages can be seen in terms of domination and resistance: Latin and French became the prestige languages in Britain because of Roman imperialism, the influence of the Church, and the establishment of feudalism after the Norman Conquest in England. The ebbing of Gaelic in the lowlands of Scotland was not the result of some physical exclusion of Gaels, but rather a consequence of the rise in economic power of the burghs, where Inglis was the language of commerce and administration (to the extent where it eventually replaced Latin as the language of the law, and Gaelic as the language of everyday communication). Writers have long played a part in challenging as well as upholding the current social order, and some literature can be seen as confronting the rules of decorum that imply a certain social structure. In the fifteenth century the challenge was: why shouldn’t bourgeois Scots replace clerical Latin and become a high-style language? Nowadays one challenge is: why do we have signs in English and Gaelic in the new Scottish parliament – but not in Scots? The argument from decorum, ie that it is not appropriate to use Scots in such contexts, perhaps simply masks a more fundamental truth: certain social groups within our society (branded by their shibboleths) are still being systematically excluded from access to power and resources.

  7. Reforging Identities
  8. To summarise the argument so far: when you move from the relative homogeneity of a tribe to the multicultural complexities of a nation, you can no longer rely on a clear-cut set of shibboleths that everyone knows and uses as a common badge of identity. Instead you have a complex range of linguistic markers which are evaluated, and praised or stigmatised, according to rules of decorum. These rules can be presented as linguistic ‘facts’ but, of course, they are the result of social forces which themselves are subject to either acceptance and celebration, or challenge and resistance. What I want to do now is consider some writings from different linguistic traditions in Scotland and consider how the authors use language to respond (whether directly or implicitly) to the prevailing linguistic and social orders. There are so many obvious passages from the last century that spring to mind: from Chris Guthrie pondering the relative merits of Scots and English in Sunset Song, through Hugh MacDiarmid’s attempt to write a nation into existence by devising a grand linguistic fusion, to Tom Leonard’s powerful evocations of urban speech. However, in the spirit of the conference, I want to focus instead on more recent work: one extract from a forthcoming novel, and two from still-fairly-newish New Writing Scotlands, Volumes 15 and16, Some Sort of Embrace and the appropriately-titled The Glory Signs.

    Consider an extract from a short story by Suhayl Saadi, ‘Bandanna’, a stream-of consciousness narrative of three teenage boys (Salman, Ali and Zafar) as they go on the randan across Glasgow:

    They reached the end of the street. Ahead lay the Tramway, a theatre which none of them had ever been in, not even when the Mela had been there. The Mela wis jis fur kids and cooncilurs. Sal and his dosts preferred machines to people. They were noisy, irascible, silicon-based like Michael Jackson. They’d play the robots for hours, not bothering whether they won or lost, not caring about the game. Just moving to the beat of chip upon chip, a twitch of the film-star thigh, the hot shoulder shuffle. They were on the film set, they were living in total. There were no spaces in their existence. No gaps of silence. The Gang turned west, away fae the Mosques, towards Maxwell Park. That’s where they were heidet. To the pond, and the trees. To muck up the quiet. To fill it wi gouts ae Bhangra and Bassie. They skatit past the tenement closes, each one a blink in the Gang’s eye. The sound of generations carved into each corniced ceiling. Flip back: Sal in the gao. Or, to be more accurate, in Azaad-Kashmir, the Land of Freedom. His family’s land, earth-brown like their skins (not like Sal’s though), old blood, like the tenement stone. But Sal was another type of Azaadi. Another hybrid.12

    mela: – festival
    Azaad-Kashmir: – Free Kashmir
    gao: – village

    Sal, the focus of the story, explores his hybrid identity in a polyglot medium that draws on colloquial Scots, Punjabi and English (ranging from self-conscious literariness to teenage slang). The story captures the mood of someone on the cusp of various social categories, unable to fit comfortably into any one, other than (for now) the Gang whose symbol (or visual shibboleth) is the black bandanna. Sal is between Scotland and Kashmir, childhood and adulthood, family and independence, white and black. The jarring synthesis of languages in the story is decorous but only insofar as it is appropriate to the multiple identities to which Sal can potentially affiliate, to a greater or lesser degree. Like the Ephraimites in the Book of Judges who ‘could not frame to pronounce’ shibboleth, he cannot himself wholly determine his identity. Like John Shields in ‘Walking the Dog’, he can attempt to obscure the arbitrary badges of affiliation -- the three boys wear black bandannas to make them look whiter -- but acceptance into any community is never controlled by the relatively powerless individual. And so the slang, the swearing, and the code-switching that characterise this story cannot be seen simply as the appropriate language to use in a vigorous social satire, but as a dramatic expression of the painful process of identity-formation in a hostile society.

