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Early Scots
Early Scots

Since there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing between a language and a dialect, scholars often disagree about the linguistic, historical, and social status of the Scots language. The British government today treats Scots as distinct language rather than an English dialect, much in the same way Norwegian is distinct from Danish, although the two languages are very closely linked. Up until the fifteenth century, Scots referred to the Gaelic language introduced from Ireland, while Inglis was the language of literature that developed into Modern Scots. This reversed during the High Middle Ages as Germanic speakers in Scotland began referring to their vernacular as Scottis, or Scots, and increasingly called the Gaelic language Erse (or Irish).

By the seventh century, Early Scots, a variety of Middle English also known as Inglis, had been established in southeastern Scotland as far as the River Forth. Although the language of the Royal court was Gaelic, Early Scots began to displace Latin as the language of legal discourse in the fourteenth century. During this same time, Early Scots also spread through the burghs as it became the language of literature. Some of the earliest examples of writing in the vernacular include John Barbour's epic 1370s poem, The Brus, and Andrew Wyntoun's Orygynal Cronykil of Scotland, a history of Scotland that covers the mythical period to the accession of King James I in 1406. The makars, or Royal bards of the fifteenth and sixteenth century such as Robert Hennryson and William Dunbar, also worked in the golden age of Middle Scots, elevating it to the language of prestige. As the quality and vivacity of Scots literature soared above that which was being produced in England, and most of Europe, in the fifteenth century, Scots secured its place as the dominant language in Lowlands Scotland. By this time it had also established orthographic and literary norms largely independent of those in England.

Early Scots differed little from other northern English dialects, and shared many similarities with those influenced by Old Norse and Anglo-Norman French. Trade and immigration from the Low Countries resulted in influences from Dutch and Middle Low German, while the Auld Alliance introduced French and legal Latin. Scots also borrowed many words from Gaelic, such as ceilidh, loch, and clan. This resulted in a pluricentric language, or a language with several different written and spoken standard forms. Modern Scots includes five dialects: Insular Scots, spoken in Orkney and Shetland; Northern Scots, popularly known as Doric; the Central Scots of the Central Lowlands; the Southern Scots of the Border region; and Ulster Scots, also known as Ullans. Regional varieties of certain dialects have also developed around areas such as Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Dumfries. In the early twentieth century, Jewish immigrants even developed and adopted a hybrid dialect known as Scots-Yiddish.

The Scots language changed, however, with the political situation. The Protestant Reformation drew the Lowlands closer to England both culturally and linguistically: John Knox's History of the Reformation, for example, was written in a language that was more English than Scots. Furthermore, no Bible was ever printed in Scots vernacular - the translations that circulated among the Scottish Protestants, the Geneva version and then the King James version, were both written in English. Scotland was further encouraged to adopt English customs after King James VI of Scotland became King James II of England in 163, joining the Crowns of the two countries for the first time. By the Elizabethan era, there was little printing being done in Scots, as such texts had been largely displaced with English ones. On the whole, the seventeenth century saw a steady encroachment of English custom and politics onto traditional Scottish culture.

Although the Scots language survived the linguistic blight of the seventeenth century and remerged in the eighteenth century literary revival, the Scottish Enlightenment originated in "a professedly non-Scottish mood." Despite the best efforts of poets like Allan Ramsay, David Wilkie, and Robert Burns, the titan of Scottish literature, to revitalize old Scots traditions, the boundaries of their world ended with Scotland. The world of the Enlightenment giants, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith, however, knew no such boundaries. If Ramsay hoped to re-establish a genuinely Scots culture "so that Scotland could again take its place with honor among the nations of Europe," and thus "become European by becoming genuinely Scottish again," the Scottish philosophers "wished to make the jump more directly" and abandoned Scottish vernacular and other Scottish peculiarities, which they viewed as limiting. 1 "Is it not strange," Hume wrote to Gilbert Elliot in 1757, "that, at a time when we have lost our Princes, our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the Presence of our chief Nobility, are unhappy, in our Accent & Pronunciation, speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue which we make use of; is it not strange, I say, that, in these circumstances, we shou'd really be the People most disitnguish'd for Literature in Europe?"

The Scots language, and the Scots literary tradition, enjoyed one last brilliant flare in the work of Robert Burns before disintegrating in the nineteenth century. The education system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries focused on English rather than Scots or Gaelic, and by the 1840s the Scottish Education Department had decided that Scots had no value as a language: "It is not the language of 'educated' people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture". Although students reverted to Scots outside the classroom, generations of schoolchildren grew up with the process of language attrition, whereby successive generations adopt more and more features from another language (in this case, English). Widespread access to English-language mass media and increased population mobility rapidly accelerated this process in the post-WWII era.

In Scotland today, most people speak a language that lays somewhere on a continuum ranging from traditional broad Scots to Scottish Standard English. Where on this continuum English-influenced Scots becomes Scots-influenced English is difficult to determine, and disputes often arise among linguists as to whether or not the varieties of Scots are dialects of Scottish English or are separate languages altogether. The British government, however, now accepts Scots as a regional language and has recognized it as such under the 2007 European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. No education takes place in Scots today, however, although English lessons may cover it superficially (usually by reading Scots literature and observing local dialect). One example of the educational establishment's approach to Scots is reflected in this middle school assignment: "Write a poem in Scots. (It is important not to be worried about spelling in this - write as you hear the sounds in your head.)". 2 Guidelines for English, on the other hand, require that teachers instruct pupils in "writing fluently and legibly with accurate spelling and punctuation". 3 Scots, moreover, is rarely used in formal occasions, and is usually reserved for niches where the use of local dialect is deemed acceptable, such as comedy routines or Burns Nights, or in modern literature. Irvine Welsh, for example, made use of the Edinburgh dialect of Scots in his best-selling 1993 novel Trainspotting.

Census-takers have had difficulty in determining the population of Scots-speakers because many respondents interpret the question, "Do you speak Scots?" differently. Before the 2001 Census, the General Register Office for Scotland concluded that too many Scots still thought of their speech as poor English rather than Scots for an accurate survey to be conducted via census. In 2007, the Scottish Government issued its official position on the status of Scots: "Notwithstanding the UK government's and the Scottish Executive's obligations under part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Scottish Executive recognises and respects Scots (in all its forms) as a distinct language, and does not consider the use of Scots to be an indication of poor competence in English." 4

Visit the following websites for more information about the Scots language:
The Scots Language Society
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Scots Language Centre
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Dictionary of the Scots Language
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  1. Daiches, David, Robert Burns, Rinehart & Co: New York, 1950.24
  2. Scots - Teaching approaches: Learning and Teaching Scotland Online Service
  3. National Guidelines 5-14: ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Learning and Teaching Scotland Online Service
  4. Council of Europe: Second Report submitted by the United Kingdom pursuant to article 25, paragraph 1 of the framework convention for the protection of national minorities. Received 22 February 2007
The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and
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