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Jouk, gulravae, stech, fushionless, ill-setten, nieve, orrals, pley, incomin, havers, clamihewit, murlin, upbring, hant, pleesure, bravity, fantoush...

Come again, pal?

BBC Scotland's comedy sketch show, Chewin' the Fat, features a couple of camp middle-class Glaswegians with a passion for the city's vernacular. Their fondness for Scots speech is shared by most people in Scotland. Even the most primly anglophonic Scots enjoy a chorus of 'Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus' from time to time. But despite such linguistic pride, few of us over the age of 10 profess to speak 'Scottish' rather than English.

The 'Scots language' is one of three languages recognised by the Scottish parliament (the others being English and Gaelic); it is also protected by the European Union and its use is encouraged by the education board. It says a lot about Scotland's peculiar semi-national identity that Scottish banter should be afforded the status of a separate language - a status made possible by a deliberate confusion of contemporary Scottish ways of speaking with the old Scots dialect.

Proper Scots can be traced back to the fourteenth century, when the people of lowland Scotland spoke a version of Northumbrian English made distinctive by Scandinavian, Gaelic and other influences. When King James' authorised version of the Bible was published in 1611, helping to establish a standard written English, Scots and other regional dialects began slowly to decline. As this was a mutual evolution rather than a colonial imposition, the Scots tongue remained distinctive for some time. The poetry of Robert (sorry, Rabbie) Burns is recognised today as Scots, though it is milder than the Scots of old. Writers like James Hogg and Sir Walter Scott used Scots only in reported speech, preferring standard English for their prose. A similar approach is favoured by most Scots today: if we see the vernacular in print, we have to read it out loud to make sense of it.

The everyday speech of the average Scot is distinctively Scottish, and genuine Scots words are used both unwittingly and self-consciously (a few key expressions, like the emblematic 'It wisnae me', are employed with particular glee). But technically, most modern Scots speak standard English marked out only by destoarted vools and a few odd features such as cannae and didnae for can't and didn't. This is no less 'English' than the diabolical speech of the English midlands. What's more, everyday speech is by no means uniform within Scotland itself. Glaswegian children visiting Edinburgh soon want to know who Ken is and why everybody keeps going on about him. The myth of a single national vernacular was shattered by Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting - an expression like 'ye doss cunt' just does not sound right in a nice drama school accent, however Scottish that accent may be.

The claim to speak a distinctive language is even more absurd in Northern Ireland, where Unionist politicians are demanding the recognition of Ulster Scots. Street signs in this archaic language in Castlereagh were torn down last October by loyalists who thought they were in Irish. As far as these Ulster Scots were concerned, the signs might as well have been in Ulster Greek. The problems of interfering with language were recognised by Scottish government minister Sam Galbraith: 'Language evolves in a way which governments cannot and should not try to alter.' He is right about cannot, if disingenuous about should not. Anybody who really wants to promote a language would do well to forget government funding and simply write something worth reading.

What knowledge I have of German can be largely credited to Heinrich Heine and Richard Wagner. It may be of little use unless I want to declare my undying love for somebody. But love of a language has to be about more than words and phrases: if it is to live forever it has to mean something.

'As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I,
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.'

Dolan Cummings

Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000



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