The Futur o Scots

orkney, Poetry

(originally published at

What does it mean that Fiona Hyslop, when launching Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policy last month, stumbled over the part of her speech that was written in Scots?

Govrenment screeds are wrote in a antrin idiom o English. We’re used to hearing the empty words of public relations slide smoothly by, and most of the Culture Secretary’s speech was written in this easy tongue. Sae nae wunner at, whan sheu ran intae the Scots o hir screed’s final lines – wirds at jummled archaisms, contemporar urbanisms an variant grammatical firms intae a nyow aald leid, wirds pangit wi anxieties o cless an identity an nation – sheu wis scunnert. To me, it’s great to think that Scots might still foul the wheels of government.

Hyslop blethered aboot growan up doon sooth wi a mither wha mostlins spok English bit shifted straet awey tae a rich urban Scots whan phonan haem. Perhaps, then, unlike the language of government, the words of the policy launch speech seemed strange and unfamiliar anyway: for the most part, they belonged to the literary (but still beautiful and useful) canon of Scots rather than the agile vernacular her mother spoke down the phone. This langed-fir leid – a firmal, standardised Scots suitid tae journalism an cultural policies – belongs tae the govrenment websites o some Scots’ langed-fir staet, an that wey hid’s closser tae the leid o Westminster as the leid Craigmillar.

A language has numerous registers, each suited to different circumstances. E’en a teknicly monolingual body spaeks to thir clossest freinds i a differ leid – wi a differ, but owerleppan, vocabular, grammar, intonaetion an pronunciaetion – as thay wad i a job interview. A language also has numerous dialects, varying from region to region, some of which might stake a claim to being a language as well. So whan Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policie (laudably) walcomes aa the kynds o Scots, whit daes that mean?

Perhaps it means that art produced in all the varieties of Scots will be welcomed, with cultural support due to the languages of Orkney and Drumchapel as much as to the languages of Kelvingrove and Holyrood. This, alang wi a shift in eddicaetion policie at taks Scots intae the clessroom, is a bangin ootcome o decaedes o leid activism: wark at means thare’s no so mony bairns’ll be shaemed fir the wey thay spaek, an at mor weys o thinkan an scrievan’ll mebbe flourish an be acceptid. But what are the limits of that acceptance? Hou wad hid be gin a govrenment strategy event haed spaekers wi Niddrie or Sighthill accents an wirds, an whit leid policie cad gar that tae com? An authorised Scots tries to strip the language of any class or rural prejudice, but it can’t end class conflict or rural depopulation, and the standardisation of Scots itself hides the ways our words mark us out. “Fouter” is alloued i the clessreum nou, bit is “fam” – or “fml”?

Scots, as it currently exists, is a delicious mess. Thare’s dictionars at offer a dizzen differ spelleens an pronunciaetions fir ilk wird, competeen grammars an orthographies, wholly incompatible politiecal foondaetions. As a literary language, used in multiple forms, Scots is fairly established, with a thin but significant trickle of novels, stories and poetry produced in multiple varieties each year. As a spokken vernaclar, Scots haads on, wi more yet o a wrote firm on social media (A ween more Scots is publieshed on Facebook as i aa Scotland’s presses togither), but hid’s no consistent uissed fir journalism, criticism, public relaetions, or govrenment policie. When Creative Scotland says that it now welcomes funding applications in Scots, the notion involves inventing a whole new register to write in – we don’t currently have a Scots in which you can write funding applications. A muckle corpus o Scots comes fae laa, fir Scots wis the leid o laa in Scotland fir gey wheen o centuries, bit hid’s a trachle tae imagine a register o contemporar Scots suitid tae the tesk. What would it mean to create these registers?

Speiran at this fankle o quaistions gangs deep intae whit a cultural fundeen policie or a govrenment leid strategy is fir. Both are part of the apparatus of the state, of liberal governmentality. The resurgence o the Scots leid is aa frappid i the Scottish Nationalist project, fir the claim tae a leid haes lang been pert o the claem to staethood. Language standardisation is at the foundation of the modern nation-state: when the Italian and German nation-states formed, they brought together multiple competing regions under one government which centralised power, and they brought together multiple competing dialects under one language which centralised power. 20Th century Scottish Nationalists, ettlan tae firm a nyow 20th century staet, teuk inspiraetion fae this projects i the erly daes o standardiesation.

