Scots language – does allowing people to make mistakes work?

in response to this piece last week, one Scot responded arguing that Scots could not survive unless people were allowed to make mistakes.

Up to a point, that is true of anything, of course, and particularly of language learning. I have argued for a long time that making mistakes and learning from them is central to the art.

There is a problem here, however. It is essentially this: if I am learning a language, I do not go writing newspaper articles in it until I attain a reasonable degree of fluency.

I would argue this is even worse when the language in question is endangered. Far from people using them wrongly for symbolic reasons, what minority languages need is people taking the time to learn them properly and then using them well. This situation is magnified when the minority language is in any case similar to the majority language (Scots to English, Catalan to Spanish, etc).

No language can survive if, ultimately, it is constantly used with reference to another language (e.g. Scots with reference to English). That applies whether the problem is that there is too much interference from the other language (as is often the case with Scots in Scotland), or if the problem is that the language is artificially distanced (with, for example, deliberately inaccessible spellings and bizarre neologisms, as is often the case with Ulster Scots).

So, yes, people who care about minority languages should use them. But they should use them with the ultimately objective of learning them thoroughly, and they should be aware there are certain levels of proficiency required before they try using it in certain contexts. It is also inappropriate to use it for the sake of political symbolism when it is not being used well – that just invites ridicule, as last week’s blog post demonstrated. To be absolutely clear, if you just write English with a few made-up spellings and pass it off as Scots, you will end up with everyone speaking English and not Scots.


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