    ‘Bandannas’ is a gift to a talk like this because it is about multiple identities and it uses language to dramatise the difficulties inherent in forming an identity within a multicultural society. What about a piece of literature that has a very different topic? Let’s turn to Meg Bateman’s poem, ‘Things are not so hard’.

    Chan eil rudan cho trom
    air an neach a dh’fhalbhas
    bidh faradh eile aig a’ghrèin,
    bidh mùthadh na chomas ...
    Chan amhlaigh dhan neach a dh’fhanas
    is gach oisean san t-sràid na chuimhneachan,
    doras gach taigh-seinns’ na chlach-chinn
    dhan toileachas-inntinn a chaidh seachad.

    Things are not so hard
    on the one who leaves –
    the light will have a different slant,
    change will be possible ...
    It’s not the same for the one who remains,
    with every street corner a memorial,
    every pub-door a headstone
    to that excitement that has passed.13

    Here we have an apparently simple, slightly bitter poem of lost love, presented in Gaelic and English. It is personal, low-key and not explicitly about identity. And yet, as Christopher Whyte and Iain Galbraith have argued recently,14 any poem written in Gaelic and translated into English is pregnant with unstated assumptions about identity and power within a pluralist culture. In reviews of Gaelic poems, Chris Whyte worried about what he was supposed to be reviewing: in particular what should he take to be the status of the English translations? Paraphrases or poems in their own right? The problem is compounded by the fact that most Scots only have access to the Gaelic through the translation. Iain Galbraith, faced a similar set of questions when including Gaelic poems in a bilingual anthology of translations of Scottish texts into German: should he include the English translations? Initially he was inclined not to, and simply put the Gaelic and German on facing pages. Then (perhaps influenced by Robert Crawford and Bill Herbert’s Sharawaggi ‘translations’ from English to Scots) he felt something of the polyglot character of the presentation of Scottish poetry was lost in this solution. Is Scottish Gaelic poetry now something that is not lost in translation but is rather born in the unstable interaction between the Gaelic and the English?

    It is even possible to re-read Meg Bateman’s poem in the light of this debate. It is after all about a relationship that has gone wrong: for the partner who has moved on, there is novelty and hope. For the partner who has stood still, there are only memories and intimations of mortality. But it is in the relationship – the unstable interaction – that the excitement resides. Perhaps now the different linguistic strands which make up the tapestry of Scotland’s languages should only be seen in the volatile but energising context of each other: English, Scots, Gaelic, Urdu, Chinese, whatever.

    When faced with complexity, the easy solution is of course to deny the complications, to idealise and simplify. People who fear diversity argue that there must be common ground, a myth, on which the nation can unite – we need a shibboleth or some other kind of marker of national identity, to brand us as a single community, a tangible commonweal. In the last century, Lallans of course, was promoted by some as a way forward, a standard written Scots that (if implemented in the school system and taught in the universities) would act as a focus for a sense of Scottish nationhood. Though it still has its supporters, Lallans failed as a general substitute for standard English, partly because of the economic and political dominance of English in the world today, and partly because of fears that Lallans would eventually signify the same social exclusion that English had come to represent. Even so, some form of Lallans (or at least, some form of non-regional, written literary Scots), I think, still has a role (and a future) as a medium that can, alongside Gaelic, in principle signify the nation, beyond the tribal specificities of urban and rural Scots dialects. Matthew Fitt’s forthcoming science fiction novel in Scots, But n Ben a Go Go, dares to imagine a future for Scots. It’s not an entirely pleasant scenario: a climatic catastrophe has meant that the world is largely drowned and the seasons have been reversed. The wife of the protagonist, Paulo Broon, has been turned into an ‘Omega’, that is, a comatose zombie after being infected with a lethal sexual disease during an adulterous affair. In the following extract, Broon visits her in the Rigo Imbeki Medical Center, ‘high up on Montrose Parish’:

    Paolo’s ile-stoor resistant bitts squealed on the ceramic flair as he stepped back an glowered west alang Gallery 1083. It wis a summer Sunday forenoon the clatty end o January an the mile lang visitors’ corridor wis toom. A singil lawyer an her lycra-leggit secretary intromittit the silence, shooglin past on a courtesy electric caur. An indie-pouered germsooker jinked inconspicuously in and oot o Paolo’s personal space, dichtin up microscopic clart as it drapped aff his body.

