Harry Giles’ Open Democracy essay explores, in English and Scots, the likely prospects of the Scots language, faced with a lack of standards. The status of Scots has interested me for a while, as a speech form that has lacked much recognition or support but has continued nonetheless. (For how long?)
What does it mean that Fiona Hylop, when launching Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policy this month, stumbled over the part of her speech that was written in Scots?
Government speeches are written in a peculiar idiom of English. We’re used to hearing the empty words of public relations slide smoothly by, and most of the Culture Secretary’s speech was written in this easy tongue. So no wonder that, when she ran into the Scots of her speech’s final lines – words that mixed archaisms, contemporary urbanisms and variant grammatical forms into a new old language, words stuffed with anxieties of class and identity and nation – she was scunnered. To me, it’s grand to think that Scots might still foul the wheels of government.
Hyslop talked about growing up in England with a mother who spoke English for the most part but switched immediately to a rich urban Scots when phoning home.Perhaps, then, unlike the language of government, the words of the policy launch speech seemed strange and unfamiliar anyway: for the most part, they belonged to the literary (but still beautiful and useful) canon of Scots rather than the agile vernacular her mother spoke down the phone. This longed-for language – a formal, standardised Scots suited to journalism and cultural policies – belongs to the government websites of some Scots’ longed-for state, and as such it’s closer to the language of Westminster than the language of Craigmillar.
A language has numerous registers, each suited to different circumstances. Even a technically monolingual person speaks to their closest friends in a different language – with a different, if overlapping, vocabulary, grammar, intonation and pronunciation – than they would in a job interview. A language also has numerous dialects, varying from region to region, some of which might stake a claim to being a language as well. So when Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policy (laudably) welcomes all the varieties of Scots, what does that mean?