Janet Paisley: In Defence of the Scots Language

National Collective recently met the award-winning writer, poet and playwright Janet Paisley at the Solas Festival near Perth. Janet was part of a panel discussion about Scotland as a three-tongued nation – speaking in English, Scots and Gaelic. Below is a transcript of her defence of the Scots language.

Given the time of year, let’s start with a magical spell. There is no such thing as the Scots language. It doesn’t exist. It’s just a collection of dialects. It’s English spoken badly. It’s slang, common, coorse. And yin I heard recently: Naebody yaises it onymair.

For 300 years Scotland has been trying to bring about the disappearance of its own tongue. Damage has been done: its dilution with English, and the corresponding loss of much Scots grammar, syntax, vocabulary and spelling – Blood has been split. Is it toun or toon? Doun or doon? And if it’s OU then what happens with oor, coo, dour, moose, hoose, shoogle, dookit, drookit, footer, blooter. What’s to be done with coup, loup and doup. Is cloot the same as clout? Everybody can spell ‘wee’. But who can spell weir, weeist? How do you write ful, pul, and push? You can probably spell heid and deid, but whit if it deeid yesterday? Deeid – anybody?

The Scots language is our national secret. We tell foreigners we speak English. They notice that we don’t. In homes and classrooms, small children routinely translate into and out of Scots, but no one notices. In public, twa guid Scots speakers might converse entirely in Scottish English without ever discovering they share their native tongue. Writers need language just as joiners need wood, but are wilfully deprived of Scots.

Lacking education in it, it serves to trip us up. In pre-email times, I wrote a play for a London company who later faxed me saying ‘This sounds too Scottish, we don’t know why, can you fix it?’ The offending speech was ‘What if Joanne wasn’t in the huff?’ I presumed it was the question mark – in Scots, orders seem like requests. Gaunae no dae that? But no, it was a question. Huff, there would be an English word for it that I’d forgotten. Wrong again. Light finally dawned. Anybody spotted the offending word?

The definite article. In Scots, the huff is like the sea. It’s always there, waiting. You can get in or out at your leisure, and may even have company in it. In English, a huff is singular, and disposable. It’s yours, and yours alone. When you’re done with it, you toss it away, and if you take another, it’s a fresh one.

When we hear speech, and understand it, the assumption is we heard English. But, if you listen carefully, as writers often do, Scots has come out of our homes and into the streets. Even on Sundays. It can be heard in shops, from those who serve customers and clients. It has returned to the schools now that children are no longer belted for its use. It has changed, adapted to emails, texting and Facebook.

Two Indian restaurants in Edinburgh have menus in Scots. Curries are described as no very nippy, a wee bit nippy, awfy nippy. A few books are published in Scots, but it’s piecemeal. Funding for the successful Itchy Coo children’s books has ended. Support for adult books is rarely taken up. There are few living writers, fewer publishers, and almost no readers.

Why? Because the language looks funny. Incomprehensible. Our eyes can only cope with it in lengths of text that might caption Oor Wullie or The Broons. Poets have always known the worth of Scots, but Scottish readers don’t rush to buy poetry, in any language. Playwrights use Scots for different reasons, but who reads plays? Novelists who use Scots struggle to publish, because publishing is a business and the public won’t be sold a language it can’t read.

Since our parliament reconvened, it’s unique make-up means there are many cross-party single interest groups feeding information in to our government. One of those is the Scots Language CPG. Through it, numerous initiatives have led to increasing awareness. We recently helped secure a shift from the language being supported through Arts funding, to direct government support for the Scottish Language Dictionaries and The Scots Language Resource Centre – and the long overdue recognition that language is not only a resource for writers, but belongs to everyone.

Various websites have sprung up supporting Scots. The Shetland dialect site, Shetland for Wirds, is the tip of an iceberg of activity in schools and communities. Adult Literacies Online provides extensive teaching material in Scots, as do Glow and SLC websites.

In 2009, a ministerial advisory working group for Scots was set up by the minister for Culture. I was a member. We reported in 2010, and receive regular feedback on the progress of our extensive recommendations. We asked for a Scots language policy in every public body, and hope for natural growth into business, law, health and emergency services, where the language of communication can be vital, particularly for people under duress when native tongues are most likely to surface.

In education, we recommended a nationwide network of coordinators in every primary and secondary school who could deliver Scots language training and advice on resources – the model for which already operates in Falkirk schools, an initative by the director of education. Seven posts have been advertised, and that network will be active from August.

We requested teacher training in Scots, and a Continuous Professional development programme. Recently, the General Teaching Council for Scotland held an award ceremony for Professional Recognition for Scots Language Teaching at the Scottish Parliament, a first for the language. Slowly, the profession is changing to greater acceptance of Scots.

We asserted the need for chairs in Scots language and Scottish literature in every university. You might think that doesn’t need stating. But there is only one at present, in Glasgow. Do other nations serve their own languages and literature so poorly? The Scottish Funding Council, whose province this is, has been asked by the minister to support our recommendation.

Other recommendations deal with broadcasting, and its poor representation of the Scots language, with Visit Scotland, Creative Scotland, and the National Theatre of Scotland – all of them reminded that this is a tri-lingual nation, and asked to support Scots through a written language policy.

The UK government had already enshrined Scots in the European Charter for Regional and Minority languages as the second largest language of Britain. We asked for that commitment, to its status and use, to be strengthened. A Scottish government submission to do so was submitted to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in March. The Scottish government also agreed to formulate a Scots language policy.

Progress is slow. The day when all of our children have, as standard, a bi-lingual education in English and in Scots or Gaelic, is not close but it grows nearer. Gradually, on radio and television, we begin to hear voices that sound like people from Scotland, like us. Inclusiveness feed confidence.

As a writer who loves the English language, I am angry that the first five years of language learning, the richest years of learning, in Scots, was binned when I first walked into a school – an action reinforced throughout secondary and higher education. That is changing. I have met the first teachers of Scots in primary classrooms. I hope to see the first reading schemes, text books in Scots, the first grammars, the first spelling books.

When I began to write in Scots, I phoned my mother to ask the spelling of breenge – a question I had to repeat into stunned silence before she retorted ‘Ye dinnae spell it, ye say it.’ Next year, as the census results become known, we’ll find out, for the first time, how many folk believe they speak, understand, and can read and write Scots.

Oor mither tongue has muckle tae learn us aboot oorsells. In English we say ‘dinner’s ready’ or ‘eat up’. In Scots, we’d say ‘come in for yer tea’ or ‘eat yer dinner’. Nobody thinks we might otherwise eat someone else’s meal. Tiredness might prompt the announcement that ‘I’m awa tae ma bed’ but only in Scots do we feel the need to clarify whose bed we mean to sleep in.

What do we lose without our language? This:

Think oan
doon burn, strath, brae an sea
as watter tummles tae braid firth,
we are aw ettled tae stravaig

Becomes this:

Think on
down stream, plain, slope and sea
as water rushes to estuary,
we are all meant to roam

It is no longer about Scotland or her people. If our lochs become lakes, and our bens turn into mounts, we lose our way, our unique way of thinking, and expressing ourselves, where we come from, and who we are. Who would we be without janitors and advocates, pinkies or oxters? Only we have care and custody of the Scots language. No one else will tend it.

Scotland tried to avoid that responsibility. The 300 year long disappearing trick has failed. Scots is alive and well. But to take a full and active role in society, it needs current and future writers to explore and expand its worth and possibilities. To achieve that, it needs future readers and that means teachers. To thrive, it needs our support.

Janet Paisley
National Collective