Norwegian language lessons for Scots

Norway is in some regards at least 150 years ahead of Scotland: Until the mid-19th century Norwegians wrote standard Danish, although they spoke Norwegian dialects or at the very least Danish with a strong Norwegian accent; however, for political reasons they decided to recreate a language of their own (they ended up with two separate written languages for good measure, but that’s a different story). In Scotland, there is still no standard way to write Scots, and many people have negative feelings towards the language.

Here I’ll discuss two lessons Scots language standardisers can learn from Norwegian.

Speak yer dialeck, write staundart Scots!

"Speak dialect – write Nynorsk".
“Speak dialect – write Nynorsk”.
I sense that many Scots speakers feel that a written standard would be harmful to the Scots dialects.

However, Nynorsk (the form of Norwegian that is closest to the dialects) proves this isn’t the case. For years, a common slogan was “snakk dialekt – skriv nynorsk” (“speak dialect – write Nynorsk”), and my impression is that it’s been very successful. Norwegian television is certainly full of people speaking various dialects, and I’ve seen school books teaching how to understand them.

There’s no reason whatsoever why the Scots language community couldn’t go down the same route. That is, it should be feasible to tell people to write standardised Scots while encouraging them to speak their local dialect.

Main forms and side forms

main forms and side forms
Main forms (lysbiletapparat and ljosbiletapparat) and side forms (lysbildeapparat and ljosbildeapparat).
For many years, Norwegian dictionaries have been full of so-called “main forms” (hovedformer) and “side forms” (sideformer). (The proportion tends to go up and down over time, but that’s not important here.) Both types are correct, but in official contexts (such as in school books) only the main forms can be used.

I think this is a great way to encourage some spellings without discouraging people who aren’t aware of them (for instance because the norm has changed or because their dialect uses a divergent form). Here are some examples of how a Scots dictionary using main and side forms could look:

If a word has two forms that are both considered main forms, they are shown in the same typeface:

daurk or derk adj dark.

This means that everybody has a free choice between writing daurk or derk.

If the word has a main form and a side form with no regional differences (for instance where one word has almost been replaced by the English equivalent), square brackets and a different colour are employed, and a cross-reference is created from the side form to the main one:

Dens [or Danish] adj Danish.
[Danish] see Dens.

This means that nobody would get a red mark for writing Danish instead of Dens (and spell-checkers would allow both), but school books and other official documents would always use Dens.

The same applies where the side form is regional:

bairn [or wean (W)] n child.
[wean (W)] see bairn.

I don’t see any reason why one couldn’t also add disallowed form in a separate typeface as a help for learners, e.g.:

ane num one.

Some word with main, side and disallowed forms would admittedly produce quite a lot of entries, but this shouldn’t be a problem, especially at a time when more and more people use dictionaries in electronic format:

[far (N)] see whaur.
[whair (S)] see whaur.
whaur [or far (N) or whair (S)] adv where.

If we learn these lessons from Norwegian, we can encourage both standard Scots and the Scots dialects while improving literacy in Scots and raising the status of the language.

The death of love in Scots

3191235469_89f59a7129_mA while ago, Anna had to learn My Luve’s like a red, red rose by Rabbie Burns and she asked me for help with the pronunciation, considering me to be the resident Scots language expert.

Most of it was straightforward enough, but what pronunciation did Burns have in mind when he wrote Luve? All you hear today is /lʌv/, but if Burns had intended the same pronunciation as in English, he would surely have written Love instead.

Fortunately the SND has a very helpful etymological note:

[O.Sc. lufe, luff, 1375, love, 1450, O.E. lufu, love, lufian, to love. The reg. development in Sc. through North. Mid.Eng. lōve(n) is [lø:(v), ne.Sc. li:(v). See O, letter.], attested by J. Elphinston Propriety (1787) II. 200 (“u French”), W. Aiton Agric. Ayr. (1811) 688 (“Greek upsilon”), J. A. H. Murray D.S.C.S. (1873) 147 and the spelling lee, but the mod. unrounded forms of these [lɪv, lev] have been wholly replaced by Eng. [lʌv]. The 18th c. spelling with oo adopted by Ramsay and others has misled singers and reciters into the now common pronunciation [lu:], the word having dropped out of colloq. use.]

