Nosowitz on Scots.

Dan Nosowitz of Atlas Obscura has been frequently featured at LH, and so has the Scots language, but now I have a chance to offer you Nosowitz’s How the English Failed to Stamp Out the Scots Language, a nice little introduction to the subject:

Scots arrived in what is now Scotland sometime around the sixth century. Before then, Scotland wasn’t called Scotland, and wasn’t unified in any real way, least of all linguistically. It was less a kingdom than an area encompassing several different kingdoms, each of which would have thought itself sovereign—the Picts, the Gaels, the Britons, even some Norsemen. In the northern reaches, including the island chains of the Orkneys and the Shetlands, a version of Norwegian was spoken. In the west, it was a Gaelic language, related to Irish Gaelic. In the southwest, the people spoke a Brythonic language, in the same family as Welsh. The northeasterners spoke Pictish, which is one of the great mysterious extinct languages of Europe; nobody really knows anything about what it was.

The Anglian people, who were Germanic, started moving northward through England from the end of the Roman Empire’s influence in England in the fourth century. By the sixth, they started moving up through the northern reaches of England and into the southern parts of Scotland. Scotland and England always had a pretty firm border, with some forbidding hills and land separating the two parts of the island. But the Anglians came through, and as they had in England, began to spread a version of their own Germanic language throughout southern Scotland.

There was no differentiation between the language spoken in Scotland and England at the time; the Scots called their language “Inglis” for almost a thousand years. But the first major break between what is now Scots and what is now English came with the Norman Conquest in the mid-11th century, when the Norman French invaded England. […] Norman French began to change English in England, altering spellings and pronunciations and tenses. But the Normans never bothered to cross the border and formally invade Scotland, so Scots never incorporated all that Norman stuff. […]

Over the next few centuries, Scots, which was the language of the southern Scottish people, began to creep north while Scottish Gaelic, the language of the north, retreated. By about 1500, Scots was the lingua franca of Scotland. The king spoke Scots. Records were kept in Scots. Some other languages remained, but Scots was by far the most important. […]

At this point it’s probably worth talking about what Scots is, and not just how it got here. Scots is a Germanic language, closely related to English but not really mutually comprehensible. There are several mutually comprehensible dialects of Scots, the same way there are mutually comprehensible dialects of English. Sometimes people will identify as speaking one of those Scots dialects—Doric, Ulster, Shetlandic. Listening to Scots spoken, as a native English speaker, you almost feel like you can get it for a sentence or two, and then you’ll have no idea what’s being said for another few sentences, and then you’ll sort of understand part of it again. Written, it’s a bit easier, as the sentence structure is broadly similar and much of the vocabulary is shared, if usually altered in spelling. The two languages are about as similar as Spanish and Portuguese, or Norwegian and Danish.

There’s a lot more at the link, including a discussion of how Scots got (perhaps inadvertently) suppressed (“The English didn’t police the way the Scottish people spoke; they simply allowed English to be seen as the language of prestige, and offered to help anyone who wanted to better themselves learn how to speak this prestigious, superior language”). Thanks, jack!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Pictish, which is one of the great mysterious extinct languages of Europe; nobody really knows anything about what it was.

    I think it’s commonly accepted nowadays that it was Celtic, in fact.

    More generally, this

    gives a better idea of the situation re Scots and English and how the current state of affairs came about than the Nosowitz article, I think.

  2. Agree with DE on Pictish.

    A minor point, but in terms of chronology, Pictish would have still been spoken in the Orkneys in the 6th century. That is, the Orkneys were subject to the high king of the Northern Picts at that time.

  3. Huzzah for Pan-Turanism! (I can’t be arsed to figure out which thread JC’s comment ought to have gone into.)

  4. (Moved JC’s comment to the proper thread, but left JWB’s for gonzo/dada value.)

  5. Wiki says that

    Old English was divided into four dialects: the Anglian dialects (Mercian and Northumbrian) and the Saxon dialects, Kentish and West Saxon…. Modern English developed mainly from Mercian, but the Scots language developed from Northumbrian.

