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Language and the Scots
"Much," said Doctor Johnson, "may be made of a Scotchman if he be caught young." This quote sums up, even today, the attitude of some English people—confident in their English, the language of parliament and much of the media—toward the Scots language. The Scots have long been made to feel uncomfortable about their mother tongue, and until the 1970s (and in some private schools, even today) they were encouraged to mimic the dialect of the Thames Valley ("standard English") in order to "get on" in life.
The Scots language (that is, Lowland Scots, not Gaelic) was a northern form of Middle English and in its day was the language used in the court and in literature. It borrowed from Scandinavian, Dutch, French, and Gaelic. After a series of historical blows—such as the decamping of the Scottish court to England after 1603 and the printing of the King James Bible in English but not in Scots—it declined as a literary or official language. It survives in various forms but is virtually an underground language, spoken among ordinary folk, especially in its heartland, in the northeast.
You may even find yourself exporting a few useful words, such as dreich (gloomy), glaikit (acting and looking foolish), or dinna fash (don't worry), all of which are much more expressive than their English equivalents.
Some Scottish words are used and understood across the entire country (and world), such as wee (small), aye (yes), lassie (girl), and bonny (pretty). Regional variations are evident even in the simplest of greetings. When you meet someone in the Borders, Whit fettle? (What state are you in?) or Hou ye lestin? (How are you lasting?) may throw you for a loop; elsewhere you could hear Hou's yer dous? (How are your pigeons?). If a group of Scots take a fancy to you at the pub, you may be asked to Come intil the body o the kirk, and if all goes well, your departure may be met with a jovial farewell, haste ye back (return soon).
Scottish Gaelic, an entirely different language, is still spoken across the Highlands and Hebrides. There's also a large Gaelic-speaking population in Glasgow as a result of the Celtic diaspora—islanders migrating to Glasgow in search of jobs in the 19th century. Speakers of Gaelic in Scotland were once persecuted, after the failure of the 18th-century Jacobite rebellions. Official persecution has now turned to guilt-tinged support, as the promoters of Gaelic now lobby for substantial public funds to underwrite television programming and language classes for new learners.
One of the joys of Scottish television is watching Gaelic news programs to see how the ancient language copes with such topics as nuclear energy, the Internet, and the latest band to hit the charts. A number of Gaelic words have been absorbed into English: banshee (a wailing female spirit), galore (plenty), slob (a slovenly person), and brat (a spoiled or unruly child).
To experience Gaelic language and culture in all its glory, you can attend the Royal National Mod—a competition-based festival with speeches, drama, and music, all in Gaelic—held in a different location every year.
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