If Scotland votes for independence, what happens to the language?

“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 BSLGaelic 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.

Linguistic continua

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.

2014-09-09 13.31.19
Figure 1. Words used to denote ‘any running water smaller than a river’, from Francis, W.N. (1983) Dialectology: An introduction. London: Longman (p. 21)

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.

Heteronomy in linguistic continua
Figure 2. Processes of standardisation in the West Romance continuum

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?

8 thoughts on “If Scotland votes for independence, what happens to the language?”

  1. How could Scottish English diverge from the standard? What is the standard, anyway – does it exist anymore?

    English is global and the Scots have their own ‘Scottish English’ that will remain both internationally recognised & culturally unique.

    Irish independence occurred in 1921 – no danger of going back to Gaelic – the only danger lies in the fact of our own Gaelic being almost dead and gone. As for our Irish-English, there’s hardly any divergency from standard British English except in some expressions and different accents.

    What about the London cockneys who have their own ‘dialect’ – what if they took over the BBC – what would happen to standard English then? That’s absurd, of course, but standardisation is in fact, artificial – as the man on the street knows very well.

    The ‘extreme’ divergency referred to above may have been possible in isolated places over 100 years ago, but the world is no longer isolated with the internet and our global village.

    Is standard Scottish English really so different from standard English?

    Finally, why shouldn’t Scotland embrace it’s own uniqueness, culture and lexis?

    Not a lot to ask for.

    In terms of how the original Gaelic speakers lost their mother tongues in the first place (Scotland, Ireland, Wales) – it might be more useful to refer to it as a linguistic discontinuum – in my lay opinion;)

  2. Thanks for adding your thoughts! I think there is much in your post on which we agree: As you point out, defining a ‘standard’ is really not straightforward; the loss of Gaelic is deplorable, and I would certainly hope that language policies that help preserve and revive the language are put in place, whatever the international status of Scotland after the referendum; and I certainly agree that Scotland should embrace whatever makes it culturally unique.

    I am less sure about your view that the processes of language change I talked about are no longer relevant. An obvious recent example would be Indian English, and in addition to that, there is some, growing, empirical evidence that distinct varieties of English are developing in many post-colonial settings, such as Nigeria (Adamo 2007), Sri Lanka (Meyler 2009) and Hong Kong (Poon 2006), to name but a few. These processes are not always easy to notice, partly because they are too slow, and partly because Standard English (whatever that might mean) tends to be the norm among the ‘educated’, who are more visible to research. It may be a while before we can tell what is going on with greater confidence, but for the time being I will stand by my hypothesis that nation formation, the strengthening of national identity and language divergence are linked.

    Ireland is a very interesting counter-example, as you point out, and I am afraid I am not familiar enough with this case to speculate why things worked out differently. It may be that the Irish government invested in reviving Irish Gaelic, rather than standardising the local varieties of English. Or maybe the economies and societies of the two countries were too integrated for divergence to occur. Or perhaps there is some other factor at play. I simply don’t know, but if anyone knows of a plausible explanation I would be very happy to be educated.

    Anyway, my original post was not intended as an admonishment about the emergence of a faultline in English, or the standardisation of a new variety. The sentiment that I wanted to convey was one of curiosity and excitement (‘I wonder what happens next?’), and these feelings remain undiminished.

  3. Thanks for your enlightening response, Achilles:)

    Yes, it is exciting, and I feel it the excitement particularly due to my own background.

    Obviously you have specialised in these linguistic matters professionally and academically and I’m answering as a ‘lay person’. The only thing I could offer was my personal experience and cultural background, but that, too, is valuable, from a historical, psychological and sociological perspective.

    What I do know is that the decline of our language began well before the 1800s, and continued at an accelerated pace beyond famine times in the mid-1800s when our population was depleted from 8 million to 3 million. When famine hit the country it was already in the possession of English ‘landowners’ – (through hundreds of years of conquest and colonisation) – meaning that English settlers took possession of Irish land. Obviously the Irish were in a very weak state and after being dispossessed of their land, they were put to work for the English in the Big houses and in the fields. There was no way you could work for the English if you didn’t learn the language and all Irish schools were shut down. Teaching Irish was illegal until 1871.

    Learning English was actually a life and death survival situation for those who wanted to eat or keep a hovel over their heads, and the prohibition of teaching Irish very effectively ensured new generations who spoke English in the ‘real world’ – even if they secretly spoke Irish at home or at the famously illegal ‘hedge schools’.

    Looking back on it like that you could say that the killing of Irish in schools was a terribly effective ethnic cleansing machine.

    When we achieved independence in 1921 (semi-independence in what is now the republic) the governments set up very strong educational programmes to keep the Irish language alive – but although we learnt Irish in schools, English had already become the ‘new’ mother tongue in most parts of Ireland, except in certain areas of the country.

    I think that Hiberno-English was too influenced by the British ever to go back – and we ourselves perpetuated it through an excellent educational system – teaching English very well, despite trying to preserve Irish;)

    We also have influences from the great Anglo-Irish writers – Yeats, Joyce, Wilde – our legal systems and much of our infrastructure was modelled on British systems when building the fledgling state of Eire –

    So, I think you were right about this:

    “Or maybe the economies and societies of the two countries were too integrated for divergence to occur.”

    We also had mass emigration continuously from famine times until today – most Irish going to live in Britain.

    Despite our history we are still very much attached to influences from across the water – call it the ‘stockholm effect;’)

    Ironically, it was probably literature and our love of the Anglo-Irish writers that saved Anglo-Irish relations in the long-term.

    Our poets became champions of the cause.

    If I come across anything more academic than my historical and cultural perspectives, I’ll let you know:)

    Thank you for giving me the extra examples – it’s always great to be challenged with some astonishing cognitive dissonance!!

    1. This was absolutely fascinating to read! I was particularly intrigued by the schools’ language policy. Sadly, it seems very similar to practices in many countries where English displaces local languages in education. Well, to be fair, it’s not something confined to English – if I wanted to risk professional suicide, I’d write that this is how (Standard) Greek spread across the diverse post-Ottoman linguistic ecosystem, “by the teacher’s rod and the gendarmes’ whistles” (to quote a memorable phrase by, erm, me :) ) I was also fascinated to read about the ‘hedge schools’ – this was entirely new to me…Many thanks for sharing!

  4. My comments may have been professional suicide too, but as my English friends and colleagues are all poets at heart, I know I’ll be forgiven;)

    If you want to learn more about all of this, I can collect some academic resources – in fact, many are free online from /Trinity College Dublin etc. – this was my past education ,which I’ve left behind me, but certainly information is at our fingertips these days:))

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