Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Scottish Burr

burr -noun  3. any pronunciation popularly considered rough or nonurban. (Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1))

Continuing my life's recent detour down the Street of Nonfiction Books About Language (which I think is about to come to an end), I've been reading David Crystal's The Stories of English . Note the plural in the title. Crystal's point is that there isn't a single "proper" English, with all other variants being mongrels, but rather that there are many Englishes, that they are all peers, and that they all make up a tapestry that is the true "stories of English."

I just finished Crystal's section on the origin of the Scottish dialect of English. As I'm sure you know, Scottish English is unintelligible to other English speakers. I've always understood that this is because Scots are a contrary and obstinate people who derive satisfaction from being difficult. I sincerely apologize to any Scots readers I have (though I don't think I have any), but this is a widely held opinion -- I've even heard it from English people. A few years ago there was a movie in Scottish English that had subtitles -- in English -- making it the first English-language movie to have English-language subtitles. One English person I met even told me that Scottish English was "barbaric."

So Crystal's book has been an eye-opener for me: The Scottish dialect of English actually dates back to the Norman Conquest, and the flood of English-speaking refugees who were driven into Scotland. Gaelic was spoken in Scotland at the time, but in some way that isn't entirely clear English came to supplant Gaelic as the language of the Scots. But this was English as it was spoken before the Normans -- what we today call Old English.

As time went on, the English spoken in England was changed by the influence of the French-speaking Normans, but the Scots didn't have much reason to keep up with these changes: The English spent 300 years waging war to subjugate the Scots, and you can see how it would be perfectly understandable for a Scottish person to look upon "England English" as hateful. Maybe even barbaric :) . So Scottish English went its own way, but remained English nonetheless.

So, far from being barbaric, it seems Scottish English is actually the first great branching of the English language, which goodness knows has seen its share of branching since. Scottish English is a noble language with a very long and distinguished heritage -- just as distinguished as "England English." And Scottish English has produced great literature dating back to at least the 1400's. The Scots should be proud to speak it. And I suspect they are.

I still can't understand them, though.



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