Speaking Properly!

‘Speak properly,’ my mother was forever reminding me as a child. By which, of course, she meant don’t use Scots – either the words or the grammar. Fortunately my dad did use it, so I know and understand the language of my country. How much richer is: 

‘See ye the morn’s morn’  than ‘I will meet you tomorrow morning’.

On one memorable occasion, when Dad came to pick me up from university and I introduced him to some American exchange student friends, his greeting was, ‘Aye, and it’s a gey dreich day the day is it no.’ Blank looks all around – although he was right. It was a wet, dreary day.

Because of the general injuction to speak properly I always thought that Scots was a form of corrupted, and inferior, English. When I came to write The Castilians one of the many things that exercised my mind was what would be considered ‘correct’ speak in 1546.

I soon discovered that Scots is a language in its own right. It seems both Scots and English, are descended from the same Germanic language — Anglo-Saxon — and that there were two main reasons that contributed to Scots being considered not ‘proper’ speak.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland departed with all possible speed to wealthy London, to occupy the English throne and become King James I of England, increasingly, his language from papers and letters, becomes anglicised.

James VI of Scotland and 1st of England
James VI & I, copyright National Library of Scotland

Here’s an extract from his Counterblast Against Tobacco, written in 1604…’A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs…’  Translated into Scots – ‘smokin’ is verra bad fur ye’. Perhaps a pity he didn’t use his kingly perogative and ban tobacco at the time, but in any case the king spoke English, so the upper classes did, and it rapidly became a sign of wealth, and standing, to speak English.

Scotland turned Protestant in 1560. A core component of Protestantism was that everyone should learn to read the Bible themselves rather than having the Latin version interpreted by the church. This meant that we needed bibles, and lots of them, quickly. Intially the Geneva version, which was written in English and published in 1557, was adopted by John Knox. This was closely followed by the King James (sixth and first) version in 1611 — also in English. Scotland soon had one of the highest literacy rates in the world – but everyone was learning to read in English, and not the Scots they spoke at home. And surely, the language you are communing with the Lord in must be the correct one to speak!

The fiery John Knox image
The Fiery John Knox

Even before 1560 there was the beginning of a slide towards English as the ‘better’ language. In writing The Castilians, I took the decision, since Bethia’s Mother had lived in England, that Bethia would speak an anglicised Scots. Many of the other characters do use Scots words, (I provide a glossary). Initially, I had far more Scots in it, but I did want the book to be read, and understood, widely. It’s always a balance…

At least Scots speaking children didn’t suffer the fate of their Gaelic counterparts. Children in the Highland and Islands were often beaten if they spoke Gaelic in school. Gaelic, of course was never the language of Lowland Scotland. I was fourteen before I first heard it, on holiday in Islay. Thankfully Gaelic, and indeed Welsh, were saved in the nick of time, before they vanished altogether. And as for Scots, well we’ve hung on tae it despite aywis being telt tae speak properly.

crabbit; scunnersome; drookit; wheesht; gowk; oxters;  guddle; haar

For more information on Scots see https://www.scotslanguage.com

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