In the debate over Scottish independence, I don’t remember hearing language being mentioned. Sure, compared to the potent arguments over oil revenue, currency, public service provision, the already separate legal system, lack of conservative MPs etc, it may not seem that important. However, I’m currently reading an excellent book called ‘The Last Word’ by journalist Ben Macintyre (a collection of his newspaper articles on language-related topics, published by Bloomsbury in 2009) and in it I found a piece entitled ‘English is a language o’ the heid’.
As I get older and allegedly wiser, the more I realise there is to learn, and it is a measure of my ever-expanding ignorance that I didn’t appreciate until now quite how vast and unique the vocabulary of Scots is, nor that it is a language with a distinct syntax and grammar. (Macintyre mentions the writer Billy Kay who vigorously argues this in a book called ‘Scots: The Mither Tongue’, which is now going on my must-read-sometime list.) Scots is further removed from English than Slovak from Czech, or Norwegian from Swedish.
This set me pondering how a country comes into being, and how arbitrary the lines (or lack of lines) on a map can be, something very much in evidence in the present conflicts of the Middle East. For what is a country but a human idea imposed on the landscape? And - after brute force and control of resources - what more fundamental way to create a national identity than through language?
Macintyre goes on to talk about the rich poetry of Scots, and how the writer Edwin Muir coined the description of it as a language of the heart and English a language of the head. But back in 1398 - over 300 years before the Union - the Scottish parliament began publishing statutes in Scots, so Muir’s description is not entirely accurate.
However, the Reformation saw the Bible being translated into English and Welsh alone (with a Gaelic version appearing much later). A new testament translation was made into Scots, but that wasn’t published until the 20th century; the old testament not at all. Scots was deemed a language not worthy enough for the word of God, and this had both practical and psychological significance.
The Union of the Crowns saw the Scottish court move to London, furthering the status of standard English. Scots became a more oral tradition, actively rejected by the educated elite who saw it as ‘uncouth’ and ‘underdeveloped’, and so in turn by most others with upwardly mobile inclinations. The Union of parliaments in the early 18th century sealed the deal.
Now, something that keeps popping up in the independence debate from potential voters is: ‘my heart says vote one way, my head another’. And this presents a striking parallel to the position of the two languages as described by Muir.
English has forced itself over the centuries into a position of dominance through politics, education, religion and the courts. It is the language of power and prestige. Is it any wonder that some voters in Scotland struggle to imagine a successful state of independent governance when their own linguistic heritage (and so arguably their national identity) has been deemed unworthy for governance and deliberately fenced off in poetry and song?
At the same time, many others no doubt find their passion for independence strongly amplified by what could fairly be described as a significant historical injustice, even if it was simply seen as the inevitable march of progress by those at the time.
It begs a contrast with Wales where the native language is now much more visually prominent, used in governance, taught in schools and overall appears to be in reasonable health following a concerted effort in the latter part of the 20th century.
Crucially, the Bible was translated into Welsh back in the 16th century, thus helping keep the language in regular use. There was a period when Welsh was clamped down on in late 19th century education, but it was relatively brief in historical terms. Although the spread of regular speakers is by no means even (more to the west and north, less in the industrial south), Wales is definitely a bilingual country.
What is curious about the comparison with Scotland is that there is no great clamour for independence in Wales. A little, sure, but not much. While there are definitely economic, geographic and historic reasons for this, another strand also has to be that the Welsh language has not been deliberately marginalised and suppressed to the extent Scots has been. Indeed, in recent years Welsh identity has been accorded equal status, becoming de jure official (English is de facto official).
The recognised status of Scots as a minority/regional language by the Council of Europe in 2001 (along with Gaelic) may have come too late to heal the wounds of the past. It doesn’t yet have the de jure official status of Welsh, even though a slightly greater percentage of the Scottish population speak Scots (30%) than the equivalent statistic for Welsh speakers in Wales (27%), according to the most recent census.
It is impossible to measure exactly how much of a factor this is in the present battle for Scottish independence, because it is a subject that seems of no immediate consequence. It spreads out under the surface of things, quietly influencing hearts and minds without warranting open discussion (at least, not that I’ve noticed down here in southern England).
But centuries of the English trying to marginalise the Scots language has surely informed and emboldened those who desire respect for their national identity by means of independence. How could it not? Repression will always lead to resistance, and the stronger the repression, the greater the resistance. Or to paraphrase a well-known English biblical translation: you reap what you sow.