Scots orthography, and spellings in developing languages

Ulster Scots: A Short Reference Grammar - cover

Ulster Scots: A Short Reference Grammar is available now

I was pleased to see a constructive debate break out around my recently published grammar – available in the UK via Amazon, in most of the Eurozone also via Amazon, and in the United States via Createspace; or simply leave a comment.

However, despite my pleas within the book for it to be otherwise, the discussion was around orthography, and specifically around spelling. I do honestly think this debate usually takes the form of a desperate quest for answers before anyone has posed the right question!

Firstly, what would you be writing Scots (or specifically Ulster Scots) for? If it is to be a creative means of expression, there is no reason spelling should not also be relatively creative; if it is to express a large degree of localism, there is no reason each geographical dialect should not have its own forms; to some extent, Swiss German a highly successful minority language in terms of post-war development – offers at least a partial model. If, on the other hand, it is to be a fully fledged standard language, spelling requires a system taking account of etymology (so that differing pronunciations in differing dialects can nevertheless be written the same way based on historical use, consider English “name” or “right”) and grammar (so that grammatical patterns are maintained in writing for ease of access, consider English “say” and “says”).

Secondly, what is the specific status of the written form? If it is a version of English, by all means use English spelling norms to reflect it (in the same way you might use “nyem” for “name” or “reet” for “right” when trying to demonstrate Geordie). If, on the other hand, it is separate from English, then there is a case for ignoring all English spelling norms and using new ones (provided they are consistent and accessible to learners and native users alike). Very often you may find you use the same spelling as English to reflect an apparently different sound. Thus to write the Ulster Scots for the coldest season of the year, you would write “wunther” if you were using the English spelling system (thus identifying it as a variant of English), but probably in fact “winter” if you were declaring it a separate language (because an Ulster-Scots speaker will know to pronounce that with a lower vowel and a dental sound anyway; in exactly the same way German also has “Winter”, pronounced differently).

Thirdly, are you developing an entirely new written form (this is often the case for Bantu or Native American languages, for example), or have you a literary tradition upon which to base one? If you have a literary tradition, do you wish to link to it or not? In the case of Scots, including Ulster Scots, it would seem to me foolish to throw away the ace in the pack that is the poetry of Burns; but others may not care about that, and may feel that modern accessibility is more important and that Burns is expendable.

Fourthly, having gone through all those choices, have you a system? You cannot write “deed” for “dead” but “heid” for “head” unless you can justify it on some systematic grounds, because it means no one can learn the system. You may, as in English, assign a slightly different system to words borrowed from a different source (as English does to some extent with words borrowed from Norman French versus those from Anglo-Saxon), but again there has to be a clear justification for and clarity about doing this. It is wise to remain within the bounds of norms applied to most European languages – for example, as a rule <c> followed by a high vowel (typically written <e>, <i> or <y> in English) is soft (in English like /s/, though different languages do it slightly different ways) but followed by other vowels it is hard (like /k/).

It is reasonable to make choices along these bounds, but also easy to spot documents with spellings which lack a system and show no evidence of having made these choices in any consistent way.

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5 thoughts on “Scots orthography, and spellings in developing languages

  1. Insightful analysis.

  2. Alan Edgey says:

    You’re right about the ace in the pack of Burns, his immediate predecessors, contempories and many who followed. Many of their spelling conventions were inherited from Older Scots an therefore not phonetic adaptations of Standard English but independent Scots conventions. An interesting discussion of those can be found here.

    • Thanks Alan – although I disagree on some of the minute details, I take the likes of Andy Eagle and John Tait to be highly consistent, logical and authoritative on such points.

      Great link.

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