Monday, September 15, 2014

What's Next? Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and the Scottish Identity

by Melissa Puthenmadom

With the Scottish independence referendum looming over the horizon—scheduled to take place on September 18, 2014—the presence of Scotland’s regional and minority languages has become more relevant than ever. Today, the only official language in Scotland is English, while Scottish Gaelic and Scots are recognized as regional languages. You might ask: what’s the difference?

As with any group of people, language both unites and distinguishes those who speak it. As Scotland considers defining a political identity separate from the United Kingdom, it’s worthwhile to look at both Gaelic and Scots as having unique linguistic merit within Scotland’s cultural landscape and the formation of Scottish identity.

The main difference between the languages is that Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language with ties to Old Irish, while Scots is a Germanic language descending from Old English.

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Gaelic enjoyed prestige status after developing independently as a trade language in the 12th century, until the 14th century Wars of Independence between Scotland and England. 

Non-Gaelic speaking minorities in the Lowlands, most originating from England, felt abandoned by Englishmen raiding their communities during the Wars. They decided to adopt Gaelic cultural symbols and mythology, creating a Scottish identity completely alienated from England. However, they continued to speak their dialect of Middle English. The resultant language, Scots, grew in strength and caused Gaelic to retreat to the Highlands. (

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The 2001 UK Census determined that Gaelic speakers comprise only 1.2% of the Scottish population ( All Gaelic speakers are bilingual in English. Recently, however, Scottish Gaelic has regained certain prestige. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005 has played a large role in reviving interest in Gaelic and asserting its relevance beyond the Highlands.

The Act ( established the Bòrd na Gàidhlig (BnG), a language planning organization whose primary goal is “securing the status of the Gaelic language as an official language of Scotland commanding equal respect to the English language.”
This has been especially important for the realm of education, where Gaelic has been banned and stigmatized for centuries. Slowly, the trend is being reversed: the number of pupils who are in Gaelic medium education at primary school level rose from 24 in 2 schools in 1985, to 2312 in 2010. (

There is a Gaelic radio station and TV channel operated by the BBC; the Highlands has seen increased placement of bilingual road signs, street/place names, and business and advertisement signage; publication of Gaelic literature has increased alongside an outpouring of music and poetry referred to as the Scottish Gaelic Renaissance—all speak to strengthened cultural identification with the language. 

Scots, on the other hand, flies under the radar of most Scottish citizens. Is it an identity language? 2010 Scottish Government study of "public attitudes towards the Scots language" ( found that 64% of respondents "don't really think of Scots as a language.” Unger’s 2010 research suggested that the prejudice still lingers: average citizens tend to “reject the notion of Scots as a viable, contemporary language that can be used across a wide range of registers.” No education takes place through Scots; the language is unfortunately rare in media today, unused in news and most official documents. Most features of Scots are mischaracterized as English slang.

Scots is experiencing what linguists call language attrition: successive generations of speakers adopt more features of Standard English and shift out of Scots. Scots retreated to being a mostly spoken language of the working class, especially after the formation of Great Britain 1707, in which Scots lost its political prestige to English. Written variants of Scots adopted many Standard English spellings, and when spoken, Scots was considered a colloquial, uneducated language. (

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Yet there’s another side to Scots—one just has to look at a map to see it. Lacking strong written or spoken standards lead to a wide variety of dialects ranging from traditional broad Scots to Scottish Standard English. Even the English language has its unique character in Scotland; combined with the five dialect groups of Scots which flourish along the Lowlands, the Scots-English spectrum reveals a deep connection between language, location, and identity.

Pixar’s Brave, which premiered in 2012, is a timely example in the media of the strength of Scots in Scottish identity. Kevin McKidd chose to use the Doric dialect to voice the character Young MacGuffin, honoring his hometown and his grandfather. 

Both playing on the stereotypes of the outlandishness of certain dialects and embracing a unique linguistic identity, McKidd’s performance reflects much of the literature and poetry produced in Scots, which has endured in popularity, but must acknowledge the threat of standardization.

It would be inaccurate to say that Scottish English, Scots, or Scottish Gaelic alone reflect a collective Scottish identity. Rather, these languages provide unique perspectives of Scotland. Their histories have given them various statuses, but those are still being reinterpreted and challenged today. Should Scotland go independent, they may find a much-needed push to revitalize their regional languages.

"Gaelic Medium Education in Scotland." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 May 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

"Scottish Gaelic Language." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Apr. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Scottish Government Social Research. "Public Attitudes Towards the Scots Language." The Scottish Government. The Scottish Government., 06 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Scottish Parliament. "Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005." The National Archives, 21 Apr. 2005. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Kavanagh, Paul. "Scotland's Language Myths: 4. Gaelic Has Nothing to Do with the Lowlands." Newsnet Scotland. Newsnet Scotalnd, 12 Mar. 2011. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Andersen, Ole Stig. "Gaelic and Scots: Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot." Language Politics. Ole Stig Andersen, 24 June 1999. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

Unger, Johann W. “Legitimating inaction: Differing identity constructions of the Scots language.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 13.1 (2010): 99-117. Web. 11 Apr. 2014.

The author of this blog entry is Melissa Puthenmadom, a sophomore at the University of Illinois. She is majoring in English and is hoping to work with literature, possibly by entering the publishing industry. She plans to take classes that will allow her to spend more time in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and work with stories from all sorts of cultures. She wrote this text in the seminar LING 418, Language and Minorities in Europe.


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