Scots: an outline history


Linguistically the languages Scots and English were distinct but quite closely related varieties, as different as are (for instance) Norwegian and Danish today. Because of this close relationship, elements originally English could appear in Scots writings and speech without appearing particularly incongruous. This process, which is known as anglicization, developed for a number of reasons. Traditionally, the anglicization of Scots is attributed to influences resulting from the Reformation of 1560, in particular the adoption by the Scots Reformers of the printed English Geneva Bible and a mainly English Psalter instead of a Bible and a Psalter in Scots, and from the much closer political and social contacts between the two nations which followed the Reformation and, still more, after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Printing in Scotland was slow to emerge in comparison with England, and thus imported printed books in the vernacular imported from south of the border provided a linguistic model that was widely imitated.

Written versus spoken Scots

As the sixteenth century gave way to the seventeenth, a divergence arose between the spoken and written modes, and in the latter case between different media. In print, the demise of Older Scots was quite sudden. After 1610, except for a few legal texts and comic or satirical works, most public writing in prose by Scottish authors, whether printed in Scotland or, as often, in London, became heavily anglicized in form although still exhibiting some Scots words and phrases. In manuscript (letters, records, diaries, manuscript histories etc.), however, which in most cases continued to be private, anglicization proceeded more gradually through the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth.

Literary writing

There were however some exceptions to the general trend towards written anglicization. In public forms, the tradition of printing heroic and comic poems of the classical Early and Middle Scots periods continued through the seventeenth century (albeit in somewhat anglicized spelling), e.g. Blind Hary’s Wallace, which was originally composed at the end of the fifteenth century but which went through at least six editions in Glasgow alone from the middle of the seventeenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth. These printed texts served as a springboard for the eighteenth-century revival of Scots writing launched by Allan Ramsay (1686-1756) and his contemporaries in lyric, comic and descriptive verse, in balladry and, a little later, in humorous tales and ghost stories in prose, and prose dialogue and monologue. Some of this material, e.g. the poetry of Lady Grizel Baillie (1665-1746), achieved widespread currency across the new polity created by the Union of Parliaments in 1707. All such writings however were written in a more colloquial Scots than the formal style of most Older Scots literature.

Everyday speech

While Scottish writing was becoming anglicized in these ways from the sixteenth century or earlier, the indications are that the speech of almost all Scottish people – outside the Gaelic-speaking areas (the Gàidhealtachd) – continued to be Scots. Following the Reformation in 1560, however, all classes of folk in Scotland were coming not only into regular visual but also into aural contact with English: aural in that at least once a week, and in the case of devout people several times a week; they heard readings from the English Bible, and sermons in a language at least partly modelled on Biblical English. In the course of the seventeenth century there was also a considerable increase in personal interaction between Scots-speakers and English-speakers.

After the Union of the Crowns

A further element in all these anglicizing pressures was the great increase after the Union of the Crowns in 1603, in contacts of all sorts between the upper classes of Scotland and England, an increase further encouraged by the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the Scottish upper classes gradually gave up their native Scots speech for what had long been regarded as the more elegant and perfect English of the south (as it was called by one Scottish writer in 1603). The formal or ‘polite’ speech of Scotland’s social elite now became increasingly closer to southern English usage; forms of speech which mostly favoured traditional Scots usages were identified with conservatives, eccentrics and, especially, with the common people. Some upper- and middle-class Scots certainly still used occasional Scotticisms, and spoke their English with a noticeable Scottish accent. But during the eighteenth century most adopted the ‘educated’ variety known as Scottish Standard English (SSE). SSE consisted – and consists – of largely Standard English vocabulary and grammar, spoken in a Scottish accent somewhat modified in the direction of usages south of the Border.

Changing attitudes to Scots

Though some continued to hold that the total extinction of ‘barbarous’ vernacular Scots was desirable, this attitude seems to have changed early in the nineteenth century. We may perhaps associate this change with the publication of John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in 1808, together with the new wave of Scottish Romantic writers, and the burgeoning of nineteenth-century antiquarianism. And as the nineteenth century progressed, there arose a further distinction between traditional, usually equated with rural, dialects of Scots, which were widely approved by cultural commentators of the time, and ‘slovenly perversions of dialect’, usually equated with urban dialects, which were not.

Smith, Jeremy. (2017) Scots: an outline history. Online