An opinion on linguistic rights for speakers of the Scots language
Dr Michael Dempster – 14th March 2013
Dr Michael Dempster, researcher in psychology and linguistics. “In our society a disproportionate number of people in socially disadvantaged groups speak Scots, widely and incorrectly known as ‘bad English.’ I believe the social and educational barriers faced by those of us who speak Scots as a first language need to be addressed within a linguistic rights framework. Does the panel have any views on linguistic rights for Scots speakers?”
Thank you for considering my question in your online discussion. Further thanks for the invitation to contact you with further comment on linguistic rights pertaining to the Scots Language.
I write to you as an individual. I am an early career researcher in auditory communication, a participant in Scots language communities and a first language Scots speaker. I could relate to you a vast number of personal or second hand anecdotal testimony of linguistic prejudice in education and the wider community, but I would like to focus on some of the research that has been done into Scots language that may be particularly relevant to linguistic rights.1 For further research and opinion I suggest contacting the organizations listed at the end of this document.
I also wish to state my opinion that although Scots and Gaelic linguistic rights may be addressed within the context of general linguistic rights, they are languages that are native to Scotland we have an additional moral obligation to protect and preserve the languages and the rights of those who speak them.
Below I present some information and cite references for:
- The status of Scots
- Who speaks Scots
- Where Scots is spoken
- Scots in education
- Scots in the media
- Attitudes towards Scots
Subsequently, I offer some interpretive opinion on why I believe speakers of Scots language need protection in a human rights context. I understand there is a limitation to time for submission of comment, so I present this in the knowledge that it is a rough overview of opinion and not a full research document.
1. The status of Scots
Scots is a West Germanic language spoken in Scotland. It is recognised as a language by the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the European Union. It is protected under The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages – part II, but not yet part III.2 Presumably it should also be protected by articles 2, 10, 19 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the Universal Declaration of Linguistic rights.
In the 2011 census a question on Scots was included. As the findings of this will be self reported usage of Scots, the attitudes towards Scots outlined below are expected to be reflected in the results.
Scots and Gaelic have also been included in two draft constitutions for Scotland, in one case as a rights issue.
“19. For all purposes, every person has the right to use any of Scotland’s three official languages, Gaelic, Scots or English.”3
“(112) English shall be the principal official language of the Kingdom. The use of Scots and Gaelic shall be recognised as co-official. Provision shall be made for promoting the use of Scots and Gaelic in Parliament and in public education, broadcasting and administration.”4
Who Speaks Scots?
In 1996 it was estimated that 1.5 million people in Scotland speak Scots.8 In 2010 research carried out on behalf of the Scottish Government 85% of those surveyed identified themselves as speaking Scots at some point, the data is shown in figure 1.
Figure 1 9
Where is Scots spoken?
When asked the degree to which Scots was spoken in their neighbourhood two thirds agreed that it was spoken “a lot”, however there was a significant difference across NRS social grade groups.
“In total, two thirds agree that Scots in spoken a lot in their area, with the remainder broadly split between those neither agreeing nor disagreeing, those disagreeing slightly and those disagreeing strongly. However, in line with the demographic profile of Scots speakers, there is also a significant difference amongst socio-economic sub-groups at this measure, with levels of agreement rising to 74% and 72% amongst DEs and C2s respectively, compared to 63% of C1s, and just 57% of ABs. The relative economic status of a local area thus appears to have a strong influence on whether or not Scots is widely heard.”10
Among those who identified themselves as speaking Scots a significant difference between public and private usage is clear (figure 2.)
Scots in Education
The study of English as an academic subject began with Adam Smith, primarily known for economics, at Glasgow University in the 18th century. At that time there was a prevalent view that Scots was, in the words of David Hume “a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue we make use of [i.e. English].”12 There was a “major and sustained attempt to establish what were viewed by a small social and educational elite as the norms for a ‘correct’ and ‘standard’ pronunciation of the English Language.”13 This perspective has persisted into the present day. In recent history there are many well documented accounts of corporal punishment being given to those who spoke Scots in the classroom.14
A recent project using the Scots language in schools reports the response of teachers:
“There was a genuine feeling of shock and concern when they very honestly recognised that they were not respecting Scots in the way that they did other home languages, and an acknowledgement that Scottish texts did not permeate the curriculum, as recommended in English 5 – 14. Many felt Scots was something they had been told not to use, and that they should only use “correct” English in school when working with the children. “15
This project prompted Dr Bill Wilson MSP to conduct a survey of local education authorities asking:
“Scots has all too often been denigrated and downgraded, and those who speak it made to feel inferior…I would like to know whether the subject of discrimination against Scots speakers and/or the benefits of introducing a Scots language element into the classroom are ever broached during your teachers’ in-service days? If not, would you consider it?”
