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Scots Language
A brief history of the Scots language

Early History

Scots, like English, is descended from Old English: specifically from a northern form of it whose speakers had reached the area south of the Forth by the seventh century AD. By this time too, the Scots had come from Ireland with their Gaelic language, and they gradually began to extend their power till, by the eleventh century, the King of Scots ruled over most of what is now mainland Scotland, with Gaelic as the dominant language. However from the eleventh century, strong southern influences came to bear. In the succeeding years, and especially during the reign of David I, many Anglo-Norman noble families and monasteries moved up from north-east England. Although their own language was Norman-French, that of their retainers and followers was a form of northern English with strong Scandinavian influence (still noticeable in modern Scots in words such as brae, graith, lowp and nieve). This developing language, then known as Inglis, spread very rapidly, especially through trade in the newly-founded burghs, and soon reached most of the east and south-west of the country.

European Influences

Cultural contact led to the importation of new words into the language, from: Norse, as already noted; it had an even greater influence in Shetland, Orkney and part of Caithness, where a Norse language, known as Norn, was spoken up to the eighteenth century; Gaelic, of which there is more than is often thought in Scots, especially words to do with landscape, such as ben, glen and strath; Dutch, through strong trading links with the Low Countries, from which came loon, pinkie, golf and scone; Latin, more widely used than in England, especially for legal terms, such as homologate (ratify) and sederunt; and French. The last came not only from the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and from Parisian French arriving via English, but also from direct contact between Scotland and France in what became known as the Auld Alliance. This was a series of treaties and diplomatic alliances between 1295 and 1560. Examples of French words in Scots are fash, ashet, leal and aumrie.

Literary Flowering

Written records in Scots survive from the late fourteenth century onwards. One of the earliest literary works was Barbour's Brus, a narrative poem on King Robert the Bruce and his exploits in the wars against English invasions at the beginning of that cen tury. By the early sixteenth century, Scots, as it was now called, was well on the way to becoming an all-purpose national language, just as modern English was developing south of the border. (Gaelic was by now confined to western and northern areas and to the Western Isles.) Scots reached a fine literary flowering in the poetry of Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas, whose works were well-known in Europe.


Events, however, soon led to a process of anglicization which has continued to this day. From the Scottish Reformation in 1560, Scotland began to look to Protestant England rather than to Catholic France. In the absence of a Scots translation of the Bible, an English one, the Geneva Bible, was used in churches, creating a severe handicap to the formal, written use of Scots in many important areas of society. With the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603, the court of James VI moved to London, thus removing much of the focus of literary life. With the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, anglicizing influences were strengthened and English became the language of government and of polite society, though the vast majority of people continued to speak Scots. The eigtheenth century saw a development towards a standardized written form of English alongside the creation of deliberately 'polite' ways of speaking in both Scotland and England. Even with English as the accepted official written language, it took until the nineteenth century for its written forms to be truly standardized.

Dialects of Scots

The Scots language has a wide range of dialects. In Shetland and Orkney, there is strong Norse influence, as indicated above. Mainland Scotland has three main dialect divisions: Northern, Central and Southern. One feature of Northern, especially in the North-Eastern area, is the use of f- where other dialects have wh-, as in fa (who), fit (what). Central is further divided into East Central (north and south of the Forth), West Central (Glasgow and surrounding area) and South-West (mainly Dumfries and Galloway). Southern covers most of the Borders area. Scots is also spoken in Northern Ireland, the result of many crossings of the waters by populations over the centuries, in particular from the settlements of the early seventeenth century. Many of these Scots later moved on to North America, where they were known as the Scotch-Irish; their language has added significant Scots features to some North American dialects.

New Trends

Education has, until recently, followed a pattern of forced anglicization of both Scots and Gaelic, even beating children for using their own language in the playground. In spite of all this official opposition, spoken Scots has survived in a vigorous form, so that forecasts of its imminent disappearance, recorded since the mid-eigtheenth century, have so far proved unfounded. A strong literary tradition has ensured that it cannot be regarded as a mere dialect. Allan Ramsay and others in the early eighteenth century drew attention to the glories of early poetry in Scots, and its stature has been increased by poets such as Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid, and by novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Galt, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The strength of literary Scots has probably never been greater than it is today, with authors such as William McIlvanney, Liz Lochhead, Irvine Welsh and Janet Paisley, and at long last the spoken forms, too, are receiving their due in educational policies from primary schools to universities.

For the past twenty years or so, the Scots Language Society has endeavoured to further the cause of Scots, and the great success of W.L.Lorimer's New Testament in Scots in 1983, and of the SNDA's Concise Scots Dictionary in 1985, are good indications of more civilized attitudes. Later developments, especially in the educational field, continue this trend, and 1996 was an important year, with the publication of The Kist/ A' Ch́ste, an anthology and teachers' pack for Scots and Gaelic from the SCCC (Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum). The SNDA is doing all it can to encourage Scots and, especially by means of its dictionaries, to foster more positive attitudes towards the language.

© 2000, Scottish National Dictionary Association Limited
(a non-political independent charity)



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