15 January 2008

What's in a name?

Tis indeed a most vexing question. A rose by any other name would certainly smell as sweet, but would you like it as much if it wasn't a rose any more?

By choosing our own names for the things in our world, perhaps we are imbuing them with something of ourselves. Using someone else's name, therefore, makes the thing less familiar and more alien.

What started me thinking about this was Kidnappit, Matthew Fitt's Scots translation of Alan Clark and Cam Kennedy's graphic novel adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.

If you're not familiar with the Modern Scots scene, it's a spectrum based on two poles: the New Makkars, who see Scots as a true "high" language, suitable for literature; and those who see it not as a language, but as a colloquial vernacular, only suitable to describe the people that use it in a "how they speak" style. Even if some of his work appears superficially frivolous (who else would have written a book called But n Ben A-Go-Go), Fitt quite clearly leans toward the literary end of the spectrum, which makes it curious that in his translation, peppered with old words like
"stravaig" (to roam, wander) he uses the modern colloquial term "Embra" in place of Edinburgh. Why does this word exist? No-one I know says Embra, and I live there! However, there seems to be a belief among certain segments of the public that "Edinburgh" is an English name, and that a truly Scottish name would, by nature, be simpler.

Well, let's get one thing straight: Scots has always been simpler than English in that it is more regular, but it is in no way more naïve, and has a fairly complex phonology (sound system). That a short form like "Embra" is somehow more authentically Scottish is a bit of an insult to the language.

Especially given the evidence to the contrary.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three other Scottish towns with the -burgh ending: Jedburgh, Musselburgh and Fraserburgh. Coincidentally, I can think of three English towns with an equivalent ending: Middlesborough, Farborough and Peterborough. Furthermore, the endings, -burgh can be found as a full word throughout Scottish history: mediaeval Scotland's equivalent to the European cities was the "Royal Burgh". The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue even gives us an example of the word burgh from 1393, although there has historically been a lot of variation in the form used.
Tyl the aldirmen [and] the baylis of our burgh of Elgyne; 1393 Charter Thos. Dunbar MS. (Reg. H.).

In fact, there is pretty huge variation between the forms, and both burgh and borough both appear in both languages. Burgh, seems to be the older form, and it can't be denied that Scots and English have a common ancestor. The difference in preferred spelling by the end of the Middle period, directly prior to the Union of the Crowns, can probably be explained by accent.

Many Scots accents have to this day retained the svarbhakti vowel, a weak vowel sound occuring between certain pairs of consonants that was once common to all Indo-European languages. As a child, I pronounced words like "girl", "film" and "farm" with two syllables -- I was not physically able to pronounce rl, lm or rm without inserting a vowel. Presumably rgh was another of these combinations and the Anglo-Saxon speakers pronounced burgh with two syllables. When the English started to lose their svarbhakti vowel, they would have either had to reduce burgh to one spoken syllable or explicitly write the second syllable. They chose the latter.

Burgh is not a foreign word, so what's wrong with "Edinburgh" as a Scots word? I would argue that Embra is more English than Edinburgh as it more closely matched the English pronunciation of borough than the Scots pronunciation of burgh.

It may have a place in a rewritten modern Scots, but Kidnappit, as I've already pointed out, is not a modern Scots book: it unashamedly and quite rightly uses "guid auld wirds that wir grannies wuid sey".

Embra, I believe, is change for change's sake, and has no place in books of this sort. 

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