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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, marvel at how language is getting 20m views for contouring tutorials on Youtube.
Today’s episode is another instalment about minority languages, the threats they face and what they do to survive.
This episode is sponsored by Babbel, the number 1 selling language app in the world. You can use Babbel on smartphone, tablet or desktop to learn one of fourteen languages - actually why stop at one, learn up to fourteen languages, all at your own pace through fun bitesize interactive lessons and quizzes. I’m planning a trip to the French-speaking parts of Canada this summer, so I need to brush up on the French I’ve let lapse since school, and indeed was not great at even then, because we learned a lot of phrases such as, “My aunt has lost her penknife.” Have I ever had occasion to say this phrase? I have not. Babbel equips you with vocabulary you’ll actually use, for ordering food or asking for directions or chatting with friends. Care to join me? Use code ALLUSION to get 50% off your first 3 months when you go to babbel.com/allusion.
I just finished the Radiotopia tour, so thanks to everyone who came along to the shows - it was really good to meet some of you. And big thanks to Stitcher for sponsoring the tour; Stitcher is a free app for your Android and Apple devices for listening to podcasts. Such as this one, the Bugle, Ear Hustle, Mortified… all our Radiotopia pals are on there. If you want to look at this show as well as hear it, I have live fixtures coming up - I’ll announce a new date in Australia at the end of the episode.
But now, on with the show.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: I remember speaking to a friend of mine and saying, "I used to have another language, I used to be able to speak another language." And she was like, “Speak it then.” And I remember not having anything, I couldn't say anything.
HZ: This is Ishbel McFarlane, a theatre maker and campaigner for the Scots language. Although for many years of her life, she did not want anything to do with the Scots language at all.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: So my mum and dad deliberately brought me up speaking Scots when I was wee, partly because they both grew up in moderately complicated but Scots language environments, and they were themselves Scots language campaigners, and so they really wanted me to have access to it. So that would be my sort of home language. But then because of a whole load of reasons, centrally that it's not seen as a language by many people, I wasn't allowed to use it at primary school or at nursery or playgroup or even when I was with my friends and their parents.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: There's no name for our language, apart from "Shut up" or "don't talk like that".
HZ: Dr Michael Dempster is a neurolinguist whose first language was Scots; that’s what his family spoke in the home.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: But certainly I think my parents were aware of Scots Standard English being the best way to speak if you're going to school, and the value in speaking like that. So there's a lot of a correcting of the way that I spoke. And you were disciplined in school all the time about your language, and ridiculed - teachers would ridicule. When I entered school, in Scotland we had the tos, which was a belt, a leather belt with three or two thongs, for corporal punishment.
HZ: And when was this, what decade was this?
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: This would be the 1980s. So I was the first year that didn't get the belt. And everyone I've spoken to who is older than me had some experience of being belted for using their language. So corporal punishment was used to police language. You would often get sent to their teacher for your terrible language.
HZ: Or even if you were sent to be punished for something else, it could end up being a punishment for your language.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: I remember the first time I was sent, it was for playing with chuckie stanes out in the playground. So chuckie stanes - small pebbles, smaller than pebbles, bits of gravel - throwing it about. And there's a few of us who were sent to the head teacher and the punishment was - initially it was for throwing stones. And by the time we got to the head teacher, we were asked what we did to be sent there. "We were just flinging wee stanes about, wee chuckies about," so speaking in Scots.
HZ: And suddenly, they weren’t in trouble for throwing stones. They were in trouble for using Scots.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: So immediately the teacher attacked our language and not the actual scenario that resulted in us being sent to be told off for flicking stones at one another. Immediately it was about the language, and the teacher was threatening and explaining to us that we would have been hit with the belt had we been there a year earlier, and our language was terrible, it was disgusting, it was all these negative adjectives; and that was persistent throughout school. By my time, language was being used violently towards the children for using Scots within the school context. And that was that was my experience growing up through much of the school system being ridiculed and attacked for my language, by teachers and other adults. And that still goes on today. That still goes on today.
HZ: What does that do to you, growing up in that environment where the language that you've grown up speaking is so off limits?
