(Ulster) Scots – the case for language status

I will let you into two secrets about me and Ulster Scots. One is I do not care whether it is viewed as a language or a dialect. The other is that no one seriously argues Ulster Scots is a language – but rather that it is a variant of Scots, which arguably does have or at least could have language status.

I will add one more thing at this juncture: most people who venture into this “debate” (usually to dismiss any notion of language status but occasionally also to demand it unconditionally specifically for Ulster Scots) have not in fact given the issue any proper consideration at all. Almost everything written on the subject is linguistically inaccurate – either borne of linguistic ignorance or political partisanship.

So, let us start again at the beginning. English is a language. When we refer to “English”, in fact we instinctively mean the standard variant based initially on the speech of the Oxford-Cambridge area around 500 years ago, and updated and modified (with a major variant modification in the United States, giving us very similar but separate “British” and “American” standards). For major national Western languages the story is the same – French is Parisian; Spanish Salamancan; Italian Florentine; Portuguese Coimbran and so on.

In the English-speaking world (and broadly also the French), anything which varies from the standard for perfectly legitimate historical reasons to provide a regional variation – for example Geordie with its differential vocabulary (lass ‘girl’), grammar (divvunt ‘don’t’) and pronunciation (brown, all, right) – is referred to as a ‘dialect’ and generally but erroneously regarded as a failed attempt at the Standard and thus inferior. Linguistically, this notion is outrageous – the Standard is merely another dialect, and they are all equal, possessing their own vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. Let us re-emphasise this point: Geordie English has its own grammar. If it hadn’t, Geordies themselves would not understand it, yet they do.

In other European countries, this fundamental linguistic point is better understood. Where an English politician was recently mocked for her regional accent, an inability to use the regional dialect fluently is regarded as a political disadvantage in many parts of Germany. There, it is well understood that there is a place for the Standard and a place for the regional dialect.

Ultimately, I summarised all of these points here, with reference to Italy, a few weeks ago.

English itself arrived on the east coast of Britain from Angeln is what is now northern Germany around 1500 years ago. It would have been mutually intelligible with what is now German for a further three centuries or so, by which time it had become too divergent to be understood without learning. The fundamental differentiation then occurred after 1066, with the major disruption of the influence of (mainly Norman) French. Notably, however, even this differentiation affected England differently from the nascent Kingdom of Scotland, which while moving toward adopting this French-influenced Germanic language as its own language of general administration (as opposed to Latin, Gaelic or anything else) thus ended up adopting a different version, based on Northumbrian rather than Mercian. (This is a simplification but it makes the broad point.)

Thus, particularly after Bannockburn, Scotland adopted a different version of “Anglian” as its state language and this was recognised in much the same way that Danish is different from Swedish and Dutch is different from German now – the two languages were notably similar but still distinct, and it took effort to learn the other well.

Of course, there is the old maxim that a “language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Queen Elizabeth I of England (and most definitely not Scotland) listed “Scottis” as one of the languages she spoke – thus separate from English. Yet her successor, King James of both England and Scotland, referred to the similarities between the kingdoms including a “common language”. This is a classic case of politics, not linguistics, determining what is a language and what is not.

At exactly this time, there was a major movement of people from both Scotland and England to Ireland – often from specifically one or other to particular locations . The former spoke what Queen Elizabeth had described as “Scottis”, to the extent the English authorities in Dublin required translators for some northern correspondence. Thus it is beyond dispute that Scots was regarded as a separate language and that it arrived in Ulster – in other words, that a variant of Anglian (but not specifically English) existed and thus in some form, albeit heavily influenced by English, continues to exist.

Whether the version which continues to exist as spoken in daily life retains significant enough separation from English to be described sensibly as a “separate language” is debatable. What is clear is that Ulster Scots did constitute a separate linguistic system, and that there are traces of this in all our speech today. That is interesting, and worthy of respect, regardless of what status we choose to give it.



4 thoughts on “(Ulster) Scots – the case for language status

  1. Eoin Ó Murchú says:

    Very well stated. The Ulster aspect of Scots was not the only variant of English spoken in Ireland. Leaving aside Hiberno-English (a halfway house between Gaelic and English) Yola was spoken in Southeast Wexford – a dialect closely related to Somerset English. This is all part of the rich cultural and linguistic tapestry of our country and should all be treasured. Irish gaelic is, of course, a completely different language from any variant of English and is particularly important not just for its historical cultural value but as a language that is deeply rooted in most of the country’s placenames. Worth recalling though that some of those who came from Scotland to settle in Ireland in the 16th and 17th century spoke Scottish Gaelic (Galloway dialect). That’s why the Presbyterian church at that time insisted that ministers should be able to preach in Gaelic.

  2. Other paul says:

    Hang on, you’re after saying at the start that you don’t care whether it’s a language or a dialect then spend the entire blog debating it?

    I’d like to see and learn more about it and a ween a cash for USc too but articles like these probably do more harm than good.

  3. Martin Campbell says:

    A well written and well researched article, the basic tenets of which it would be hard to argue. However, I think you are missing something: I have yet to hear the Ulster / Scots “language” spoken in an everyday context. I have met many times, Willie Drennan and many of his fellow musicians, and found they speak exactly the same as me, born an
    d bred Belfast ( of Scottish extraction 1861). Ulster/ Scots has become a highly politicised / contentious issue essentially to counter them-uns with “their Irish”. Throwing large amounts of money promoting it just to appease a small number of people is ridiculous.

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