Now For A Few Words

Us Scots, when we get going, are rarely at a loss for words. We are colourful, impassioned users of vocabulary ken. Our language, Scots, has a long distinct history with some beautiful poetry. I love this phrase from Robert Henryson, one of the great Makars or court poets of the Middle Ages –

“Bricht syng, gladying our languissing.”

As well as being a language of poetic and literary merit Scots is like any other language – the open source property of all who use it, from wherever and wherever they are. You may have spent days and weeks struggling to get to Scotland to save your family from hardship and turmoil. You are exhausted, done in, wabbit. Your lips might form around that wonderful and until a few moments ago alien word ‘scunnered’ and in that moment know, just as well as your new neighbour who has lived on the same overcast underfunded street for 70 years, just what it means and how it feels.

As such it is constantly evolving and being discovered and re-discovered. Just like English. Unlike English, Scots has a firey subversive quality due to the fact that it doesn’t have the same status in the public square. What exactly is ‘Scots’? It can be hard for the average Scot to tie down but more often that not it is not what we hear on the TV, certainly on the news or in the parliament. Lesley Riddoch in her fantastic book Blossom describes an incident where a bemused Scottish witness was actually put in contempt of court because he was told to respond ‘Yes’ and he repeatedly said ‘Aye.’ He wasn’t being funny, this was simply how he said yes but it was thought to be impertinence. Scots had no place there. There are not too many contemporary legal documents or public declarations knocking about in Scots. Sadly people are worried that others would think it was a joke. A wind up. But this counter-cultural quality can also be a source of strength.

To a lot of us Scots our language is something we treat like a fond but distant relative. When we think of it a smile comes to our face. We don’t think about it very often, oblivious to its influence on our speech patterns, word order and expressions. What we don’t realise is that this ‘distant’ relative is not so distant at all. In fact this relative raised us and gave us our first words for hopes and dreams and fears and laughter. Because of the similarity to English we often think of Scots as a localised version of English, which is badly spelled and with dead poor grammar like. Scots has a separate history and due to a lot of political and cultural maneuvering it has shifted from being a highly literary language to a largely oral, informal one.

This makes it no less powerful.

Having a foot in both camps, Scots and English gives us an edge. We in the UK rightfully give ourselves a hard time for not speaking more languages. Our European cousins put us to shame, effortlessly changing lanes between languages. An impressive feat considering with each linguistic shift comes a mental shift. Our thinking relies heavily on our words and so the words we use change how we think. We literally think differently in different languages. I love this quote I came across a few years ago which goes something like, ‘The man who has one language has none.’ So much in just eight words. Unless we have something to compare it to we are blind to the fact that our language limits as well as enables us. We are oblivious to this process unless we have another language to compare it to. In this interesting TED talk, Keith Chen wonders if different attitudes languages have to time affect the ability of people who speak those languages to save money.

What we Scots don’t realise is that we are quasi bilingual. Yes we may have a tentative grip on our mither tongue and to each person it may mean something different, but it’s ours and it offers us a way into thinking in two moulds and therefore able to step back and see what the process is doing to us. We can switch, we can modulate, we can mix and match.

This has been highlighted for me by my experience of living in England and marrying my English wife. While working down in England several running jokes formed affectionately about the idea of me being especially passionate, assertive or even angry. The idea that I’d go on mock rants and would get wound up easily. Yes I am quite a passionate person but these are not qualities that were especially associated with me when I was growing up in Scotland. I believe it was down to the fact that distinctive Scots words, Scots use of words shared with English and the different language construction choices combined to make me sound more hotblooded and gutsy than English conversational patterns would normally allow. This is not about accent. Due to my half Canadian background I have a fairly soft, neutral Scots accent.

A key example was the following.

‘I’ll get you outside the kitchen the back of six.’

In Scots this sounds commonplace but in English apparently sounds quite threatening.

I want to continue to explore more and more of my Scots heritage and tap more into my secret reserves of bilingualism. But I also want to speak Catalan. Which I’m currently having a go at. And Flemmish. I want to speak Flemmish. And I bloody love English – what an incredible, wide ranging, ever shifting, nuanced (as a tribute to the English language I am not going to finish that sentence – if you’re reading this – you can! There are so many ways to resolve this cliffhanger, that’s English baby)

In the build up to the referendum however there may come a time when we struggle to find words in either Scots or English to sum up all the complex emotions and ideas at stake.

So here are some handy words to turn to.

Seny (the ny is pronounced like the ‘ni’ in onion) [Catalan]

From what I gather both more intuitive and more lofty than mere ‘common sense.’ Like wisdom, but seny, is more ingrained, the sense of the right thing to do. Not what is merely logical, but ‘what follows’, that speaks not just of practically but of truth. It is strongly associated with Aesop style moralistic fables. Including one about a rat who climbs into a bird’s cage. The bird is startled and dies immediately. The rat chomps down on the bird only to discover he is now too fat to escape! Common sense would be to lure the bird out of the cage and eat it. Perhaps seny is that it is folly to even go for the bird. Eating it all greedily is only going to get us into trouble.

Iktsuarpok [Inuit]

You know when you are eagerly waiting for something to happen, when you just can’t sit still and you keep getting up to check if someone is coming? That’s iktsuarpok for you! I’m sure a lot of us feel this agitated, anticipation in the run up to the referendum.

Dugnad [Norwegian]

Work voluntarily undertaken by a community for the good of the community. All getting involved and having a meal after. ‘Dugnadsånd’ according to wikipedia is ‘the spirit of will to work together for a better community. Many Norwegians will describe this as a typical Norwegian thing to have.’

And perhaps most poignantly (and possibly appropriately)

Fernweh [German]

Feeling homesick for a place you have never been to.


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