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: I think it destroys people's confidence in being able to communicate publicly. People are terrified to engage with doctors, to engage with local politicians, to speak in any way publicly.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: And so I didn't want to speak at all and I wouldn't let my mum and dad speak it at all and they were worried I was being bullied because I was speaking it; and so I switched to English because that was the language that had all the kudos. That was the one that was going to get you jobs, etc. There's also a sort of almost panicked “You won't get a job if you speak like that.” So while my mom and dad were using Scots with me, and if I used an English word they'd say, “Yeah, you can use either.” So for example they’d say, “Put your breeks on," and I'd say “trousers” because I heard that that was what you should be saying. And they'd say, “Yeah, breeks or trousers. You can use either word”. Whereas my grandma would say, “No. Do not use breeks. Use trousers. You can't you can't get jobs if you use the word breeks.” Even though they’re farming; everyone spoke Scots.
HZ: So your parents were really trying to avoid giving you the association of shame and Scots.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Yeah, definitely.
HZ: But you got it anyway.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Got it anyway.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: it was actually quite an eye-opener seeing as an adult how Scots is policed in public life, and how the prestige of the language is policed publicly. So working, professionally speaking, giving public lectures and things like that, in Scotland where the vast majority of the people who were in the audience would understand the Scots I was going to say, there would be a visceral rejection of that language in that context. Most people speak standard Scottish English and that's English with a Scottish accent. And it's very rare for people to publicly use Scots. So because Scots Language exists on a continuum with English with a Scots accent and then English with an English accent -
ISHBEL McFARLANE: - So it's very close to English. And so a lot of people just think of it as rubbish English.
HZ: But it isn’t. What is it, Ishbel?
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Scots is a Germanic language like English and shares an ancestor with English in Anglo-Saxon. So that's the language of people who invaded England and traveled up England into Scotland in the seventh and eighth century. And then as the borders between England and Scotland start to become more defined, they developed very separately, particularly because what we now consider English is an English that grew up right in the southeast of England. So Scots had interaction with English, but it also had its own influences particularly from French, Flemish, we kept a lot more Latin; and it developed in its own way. So the first major language spoken in Scotland is Pictish, right, and Pictish is genocided out by Irish Gaelic which then becomes Scots Gaelic as it is further away from Ireland. So the Gaelic becomes the language of Scotland. And then the Anglo Saxons come up from Denmark through the north of England and start creating Scots in the south east of Scotland, around Edinburgh; and then that starts growing and pushing through the lowlands and up the Northeast and deliberately eradicating Gaelic. The famous king is David I who deliberately made these borough towns like in England - he grew up in England - and he put Anglo-Saxon speakers in them. And so the Gaelic speakers in the area, if they wanted to trade or sell anything they certainly had to be able to speak Anglo-Saxon, this ancestor of Scots.
HZ: Common story, that: a language achieves prestige because of commercial pressures. Another classic factor is religious authority.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: The Geneva bible in Scotland was the voice of God, and that was in English.
HZ: The Geneva Bible was the first Bible to be printed in Scotland, and in 1579, a law was passed in Scotland ordering every household with sufficient means to buy it. So that’s some effective marketing for the superior authority of English.
Thirdly: royalty spawns trends, then as now. When Kate Middleton wears a coat, it sells out; and when King James VI of Scotland becomes the King of England as well in 1603, people want to speak like the big lad speaks.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: He is a native Scots speaker, so he wrote poetry in Scots and his laws in Scots when he was king in Scotland. And then when he becomes king of England as well, he moves to London, partly because English people are like, “we don't want a Scots King, we hate that” because they've been at war with Scotland so often within living memory. So he moved to London to appease that - and also London is richer than Edinburgh, so it's nice to go somewhere where there's lots of gold. And he suddenly switches, and Scots and Gaelic are languages which make people vulgar and governable. So it's explicitly the language that does it.
HZ: Got to put distance between your new favourite thing and the old ways.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: And so this king who had been writing in Scots, suddenly everybody has to speak English as spoken in London. And that wasn't the case. Northumberland English in the north of England would’ve been almost as different from London English as Edinburgh Scots. So that sort of variety suddenly becomes a threat to nationhood.
HZ: I think also when those longer range transport and mass communication and mass media, the language starts to become a lot more homogenous.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Absolutely, yeah. By the time you get to the 18th century and you're creating a polite society -
HZ: I mean what is that about.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Yeah. That new polite society has national newspapers and things like that for the first time. People need to think the same way, have the same rules, because suddenly you're not just interacting with the 1000 people in your local area: you need to be selling things in Manchester and going to find work in London and you need to be fitting in. David Hume the Scottish philosopher, who was a very proud Scot and incredibly clever and leading the Enlightenment and changing the history of Western civilisation - at the back of his books on philosophy, he had little handy helpful tips about how to stop writing Scots, how to exorcise Scottishness from your writing. Because the English of London becomes rational and objective and people start to forget that it's also a dialect.
