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A History of the Scots Language

Billy Kay is the author of Scots The Mither Tongue and over the next few months, he will tell the story of the Scots language from its ancient origins to the present day.

Part 4: The Confusion of Union

It is true that the nations are unius labii, and have not the first curse of disunion, which was confusion of tongues, whereby one understood not the other. But yet, the dialect is differing, and it remaineth a mark of distinction. But for that, tempori permittendum, it is to be left to time. For considering that both languages do concur in the principal office and duty of a language, which is to make a man’s self understood, for the rest it is rather to be accounted (as was said) a diversity of dialect than of language: and as I said in my first writing it is like to bring forth the enriching of one language, by compounding and taking in the proper and significant words of either tongue, rather than a continuance of two languages.

Francis Bacon’s eloquent appraisal of the relationship between the languages of the two Kingdoms, written the year after James’s accession to the English throne is very much a vision of an ideal Union. There, not one people or their language is to predominate over the other, instead, their joint culture will be a creative fusion of the best both has to offer. It didnae happen! Instead, we begin to witness the attempt first by the upper classes in Scotland and much later by the middle classes to divest themselves of all trace of their native tongue. It was to take them a very long time and was certainly unsuccessul as far as speech was concerned until wealthy Scots began sending their sons to be educated at English public schools towards the end of the 18th century. In the early 17th century however the elite of the Scottish aristocracy were just beginning to recognise London as the centre of their orbit.

It probably came as a great shock to them that language they considered refined was regarded as comic by their peers at court and in high society. In a way, the English reaction was quite natural. Over two centuries later Lord Cockburn recalled how an English accent was so unusual at the Royal High School that the arrival of an English pupil sent everyone into paroxysms of laughter, whenever the unfortunate boy opened his mouth. The English lad was probably cut to the quick by their cruelty, and the Scots aristocrats in London probably felt much the same. However London was where the action was, and if to get a piece of it you had to swallow your pride and adapt to the manners of the Southern Metropolis, well…that would be home from now on. To mak the future siccar, monie a Scot on the make invested in an English wife…gin faither wes a bittie coorse, weel at least the bairns wad hae the bon ton!

The arrival of an English pupil sent everyone into paroxysms of laughter, whenever the unfortunate boy opened his mouth

Francis Bacon
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