He reports that there is a change in the attitude to Scots language, but that there is much still to be done:
“I want to denounce the poisonous racism inherent in the system by which generations of Scots have been taught to reject their own language. “Speak properly” has long meant for Scottish school-children “Speak English”. This is a monstrous piece of cultural oppression and something I am glad to report our Universities and schools are beginning to banish from their curricula.”16
To return to the public attitude study, there is support for the use of Scots in schools, however there is a significant minority opposed to it being used:
“when asked whether children in Scotland should be encouraged to speak Scots, just under two thirds (64%) agree, with around a third definitely in favour. There is, however, a relatively large minority against children being encouraged to speak Scots (31%).”17
Scots has a written form, however this is not systematically taught in schools. It should be noted from figure 1 that 68% of those surveyed never write in Scots, with only 2% claiming regular use.
In dealing with adult literacy and internalization of inadequacy Crowther demonstrates the tensions inherent in Scots speakers approaching English literacy and concludes:
“If vernacular literacies are unacknowledged or actively suppressed then coming to voice is particularly difficult; asserting the relevance and value of the literacies of the home and community helps to make clear the role of power in shaping our understanding of literacy.”18
There are currently no Scots language medium schools.
Scots in the media
In written media Scots has suffered a relatively recent decline in extended prose19 with Scots being identified as being used as a tool for negative characterization “see Unger 2004 for further discussion of how Scots can be used for characterization in fiction, e.g. representing Scots speakers as uneducated, tough etc”20 Although there is continued prose use in the sole Scots language journal, Lallans, and online communities, in particular see the Scots Language Centre’s website.
In broadcast media the cross party working group on the Scots language identifies the under-representation of spoken Scots, particular attention may be drawn to the BBC Scots language policy:
“While there is very limited evidence of demand for dedicated provision in Scots, the Scots tongue is to be heard across BBC Scotland’s output – for example, all BBC Scotland presenters are encouraged to use their natural speech patterns.”21
which seems to contradict the findings of the public attitudes survey:
“Interestingly though, when asked whether the use of Scots across these 5 different areas is enough, not enough or too much, the arena which achieved the highest level of support for more usage was broadcasting (at 29%), just ahead of culture, at 28%. The corresponding figures for civic/political, legal and business life were only slightly lower at around 20% for each. Most however are content with the current level of usage across all aspects rated.”22
It may also be noted that as Scots language policy is left to the presenters to decide, given education is in the medium of English, the dominant ideologies towards Scots may determine their personal approach to how they best use language.
Attitudes to Scots
There are three findings from the “public attitudes towards the Scots language” study that indicate that speakers of Scots face delegitimization and being negatively perceived when using their natural speech.
“The majority of adults in the sample (64%) agree that they do not think of Scots as a language, with around half of this group holding this view with conviction (34% of the total sample). However many of those who disagree (30%) do so strongly (16% in total) highlighting the absence of a real consensus on this issue.”23
“On the issue of whether Scots ” doesn’t sound nice – it’s slang“, just under two thirds (63%) disagree, with most who disagree doing so strongly (40% in total compared to 23% disagreeing slightly). However although many are not concerned with the way Scots sounds, a significant proportion do agree (26%), highlighting that some have negative perceptions of Scots as a language.”24
“At a general level the majority (67%) regard it is as important that Scots is used in Scotland these days, and indeed for a significant minority this view was expressed with conviction (29%). However although opinion is more likely to be positive than negative on the importance of using Scots these days, the percentage claiming it is not important is fairly substantial, at just under a third (31%). For the latter group the lack of importance appears to stem from the perception that it is not required /pointless and clearly some are simply not engaged with the language. Other concerns with understanding Scots, with it being old fashioned, inferior to English, and not being as universally used as English were also raised but only by small minorities in each instance.”25
There is a noted case where negative treatment by the courts of a witness was held in contempt for using Scots:
“An extreme example of this occurred in 1993 in Edinburgh when a young man was jailed for contempt of court for repeatedly saying ‘aye’ when asked by the sheriff to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This case highlights a visible way in which the dominant language serves to discriminate against the users of vernacular languages;”26
A picture that emerges from the studies shown above is that Scots is spoken by a large number of people in Scotland, but most people remain illiterate in Scots. Spoken Scots is linked to socio-economic status and it is available as an indicator of social standing. There is a strong minority who are opposed to it being used in schools, and its usage is significantly reduced in more formal settings. I don’t believe that it would be a great leap to interpret this as suggesting that Scots is deemed inappropriate for social interaction outwith family and friends. When combined with the substantial numbers who hold “negative perceptions” about Scots and the view that Scots is “not important” this suggests that there may be a social impediment to those who use Scots inappropriately.
As Scots is spoken at home and with friends this will continue to be the first language children acquire in up to 85% of households in Scotland. With there being no Scots language medium schools or nurseries in Scotland children’s first experience of interacting with the wider world will be, in the best case a lesson that their language is valued, but not appropriate; or in the worst case that it is wrong and bad.
I have been unable to find research on the number of people who are monolingual in Scots, those who are unable to speak the standard of English required by our education system. However, I do suspect that this may be reflected in Scotland’s literacy figures. From my own teaching experience I have found that making the distinction between Scots and English language helps learners with English literacy. This observation is also noted in the report by Itchy Coo.
