Tuesday, 6 October 2020

SNP and the Scots language

New development for the Scots language

Start point for this post was wading through quite a large-scale book on Scottish politics since 2007 (edited by Hassan and Barrow) and realising that there was nothing about language policy in its 607 pages. This was disappointing. I looked more closely and found that it was an evaluation of ten years of life under the SNP – a narrower theme. If the SNP has no language policy, then such a book is not going to talk about it. The agenda is set and there is an emerging, or yawning, space of things that just aren't on the agenda. I was recalling articles in the magazine Lallans, about 20 years ago, which drew attention to the lack of a question about the Scots language in the 2001 Census and suggested that there had been such a question but it was removed because admitting the existence of Scots would oblige the Edinburgh government to spend money on it. Later probes found that there was no interest in Scots among the SNP, officially, and that they didn't even have a policy on it. The website of the Scots Language Centre confirms my memories: “In 1994 the Aberdeen University Scots Leid Quorum was formed to campaign for a question about Scots language ability in the Scottish Census. By 1996 the General Register Office for Scotland had been persuaded to discuss including a question on Scots in the 2001 census. However, in 1997 the Scottish office rejected that. In 2000 MSPs debated a motion to include a question on Scots in the 2001 census. The motion was defeated. In 2001 a campaign group 'Forgotten Folk' was formed to campaign for a question on Scots in the census.” [Lallans = 'Lowlands', so Scots as distinct from Gaelic. leid=language]

The SNP was thus the only nationalist party in Europe which had no interest in encouraging or reviving the national language. If you look at the relationship “Scotland is dominated by England” and then “Scots in Scotland is dominated by English” then you might continue to say ”a Scottish nationalist movement would reverse the English domination both politically and linguistically”. The reasons why that logic was never applied are quite interesting. A bit of checking uncovered the fact that the SNP now has a policy about the Scots language. It was developed between 2010 and 2015 and is now enshrined in a policy paper. 2011 sounds a bit late, when the party had its first breakthrough in the 1960s, but the government they run is now funding a range of Scots institutions, including the Scots Language Society – which runs Lallans and was responsible for severe criticisms of official-nationalist approaches to the local language at around Devolution time. As the Scottish government website says, “The 2011 census included a question on the Scots language for the first time. 1.5 million people reported that they could speak Scots and 1.9 million reported that they could speak, read, write or understand Scots.”
I have downloaded the Scots version of the policy paper and am very happy to see it. It starts “We wad like tae encourage ye aw tae recognise the valuable heritage we hae in the Scots leid and tae continue tae promote its popularity and recognition across sindrie aspects o Scottish life.“ Actually that is the third sentence. I put it there to show that the translation from English has gone wrong towards the end of the sentence, so it is really staying in English. The first sentence is “We are fair blythe tae be eekin on a cuttie innins tae this Scots Language Policy. We, in the Scottish Government, are continuin tae tak important steps tae heize the profile o the Scots leid.“ This has some inorganic moments, where official English turns into a register of Scots that doesn’t currently exist (although maybe it did prior to 1603). The sound is a bit stiff but it is heartily welcome because this shows the old language being extended – the creaks are the sound of new growth in an old tree. “eekin on” translates “appending”, and “cuttie innins” translates “short introduction”. (The same verb is spelt eikit later in the document.) A lot of word-creation has to happen, and Irish Gaelic is an example of how this task can be undertaken and brought to fruition, so that what had been a peasant language, around 1900, was brought to a point where complex works of scholarship could be written in it, and understood by the intellectual community. I only got one hit for a search on “SNP + language policy”, but at least they are trying. (The SNP website does not show any language policy, but actually the Scottish government, run by SNP ministers, does have one.) The Westminster government recognised the existence of Scots in 2001. A bit late, you may think.
The prevalence of Lallans follows socio-economic class – it is concentrated in income groups D and E. Within Scotland it does not signal “Scottish” but “lower class”. This may explain why the SNP did not identify itself with it. If the early SNP spokespeople had gone on stage and delivered their ideas in broad Scots, they would not have been taken seriously (i.e. even less seriously than, in 1960 or 1965, they actually were). A lot of people who spoke Scots were strong Labour voters and a lot of early SNP voters were middle class and spoke English all the time. A version where the SNP would have sold itself through the Scots language and sent out its propaganda or policies in Scots is entertaining, but counter-factual. I am on a website looking at someone holding a banner which reads “Dinnae haed yer wheish. Haed yer ain”, a great slogan, but although it is anti-English you can instantly see it isn’t an SNP banner.
Any policy directed at 1.9 million people is going to cost a lot of money. Helping Gaelic is a different question – the number of speakers is so low that almost any policy is inexpensive.

