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Not a real language? You’ve Scot to be joking

Pro-Europeans on a march in Scotland - Credit: PA

PETER TRUDGILL on whether Scots should be considered a language or not.

My column of a few weeks ago, about how the Swiss are encouraged to learn their country’s various languages – and how something similar here might benefit the UK – annoyed reader Bill Cooper, who wrote to The New European to say so. His letter was published a couple of weeks ago.

He was annoyed because I implied that Scots is a language. The status of a linguistic variety as a language or dialect is often more of a political, cultural and historical than linguistic matter, so to an extent it is a matter of perception. If some people regard Scots as the same language as English, it is not for me to query their perception.

Scots and English are historically closely related and linguistically similar – just as Norwegian and Danish are related and similar – and both pairs of languages are mutually intelligible to a fair degree. 

I am still not sure, though, why what I wrote was annoying. Perhaps the answer is that Mr Cooper used the terms “Scots” and ”Scottish English” in his letter as if they are interchangeable. I would like to suggest that they are not.

Scottish English is something we hear a good deal of here in England, where I live – for example from Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, whenever she appears on UK-wide TV and radio. Like Indian English, Scottish English is the local form of an originally non-local language which has become institutionalised, and is spoken with a distinctive pronunciation and some distinctive words and grammatical structures.

Scots is a different matter. Scots and English represent divergent developments from ancestral Anglo-Saxon. In England we encounter Scots rather infrequently. Its pronunciation, grammatical structures, orthography, and vocabulary are significantly different from English – and so is its history.

From the 1400s onwards, Scots was the language of government in the Kingdom of Scotland. Acts of Parliament were written in Scots, and it was the norm at the Royal Court. It was also a medium for Scottish literature, including dramas, romances and poetry. As the Scots Leid Associe – the Scots Language Society – writes on its website: “Scots wis aince the state language o Scotland an is aye a grace til oor national leiterature.” 

The King of Scotland himself, James I (d.1437), wrote poetry in Scots: his The Kingis Quair, ‘The King’s Book’, was written about 20 years after the death of Geoffrey Chaucer. In Scotland, classical works were translated into Scots rather than Inglis: Gavin Douglas (d.1522) was a Scottish bishop, translator and makar, ‘bard’, who translated Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots. The internationally known and highly respected Rabbie Burns (d.1796) also wrote in Scots.

Today, the Scottish government publishes official documents in Scots as well as Gaelic and English. One document on its website begins “We are fair blythe tae be eekin on a cuttie innins tae this Scots Language Policy”. And newspapers – the National and the Press and Journal – publish weekly columns in Scots. The Scots language can be studied at the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Stirling, as well as the Open University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. UNESCO recognises Scots as a language, as does the European Union.

Many literary works, too, continue to be published in Scots. The literary form of the Scots language is often known as Lallans, and the Scots Leid Associe publishes a journal called Lallans which it introduces with: “For ane an twintie year Lallans, the magazine o the Scots Leid Associe, haes featurt the bestest current writin in Scots, baith in poetry an prose. Writers o aa kynds haes kythed atween its batters.” 

So whether Scots is a language or not can certainly be discussed, but I think my view is rather clear. And I am sure, too, that there are plenty of Scots speakers and writers who would not share the perception that Scots is “really English”. I am just as certain there are plenty of Danes who would be rather aggrieved to be told their language was really some kind of Norwegian. They might even, in fact, be rather annoyed.


Quair or quire originally meant ‘pamphlet’, from French cahier, ‘notebook’, from Latin quater, ‘four times’, referring to four sheets of paper folded in half to make eight leaves. In Scots it came to mean a book, especially a literary work. In English it now means a set of 24 sheets of paper.

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