Prof. Graham Caie’s Talk

Is Scots A Language?

The Club received an intriguing, informative talk by Professor Caie on whether Scots is a language or a dialect.  Professor Caie returned to the question again and again as he explored a number of different facets of the history of Scots  .Professor Caie led us up and down fascinating and entertaining pathways examining the question.  It emerged that the first formal acknowledgement of Scots as a language was in the 2011 Census when people were asked to indicate if they spoke Scots.  Technically there is no ‘official’ written Scots.  Professor Caie could not pass by Stanley Baxter’s contribution to immortalizing the Glasgow patois in Parliamo Glasgow with classic words like Zatnoanaffyscunner?  (Is that not a terrible nuisance?)  He then addressed attitudes to the use of Scots.  He quoted from the Primary Education Report, 1946, which can briefly be summed up that Scots is vulgar and not suitable for education.  He quoted a widely prevailing view of the 1940s and 50s that ‘if you can’t speak English you’ll never succeed in the job market’.  This clearly had a resonance with members’ recollections.

In addressing the origins of Scots, Professor Caie, described it as ‘fossilised Middle Age English which would have been recognised by Chaucer.  Interestingly Scots is closely related to Old English (OE) that was used in Northumbria.  A significant factor in its Scottish usage was the impact of the Norman conquest which caused the English nobility to flee northwards.  This use of OE was also influenced by the marriage of Princess Margaret (with Wessex origins) to Malcolm Canmore as she spoke Old English.  Their son, David I, further consolidated the change by establishing Abbeys, Cathedrals, Burghs along Anglo Saxon lines and also granted lands to the Normans.  The decline of Scots in the latter half of the 16th Century was influenced by the advent of the printing press, the Union of the Crowns and the lack of a Scots Bible (a main source of Scottish education).  Later people like James Boswell and David Hume keen to have a wider audience reinforced the pattern.

In modern times Scottish attitudes are wide ranging from comfortable to the use of Scots to being regarded as indicative of social inferiority to gutter language.  Moreover, many still regard it as unsuitable for education.  On this note Professor Caie concluded with three questions for members: should we promote Scots in Schools?; should we use it in official documents?; and, should we see Scots as part of our heritage?

During the Q & A session Professor Caie proffered a final definition of Scots: ‘English in its underwear’.  A concise, amusingly inelegant and memorable description.  This was a good end to the professor’s talk which proved to be very engaging, enlightening and enjoyable session.

PS Scots a language or dialect? This proves to be a matter of socio-political interpretation; ie make up your own minds!!

Prof. Graham Caie’s Talk