Fighting for the Scots Language in School

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Just in time for Robert Burn’s birthday, a group of more than 80 academics and language activists released an open letter to Michael Russell, the Scottish Education Secretary, calling for increased, compulsory study of the Scots language and Scots literature in Scottish schools.

The letter, excerpted here in The Herald, requests that the study of Scots be made mandatory in school and that Scots literature be included in exams. It also requests that a Scots language department be created within the Scottish Education Quality and Improvement Agency.

The letter also sternly upbraids the Scottish Government for not doing more to promote the language, saying

“Successive Scottish ministers and education policy makers have said Scotland’s language and literature are important to learning and teaching in this country. But each administration has failed to invest adequately in training and resources to ensure this engagement actually takes place. The result is that Scotland has a teaching profession often ill-equipped to teach Scotland’s young people about their own country’s language and literature.”

According to Wikipedia, Scots began to branch off from Middle English in the 12th and 13th centuries, and developed independently from there. By 1560, an English herald at the court of Mary of Guise found Scots to be completely unintelligible, and the Scottish nobles had to switch to French to be understood.

However, after England and Scotland united, standard English came into fashion and the use of Scots was considered somewhat low-class and “vulgar,” especially in writing. English became the language of the schools, though Scots was still spoken at home.

As a result, Scots has become increasingly Anglicized over the centuries, to the point that some people don’t consider it a language at all, but rather a dialect of English. In fact, a 2010 survey by the Scottish government found that 64 percent of Scottish citizens surveyed  “don’t really think of Scots as a language – more a way of speaking”.  Interestingly enough, though, this opinion was most frequently held by people who don’t speak Scots at all.

In this context, it’s easy to see why Scots language activists would like to see it taught in schools more frequently. But is making it a mandatory subject the answer?

Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s new national poet or Makar, told the Herald that while she initially had reservations about the “compulsory” part, she now supports the letter:

“Who could be against giving all our children and young people the means to access, fully explore and enjoy their own linguistic and literary heritage?…  although I’m by temperament a libertarian whose heart sinks at the very thought of the exam system and would like literature, in whatever language, to be a pleasure not a penance, I would sign this letter.”