Scots – a Language for Our Time?

In this, Scotland’s Homecoming year, it is a pertinent time to take stock of the current position of Scots language within contemporary Scottish culture. Many of this year’s celebrations and events will foreground the importance of Scots literary culture (well, we are celebrating Burns’ 250th anniversary after all), and this is of course to be welcomed. However, we would also do well to examine the current position of Scots language within popular non-literary culture, and specifically in the media, as providing a useful barometer of whether the fortunes of Scots language are rising or falling. The presence or absence of a ‘minority language’ in the media is often regarded as a good indicator of the overall health and vibrancy of the variety, and indeed the recent government ‘Audit of Scots Language provision in Scotland’ (published Jan 2009) investigated media provision as one of the seven CoEECRML1 categories of public life. Here I concentrate on two very different media types, both of which are mentioned in the ‘Audit’—newspapers and blogs—the former a long-established, public, fairly formal and largely institutionalised text type; the latter a much newer and more personal, though still public, and usually informal text type.

Burns, arguably part of the popular culture of his day, still has noticeable salience in Scottish newspapers and not only in articles discussing the man himself or his output. Well-known short phrases from his works such as the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agleyfacts are chiels that winna ding or wee, sleekit, cowrin timorous beastie are to be found with relative frequency, as are the clever puns made on them such as the best laid plans o’ mice, men and homebuyers go desperately agley and ya wee sleekit, timrous, cowerin’ bassstart. It seems that the appeal of Scotland’s Bard endures in today’s popular culture and extends well beyond the realms of Burns Suppers and poetry readings.

But in newspapers it is clear that there are also perhaps unwritten but nevertheless generally binding rules as to what is and is not seen as appropriate or acceptable use of Scots language. Such Scots as does appear is generally restricted both in terms of its quantity and in where it is used. Feature-type articles, sports reports and the Education section are much more likely to use Scots than are hard news stories or front-page articles (well, to use Scots words at least, as examples of sustained dense/broad Scots are few and far between). Where sustained Scots does occur, it is either in clearly delineated contexts such as Robbie Shepherd’s column in the Aberdeen Press and Journal or in feature-type articles, usually not written by journalists, discussing matters to do with the language itself, Scottish culture or other ‘appropriate’ topics. In these feature-type articles where Scots is the vehicle as well as the subject-matter, Scots is arguably often relegated to the status of cultural artefact.

By their very nature, newspapers are carefully produced documents. They are subject to rigorous editing processes, and nowadays are produced electronically (presumably with all the ‘advantages’ of spell-checkers etc). This means that any Scots language elements they contain are unlikely to be subconscious. What may be covert Scotticisms for many in speech are unlikely to remain so in print. So there is a level of awareness of usage. Readers also expect newspapers to use ‘correct’ language forms and uphold linguistic standards. These production methods and reader-expectations, coupled with a strong sense of where and how it is and is not appropriate to use Scots in newspapers, have a significant impact on the type, quantity and visibility of the Scots we find.

Lest we be tempted to lampoon the newspapers for what could be seen as a rather tokenist and caricatured Scots presence, it is worth first considering what our reaction would be to a serious news story, on the Scottish economy or government policy for example, written entirely in Scots. Would we find this acceptable or would we perhaps consider it to be highly inappropriate given the subject matter? Whilst it is tempting to blame the newspapers, and the media more generally, for stifling Scots and circumscribing its use, as consumers of these media texts, and consumers who can vote with our feet and/or wallets, surely we have some shared responsibility for these notions of appropriateness.

Maw BroonScots in newspapers is often associated with humour, for example in The Herald and Scotsman ‘Diaries’. The association of Scots with humour has a long history; indeed, one of the key Scottish stereotypes, the Kailyard, (think ‘Dr Finlay’s Casebook’) has pawky Scots humour as a central component. This is a state of affairs often lamented by Scots language activists, but there is clear evidence of people’s appetite for Scots-based humour not just in newspapers but in the media more broadly. Think of the success of The Broons or Oor Wullie, or of TV comedy programmes such as ‘Chewin’ the Fat’, ‘Still Game’, ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’, ‘Scotch & Wry’ and ‘Only an Excuse’. Over the years, popular comedians such as Billy Connolly, Rikki Fulton, Dorothy Paul, Jimmy Logan and Harry Lauder have all used forms of Scots, albeit often of the fairly thin and watered down variety, as an integral component in their comedy. The use of Scots in humour creates a cosy shared bond between speaker/writer and audience. If you need to understand the Scots words, expressions or even accent to ‘get’ the joke then, by definition, you have to ‘belong’ and so there is a powerful sense of shared Scottish or local culture. Given its power to bind people together with a sense of shared cultural identity, is this association of Scots with humour necessarily as problematic or harmful as has often been suggested? Perhaps it is something we should be celebrating rather than lamenting.

