Category Archives: linguistics

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.

Language icons

Language symbols
Language symbols, a photo by viralbus on Flickr.
The existence of national flags makes it easy to create country icons (e.g., in a menu where you can select your country of residence).

However, at least in a web context it’s relatively rare to provide country menus. On the other hand, language menus are common, allowing the user the view the page in another language. Wikipedia is a good example of this.

Unfortunately, there is no accepted way to symbolise languages. Wikipedia writes the language names out in full, and other websites use two- or three-letter ISO codes.

When a graphical icon is needed, people often resort to national flags, but that really isn’t a very good solution at all: Some languages (such as English and Spanish) are used in many countries, and many countries have more than one official language (e.g., Scotland and Belgium).

I really wish somebody would come up with some language symbols/icons that everybody could agree on. For the purpose of this blog post, I played around with the idea of using three concentric circles in various colours (loosely based on the flags of the main countries where the language is spoken), with the ISO code in the middle, but I fear they look too similar.

Perhaps using shapes as well as colour would help, but the danger is that it would be hard to identify one of the icons out of context.

Even if the whole world could agree on a set of language icons, it would still be a challenge to teach ordinary people to recognise the one associated with their native language, but it should be possible. If websites such as Wikipedia adopted them, their use would spread quickly.

It would be really useful!

Multilingual Scotland

Languages in Scotland over the past two millennia.
Languages in Scotland over the past two millennia.
One of the things I like about Scotland is that it has never been a monocultural place — it has always been a melting pot.

Let’s look at the languages of Scotland as an example (I am a linguist after all!).

Today the main language of Scotland clearly is English (or rather Scottish Standard English) — everybody knows it, and it’s the main language of government, education, etc.

However, according to the latest census, 1.5m people (out of 5m) also speak Scots, a closely related language (the distance between Scots and English is a bit like Danish and Swedish). However, it hasn’t got much support in the education system and it’s often stigmatised. Both English and Scots are of course derived from the language of the Anglo-Saxons, who immigrated to Great Britain from what is now Denmark and Germany more than 1500 years ago.

The third of the extant languages is Gaelic, which has only got 50k speakers left. Many people seem to think that it’s Scotland’s original language, but this is only really true in the sense that it was the dominant language at the time of the unification of Scotland. Gaelic is also an immigrant language and has its roots in Ireland.

For centuries, another Scottish language was Norn, the descendant of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. It was spoken in large parts of Highlands and Islands for a while, but for the last few centuries of its existence it was confined to Orkney and Shetland. The last speaker died around 1850.

If we go further back, the language of large parts of southern Scotland was Cumbric (or Brittonic, Brythonic or Old Welsh), which was closely related to modern Welsh. Indeed, Welsh speakers still know legends set here in Scotland. It was described well on Wings over Scotland recently:

[Visiting Scotland by train] also takes us through the lands of “Yr Hen Ogledd” (the old north), the heartland of the old Brythonic language, the prototype of modern Welsh and the seven kingdoms which established themselves in the intervallum of several centuries after the Romans left these shores in 400 AD.

The old Brythonic names of these kingdoms such as Ystrad Clud (Strathclyde), Galwyddel, (Galloway), Aeron (Ayrshire) and Lleddeiniawn (Lothian), are instantly recognizable to a modern-day Welsh speaker, and being confronted with a cultural link which stretches back over well over 1,000 years cannot fail to touch one deeply.

Finally, the language of the northern two-thirds of Scotland used to be Pictish, which was probably related to Cumbric (although we don’t know for sure).

The historical records don’t allow us to go back any further, but Cumbric and probably Pictish were Celtic languages, and Celtic is a branch of the Indo-European language family, which means that these languages too must have been immigrant languages at some point (the Indo-European languages probably originated near the Black Sea). Alas, we don’t know which language(s) they replaced.

All we know is that Scotland has always been multilingual.