So a new phase of Scots language work needs to be engaged in – because it is already engaged in – the political formations of the 21st century. As European regional indiependence meuvements come at, ir thay gaan tae repaet a aerlier process o makkan naetion-staets, wi aa hids leid politics, or ir thay gaan tae ert oot nyow politiecal an linguistic formaetions?

I’m interested in politics beyond the nation-state, and that makes me interested in language beyond standardisation. We maan uiss wir utopian imaginaetion. What would it be like to have an education system where standard grammars were not enforced? Cad that be pert o undoan cless an raecial oppression i the clessreum? What would it be like to live in a world where Standard English did not smooth the flow of globalised capitalism, where we had to spend time learning what someone from the other side of the world (or the next town over) was saying, rather than assuming we shared our projects and problems in easy hegemonic understanding? Hou wad hid be gin that global English (Panglish?) continued hids process o disintegraetion an regionaliesaetion, firdered bi text-spaek an Twitter abbrevieaetions an phoneticisms? What would it be like if we did not all speak the language of government? – or if we could understand it, tolerably, but chose to speak to our comrades and families in a different language? This quaistions bring oot dystopian landscapes cheust as thay deu utopian possiebilities, bit wir history an wir present hae mony inspiraetions: pieces whar English daesno ower aa or haes been forcibly expelled, whar the leid o govrenment is differ fae the tong o haem, whar monolinguality isno the standard, whar the liberal staet isno the limit o the politiecal imaginaetion.

That Scots now has stronger material and financial support is to be celebrated. But A wunner gin – an hop at – the frawart, raivelt, ramstam literar an spokan uiss o Scots wilno thole hids govrenment policie. Thare’s a responsiebility fir them wirkan i Scots tae uiss the leids imaginatively, an tae turn the nyow level o uphaudan tae utopian ends, tae gar the leid tae bide rammage an unassimielatid, tae brak the leid intae nyow politiecal possibilities.

(originally published at

Whit’s it mean at Fiona Hyslop, whan lenchan Creative Scotland’s Scots Leid Policie the month by, hytert ower the pairt o her screed that wis wrote in Scots?

Government speeches are written in a peculiar idiom of English. Wir uissed tae hearin the teum wirds o public relations slidder sneith by, an most o the Culture Secretary’s screed wis wrote in this aesy tong. So no wonder that, when she ran into the Scots of her speech’s final lines – words that mixed archaisms, contemporary urbanisms and variant grammatical forms into a new old language, words stuffed with anxieties of class and identity and nation – she was scunnered. Tae me, hid’s grand tae think at Scots’ll mebbe yet fool the wheels o govrenment.

Hyslop talked about growing up in England with a mother who spoke English for the most part but switched immediately to a rich urban Scots when phoning home. Mebbes, than, no lik the leid o govrenment, the wirds o the policie lench screed wir uncan onywey: thay mostlins belonged tae the literar (but yet bonnie an uissfu) canon o Scots steid o the sneck vernaclar hir mither spok doun the phon. This longed-for language – a formal, standardised Scots suited to journalism and cultural policies – belongs to the government websites of some Scots’ longed-for state, and as such it’s closer to the language of Westminster than the language of Craigmillar.

A leid haes mony registers, ilk suitid tae differ situaetions. Even a technically monolingual person speaks to their closest friends in a different language – with a different, if overlapping, vocabulary, grammar, intonation and pronunciation – than they would in a job interview. A leid haes mony dialects teu, varyan fae piece tae piece, an some of thaim wad mebbe staek a claem tae bean a leid an aa. So when Creative Scotland’s Scots Language Policy (laudably) welcomes all the varieties of Scots, what does that mean?

