Folk from the Forres area, which has a higher than average quota of Scots speakers, will be able to take part in a survey that helps to build a new picture of the evolving language.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen will lead a new linguistic survey of Scots – the first comprehensive appraisal of the language to be conducted since the 1950s.
The language has 1.6m speakers in Scotland according to the 2011 census, with more in Ulster, making it one of the largest minority languages in Europe but much of our understanding of ‘contemporary’ local and national usage is based on linguistic surveys conducted more than 60 years ago.
Robert McColl Millar, Professor in Linguistics and Scottish Language at Aberdeen, says it is essential that we gain a better understanding of the way words are used in Scots spoken today and in the recent past if we are to assess how it has changed and how the language might be preserved.
He said: “In Scotland we have the Linguistic Atlas of Scotland and Dictionary of the Scots Language but both draw heavily on material collated in the 1950s. In Ireland no such equivalent exists for Ulster Scots.
“The Linguistic Survey of Scots in the 1950s was ground breaking but does it remain relevant today? This is a question we will be seeking to address.
“This will be the first real attempt to move towards a survey that will give us a sense of the language in the 2020s. We hope it will represent the same great leap forwards as the original survey did and can contribute greatly to our national dictionaries.”
Forres in Scots ‘heartland’
Alistair Heather, Public Engagement Officer for the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen, taught Scots recently at Pilmuir Primary School in Forres and Buckie High School, as well as giving talks on its history at the Falconer Museum in association with Findhorn Bay Arts.
“Forres, and Moray in general, is very much within the North-East Scots heartlands. According to the last census, around 40% of people in Forres have Scots language skills – about 10% higher than the national average.
“The Elphinstone Institute recently ran a four-week Scots Language course in collaboration with the teaching staff at Pilmuir Primary in Forres, helping local bairns find self-expression through the Mithir Tongue.
“We found that the bairns had exceptional understanding of Scots vocabulary and were able to quickly create new work in their local dialect of Scots. One highlight came when we sent the bairns home with homework sheets. The parents and grandparents leapt at the chance to help the bairns with their Scots, and the whole class came back with dozens of great words and phrases, adding to the ability of the class to express itself in a language other than English.
“That is not at all to say everything is rosy. In Forres, as with much of the North-East and Scotland, there has been a collapse in the amount of Scots spoken and understood by the younger generations compared with their parents and grandparents. With that loss of language goes a loss of understanding of culture.
“This new survey will help academics and policy-makers understand the current state of the Scots language, and help inform actions to safeguard it and help it thrive.
“Fundamentally, it will be a grassroots support that revitalises the language – families and communities taking the time to use the language with their bairns, and taking their tongue in to work, to public life, and letting it be heard in every social occasion once more – official and state support can only do so much, it must be both a bottom-up and top-down support to save our language, and with it the attendant culture.”
Women and children under-represented
The researchers will attempt to establish an understanding of Scots across the generations and for both men and women as female voices and those of younger people were under-represented in the original survey.
Professor Millar says they expect to see significant change. “Language naturally changes over time and words are replaced and cannibalised,” he added.
“Much of what makes Scots so distinctive is entwined with occupations and pastimes that have changed beyond recognition since the surveys of the 1950s.
Fit happened to barkin?
“In fishing and farming, for example, there are many words associated with machinery or equipment that is no longer in use. A good example of this is barkin, referring to a water-retardant substance with a pungent smell painted onto clothing and ropes to protect them at sea. While older people remember the word and the process vividly, new oilcloth and later plastic clothing, have set barkin adrift on a sea of memory.
“Nonetheless Scots continues to play an important role in our cultural and everyday lives and informs both our identity and sense of place.”
The researchers will adopt a more scientific approach to the new survey and the project will get underway with a two-day event, Scots Words and Phrases in the Contemporary World: Back to the Future, in Edinburgh on 8 and 9 April 2019.
They plan to trace, among other things, change in knowledge and use of the vocabulary of Scots from the 1950s until now and across contemporary speakers of different ages and social background.
Preliminary field work and recruitment of experts will get underway in the coming year, but Professor Millar said the project will take many years to complete.
North-east will be ‘test bed’
“We will use the north-east of Scotland, which has one of the best preserved native speech varieties, as a test bed but want to collate information from across Scotland and the areas of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland where Ulster Scots is spoken,” he said.
“Our approach will be much more scientific and we want to make our findings freely available on the internet once it is complete.
“We know that many communities have produced wordlists and dictionaries of local words and usage. I am personally aware of many, but by no means all, of these. We are also aware that many people have compiled lists of words and phrases which have never been published; some have inherited lists of this type from friends and relatives. Other people may have notes and recordings produced for local history projects or for other purposes. To make any new survey truly representative, we need a greater understanding of what local and regional resources we have.
“This project is only possible with the support of Scots speakers in local communities and if they are the ones to provide us with the material required, it is only right that they should also share in anything produced as a result.”
The History, Present & Future of the North-East Scots (Doric)
The Elphinstone Institute have made a video exploring the past, present and future of North-east Scots (Doric) with academics Professor Jennifer Smith and Robert Millar.
Special thanks to Alistair Heather for helping with the headline.