    OK, so Scots is actually English, but English is English too.

    Obvious, but true.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    By that argument, Scottish Gaelic is Irish, as is Manx, while all the Scandinavian languages are only dialects of Norse. ‘Old English’ is a name given by people whose interest was in the history of modern English, not a scientific description, or even a self-identification.

    (To take another accident of naming, the Saxons who are now are the core of Old English presumably wouldn’t have thought of themselves as speaking ‘English’ (i.e. Anglian) at the time, while the Angles in Southern Scotland might have done. So does that mean that, in fact, modern English is actually Scots?)

  7. I’m not convinced that “Scotland and England always had a pretty firm border, with some forbidding hills and land separating the two parts of the island”. Much the firmest physical border is the Highland Boundary Fault, and the Northern and Southern Uplands Faults are firm enough. But the Southern Uplands are not so clearly distinguished in character from Cumbria and Northumbria, and of course neither Scots nor English have traditionally felt themselves penned in geographically.

  8. Scottish Gaelic is Irish

    Yes, of course. And for the same reason why Americans speak language called English.

    In fact, I believe separation of Scottish and Irish Gaelic dates to 17th century which is exactly when US and British Englishes split.

  9. @SFReader

    There’s no real definitive date of split between Scottish and Irish Gaelic, because linguistics. But if you claim that British and American English “split” in the 17th century, you would have to say the equivalent for Scottish and Irish Gaelic is the 5th, or even 4th, century. By the same token, Manx Gaelic split from Irish around the 10th century. Hebridean Gaelic is complicated, but following your model, I reckon you’d say it “split” from Scots Gaelic around the 12th century.

  10. “But the Normans never bothered to cross the border and formally invade Scotland, so Scots never incorporated all that Norman stuff.”
    If this were true, Scots would be a modern version of Anglo-Saxon. Which it clearly isn’t.

  11. “even some Norsemen. In the northern reaches, including the island chains of the Orkneys and the Shetlands, a version of Norwegian was spoken.”

    Not in the sixth century, as alluded to by zyxt.

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    Where do you derive your split date for Irish and Scottish Gaelic from? Is it some kind of end of political union (political union is rather meaningless for any time before 1600 here because no extended feudal system). Language-wise you could not place any split before the middle Irish period, i. e,, no earlier than AD 900. The writing systems did not split until much later.

  13. Scottish and Irish Gaels had same literary language as late as 17th century.

  14. That was the bardic tradition. The existence of a Scottish form of Gaelic in the fifteenth century is plain from the Book of the Dean of Lismore.

  15. @Plastic Paddy

    Fundamentally, I agree with you. Scottish and Irish Gaelic existed as part of a dialect continuum, but probably with a pretty clear gap across the Irish sea, even factoring the much more similar dialects of eastern Northern Ireland that largely went extinct in the 19th century. I was answering the poster who said that the separation of British and American English happened in the 17th century. Well, if you consider modern British and American English to be separate, and to have separated so early, the only logical inference you can draw is that Irish and Scottish Gaelic separated in the 4th century.

    Of course, in reality, Scots Gaelic and Irish remain in limited organic contact today, just as British and American English do. The difference is that Irish and Scots Gaelic have had much more time to diverge and are objectively more different than the two varieties of English mentioned. Obviously, if you are reading this blog, you’d know there is no such thing as an objective way to define a dialect or a language, but it’s not absurd to say Scots Gaelic and Irish are languages, whereas it pretty much is to say the same for English and American.

  16. Splits are fuzzy things. The British-American split is usually dated about 1700, but communication has never been cut off, and in some cases was profound enough to transmit things like non-rhoticity to the Eastern Seaboard cities (always excepting Philadelphia) and their hinterlands.

    Interesting idea: There is little to no archaeological evidence for either an Irish invasion of Scotland or even Irish elite takeover there. So it is quite possible that the lack of Briticisms in Argyll place names reflects not a complete replacement by Goedelic, but rather the aboriginal situation. The linked article proposes that it was the Grampians rather than the Moyle that was the original dividing line between P and Q in the North. There are only three rather difficult passageways through the former, whereas the latter is 20 km wide at the narrowest, in easy reach of any sort of boat, and even at its widest the North Channel is no more than a day’s sail (in good weather, if you can find any).

