Scottish Book Trust and the Scots Language

From time to time people – usually parents – write to us with concerns about our provision of materials, including children’s books, in Scots.

Often the concern expressed is that we are encouraging children to learn ‘slang’ or ‘dialect’ at the expense of grammatical English, and that this will harm their education and future prospects.

While these fears are understandable, and grow out of care parents naturally have for their children, there is in fact no cause for alarm. Here’s why:

Human beings have very wide and flexible capacities for language. Provided children receive a good grounding in languages at an early age, they can switch fluently and instantaneously between them, understanding perfectly well when it is right and appropriate to use one or the other. Even while speaking the same language, human beings employ different registers and expressions according to what they think is appropriate to the circumstance they find themselves in and who they are talking to. This kind of adaptability is rightly regarded as one of humankind's greatest assets and is an essential part of successful social and verbal interactions.

It cannot be stressed enough that languages are not mutually exclusive

It cannot be stressed enough that languages are not mutually exclusive. Learning one does not harm one’s ability to master another, nor does it interfere with language acquisition at an early age, though children brought up bilingually will probably start to speak a little later than normal. Instead, languages exist side by side as a kind of very helpful toolkit which enables both children and adults to communicate appropriately and successfully.

There is also evidence that learning more than one language at an early age is very good for the brain and makes it easier for us to acquire still other languages. This being the case, what the Scots language represents is in fact a wonderful educational opportunity. This has been clearly recognised by Education Scotland, the national body which administers the curriculum in Scotland, and by school and nursery school teachers right across the land.

But there are also other reasons why familiarity with Scots is important.

It is difficult – if not impossible - to be in favour of children learning Scottish history, customs and culture, and not be well disposed towards the Scots language. A lot of Scottish history, custom and culture is carried in the language. If we do not promote and teach it, therefore, how are our young children later on to be able to connect with their culture and history, or read and appreciate Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, or James Kelman? – to cite just a very few examples. In short, the ability to speak and read Scots is essential if we want our children to access their heritage and culture.

Scots is not slang. It is not even dialect. It is a language, one moreover that has a huge, distinct, and illustrious history. Even the most casual glance at literature written down the ages in Scots demonstrates that this is a fully fledged language. The objection that it is grammatically similar to English is often cited as ‘proof’ Scots is not a language. A moment’s thought will show this is a false contention. Italian, French and Spanish all come from the same root language (Latin) and are all similar grammatically and in terms of vocabulary. Are we to deny they are distinct languages?

Use of Scots in everyday life in Scotland is widespread. The Census of 2011 carried questions about the Scots language for the very first time. This revealed that in 2011, the proportion of the population aged 3 and over in Scotland who reported they could speak, read, write or understand Scots was 38 per cent (1.9 million). For Scotland as a whole, 30 per cent (1.5 million) of the population aged 3 and over reported they were able to speak Scots. Interestingly, the council areas with the highest proportions able to speak Scots were Aberdeenshire and Shetland Islands (49 per cent each), Moray (45 per cent) and Orkney Islands (41 per cent). The lowest proportions reported were in Eilean Siar (7 per cent), City of Edinburgh (21 per cent), Highland and Argyll & Bute (22 per cent each).

At Scottish Book Trust, we love language and we love languages

Of course, at Scottish Book Trust, we love language and we love languages. Our view, based on a lifetime’s engagement with language and learning, has always been that exposure to wide varieties of language, grammatical forms and vocabulary can only enrich the experience of growing children, providing additional capacities for communication and thought to draw upon as they grow into adulthood. We think this is a good thing!

As for adults, I think we all accept that those who can speak a variety of languages have a distinct advantage over the monoglot. Let us remember therefore that we have always regarded the ability in adults to speak several languages a virtue.

I hope this explains the thinking that lies behind our provision of materials and books in Scots.

For those wanting to find out more, here are some useful links:

Scots Language Centre

Lallans - The Scots Language Society

Scottish Language Dictionaries

Itchy Coo Publishing

Marc Lambert, Director