It is only fair to the Hassan/Barrow book to mention that it has a strong interest in social empowerment, the enfranchisement of the poor and ill-educated– what in England is called “social exclusion”. This is a book about politics which takes an interest in people who do not vote. After all, the problem is not really what language people speak, but whether they feel that other people are going to listen to them, and whether they feel that public space belongs to them. The issues around Scots are not to do with what kind of “u” vowel occurs in a word, but with feelings of being wrong about abstract questions, of being someone who is not going to be listened to anyway, and of being laughed at. The acquisition of autonomy by the Scottish nation would seem to translate naturally into individual Scottish people, especially those of low status, reaching for autonomy and feeling that they no longer have to remain silent and listen to other people instructing them. One of their essayists talks about “fuzzy spaces”, which seems to mean spaces where social roles do not apply (or are unclear). The chapter is "Alternative Scotlands: New Spaces and Practices and Overcoming‘Unspace’". This is part of linguistics in a particular way, that anxiety and comfort affect people’s freedom to speak, and those qualities are somehow “scorched” or “imprinted” into shared spaces, and making those spaces “fuzzy” means that everyone feels OK about speaking up when contained in them. This seems like a pretty deep aspect of linguistics, actually. The idea that Scotland ceased to be “dominated space”, or “peripheral space”, in 1999, is romantic but close to being true.
Gerry Hassan has written about “unspace” which seems to be “blocked and impassible space” or even “space impassible to language”. Maybe, too, “the domain of experience that never gets written about”. Fuzzy space is a transformation of that social geometry.
Scottish writers may have overrated the language question, for reasons inherent in the point of view of a writer. Issues of status and credibility are wider than language alone.

Imagine a child whose home speaks broad Scots encountering the school system, which is invested in English. That child is going to have difficulty dealing with English, which is a foreign dialect. Their own speech patterns will be corrected and, unavoidably, stigmatised. When they write, they have to use English. The people in charge speak English. They are being set on the route to leaving school as soon as possible, with the smallest possible number of exam passes. If they reach higher educational levels, they will give up using Scots. This issue is too obvious to be overlooked, and as a result the Lallans movement has shifted towards primary schools (and social inclusion). The trauma is happening at primary level – dealing with 11 year olds is too late. It is their right as citizens to have a school which is positive about Lallans. So the language gets funding to produce material for primary school pupils, and to promote social inclusion. I have to point out that this means a lot of product which is not of great interest to me, as an adult. Strangely, the domain restriction which meant that the language lost great areas of vocabulary is being re-enacted by the stress on writing material which is suited for young children (who also have a restricted vocabulary, with few abstractions.) This was my trouble with the magazine Lallans, that the material they printed was too oral, too simple, not literary enough. Of course the strength of Scottish oral tradition is also important, and it is a larger part of Scottish heritage than the equivalent is in England. I am sure that having affluent, articulate, attractive people go into Scottish classrooms and speak broad Scots to the pupils is a terrific idea. The idea that Scots is not a failed attempt at English, but a language without a State, is something that should be shared with every child. Primary school pupils need material which is close to the oral style, and other material has to be newly written; after all, they are not going to read William Dunbar. If you change the life of 5 to 8 year olds, you will eventually produce a new country.
I don’t think poetry in Scots is in a very good state. The most interesting poets who were involved in it 30 years ago have given it up. I have an anthology of young Scottish poets (2014) which is 189 pages long and only has 2 poems in Scots. (with Scots traces in a third.) I don’t want to guilt-trip people for not belonging to income group D, this is just an objective count.

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