Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Leaving aside Ulster Scots for the moment, is Scots a language?
The debate over Ulster Scots is often mired in controversy. Opinions vary on what it is; a language, a dialect, or someone speaking in a Ballymena accent. More times than not opinions are divided along political lines, with most support for Ulster Scots coming from Unionists and most opposition and derision coming from Nationalists.
Because of this a rational debate on the nature of Ulster Scots is almost impossible to have as it usually ends up as yet another chapter in the never-ending one-upmanship debate between the two communities in the North.
One way of taking the local politics out of debate on what exactly Ulster Scots is to look at its parent, Scots.
You may not realise it but you know a bit of Scots already – and have probably uttered a few words of it shortly after midnight on New Years Eve, when Auld Lang Syne is sung. The term Auld Lang Syne is known worldwide, but it's clearly not standard English. Even if it's 'translated' into English – Old Long Since, its meaning (roughly, 'a long time ago') still isn't clear.
When reading something written in Scots what at first looks like phonetic spelling of English turns out to have a long history. Scots has a literary tradition going back hundreds of years and can argue that its spelling is just as legitimate as that of standard English, which itself was only codified a few centuries ago.
There is no simple answer to whether Scots is a language, as its interaction with English means there is no clear dividing line between the two. If one takes the view that languages diverge along mutual intelligibility, then Scots is not a language from what I can tell. Have a listen to the examples on this website set up by the Scottish Government, I can understand all of the speakers, apart from one from Caithness, so overall Scots would fail the intelligibility test.
Indeed, while 85% of Scottish people say they can speak Scots, most of them do not believe it is a language, although whether this is a fact-based opinion or the result of centuries of being told it's 'bad English' is unknown.
Not all languages are divided on intelligibility, however. My brother who lives in Gothenburg informs me that the differences between Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are about the same as the differences between Ulster, Connacht and Munster Irish, while Slavic and Romance languages are mutually intelligible to varying degrees by all accounts.
Some 'languages' are purely political constructs with no basis in linguistics, such as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, which were all known as Serbo-Croat twenty years ago. (There should be some craic in the EU Parliament's translation booths if all four countries become part of the EU).
Others, such as Arabic, have dialects which are not mutually intelligible.
If Scotland had remained independent Scots would probably have resisted assimilation by standard English and be recognized today as a language. Having hitched their wagon to England's star, however, Scotland's native languages were always going to come under pressure from its much larger partner in the Union. While Scots and English may have developed independently from Anglo-Saxon, what is now known as Scots was in fact called Inglis (ie English) until the late Middle Ages. In more recent times their similarity has led to Scots being gobbled up by its southern cousin.
Scots was brought to Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries and later developed into Ulster Scots. If Scots' claim to be a language are not that strong, then Ulster Scots' is even less so. Despite numerous searches online I have never come across a recordings of Ulster Scots that would suggest it is anything other than a dialect of English.
Ulster Scots is certainly not just a Ballymena accent or a made up “DIY language for Orangemen.” It is a valuable part of Ireland's heritage and should be supported by the state in both parts of the island. It should not be used, however, merely as a means to stymie the progress of the Irish language. This has been attempted by the DUP's Nelson McCausland among others, whose argument as NI Minister for Culture was that Irish and Ulster Scots should be treated equally. However, if it's ok to treat Irish and English differently, there is no reason Irish and Ulster Scots can't be treated differently too.
The classification of Norwegian and Croatian (for example) as languages, is political, to boost those countries' claims to self-determination. The same thing may be happening with Scots.
In recent decades Scottish, Welsh and English identities have become more pronounced in the UK compared to the wider British identity. The rise of Ulster Scots may be the result of a desire to emphasise a regional identity in Northern Ireland which is not 'Irish'. This might explain the odd promotion of Scottish dancing, music, games and dress from the Gaelic-speaking Highlands as Ulster Scots culture, when the Ulster Scots people originated in Lowland Scotland.
It could also be that the Anglocentric forces suppressing Scots and Ulster Scots are simply getting weaker and that Scottish and Ulster Scots people have more confidence in their identity.
We should also remember that politicisation of languages is not a one way process used by marginalised groups to aid their cases for self-determination – languages are also politicised when they are suppressed by powerful groups who wish to deny subject peoples that same right, something seen in Tibet and Kurdistan at present.
Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Irish were all suppressed or discouraged for political reasons, to make is easier to argue that as the nations in the UK shared the same language, English, and the attendant culture that comes with it, they should be part of the same political unit. It is no coincidence that Scots started to go into decline the moment Scotland united with England.
We might all be better off, whichever language or dialect we speak or cherish, to leave the politics out of it altogether.