  17. Goidelic has non-IE substrate (it’s grammar and pronunciation barely qualify as human, so alien they are). It is relatively recent (perhaps as late as Roman period) and there is no suitable place in Britain, so it has to be Ireland.

    Native Celtic of northern Britain is the Cumbrian variety of Brittonic (ie, really early northern Welsh).

  18. @SFReader

    This is why Theo Vennemann and Peter Schrijver can’t have nice things. There is evidence for non-Indo-European substrata in more-or-less all European language families, there is nothing especially unusual in the grammar or pronunciation of Goidelic in terms of the languages of the world.

  19. there is no suitable place in Britain

    That’s what Campbell’s article is doing: he is saying that linguistic Britain was not quite geographical Britain in those days, any more than, say, political Ireland is geographical Ireland, much less Irish-speaking Ireland. It’s just an assumption that P-Celtic speech was found from edge to edge of Ysl Prydain.

    Water passages, if not too wide, connect more than they separate in ancient times, because long-distance land travel is far more difficult and dangerous than long-distance water travel was.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    What about all those Dalriadic Scots I was made to learn about at school in Glasgow? Were my sufferings then in vain?

  21. Just to note – natives of Shetland (or the Shetland Islands) don’t like it when you call them ‘the Shetlands’.

  22. Were my sufferings then in vain?

    Only a bit, if Campbell is right (and I have no idea what the status of his idea in the profession might be): the Argylls had been speaking a Goedelic language since the Iron Age rather than just the 4C or so.

  23. I recently watched a series about Shetland – quite right, Paul, they don’t like their islands to be called The Shetlands – and couldn’t help but notice how different their accent is to mainland Scotland and other islands. I assume this is the Nordic influence but maybe someone here will enlighten me.

  24. John Cowan says

    Perhaps, but the difficulty (as always with things more subtle than loanwords) is to figure out what is and what isn’t. The general Shaetlan change /ð/ > /d/ could well be influenced by Norn, but what about the generalization of BE-perfects to all verbs? I’m guessing that’s unique in Germanic. (It seems that the first infiltration of HAVE onto BE territory in English was in past counterfactuals, where historically only the past subjunctive was used without any perfect markers, so that if he were come seemed strange and was easily displaced by if he had come.) Again, the full preservation of the 2sg pronouns du, dy, dee could be Norn influence or it could just be the same conservatism that has preserved them in traditional Yorkshire.

    John M. Tait argues that Shaetlan is better understood as a separate language rather than a variety of Scots: in particular, phonologically its vowels don’t fit into the normal Scots diasystem (among other things, vowel length is phonemic rather than SVLR-governed), and it really needs its own orthography. Tait has devised one and written extensively in it. He also writes using something close to consensus Scots orthography as well as standard English, which to him is a matter of writing in three languages in which he is fluent.

  25. Christian Weisgerber says

    Why is it Scotland rather than Shotland?

    I’ll note that French (Écosse) and German (Schottland) have developed the initial cluster in the expected ways.

  26. The OED says:

    Forms such as Old English (plural) Sceottas, Middle English Schottys show palatalization and assibilation of initial sc-. The failure or reversal of assibilation which is seen in most Middle English forms (and also in modern English) is probably due to influence of the Scandinavian cognates. The assibilated form is occasionally preserved in place names, some of which, however, may reflect the attested use of the word as a male personal name and byname in Old English (e.g. Scot (c1000, name of a moneyer under Æðelred II), Ælfric Scot (c1087), Ægelric Scot (c1087), Sceott (c1130, name of a member of a guild at Exeter), etc.); moreover, in place names the word is sometimes difficult to distinguish from homonymous forms of shot n.1 and Old English sceota trout (see shoat n.1); compare the following: Scottarit, Warwickshire (a1050; now Shottery), Scotadun, Northumberland (c1100; now Shotton), and (without assibilation) Scotune, Lincolnshire (1086; now Scotton), Scottune, North Riding, Yorkshire (1086; now Scotton). In early place names, reference may be to Irish rather than Scottish settlers (compare sense 1). The early Scandinavian word rather than the English word is probably reflected in Scoteby, Cumberland (1130; now Scotby).

