Who needs linguists eh? Who needs to bother with all the bother of the academic study of language when we have the wit and wisdom of Stephen Daisley and his continuing crusade to deny the existence of the Scots language. It’s not a “real language” according to the erudite Daisley, it’s merely “slang English”. It’s not that the distinctions between slang, dialect, accent, and language have not been pointed out to Stephen in the past, it’s just that he steadfastly maintains his belief that his ignorance is more informed than any information that anyone might point out to him. You can supply him with academic references. You can point out facts. You can attempt to educate and inform, but Stephen will cling on to his prejudices like a lifebelt. They’re all that keep him afloat. He is the flat-earther of linguistic science.
One of his difficulties is doubtless that, unlike the black and white certainties beloved of the Daily Mail, there are no hard and fast boundary lines when we’re discussing the vagaries of human linguistic behaviour. The categories of slang, dialect, accent, and language blur at their edges. They overlap. They merge in interesting and complex ways. However there are vital distinctions between the categories and without understanding what those differences are, you cannot make any sensible contribution to the debate about language teaching in Scottish schools, or indeed anywhere else. Stephen’s inability to grasp the distinctions between them only proves the arrogant sclerosis of his own thought patterns. He’s not only determined to resist any of that vile linguistic science, he’s also determined to feel persecuted because of it.
Slang is a set of vocabulary which usually pertains to a particular social group within a speech population. It’s typically informal and is most often associated with distinct social groups or contexts. People who speak with very different accents and who were brought up with very different dialects can and do make use of the same slang. So for example there’s drug user slang, internet slang, hip hop slang, prison slang. Because slang is informal, it’s often confused with other speech varieties which are associated with non-standard usage.
Dialect is also typically used in informal settings. All forms of language are expressed in dialect, the standard language is merely a dialect which has been codified. Unlike slang, which is purely a set of vocabulary, dialect also involves grammar, accent, and syntax (the rules for combining words in a sentence) as well as vocabulary. Another important difference is that whereas slang is usually associated with a distinct social group or setting, dialect is most commonly associated with a particular geographical region.
A language is famously a dialect with an army. There is no hard and fast rule to determine whether two closely related speech varieties are different languages or whether they are distinct dialects of a single language. As a rule of thumb, varieties which are not mutually intelligible are considered to be different languages. Scots is not easily intelligible to English speakers without prior exposure to Scots, so on that count Scots would be regarded as a different language from English. However there are almost as many exceptions to this rule as there are examples of it. Hindi and Urdu are regarded as different languages, but are mutually intelligible. Cantonese and Mandarin are as different from one another as English is different from German, yet both are regarded as dialects of Chinese. The various dialects of Arabic differ from one another as much as Spanish differs from Italian.
Accent is closely associated with dialect and is often confused with it. However you can theoretically speak any dialect with any accent. Accent refers to how speech sounds are produced, but in dialect there is often a difference in the choice of speech sounds used in particular words or sets of words. It is perfectly possible to speak Standard English with a Scots accent, and by that I mean an accent proper to the Scots language. In the exact same way you can speak Standard English with a French accent, a Yorkshire accent, or a American Southern accent. It would be perfectly possible for someone with a non-Scots accent to speak Scots, but as Scots is almost never taught as a second language, this hardly ever happens.
When speaking Standard English, Scottish people typically have a very distinctive pronunciation of the sound written “ow” or “ou” in words like cow or house, but in dialect the choice of the sound used can also differ. In Scots, the sound written “oo” in English spelling is used in these words. If Scots were to be considered a dialect of English, this would be a dialectal distinction. Scottish Standard English is in fact pretty much Standard English spoken with the accent proper to Lowland Scots.
It’s because English speakers in Scotland most often use a variety of English which is itself heavily influenced by Scots that the linguistically naive, the Daisleys of this world, are so convinced that Scots isn’t a “real language”. They already use a variety of English which is part way towards Scots, and most often have a passive understanding of Scots even though they may not actively speak Scots themselves. However since they regard themselves as English monoglots, they tell themselves that since they understand Scots, it cannot be a proper language. The fact is that people without their exposure to Scots and who don’t use varieties of Standard English which are influenced by Scots lack the same understanding of Scots. It’s not that Scots isn’t a real language, it’s that people like Stephen lack a real awareness of their own linguistic repertoire.
How dare those evil nationalists torture him with linguistic reality. He’s an English language journalist, that’s all the qualification required to pontificate about language. This is a bit like claiming that because you have a driving licence, you are qualified to strip down an engine and rebuild it. Or saying that because you have a TV licence, then you understand the principles of electromagnetic waves, cathode ray tubes, and diodes. Language is a complex set of neurophysiological processes, most of which take place beyond the conscious awareness of speakers. That’s why we have linguists. Writers are people who drive. Linguists are people who know how to strip down and rebuild an engine.
The trigger for La Daisley’s linguistic ire in a wee rant in the Mail was a recent report from a proper linguist who specialises in the study of Scots that teaching Scots in schools has a beneficial impact on children. He expressed utter incomprehension at the utility of engaging children in an exercise of translating English language texts into Scots. However the point of this exercise is to get children to think about how they use language, about how different forms of language are considered proper to different circumstance. It was about getting children to open the bonnet of the language car and to start to examine the engine instead of driving them with prejudice, snobbery, and an ignorant arrogance masquerading as erudition.
There is a legitimate argument to be had about whether Scots is a dialect, or more accurately a set of dialects, of English, or whether it’s a distinct language. Like all things in language it’s not a black and white question with a simple answer. However for a range of reasons I’ve set out in previous blogs, I come down firmly on the “Scots is a language” side of that argument, as do the majority of those who make a formal academic study of human language – including those who specialise in the study of English dialect.
However, what Scots most certainly is not is “slang English”. Slang does not encompass phonology – the rules of production of speech sounds. Slang does not encompass grammatical patterns which are distinct from the standard language in question. Slang does not encompass virtually the entire vocabulary of everyday discourse which is shared by an entire speech community. Scots does all those things. If we want to have a sensible conversation about the role of Scots in the curriculum, it would help if we started from a position of knowledge, and not from a position of prejudice.
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