HZ: What kind of rules did he outline?
ISHBEL McFARLANE: So for example, his name ‘Hume’: that in Scots would generally have been spelt H O M E and that would be Hume; but in southeast English, you would read that as ‘home’. So he switched the spelling of his name to H U M E and use that consistently. And he had a friend who always deliberately kept spelling his name H O M E. And he in his in his will he left this guy like a bushel of wine or something on the understanding he would only get it if he never ever use the spelling H O M E again, he just used the English spelling.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: An interesting effect is about enunciation. If you don't hear what somebody says in Scotland, if you say "What?" generally, if they say, "I've got a sore heid" and you say "What?" they'll say, "I have a sore head." So people enunciate in standard English. It's part of training children in the sociolinguistic hierarchy - if somebody speaks Scots, a parent or an authority figure will say, "What?" and the expectation is to reply and then enunciate in standard English.
HZ: There are a lot of people who are keen to erase their own minority language use or dialect use because they've internalized that message that it holds them back.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Yeah. Oh yeah. There's definitely the model of top down suppression, where the law says that isn't you can't use it in a classroom and the teacher stops you using it. But that is internalized and people police themselves and each other really strongly. And people do it sometimes aggressively, and a lot with humour, in ways that they don't understand how problematic that can be.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: People had been visibly excluded for their language, and that was something that reminded me of growing up in that context. If you used Scots, and I've watched it in shopping centres and that; if Scots gets used, security guards follow those people, so there's suspicion there, and there's an exclusion from speaking. I've seen people thrown out of museums and really all they've done is spoken Scots.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: People will stop someone else in a queue. So for example ‘thae’ is Scots word for ‘those’, T H A E, and that's often seen as ‘wrong English’ by people. And someone I know was in a queue and this wee boy was like, “Can I have twa of thae ones?” about sweets or something and somebody like 3 feet back said, “it's not ‘thae’, it's those.” It's like, who does that? Who just interrupt somebody and corrects them? But we do it with language all the time.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: So you learn the places where it's acceptable. Just from my own personal experience, actually speaking in public after having a lifetime of ridicule was incredibly difficult at first. And then after that I spoke only in English in public, and after about a decade speaking in museums and teaching and I decided to speak Scots and it was incredibly difficult; it was surprisingly hard to actually move across and speak in Scots publicly.
HZ: Just to make it more confusing, some major Scottish culture is in Scots language. So even when children were forbidden to use Scots colloquially at school, they still encountered it through the work of the revered poet Robert Burns.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Robert Burns is our national poet - he wrote ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and ‘My Love is like a Red Red Rose’, apparently Bob Dylan's favorite song - and that we're very proud of him, particularly in January, our big national holiday really is Burns Night. And so children learn Burns poems and other Scots poems in January, and then the rest of the year, they're in terrible trouble if they use Scots.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: The hostility in that public space, how you interact with that, is certainly going have massive neurological and physiological effects upon people.
HZ: So even though in the past few years, Scots has become more visible and respected, Scots speakers won’t necessarily transform their attitudes towards their own language as quickly. There’s a very complex relationship between it and the culture and national identity.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: Scotland's always trying to negotiate being part of Britain and having its own cultural identity or identities - there are multiple ones that go back, Scotland was one of the early medieval kingdoms, as was England and France. So it's something that language and nationalism...they are related, but I would like to say that because Scotland is essentially trilingual in terms of native languages - Scottish standard English, Scots and Gaelic - they are not quite becoming nationalist footballs. Neither British nationalists or Scottish nationalists want to use Scots as that. So I think it's important to keep it that way because there are other nationalistic movements with the language at the centre of the movement.
HZ: As discussed in the episode about Welsh Patagonia: the Welsh language was protected by the Welsh Language Act of 1967, and promoted by being used in TV and radio and public writing, such as bilingual road signs all over the country. But the Scots language has not, so far, had these formal campaigns.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: So that's one of the questions in the Scots language community: do we have this written representation of Scots, and in an official capacity? And also for things like public buildings, should they have multilingual signs? So ‘oot’, having O-O-T for ‘exit’.