Dialects of Scots

Scots dialects
Dialects of Scots.
The fact that the 2011 Census provides figures for the number of Scots speakers in each council area makes it possible to estimate speaker numbers for each dialect (if we assume that people speak their local dialect, which of course won’t always be the case).

In some cases there’s a perfect overlap (e.g., between Orkney and Shetland and the Insular Scots dialect), but in many cases I’ve had to split a council area in half, so the numbers won’t be very precise.

Bearing those caveats in mind, the numbers I came up with are as follows: West Central 551,984; South East Central 277,836; Mid Northern 230,380; North East Central 221,027; South Northern 101,913; South West Central 75,501; Southern 34,873; North Northern 24,226; Insular 19,266.

It’s interesting that the Central dialects (roughly the ones spoken in the Central Belt) account for nearly three quarters of all Scots speakers.

1.5m Scots speakers

Scots speakers
Scots speakers in 2011. Data from the census, base map from Wikipedia.
Today saw the release of more results from Scotland’s 2011 census, in particular about languages.

The decline of Gaelic seems to have stopped — the number of speakers dropped very slightly, but it rose amongst young people, so that’s excellent news.

For the first time ever, the census asked also about Scots, the Germanic language spoken in Scotland.

More than 1.5m people declared that they were able to speak Scots, which is a lot for a language with hardly any official support.

At the moment there are no Scots-medium schools, no Scots TV channel, no Scots radio channels.

I’ve made a map showing where the speakers of Scots are located within Scotland. It’s interesting how the areas with very few Scots speakers are either Gaelic-speaking (Na h-Eileanan Siar) or posh (East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire). The map doesn’t take population densities into account, so the council area with the higher number of Scots speakers is actually Glasgow, in spite of its relatively pale colour.

Hopefully this census will be the starting point for the revival of the Scots language. It’s such a beautiful, rich and nuanced language that it would be a real shame if it ever died out.

A Man’s A Man For Aw That

When Rabbie Burns wrote his poetry, the radio hadn’t been invented yet, so it’s unlikely most folk had ever heard English spoken by an Englishman. Presumably everybody used Scots pronunciations for English words, blissfully unaware that they were pronunced differently south of the border.

Of course, many words are spelt in a way that makes the difference obvious, but I reckon the Bard’s poems would have been read by himself with many more Scots features than most people do today.

If he had written his poems today, I believe he would have used many more Scots spellings to prevent the readers from substituting English pronunciations.

To illustrate this, I’ve tried to respell one of his most famous songs, A Man’s A Man For A’ That, and I’ve also added the West Central Scots pronuncation in IPA:

  1. Is there for honest Poverty
    Is thare for honest povertie
    ɪz ðer fər ˈhonəst ˈpovərtɪ
    That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
    That hings his heid, and aw that;
    ðat hɪŋz hɪz hid ən ɑ ðat
    The coward slave — we pass him by,
    The couart sclave — we pass him by,
    ðə ˈkuərt sklev wi pas hɪm bae
    We dare be poor for a’ that!
    We daur be puir for aw that!
    wi dɑr bi per fər ɑ ðat
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
    For aw that, and aw that.
    fər ɑ ðat ən ɑ ðat
    Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
    Our tyles obscure and aw that,
    ur təilz əbˈskjur ən ɑ ðat
    The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
    The rank is but the guinie’s stamp,
    ðə raŋk ɪz bʌt ðə ˈɡinɪz stamp
    The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.
    The man’s the gowd for aw that.
    ðə manz ðə ɡʌud fər ɑ ðat
  2. What though on hamely fare we dine,
    Whit tho on hamelie fare we dine,
    ʍɪt ðo on ˈhemli fer wi dəin
    Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that;
    Weir hoddin gray, and aw that;
    wir hodən ɡre ən ɑ ðat
    Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
    Gie fuils thair silks, and knaves thair wine;
    gi fɪlz ðer sɪlks an nevz ðer wəin
    A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
    A man’s a man for aw that:
    ə manz ə man fər ɑ ðat
    For a’ that, and a’ that,
    For aw that, and aw that,
    fər ɑ ðat ən ɑ ðat
    Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
    Thair tinsel shaw, and aw that;
    ðer ˈtɪnsəl ʃɑ an ɑ ðat
    The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
    The honest man, tho e’er sae puir,
    ðə ˈhonəst man ðo er se per
    Is king o’ men for a’ that.
    Is king o men for aw that.
    ɪz kɪŋ o mɛn fər ɑ ðat
  3. Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
    Ye see yon birkie, cawed a lord,*
    ji si jon ˈbɪrkɪ kɑd ə lɔrd
    Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
    Wha struts, and stares, and aw that;
    ʍɑ strʌts ən sterz ən ɑ ðat
    Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
    Tho hunders wurships at his word,*
    ðo ˈhʌnərz ˈwʌrʃɪps at hɪz wʌrd
    He’s but a coof for a’ that:
    He’s but a cuif for aw that:
    hiz bʌt ə kɪf fər ɑ ðat
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    For aw that, and aw that,
    fər ɑ ðat ən ɑ ðat
    His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
    His ribband, star, and aw that:
    hɪz ˈrɪbən star ən ɑ ðat
    The man o’ independent mind
    The man o independent mynd
    ðə man o ɪndəˈpɛndənt məin
    He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
    He leuks and lauchs at aw that.
    hi lʌks ən lɑxs at ɑ ðat
  4. A prince can mak a belted knight,
    A prince can mak a beltit knicht,
    ə prɪns kan mak ə ˈbɛltɪt nɪçt
    A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
    A marques, deuk, and aw that;
    ə ˈmarkwɪs djuk ən ɑ ðat
    But an honest man’s abon his might,
    But an honest man’s abuin his micht,
    bʌt ə ˈhonəst manz əˈbɪn hɪz mɪxt
    Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
    Guid faith, he maunna faw that!
    gɪd feð hi ˈmɑne fɑ ðat
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    fər ɑ ðat ən ɑ ðat
    Their dignities an’ a’ that;
    Thair dignities and aw that;
    ðer ˈdɪɡnɪtɪz ən ɑ ðat
    The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
    The pith o sense, and pride o wirth,
    ðə pɪθ o sɛns ən prəid o wɪrθ
    Are higher rank than a’ that.
    Are heicher rank than aw that.
    ar ˈhiçər raŋk ðən ɑ ðat
  5. Then let us pray that come it may,
    Than lat us pray that come it mey,
    ðən lat ʌs pre ðat kʌm ɪt məi
    (As come it will for a’ that,)
    (As come it will for a’ that,)
    əz kʌm ɪt wɪl fər ɑ ðat
    That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
    That sense and wirth, ower aw the earth,**
    ðat sɛns ən wɪrθ ʌur ɑ ðə (j)ɪrθ
    Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
    Sall beir the grie, and aw that.
    sal bir ðə ɡri ən ɑ ðat
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
    fər ɑ ðat ən ɑ ðat
    It’s coming yet for a’ that,
    It’s comin yet for aw that,
    ɪts ˈkʌmən jɛt fər ɑ ðat
    That Man to Man, the world o’er,
    That man tae man, the warld ower,
    ðat man te man ðə ˈwarəld ʌur
    Shall brothers be for a’ that.
    Sall brithers be for aw that.
    sal ˈbrɪðərz bi fər ɑ ðat

I’m not entirely sure how deuk should be pronounced, so I have given the English pronunciation above.

* Update (5 July): I had originally changed lord and word to laird /lerd/ and wurd /wʌrd/, but several people in the Scots Language Centre’s Facebook group pointed out that Burns had probably intended these words to rhyme, even though they don’t rhyme either in Scots or English.

** Update (22 February): I had originally changed earth to yird /jɪrd/, but further feedback from the Facebook group mentioned above suggested an intended rhyme with wirth.