“Movements are currently afoot, however, linked to the rise of Scottish nationalism, for the reassertion of Scottish English/Scots as a linguistic variety in its own right, and it’s possible that some form of Scots will achieve at least semi-autonomy at some future date” (Chambers and Trudgill 1980: 13-14).
At the time of writing, there is a growing possibility that the people of Scotland decide to secede from the United Kingdom in the independence referendum on 18 September 2014. There is already considerable coverage in the press regarding the possible implications of such a move, including speculation about the economic and political repercussions of such a development, and those relating to research and higher education. From a linguistic perspective, some commentators have ventured guesses about the future of languages such as BSL, Gaelic and Scots in an independent Scotland. In this post, I will try to add to the linguistic debate by linking back to the observations made by Chambers and Trudgill 34 years ago, and looking into the possible linguistic implications for the variety of English used in Scotland.
I begin by examining the definitions of language and dialect, and I argue that, although lay usage tends to think of these categories as being discrete, it is more helpful describe the linguistic landscapes such as the one of the British Isles as a dialect continuum. I then discuss what happens when a dialect continuum is intersected by a border, and use this as a prompt to speculate about what will happen to the English spoken in Scotland.
Languages and dialects
The simplest definition of a language might be ‘the type of verbal signs that are used for communication among members of the same country’. In this definition, Chinese is the language used by the people of China, Greek is the language used by Greeks and so on, therefore ‘Scots’ would be the language spoken in Scotland. This definition, however, does not take us very far: some languages are used in several countries (e.g., English, Arabic), and linguistic uniformity within a country is rare (even in states that like to think of themselves as culturally and nationally homogeneous, like Greece). Perhaps surprisingly, many languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, or Norwegian and Swedish, are more similar than varieties of the same language, such as Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, or Pontic Greek and Griko (the variety of Greek spoken in Southern Italy).
Chambers and Trudgill (1998: 4) make an interesting point:
…paradoxically enough, a ‘language’ is not a particularly linguistic notion at all. Linguistic features obviously come into it, but it is clear that we consider Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and German to be single languages for reasons that are as much political, geographical, historical, sociological and cultural as well as linguistic.
The implication is that Scottish English (or Standard Scottish English, to be technical) is ‘English’ not due to its ‘English’ words or grammar (although these are obviously important), but also because its users consider themselves as belonging to the community of English users. Similarly, it is defined as a distinct variety, not only because of differences in pronunciation or because its lexical inventory includes words that a Londoner might not use, but also because its users define their identity as Scottish.
In the post that follows, I will refer to Scottish English as a (geographical) dialect. To be perfectly clear, I am not using the term to designate some kind of aberration from ‘correct’ English, nor am I trying to invoke, by connotation, any image of rural, uneducated users. Rather, in this context, the term simply means ‘the variety of a language which is spoken by people in a specific region’. I will avoid the lay term ‘Scottish accent’, because it only indexes differences in pronunciation, whereas Scottish English is also typified by particularities in grammar and vocabulary.
In the previous section, I hinted that, from a linguistic perspective, ‘language’ is an unhelpful term. In its place, linguists often think of ‘linguistic continua’ or ‘geographical dialect continua’, which are made up of multiple varieties, including both dialects and languages. A linguistic continuum is a difficult concept to grasp, because we are accustomed to thinking in terms of national languages, so let’s approach it by means of a hypothetical example.
Suppose I decide to travel from Vienna to Anwerp; better yet, let’s assume that my great-great-great grandfather made this journey back at a time when nation states had not been quite consolidated. One day into the journey, he’d stop at a village where the kind of German the locals used would not be quite the same as the kind of German spoken in Vienna. It would still be German, no doubt, but maybe he’d come across a couple of unfamiliar words, or maybe the locals would pronounce a vowel in a slightly different, ‘funny’ way. A few days into the journey, he’d encounter more differences, and the locals would begin to remark, with increasing frequency, that ‘your’re not from our neck of the woods, are you?’ Eventually, he’d reach places where the local language variety would be so different that it would be very difficult indeed for a person from Vienna to understand it. It would be a different language (Dutch rather than Austrian German), but the point is that the differences would be incremental and cumulative. The language varieties he would have encountered in his journey would form a chain of sorts, where each ‘link’ would be mutually intelligible with the ones connecting to it (so we might think of them as dialects of the same language), but links not directly connected to each other would be too different to belong to the same language.
There are several major dialect continua in Europe, such as the West Romance continuum (South of the Alps and west of the Rhine), the West Germanic and Scandinavian continua, the North and South Slavic continua, and others. While these examples encompass multiple languages, continua also exist within languages as well. Figure 1 is a map of England showing the geographical distribution of different words that describe ‘any running water smaller than a river’. If you can imagine multiple maps such as the one below overlaid on each other, you can begin to conceptualise what a dialect continuum looks like.
Crossing national borders
From a linguistic perspective, the specification of where a language (or a dialect) starts and where it stops in a continuum is a fairly arbitrary decision, which more often than not is dictated by geography and politics. However, once borders are created that intersect a linguistic continuum, the users of the varieties that are spoken within the newly defined countries tend to converge towards ‘prestige’ varieties, usually the ones spoken in the capital (Figure 2). Sometimes, official bodies are set up to standardise the language, as is the case with the Académie française, which has been charged with defining ‘correct’ French (or eradicating diversity, depending on your perspective) since 1635. This process of standardisation is amplified by factors such as national curricula and national broadcasting, which spread the ‘official’ or ‘standard’ language to the provinces.
Although this is a complex process, what is important to remember is that it is the setting of borders that separates languages, rather than the other way around. The breakup of what was referred to as the Serbo-croatian language into Serbian and Croatian in the 1990s is a prime example of how processes of distinction and standardisation were set in motion by political events. Another example is provided by Noah Webster’s spelling reform of American English, in which spellings such as –our, and –ise, were deliberately changed to –or and –ize, partly as a way to underscore the break with British tradition. Could such historical precedents mean that Scottish independence might result in a linguistic breakup as well?
There are already some anecdotal signs that the independence debate has resulted in higher visibility of the features of Scottish English that would, in past times, be suppressed in political discourse. Alex Salmond, for instance, tends to use Scottish lexis and pronunciation for effect, and there’s no reason to think that such a trend will not be picked up by the keener supporters of an independent Scottish state. But could such a trend result in Standard Scottish English being used by a national (Scottish) broadcaster? School textbooks written in Scottish English? Public announcements and legislation deliberately using Scottish features?
What do you think? Is Scottish English going to diverge from the standard? What processes are likely to drive such change?