    A quarter mile doon, the wersh blinterin sun forced itsel in throu the UV filter gless at the corridor heid, illuminatin the faces an keek panels o the first fifty Omegas. An as he skellied intae the white bleeze, a troop o droid surveillance puggies advanced in heelstergowdie formation alang the corridor roof, skited by owre his heid an wi a clatter o mettalic cleuks, skittered awa eastwards doon the shadowy vennel. The toomness o the visitors’ corridor offered Paolo nae bield fae the buildin’s oorie atmosphere; Gallery 1083 wis an eerie airt wi or wioot passengers.15

    Fitt’s Scots is iconoclastic, eclectic, and fun. In a way, a fantasy world is a perfect setting for this kind of Scots, a Scots which does not necessarily appeal to a strong social or regional identity, but which tries to speak for an ‘imagined national community’ of Scots.16 Though such a Scots is sometimes seen as a betrayal of social, ethnic or regional origins, there is still, I think, a home for it in the linguistic tapestry because it speaks for no individual tribe.

    At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a talk given on language and Scottish identity could well be subtitled (like a Dulux catalogue?): ‘In Praise of Glosses’. Reading through a book like New Writing Scotland, one is struck by the number of times a text has to be glossed: whether Gaelic, Scots or Punjabi into English, which might irreverently be described as our common pidgin (or arguably, ‘King Creole’). What, then, am I trying to say about literary language and Scottish identity?

    First, there is inevitably a tension between what you might call our ‘tribal’ languages (whether languages of region, class, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age or gender) and a national language that all our tribes could in principle rally around. A national language can never be stable because it will always reflect the changing status of the ‘tribes’ within our society. The imposition of, say, standard English, or Lallans, or Gaelic, or even Shetlandic Scots will be resisted by those among us who feel it does not represent them, or represents them only partially. If we are to exist as a nation, however, we must pay active attention to the variety of languages around us and to give them (as our youth tribes would say) ‘respect’. That does not just mean walking round with a permanently open mind. It means ensuring people from the rural Borders to the remoter islands have access to, say, to the urban demotic, and vice versa. It means that we must hear on television and radio and on cd’s, not just English and Gaelic and a bit of Glasgow or Edinburgh demotic, but a full range of Scottish voices from all our communities. It means we must be aware of how shibboleths are used, positively and negatively, as badges of identity for tribes within our pluralist society, and it means that we must realise that a multicultural nation is ultimately much, much more than a grab-bag of linguistic markers. What I’ve been arguing is that our ‘national language’ lies not in the shibboleths of any one linguistic variety but in the fruitful interaction between many. That does make us unique.

    Publications like New Writing Scotland are invaluable because they have a history of seeking out literary language in all its variety. They embody the interactionist philosophy I’ve been proposing today. The signs elsewhere (particularly in schools) are currently looking very hopeful too, which, I dare to believe, augurs well for the shape of texts to come.

1 Manson, John (2000) ‘Shibboleth’ in Lallans 56, p.142
2 See the entry for ‘Shibboleth’ in Mcarthur, T. (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language Oxford: OUP, p. 932
3 MacLaverty, Bernard (1994) Walking the Dog and Other Stories London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 7-8
4 Barthes, Roland (1972) Mythologies trans. A. Lavers London: Jonathan Cape
5 See, for example, his Critical Introduction to Jack, RDS and Rozendaal, PAT, eds (1997) The Mercat Anthology of Early Scottish Literature: 1375-1707 Edinburgh: Mercat Press
6 Horace, Ars Poetica translated by T.S Dorsch (1965) Aristotle/Horace/Longinus: Classical Literary Criticism Harmonsworth: Penguin p. 87
7 Jack, RDS (1998) ‘Burns and the Makars’ in G. Ross Roy, ed Studies in Scottish Literature XXX, University of South Carolina, p. 13
8 Jack op. Cit. P. 17
9 Maclaine, A. Ed (1996) The Christis Kirk Tradition Glasgow: ASLS
10 See Gramsci, A (1971) Prison Notebooks, NY: International Publishers; Chomsky, N and Herman, ES (1988) Manufacturing Consent Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press
11 Leonard, T (1984) ‘Unrelated Incidents (3)’ in Intimate Voices 1965-1983 Newcastle upon Tyne: Galloping Dog Press
12 Saadi, S (1998) ‘Bandanna’ in D. O’Rourke, K. Jamie and R. Gorman, eds The Glory Signs Glasgow: ASLS
13 Bateman, M (1997) ‘Chan eil rudan cho trom/Things are not so hard’ in D. O’Rourke, K. Jamie and R. Gorman, eds Some Sort of Embrace Glasgow: ASLS
14 Galbraith, I (forthcoming) ‘To Hear Ourselves as Others Hear Us’ Translation and Literature, University of Glasgow; Whyte, C (1996, 1997) Reviews in Lines Review, 137 & 141.
15 From Fitt, M (1999) Sair Heid City Kingskettle: Kettilonia; extracts from a novel to be published in full as But n Ben a Go Go Edinburgh: Luath, 2000
16 Anderson, B (1983) Imagined Communities Verso


Copyright © John Corbett 2000


Last updated 18 August 2010.