By specifically recognising and protecting Scots speakers right to full expression in their own language, spoken and written, I believe we can encourage people to “come to voice” about a wide number of unspoken rights issues and work towards a more engaged Scotland.
Scots Language Groups
- Scots Language Centre
A K Bell Library
Phone (44) (0) 1738 440199
Fax (44) (0) 1738 477010
- Minister for Learning, Science & Scotland’s Languages
Dr Alasdair Allan MSP
The Scottish Parliament
Including the members of the ministerial working group on the Scots Language
- Cross-Party Group on the Scots Language
0131 348 5725
Crowther, J & Tett, L; Inferiorism in Scotland: the politics of literacy north of the border. 27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings, 1997, http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000222.htm
Corbett, J, McClure, J, D & Stuart-Smith, J, The Edinburgh Companion to Scots. Edinburgh, 2003
The Constitutional Commision, A Draft Constitution for Scotland. 2010
Donaldson, W, The language of the people: Scots prose from the Victorian revival. Aberdeen, 1989 The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages http://languagecharter.eokik.hu/docs/Translations/authentic_2c.pdf
Hume, D, Letters of David Hume. Oxford 1932
ItchyCoo, ‘CUDDY BRAE: LANGUAGE AT LETHAM, The Scots Language in a Scottish Primary School’. Glasgow University and Literature in Learning, 2007, http://scotseducation.co.uk/resources/Language%2Bat%2BLetham%2BPrimary%2BSchool.pdf
Jackson, R, and Niven, L, Language, Law and Liberty. 2000 http://tablet.scotslanguage.com/library/document/LanguageLawLiberty.pdf
Jones, C, A Language Suppressed:The Pronunciation of the Scots Language in the 18th Century. Edinburgh, 1995
Kay, B. Scots:The mither tongue. Mainstream Publishing, 2006
Macafee, C, Characteristics of non-standard grammar in Scotland. 1980,2011 http://homepages.abdn.ac.uk/c.macafee/pages/Scotsgrammar.pdf
Mate, I. Scots Language Research Report General Register Office for Scotland. 1996
McClure, J, D, Why Scots Matters. Saltire Society, 1997
Purves, D, A Scots Grammar: Scots Grammar and Usage. Saltire Society, 1997
Robinson, C, Modren Scots Grammar: Wirkin Wi Wirds. Luath Press, 2012
The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010 http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2010/01/06105123/0
The SNP, A Constitution for a Free Scotland. 2002 http://devolutionmatters.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/snp_2002_text-1.pdf
Unger, J, W, Scots in Contemporary Short Stories: Discourses and Characterisation. Lancacster University, 2004
Unger, J, Legitimating Inaction: Differing identity constructions of the Scots language. European Journal of Cultural Studies. 13, 1, p. 99-117. 19 p 2010 http://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/33285/2/JECS_Unger_Article_Final_2.pdf
Wilson, B & Swanepoel, E; A Survey of the Approach to the Scots Language by Local Education Authorities. The Scottish Parliament, 2007, http://scotseducation.co.uk/resources/Local%2BEducation%2BAuthorities%2Band%2BScots.pdf
1 Anecdotal discussion can be found, for example in: Kay, B. Scots:The mither tongue. Mainstream Publishing, 2006
3 The SNP, A Constitution for a Free Scotland. 2002
4 The Constitutional Commision, A Draft Constitution for Scotland. 2010
5 McClure, J, D, Why Scots Matters. Saltire Scociety, 1997
6 Purves, D, A Scots Grammar: Scots Grammar and Usage. Saltire Society, 1997; Robinson, C, Modren Scots Grammar: Wirkin Wi Wirds. Luath Press, 2012; Macafee, C, Characteristics of non-standard grammar in Scotland. 1980,2011
8 Mate, I. Scots Language Research Report General Register Office for Scotland. 1996
9 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
10 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
11 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
12 Hume, D, Letters of David Hume. Oxford 1932
13 Jones, C, A Language Suppressed:The Pronunciation of the Scots Language in the 18th Century. Edinburgh, 1995
14 Kay, B. Scots:The mither tongue. Mainstream Publishing, 2006
15ItchyCoo, ‘CUDDY BRAE: LANGUAGE AT LETHAM, The Scots Language in a Scottish Primary School’. Glasgow University and Literature in Learning, 2007
16 Wilson, B & Swanepoel, E; A Survey of the Approach to the Scots Language by Local Education Authorities. The Scottish Parliament, 2007
17 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
18 Crowther, J & Tett, L; Inferiorism in Scotland: the politics of literacy north of the border. 27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings, 1997
19 Donaldson, W, The language of the people: Scots prose from the Victorian revival. Aberdeen, 1989
20 Unger, J, Legitimating Inaction: Differing identity constructions of the Scots language. European Journal of Cultural Studies. 13, 1, p. 99-117. 19 p 2010
21 BBC, Public purposes: Recflecting UK audiences. Online, 2013
22 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
23 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
24 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
25 The Scottish Government, Public attitudes towards the Scots language. 2010
26 Crowther, J & Tett, L; Inferiorism in Scotland: the politics of literacy north of the border. 27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings, 1997