What this means is that Burns probably pronounced Luve as /le:(v)/ (there’s evidence for the unrounding of /ø/ in his pronunciation in rhymes such as ane /jɪn/ — abuin /əbɪn/, not /əbøn/), but that this pronunciation died out a while ago.

In effect modern Scottish love is thus a borrowing from English, and this has fully replaced the native word.

If anyone wants to revive the auld Scots word (or just wants to pronounce it correctly in older poetry), there’s thus a choice between luiv(e) and lae (not *lui: <ui> is never used word-finally — we write dae and shae, not *dui and *shui in spite of the vowel being the same as the one in puir and shuir), with the expected pronunciations (/le:(v)/ in Central Scots, /li:(v)/ in Northern, /lø:(v)/ in Insular).

I can’t help wondering whether /le:/ died out because it became homophonous with ‘lay’ in the Central dialects, which might for instance have added a potential new meaning to the line And I will luve thee still, my dear.

To conclude, here’s a version of Burns’ poem using modern Scots spellings (of course there’s more than one way to spell Scots, and many people will disagree with some of my choices):

Och ma lae’s like a reid, reid rose,
That’s newlie sprung in Juin:
Och ma lae’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetlie played in tuin.

As fair art thou, ma bonnie lass,
Sae deep in lae am I;
And A will lae thee still, ma dear,
Till aw the seas gang dry.

Till aw the seas gang dry, ma dear,
An the rokes melt wi the sin;
An A will lae thee still, ma dear,
While the saunds o life sall rin.

An fare-thee-weel, ma ainlie lae!
An fare-thee-weel, a while!
An A will come again, ma lae,
Tho ‘t were ten thousen mile!

Self-driving cars

I just discovered that Google have realised some videos that really show how revolutionary their self-driving cars will be. Have a look at the blind gentleman in this one, for instance:

It just demonstrates that the current discussions in many countries (where politicians are still in favour of having a human driver in each car who is legally responsible) are awfully silly. What kind of court would hold a blind man responsible for an injury caused by his car? Also, what if there’s nobody in the car (it might for instance be parking itself)?

It’s interesting that reducing the number of traffic injuries seems to be one of the things that are really motivating Google:

Personally I’m really looking forward to getting a self-driving car. It’ll be great to be able to do useful or fun things instead of watching motorway traffic, and it’ll be wonderful to be able to take the car home from a pub or sending the car up to school to get the kids.

I do wonder how self-driving cars will be furnished after a few years. Will they look like old-fashioned train compartments, where the passengers face each other across a table? Or will they look more like a living room, with comfy couches and a telly in the corner? Or perhaps like a caravan, with convertible beds and other useful things?

Also, will people actually want to own self-driving cars or will they just use them as cheap taxis? That would have the advantage that you could send for very different models depending on your journey, e.g., a tiny office-like car for going to work, a bedroom-like car for going to the 8am meeting in London, or a car full of toys for collecting kids from nursery.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that once self-driving cars become ubiquitous, they will dramatically change the way we live.


Det danske folketingsvalg var ret spøjst set udefra. Medierne opførte sig, som om Danmark havde et topartisystem og flertalsvalg i enkeltmandskredse, men reelt er resultatet da noget af det mest grumsede, man har set i mange år.

Det er ikke ret oplagt, partierne i Blå Blok har ret meget tilfælles — fx vil Dansk Folkeparti bruge flere penge, mens Liberal Alliance vil sænke skatterne.

Men der er jo masser af forskellige flertalsmuligheder:

  • De partier, der hverken er specielt humanistiske eller fremmedfjendske, og som sikkert bare gerne vil videreføre den eksisterende udlændingepolitik uden ændringer (S, V, C og LA), har 100 mandater.
  • De traditionelle regeringspartier, som alle generelt vil gøre, hvad embedsmændene fortæller dem (S, V, C og DrV), har 95 mandater.
  • De partier, der vil føre en stram økonomisk politik (S, V, C, LA og DrV), har 108 mandater.
  • De partier, der er store i Udkantsdanmark (DF, S og V), har 118 mandater. (Liberal Alliance og Enhedslisten klarer sig også udmærket i landområderne, men er noget mindre.)

Jeg synes, der er interessant, at S og V indgår i alle flertalsmulighederne ovenfor — måske ville en S-V-regering i virkeligheden være den bedste løsning? Hvis det ikke havde været for den absurde præsidentkampagne, som medierne førte, ville det vel have været en oplagt løsning.


