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Scots: Practical Approaches
ScotLit 25, Autumn 2001
Advanced Higher Specifications
The new Higher Still and Advanced Higher examinations in English promise (or threaten, depending on your point of view) a ‘greater range and intensity’ of work on both language in general and Scots in particular. For example, the Advanced Higher support notes suggest that:
Students will engage in a variety of language activities e.g.:
- analysing and describing textual materials and discourses, both historical and contemporary
- consulting reference materials, including dictionaries, glossaries and thesauruses of Scots
- applying linguistic concepts, terminology and techniques to the description of Scottish language
- acquiring knowledge of the sound system (phonetics), the forms (syntax and morphology) and the vocubulary (lexis and semantics) of Scots
- collecting and analysing linguistic materials gathered in fieldwork
Literature as such is not mentioned, except possibly in the indirect reference to ‘textual materials and discourses’, but the specifications elsewhere mention journalism or ‘a soap opera set in Scotland’ as being more likely to provide raw data for linguistic analysis. Understandably, perhaps, in the creation of a new unit in Scottish Language, the designers have wanted to put some clear blue water between language study and literary study, literary study being understood here in its traditional sense of exploring aspects of the self and society through imaginative writings. Language and literature have not always been happy bedfellows: enthusiasts for literature often feel that the sometimes clinical precision demanded by language study kills any life in a poem, or novel or play. This attitude is perhaps best summed up in Tom Leonard’s poem, which begins:
would thi prisoner
in thi bar
fur thi aforesaid crime
uv writn anuthir poem
awarded the certificate of safety
by thi scottish education department
fit tay be used in schools
huvn no bad language
sex subversion or antireligion
I hereby sentence you
tay six munths hard labour
doon nthi poetry section
uv yir local library
coontn thi fuckin metaphors
So there is a sense then, that a turn towards language in literary studies, if you like, signals the death of the creative impulse; just as there is in language study the vague sense that the intrusion of literary texts will signal the end of scientific rigor. I’ve always felt that the polarisation of views is a pity, though it is sometimes understandable. Unless you are careful – and unless precise description can be wedded to interpretation – the linguistic study of a literary text can become a mechanical exercise. But equally, given that for the past 400 years most written Scots has been literary, it seems a shame to neglect this rich resource for the study of how language works. This talk, then, is an attempt to show how an exploration of the language of literature in Scots can both illuminate the given literary texts, and reveal insights into how communication – language – works more generally. We’ll be looking at activities at different levels of language: sounds and spellings, words, grammar and discourse. The activities are such as could be used in the 14+ age range, though some are more demanding than others.
Sounds and Spellings
Some people might argue that the first example is not a literary text at all. It’s an excerpt from an old Scotland the What? sketch in which a toy-shop owner from Ballater phones up the late Princess of Wales to ask her what kind of Christmas present she’d like for her then new-born son, William. I’ve used this sketch for a number of years with second-year students at Glasgow University and also with teachers of English in Poland, where it went down very well:
A. From Scotland the What?, by Buff Hardie, Stephen Robertson and George Donald (Gordon Wright, 1987)
In this comic monologue from 1982, the owner of a toy shop in Ballater, near Aberdeen telephones the Princess of Wales to ask what her son would like for Christmas.
Noo, fit wid he like for his Christmas, the loon? Fit aboot a pair o’ fitba beets? Beets. Beets. B-O-O-T-S, beets. Weel, I ken that, but he’ll surely grow intae them. Weel I’ll tell ye fit I’ve got. It’s something very suitable. It’s oor ain special line in soft toys, and it is a cuddly futret. A futret. Div ye nae ken fit a futret is? Futret. F-E-R-R-E-T,
futret. Now, cuddly futrets is exclusive tae the Toy Shop, Ballater. We get them specially made up by a wee wifie, in Hong Kong. Oh, an’ fit a job I hid explainin’ tae her fit a futret is. Ye wid like a futret? Oh we’ll fairly manage ye a futret. Noo fit size o’ a futret wid ye like? We’ve got a dinkie futret, a mini futret, a life-size futret, a jumbo futret or a mega-futret. Ye’d like a jumbo futret? No, it disnae hae a trunk. No, it’s got a string that ye pull, an’ it sings Run, Rabbit, Run. Weel, fit else div ye expect a futret tae sing? Now is there onythin’ else the loon wid like? Fit aboot a rubber duke...for his bath? A duke. No, no, nae that kinda Duke. D-U-C-K, duke. A quack quack duke. Like Donald Duke. Donald Duke. He’s a freen’ o’ Mickey Moose...Moose...M-O-U-S-E, Moose! God, div ye nae understan’ English, lassie?
This extract is interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, obviously, it illustrates some of the stereotypical features of NE Scots: the /f/ phoneme in ‘fit’, the /i/ in ‘beets’ and the /dj/ in ‘duke’, as in ‘Donald Duke’. Other features (such as the /u/ in ‘moose’ are shared with most other varieties of Scots. One obvious way of approaching this text would be to ask what characteristics are true of the pupils’ own variety of Scots, and what characteristics are not.