What then of the use of Scots in online contexts? Do these newer media text types such as blogs provide a context where the use of Scots might flourish? With blogs and other types of online discussion forums, we are still dealing with Scots in the written mode but arguably it is a rather different type of written mode with a different set of conventions and mores of appropriateness. The often-made assertion that the language of blogs is much closer to speech than writing is rather simplistic and misleading, but certainly we can say that it is generally a very distinctive sort of writing which allows for much greater linguistic freedom. Much of this is because blogs are essentially seen as a representation of the voice of an individual rather than the product of institutional discourse. This means that the unwritten rules on what is and is not acceptable look decidedly different.

When compared with its functions in newspapers, the use of Scots in blogs and discussion forums has some similarities but also some interesting contrasts. Yes, there are blogs written in Scots discussing the state of the Scots language and issues associated with it, and there are blogs on archetypal Scottish subject matter which may also use Scots as the medium in some of their postings. The Scots Language Centre has a facility whereby people are encouraged toblog in Scots. Interesting as such innovations are, the use of Scots within them seems to be adhering to the same sorts of conventions as we noted in newspapers. What is perhaps more noteworthy, are those blogs where the use of Scots seems to transcend these traditional boundaries, where Scots is used as the medium of expression to discuss everyday matters that are not concerned with things expressly Scottish or linguistic.

Some of the message board postings on sites such as ‘The Knowhere Guide’ show Scots being used to discuss things well outside the expected canon of Scots language topics. ‘The Knowhere Guide’ is a fairly informal website largely aimed at young people and originally especially skateboarders, which gives the low-down on towns from an insider perspective. It covers topics ranging from ‘hook-up spots’, ‘famous residents and ex-residents’, ‘favourite building’ and ‘demolish it now building’ to ‘the best things’ and ‘the worst things’. This is hardly traditionally Scottish fare and is contained within a UK-wide site to boot. To get a flavour of the sorts of Scots writing that this media type can generate, look at some of the entries under the Balloch or Port Glasgow message boards for examples of people using Scots (generally urban and colloquial forms but Scots nevertheless) often to talk about decidedly non-traditionally Scots topics. The subject matter is eclectic to say the least but generally these postings do not seem to be written to service a linguistic agenda.

Presumably because things like spelling are often seen to matter less in such environments, people feel less inhibited about writing using non-standard and/or local forms which to some extent reflect the way they speak. These are apparently real Scottish people writing in the way that they want to, relatively unencumbered by considerations of correctness or even appropriateness of linguistic form. Yes, of course by writing in this way they are performing some sort of linguistic identity and are probably aware of this, but arguably they are doing something quite new and exciting and in a relatively public arena.

Scots, it is claimed, has become increasingly restricted in its domains over time and many of those who speak it seldom write it; indeed, they may not even consider themselves capable of doing so. Given the fact that many people are worried (erroneously but nevertheless significantly) about Scots being ‘bad English’ or ‘slang’, its relative paucity in many written environments is predictable. And even if people have embraced their varieties as ‘good Scots’, there is still the whole problem of how to go about writing, and spelling, a variety which many of them have only encountered in the written mode once a year for the annual Burns fest. Effectively many Scots are disenfranchised from using Scots language (which they may well speak) in writing. Remove these worries about correctness and appropriateness and the language may well flourish. Certainly the blogs’ evidence suggests that these new media types might have exciting potential to give ordinary Scottish people their distinctive voices back.

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Fiona Douglas

Fiona Douglas is Lecturer in English Language in the School of English at the University of Leeds.

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