THE SELKIRK GRACE by Freddie Phillips, on Flickr.
Jeg blev bedt om at bede Robert Burns’ berømte Selkirk Grace på dansk til SNP Eastwoods 48. Burns Supper i går.

Originalen lyder som følger på skotsk:

Some hae meat an canna eat,
An some wad eat that want it,
But we hae meat an we can eat,
Sae lat the Lord be thankit.

Desværre var den eneste oversættelse, jeg kunne finde, ret dårlig:

Nogle har mad, men kan ikke spise,
Andre kan spise, men har ikke mad.
Jeg takker dig Gud, jeg er så glad.
For jeg kan spise, og jeg har mad.

Jeg oversatte den derfor selv til dansk, og der var flere, der var høflige nok til at hævde, bordbønnen lød bedre på dansk end på skotsk:

Nogle har mad, men syge er,
Og andre har intet at spise,
Men vi har mad og raske er,
Så lad os Herren prise.

Selv foretrækker jeg dog versionen på skotsk.

Why you need to learn Scots to understand Scottish English

Vernacular, a photo by shirokazan on Flickr.
When I moved to Scotland and had to learn to understand the natives, I was of course aware of the existence of Scots, but I assumed (wrongly!) that people at any one time would normally speak either Scots or English (or rather, Scottish Standard English [SSE], which is standard English with a Scottish pronunciation and a few loanwords from Scots, such as wee, dreich, outwith and glaikit).

However, I was rather disappointed that I almost never met any speakers of Scots, and at the same time SSE speakers often seemed to mumble — for instance, foot sometimes sounded more like /fɪt/ than /fut/ [fyt] (the expected mapping of RP /fʊt/). Other examples included you sounding like /ji/ rather than /ju/, use (the verb) sounding like /jez/ rather than /juz/, dog sounding like /dʌg/ rather than /dɔg/, and thirty sounding like /θɛrte/ rather than /θɪrte/. Strangely, whenever I asked people to repeat one of these words, they invariably produced the vowel I had expected in the first instance (e.g., /fut/, never /fɪt/).

The alternative to my theory that all Scots were mumbling was to assume that the SSE phonemes had extremely varied and overlapping realisations — in other words, I speculated for a while that /u/ perhaps could be realised as [u, y, ɪ, i, e]! However, that’s obviously not true — while foot can be [fɪt], [fut] and [fyt], it can’t be *[fit] or *[fet], and so on.

Things didn’t click into place until I started learning Scots as a foreign language. When I learnt that the Scots words for foot, you and use were fit, ye and uise (pronounced as if it had been written yaize), it suddenly became clear that many SSE speakers were just using many more Scots words than I had realised, rather than mumbling English words as I had been assuming.

Once I had sussed this, several of my Scottish friends that I had till then perceived as mumbling SSE turned out to be speaking very clearly but using a lot of Scots words. In other words, not only had I been wrong about the mumbling, but I had also completely underestimated the usage of Scots — it’s just the case that it’s normally used mixed up with English rather than as a separate language.

Foreigners moving to Scotland should definitely learn some Scots. It’s not just the language of Burns and many other great poets, but it’s also currently mixed up with English in everyday conversations throughout Lowland Scotland, and it’s hard really to understand what people say without being bilingual in Scots and English like them.

Whit wey can we revive the Scots leid?

(Rebloggit fae ma political blog..)

Oor Rabbie
Oor Rabbie by alister, on Flickr.
In the 2011 census, 1,225,622 fowks indicatit that thay coud speak, read an write Scots, an this maks Scots a heap muckler nor Gaelic. Houaniver, thair is practicallie nae support for the leid in Scotland — we daena hae TV or radio stations (forby wee programmes on the Internet), thair is nae Scots schuils, an thair is nae leid courses whaur outlins (sic as masel) can lairn Scots. Ye can uise Facebook in Faeroese or e’en in Pirate Inglis, but no in Scots. Google Translate canna help ye wi Scots, an yer phone’s autocorreck will chynge yer perfecklie guid Scots intae braken Inglis.

Forby this, monie (maist?) Scots thinks Scots is juist a dialeck o Inglis, an thay aft feel bad about speakin it. This is ane o the monie things that is creautin the Scots creenge.