HZ: A little bit of Scots language by every doorway.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: So the idea is that if you make it more and more visible then people become more used to using in a public context. But then it comes in the question about who is actually implementing Scots language. Within written Scots, there's expository register of Scots, which has largely come into existence from non-Scots speakers who treating Scots as a dead language and basically trying to reconstruct Scots from historical documents; whereas Scots as modern Scots is spoken is very far from dead.
HZ: Also if you're reconstructing a language from documents, it's not really going to resemble the one that people actually use.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: Well that's a real issue. That alienates a lot of people and that's something I think we've got to be very careful of, with supporting Scots and encouraging people to use the Scots, because people are presented by something that's alien to them. To give an English context: if you were presented by Shakespearean English and told that that was English and you are speaking it incorrectly, you're going to say, "I don't speak English. I don't know what I speak. If that's English, I don't speak it." So that's one of the issues that can come up.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: And also a thing that that happens a lot is people talk about old Scots words. So they’ll say “‘Bairn’ is an old Scots word for a child”, and I’ll say, first it is currently in use; that’ll be a word that's used by millions, literally millions of people in Scotland - 1.5 million people in Scotland reported themselves as Scots speakers in the last census. But it's actually a younger word than the word ‘child’. So why don’t we say a child is an old English word for small person, young person? The oldness of Scots is a way of kind of distancing it from like the cut and thrust of contemporary life.
HZ: Language lives when it adapts to modern needs. And, fortunately, the Scots language is not staying a historic reconstruction.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: So there is a confidence in speaking arriving as well, particularly with social media. The online presence of Scots has been there right from the start of the World Wide Web. Within a year of the worldwide web, people in Scotland were calling it ‘the wab’, and wab steets; so there's a native name for it that's just as old as website, or nearly as old as website. So Scots has got a technical language as well. People engage with computer training in it - "Shut the windae" and things like that.
ISHBEL McFARLANE: Now, you can get The Gruffalo in Scots, you can get Winnie the Pooh in Scots, you can get Harry Potter in Scots - [reads a few lines of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Scots] - and that's a great way in for young readers, and for parents.
MICHAEL DEMPSTER: But now you'll see small Scots dictionaries and people started - particularly in the crafting world, people use Scots words in their crafts. People are coming to actually accept that there's a cultural value to the language. So I'm quite confident that it is on the up.
HZ: Michael Dempster and Ishbel McFarlane both work with the Scots Language Centre to promote Scots and campaign for greater visibility of the language. Find it at scotslanguage.com. Ishbel McFarlane delivers training on Scotland’s minority languages, and she’s also a performer - look out for her solo show about the Scots language, O is for Hoolet. Keep track of her at ishbelmcf on Twitter. Find out more about Michael Dempster’s writing and academic work at mindyerlanguage.scot - he’s also been translating songs and operas into Scots, there’s a performance of his version of Dido and Aeneas in August through the Scots Opera Project. I’ll link to all of Michael and Ishbel’s projects at theallusionist.org/scots.
Thanks to Bombas for sponsoring this episode of the Allusionist. Bombas spent two years perfecting the design of socks so they’d be extra comfortable and extra supportive of your foot - but that’s not the only extra effort they make. For every pair of socks you buy, they donate a pair to homeless shelters, where socks are the most requested item. To date, they have donated seven million pairs of socks to shelters in the USA. So when you purchase Bombas socks, you know that you’re not just clothing your own feet, you’re clothing somebody else’s feet too. That’s a good deal, right? And an even better is saving 20% off your first purchase by visiting bombas.com/allusionist and entering the offer ALLUSIONIST in the checkout code space.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the best podcasts around. One of these is Love + Radio, a groundbreaking podcast which is back with a new series and like all the previous Love + Radios, it will feature human emotions and thoughts and experiences utterly beyond my wildest imaginings, and be beautifully produced too. Hear Love + Radio and all the other Radiotopian shows at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia exists thanks to you benevolent and attentive listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
eudaemonic, adjective: conducive to happiness.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me and Martin Austwick, who also does the music for this show. Martin and I will be performing Allusionist live in June in Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth! Looking forward to visiting the most remote city in the world. Find the dates at theallusionist.org/events, and get ready, New Zealand, I’m visiting you in July and will update that page as soon as tickets are on sale for the shows. Also on the website are transcripts of each episode, the full dictionary entries for the randomly selected words, notes and extra reading about every episode, social media links - everything Allusional is there. Pay a home visit at theallusionist.org.
I’m pleased to tell you the Allusionist just won an award at the British Podcast Awards, for smartest show. You already were on the case, of course, because you are so smart.