31 July 2006

Burns: clues to Scots

Fair fa' yer honest, sonsie face
Great cheiftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

I've never really been keen on Burns, I always felt he wrote too much in English with Scottish words inserted. His disregard for Scots as an individual language is evident in the title of his anthology: Poems, chiefly in the Scots dialect Given that the history of Scots ended abruptly when James VI ascended to the English throne and moved to London one-hundred and fifty years before Burns' birth, it is hardly Burns' fault. However, Burns is promoted so high above other Scots literary figures that he is assumed by many to be the be-all and end-all of Scots literature.

Ever since I was asked to address the haggis at a Burns Supper, I've found myself pondering the curious final rhyme of the first stanza of Address to a haggis. thairm and arm. Why the English arm as opposed to the Scots airm, which The Concise Scots Dictionary (Abdn Uni press, 1985) lists as the main headword demoting arm to the status of an alternative spelling? It must be assumed that in his day, in Ayrshire at least, the Scots ai was the same as as the English vowel a.

But what was that sound in Burns' time? I recently took a trip by train from Edinburgh to Inverness. As the train pulled into Blair Atholl, I noticed the Gaelic spelling on the platform sign: Blàr Athail. Gaelic was not uncommon in Perthshire -- I have heard that there are still a few elder native speakers further into the glens. I find it unlikely then that the Scots pronunciation could have become much different from its Gaelic source before it was first written down. The modern Gaelic a is much like the a in Aberystwyth, so I am drawn to the conclusion that this is the sound represented by the Scots ai, rather than the sound in words such as dairy, which your average Scot would use when reciting Burns.

So what is the sound of the Scots a? The great question in trying to define a standard spelling for modern Scots has always been how to deal with words like the Scots form of all: is it a', aa or aw? Or indeed can we write it as all, and simply state that the double-L is not pronounced in Scots if it doesn't precede a vowel? I propose that the correct way to phonetically describe this word is with the one letter, a.

We have numerous examples of Old and early Middle English words which even today make this sound with the letter a: was, ball, jaw all were in common usage around the time when Northumbria fell into Scots hands bringing with it the Anglo-Saxon dialects that evolved into the Middle Scots tongue. By the time Scotland and England were united, we can see plenty of new words containing a different a sound, such as the sixteenth century balloon, a borrowed word originating in Italian.

We can also look inside Scotland for evidence. Even today, in the Northeast of Scotland, speakers of Doric have a very different set of vowels from the middle-classes of the lowland cities (such as myself). Just this evening, I was watching a program on Peterhead fishermen. Their a pronunciation fell somewhere in between all and Aberystwyth. We know that it a diverse linguistic environment, people tend towards a norm, which we must assume to be Aberystwyth, not all. Thus it must be that even a hundred years ago, before TV, radio and talking cinema, the Doric accent would have been closer to all than it is today.

We can see even more evidence for this in the name Aberdeen. You may say that this Aber is the same as in Aberystwyth, but this would only be correct insofaras they come either from a common Celtic root, or in that Gaelic borrowed it from an older east coast tongue more closely related to modern Welsh. However, it is extremely unlikely that the modern spelling of Aberdeen is taken from any tongue predating Scots Gaelic in this area, and the Scots Gaelic spelling of Aberdeen is Obar Dheathain. The Scots Gaelic o is pronounced very much like the a in all, so this adds weight to the suggestion that the lowland Scots a is pronounced in such a way.

I am of the belief that in the last hundred years or so, educated people have made the critical error of reading Scots off the page as though the rules of English pronunciation were fixed and unchanging; and any linguist that in English, more than most languages, this is quite definitely not the case. I have been no less guilty than any other for this. I have taken the word faither and pronounced it with the ai of dairy, while when I read the English father aloud, I pronounce it as faither should be pronounced.

But those who would seek to return Scots to active literary life do no better, and still they try to define Scots in terms of English phonology.

The University of the Highlands and Islands give their mission statement in English, Scots, Gaelic, Orcadian and Shetlandic. Below are the English and Scots:

In English:
To establish in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland a collegiate university which will reach the highest standards and play a pivotal role in our educational, economic, social and cultural development.

In Scots:
Ti foond a collegiate university in the Hielands an Islands o Scotland at can growe as guid as the best, an tak foremaist tent to biggin up oor laer an gear, an the fowk an thair tocher.

Throughout history, we appear to have had ou in Scots representing a sound approximating the modern English oo, thus I see no need to change this now, and would suggest that the oos above should be ous.

By defining ourselves in terms of English, we tie ourselves to a language of vast international variety that is in a state of major change. In a hundred years, do we rewrite our language again, or do we let our pronunciation follow the changes in English?

If Scots is worth preserving, it must be able to preserve itself, and also to preserve our identity.

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