Mebbes hid means at ert mad i aa the kynds o Scots’ll be walcomed, wi cultural uphaud due tae the leids o Orkney an Drumchapel as tae Kelvingrove an Holyrood. This, along with a shift in education policy that increasingly brings Scots into the classroom, or at least accepts the use of Scots in the classroom, is the brilliant outcome of decades of language activism: it means we can hope that fewer children will be shamed for the way they speak, and that more ways of thinking and writing can flourish and be accepted. But whit’s the limits o that acceptance? How would it be if a government strategy event had speakers with Niddrie or Sighthill accents and words, and what language policy could make that happen? An aathorised Scots ettles tae tird the leid o ony cless or rural prejudice, but hid canno end cless conflict or rural depopulaetion, an the standardiesaetion o Scots hidsel derns the weys wir wirds merk iss oot. “Fouter” is allowed in the classroom now, but is “fam” – or “fml”?

Scots, the wey hid’s mad nou, is a gustie hags. There are dictionaries that offer a dozen different spellings and pronunciations for each word, competing grammars and orthographies, wholly incompatible political foundations. As a literar leid, uissed i mony firms, Scots is ferly establieshed, wi a peedie bit signifiecant trinkle o novels, stories and poietry mad i mony differ weys ilk yaer. As a spoken vernacular, Scots holds on, with an extended written form on social media (I suspect more Scots is published on Facebook than in all Scotland’s presses combined), but it is not consistently used for journalism, criticism, public relations, or government policy. Whan Creative Scotland saes at hid nou walcomes fundeen applicaetions i Scots, the gee gars makkan a whole nyow register tae write wi – wir no yet got a Scots fir the writan o fundeen applicaetions. A significant corpus of Scots comes from law, because Scots was the language of law in Scotland for some centuries, but it’s hard to imagine a register of contemporary Scots suitable to the tsk. Whit wad hid mean tae mak this registers?

Asking these harder questions goes deep into what a cultural funding policy or a government language strategy is for. Both ir ert an pert o the apparatus o the staet, o liberal govrenmentality. The resurgence of the Scots language is inextricable from the Scottish Nationalist project, because the claim to a language has long been part of the claim to statehood. Leid standardiesation is at the foondaetion o the modren naetion-staet: whan the Italian an German nation-staetes firmed, thay browt togither mony competan pieces unner the een govrenment o centralised pouer, an thay browt togither mony competan dialects unner the een leid o centralised pouer. 20Th century Scottish Nationalists, trying to form a new 20th century state, took inspiration from those projects in the early days of standardisation.

Sae a nyow phaes o Scots leid wark maan be engaged wi – fir hid’s aye been engaged wi – the politiecal formations of the 21st century. As European regional independence movements strengthen, are they going to repeat an earlier process of nation-state creation, with its attendant language politics, or are they going to find new political and linguistic formations?

A’m interestid i politics ootower the naetion-staet, an that maks me interestid i leids ootower standardiesaetion. Let’s use some utopian imagination. Hou wad hid be tae hae an eddicaetion system whar standard grammars wir no enforced? Could that be part of undoing class and racial oppression in the classroom? Hou wad hid be tae bide i a warld whar Standard English didno sleek the flowe o globalised capitalism, whae we wad maan tak time tae learn whit a body fae the ither side o the warld (or the next toun ower) wis spaekan, steid o assuman we shared wir projects an problems i aesy hegemonic understandeen? What would it be like if that global English (Panglish?) continued its process of disintegration and regionalisation, furthered by text-speak and Twitter abbreviations and phoneticisms? How wad hid be gin we didno aa spaek the leid o govrenment? – or gin we cad understand it, right enof, bit chos tae spaek tae wir comrads an femlies wi a differ tong? These questions bring out dystopian landscapes as much as they do utopian possibilities, but our history and our present contains many inspirations: places where English does not rule all or has been forcibly expelled, where the language of government is different from the language of home, where monolinguality is not the standard, where the liberal state is not the limit of the political imagination.

That Scots nou haes clear and strang material an financial support is tae be celebratit. But I wonder if – and hope that – the contrary, snarled, headstrong literarr and spoken use of Scots won’t tolerate its government policy. There is a responsibility on those working in Scots to use the language imaginatively, and to turn the new level of support to utopian ends, to ensure that the language remains untamed and unassimilated, to break the language into new political possibilities.

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