  27. boynamedsue says

    @Christian W

    Old English commonly borrowed words from Latin and Norse with word initial /sk/ after /sk/ > /ʃ/. Examples include Scot, school and skin. A better question is, why didn’t German?

  28. That’s oversimplified; see the OED quote.

  29. David Marjanović says

    A better question is, why didn’t German?

    Lack of resident Vikings.

  30. Josh Reyer says

    Jen in Edinburgh says:
    “To take another accident of naming, the Saxons who are now are the core of Old English presumably wouldn’t have thought of themselves as speaking ‘English’ (i.e. Anglian) at the time, while the Angles in Southern Scotland might have done.”

    Actually, in the vernacular, “Englisc” has been the term used by the Saxons since at least the time of Alfred the Great, as he writes in his preface to the translation of Pastoral Care:
    “Swæ clæne hio wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron behionan Humbre ðe hiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; & ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren.”

    (My translation) “So clean (=complete) was the decline among the English (lit. “Angle-kin,” Alfred’s term for the Germanic peoples living in Britain) that a great few on this side of the Humber could understand their services in English, or even relate a Latin letter into English, and I suspect that there were not many beyond the Humber (either).

    I suspect this was an influence of Bede, who while distinctly describing the three tribes of Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, nonetheless referred to them as a whole as “gens Anglorum”.

    Bloix says:
    “If this were true, Scots would be a modern version of Anglo-Saxon. Which it clearly isn’t.”

    Why do you say that? To me it looks very much like exactly that, and like with Middle English, I can often parse written Scots using my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Scots is full of French loanwords, just like English of England. There was little difference between Lallans and the English dialects north of the Tees until about four hundred years ago. Nosowitz’ article is basically Brigadoon stuff.

  32. Stu Clayton says

    Almost Like Being In Love !

    Not this one, although it too might make me sigh:

    # The book centers around the relationship between two men, Travis and Craig, who meet and fall in love in 1978, during their senior year of high school. Travis is the school nerd, obsessed with musicals and constantly picked on. Craig is the school jock, lauded with the school’s Victory Cup for athletic achievement. The two meet on the set of the school’s production of Brigadoon, and the unlikely couple began a whirlwind romance. However, after their summer together, they part and set off to different colleges. The book moves forward 20 years later, to 1998. Travis and Craig have fallen out of touch, and they both have strong careers and potential suitors. Travis is the first to realize that his first love is his only true one, and he embarks on a cross-country journey, risks his job and enters the great unknown to try to get Craig back. #

  33. John Cowan says

    Indeed, you can probably parse (and construe) Modern English using your knowledge of Anglo-Saxon as well.

  34. Stu Clayton says

    Recently I read something like this, written by a journalist: “X did not parse words in condemning …” Here “parse” makes no sense. I can’t remember the standard expression: is it “pinch words” ??

    Another “deceptively good” example to drive me crazy.

    Edit: “mince words”. Thanks, guys !

  35. John Cowan: In answer to your question above, the Shetlandic generalization of BE at the expense of HAVE as an auxiliary verb marking past tense is not just (to my knowledge) unique to Germanic: it is also utterly alien to any variety of Romance known to me. And considering that most languages in Europe which now use BE as their sole past tense-marking auxiliary verb never used their verb of possession (assuming they ever even had one in the first place!) as a past-marking auxiliary, the Shetlandic change is quite extraordinary, diachronically.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    Brigadoon is great stuff, in its way. Even more authentic than Braveheart. Better songs too.

  37. Stu Clayton says

    Almost Like Being In Love was my first mental reaction to your mention of Brigadoon.

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