We maun chynge this!

At the maument there’s three Scots leid organisations in Scotland: The Scots Leid Associe (SLA), the Centre for the Scots Leid (SLC) an the Scots Leid Dictionars (SLD). The SLA is fecklie concernt wi publishin leeteratur in Scots; the SLC is forderin the interests o Scots speakers (nearlins like a ceevil richts muivement); and the SLD is documentin the leid an publishin academic dictionars. Thay ar aw daein a byous job, but nane o thaim sees is as thair rôle tae staundartise the leid an creaut the tuils needit tae lear Scots tae fowks wha daesna speak it yit.

Whan A say “staundartise the leid”, A mean it. The SLA thinks a normative orthographie wad juist be a hinderance for the makars, the SLD daesna want tae bother the fowks wha gat thair erse skelpit for uisin Scots wirds at schuil, an the SLD is simplie documentin whit awbody is daein. Houaniver, ye canna tell a fremmit lairner or a schuil bairn wha anelie haes passive knawledge o Scots that thay maun juist say whit feels richt tae thaim — the result definatelie wadna be Scots! Ye canna mak a spellchecker that allous ilka spellin variant in uiss — it wadna richtifee oniething ava. An schuils will need guideship on whit tae lear tae the bairns.

This isna about creautin a oppressive orthographie — makars and native speakers can write Scots onie wey thay want. Houaniver, the lave o us needs a norm.

Monie ither leids haes been in the same situation. Scots is gey an siclike tae Catalonian an Icelandic in the wey aw three leids haes a great linguistic past but lost thair status whan the places thay ar spoken lost thair independence.

Here’s whit Wee Ginger Dug writes anent Catalonian (in Inglis):

The Catalan Renaixença ‘Renaissance’ arose in response to the sclerotic nature of the Spanish state. The Catalan language came to be seen as a symbol of the frustrated desires of Catalans for their country to become a fully democratic modern European state. A revitalised standard literary form of Catalan was the outcome of this movement, a modern Catalan language fit for all the needs of a modern Catalan nation, but which was solidly linked to the greatness of the Catalan literary past. It was rapidly accepted throughout els Paissos Catalans.

An this is fae the Inglis Wikipedia airticle about Icelandic:

The modern Icelandic alphabet has developed from a standard established in the 19th century primarily by the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask. It is ultimately based heavily on an orthography laid out in the early 12th century by a mysterious document referred to as The First Grammatical Treatise by an anonymous author who has later been referred to as the First Grammarian. The later Rasmus Rask standard was a re-creation of the old treatise, with some changes to fit concurrent Germanic conventions, such as the exclusive use of k rather than c. Various archaic features, as the letter ð, had not been used much in later centuries. Rask’s standard constituted a major change in practice.

We need a Scots orthographie that connecks the modren leid tae its past (makars like Blind Harry, Henryson, Dunbar, Fergusson an Burns), tae its present (the wey Scots is spoken an wrote in Scotland an Ulster the day), an paves the wey for its futur (bi bein consistent sae that it’s easie tae lairn). It is probablie no gaun tae be muckle different fae the spellins promotit bi the Online Scots Dictionar, but a deceesion needs tae be made.

It wad probablie be best tae creaut a new organisation for this ettle, lat’s cry it the Scots Leid Buird (SLB) in the follaein.

Aince the orthographical principles is in place, the SLB needs tae creaut a dataset in electronic format that can be providit tae fowks, companies an organisations wha wants tae mak printit dictionars, Android apps, spellcheckers or onie ither uiss o’t. The dataset soud include place names. The dictionars creautit uisin this dataset wad be great for schuil beuks, dictionars an aw.

Forby, the SLB soud provide advice on hou tae uise Scots an promuive the new orthographie an the Scots leid for ordinar, an thay soud wirk thegither wi the ither three Scots leid organisations aw the time.

In a ideal warld, the SLB soud be fondit uisin government siller, but in the praisent circumstances (wi monie mair cuts comin wir wey fae Westminster) we micht need tae uise croudfondin insteid, least tae get the projeck stairtit.

In ma professional life, A’m a expert in computational lexicographie, sae in anither blog post A micht hae a wee leuk at whit the dataset soud leuk like.

Atween haunds A’ll be awfu interestit in hearin fae yese. Is this the wey forrit? Wha can help?

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog