Category Archives: linguistics

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!

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?

In defens o <quh>

Ane o the mucklest differences atween auld an modren Scots is that the auld Scots grapheme <quh> /ʍ/ wis replacit bi <wh> acause o influence fae Inglis.

Houaniver, A think we soud consider gaun back tae <quh>. It’s a gey simple differ that lairners can pick up in nae time ava, an it merks a text as bein in Scots acause nae ither leid is uisin this grapheme.

Juist compare the follaein extrack fae Burns’s The Kintra Lass — the text on the caur is in his ain orthographie, and the ane on the richt is a modren version uisin <quh>:

In simmer, when the hay was mawn
And corn wav’d green in ilka feild,
While claver blooms white o’er the lea
And roses blaw in ilka bield!
Blythe Bessie in the milking shiel,
Says – I’ll be wed, come o’t what will:
Out spake a dame in wrinkled eild-
O’ gude advisement comes nae ill.
In simmer, quhan the hey wis mawn
An corn wafft green in ilka field,
Quhile claver bluims quhite ower the lea
An roses blaw in ilka bield!
Blythe Bessie in the milkin shiel,
Says — A’ll be wad, come o’t quhit will:
Out spak a dame in wrinkelt eild —
O guid advisement comes nae ill.

The oreeginal version leuks like distortit Inglis, but the new version is clearlie in anither leid. This isna juist acause o the uiss o <quh>, but it helps!

Lingua dorica in bocca glasgoviana

The most prestigious variety of Italian has been described as lingua toscana in bocca romana, or the Tuscan language in a Roman mouth.

I wonder whether a similar formula would become appropriate for unified Scots (if somebody tries to create a prestige variety after independence), given that Doric (Aberdeenshire Scots) in general has preserved more words and grammatical structures than the Central Belt dialects that have been heavily influenced by English, but where Doric pronunciation has some features that are quite divergent from other dialects, e.g. /f/ for <wh> instead of /ʍ/, or pronouncing <ui> as /(w)i/ (for instance, guid “good” is /gɪd/ in the Central Belt but /gwid/ in Doric).

To be concrete, I wonder whether the best model for Scots would be lingua dorica in bocca glasgoviana, or Doric pronounced by Glaswegians.

Of course there are words that are restricted to Doric and wouldn’t be appropriate in a unified language, just as Glaswegian isn’t perhaps the most euphonious variety of Scots, but I think it would make sense, especially given that there are many more speakers of Scots in the Central Belt than anywhere else, but most of these are mixing it up with English.

Or would la lingua di Burns in bocca dorica provide a better model?


Why not
Why not, a photo by Pete Reed on Flickr.
In English, the words “he is not” can be contracted to either “he isn’t” or “he’s not”, but not to *”he’sn’t”. (The same applies of course to “I am not”, “you are not”, “she is not”, and so on, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll concentrate on “he is not” here.)

Any speaker of English thus needs to choose one of the two possible contractions every time this construction comes up, if they want to contract it at all.

An Irish ex-colleague of mine once commented that he’d observed that Scottish people had a tendency to prefer the latter (“he’s not”), and having paid attention to the constructions since then I tend to agree with him. (It’s hard to be certain without a corpus of spoken Scottish English.)

I’ve also been mulling over why this might be the case, and I’ve come up with two possible reasons, both involving the Scots language:

(1) In Scots, the construction “isn’t he” isn’t possible. You can only say “is he no” (“is he not”), never *”isna he”. This might spill over into non-questions.

(2) In Scots, the two possible constructions are “he isna” and “he’s no”. The phonetic distance between Scots “he isna” and Scottish English “he isn’t” is somewhat greater than the distance between Scots “he’s no” and English “he’s not”, so in a situation where Scots is frowned upon, the latter construction might survive better.

I’m also wondering whether some speakers of Scottish English dislike all the negatives ending in “-n’t” because they sound rather mumbled compared to their Scots counterparts that end in “-na”, but I haven’t found any evidence for this hypothesis so far.