More interesting, though, are the relationships between (i) the sound and the spellings in the text, and (ii) the speaker and the listener. When asked to spell the unrecognised words, the toy-shop owner does so: ‘D-U-C-K, duke’ and ‘M-O-U-S-E, moose’, and at last in exasperation, he exclaims, ‘God, div ye nae understan’ English, lassie?’ The sketch wittily raises key issues about the status and perception of Scots: the toy-shop owner has access to two different linguistic systems, spoken Scots and written standard English, but rather naively he equates them. For him, ‘B-O-O-T-S’ spells ‘beets’. In one sense there is no reason why ‘beets’ shouldn’t be spelled like this: spelling is an arbitrary system for representing sound – and English is notoriously arbitrary in the way it represents sounds. The toy-shop owner’s naivety lies in the fact that he thinks everyone speaks and writes ‘English’ like him. He’s unaware that while he and the Princess share a common written standard, their speech characteristics are markedly different. This is a key element in the comedy of the sketch – the fact that the toy-shop owner does not recognise that he and the Princess come from markedly different social and geographical backgrounds, and so he does not modify or accommodate his speech to bridge that social and geographical divide. He talks to the Princess as if she were a local wifie and cannot comprehend where her difficulties are coming from.
Many Scots texts have the advantage of being more or less explicitly about language. This is one. Practically it can be used to explore the following issues:
- What are the sounds that characterise this variety of Scots?
- What is the relationship between sounds and spellings? How are the sounds represented in writing?
- What is the social relationship between the speakers? How (if at all) does the language of each speaker attempt to bridge any social/geographical divide between them?
A creative way of using this kind of text is to attempt to write a pastiche or parody of it. Who for today’s pupils would represent someone from their own place and class, and which famous person would definitely not belong to their community? You could ask the pupils to invent their own sketch, using their own language variety, based on a phone call between, say, a Hollywood actress and a local chemist, who thinks she might be interested in a new kind of anti-dandruff shampoo. The activity can then explore which phonological features and vocubulary items characterise the pupils’ local speech variety, and would be opaque to someone from outside that community. It also raises issues of how these essentially spoken characteristics are written down.
From sounds and spellings I want to move now to words. The vocabulary of Scots is probably the biggest obstacle to its reception by readers in general, and teachers and pupils in particular. The sad fact is that much Scots vocabulary is no longer known, by most teachers and pupils, and that the close study of most texts in dense Scots will rather tediously demand frequent recourse to a glossary or dictionary. This obstacle is compounded by the fact that even familiar words often appear in unfamiliar spellings: the reaction of many people to Scots texts, as William McIlvanney recently observed, is the same as if they were written in Linear B script.
These barriers are there, they’re real, and they have to be tackled if you are going to make an earnest attempt to deal with Scots in all its complexities. Ways have to be found of introducing the vocabulary in interesting ways, and even of making the consultation of dictionaries and thesauruses (demanded by the Advanced Higher guidelines) an interesting and even stimulating activity. Strategies can be adopted from language teaching – EFL has over the past decade rediscovered the importance of teaching vocabulary in a rich and stimulating fashion. There is no shame in treating Scots as a foreign language if that is what much of it effectively is. Since vocabulary is such a big issue I’d like to focus on two simple strategies for making its study a bit more interactive.
The first strategy, adopted from EFL, is to use a ‘word rose’. You take a sample of words and phrases from the text, put them on the board in roughly the shape of a rose, and ask the pupils to check their meaning, and to predict what they think the poem is about. Try it and see what you come up with:
playschule sun pus
fremmit dog’s braith
clort public laavies
coordy custard skyrie
‘Birslin’ might not be generally known: it means something like ‘scorching’, or ‘crackling with heat’. ‘Skyrie’ means ‘bright’ or ‘garish’, ‘fremmit’ means ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’.
The vocabulary activity here is directed at pupils coming up with their own predictions of what the poem is about. Therefore, by the time they read or hear the poem, they have familiarised themselves with some of the vocabulary and invested some time and energy in making sense of it. In other words, they’ll have a reason for listening to or reading the poem and making sense of it too – if only in order to compare it with their predictions.
Yalla’s a playschule sun on a bairn’s pictur
A budgie’s poop o a colour
Skyrie’s a fried egg.
A meenister wadna gie it a secunt luik.
It’s the margarine clort we butter on public laavies
Ye see it, shakkin a leg on a dandy dyeuk.
Splytered ben Daft Hoose waas
It’s common as muck.
Tae be tholed in teenie doses
Like a flu injection, mebbe.
It’s the coordy-custard Bully-Boy Big-Buck
Stripe, on a wasp’s semmit
Birslin as mustard, fand in a fremmit
Vase o Van Gogh flooers.
It’s a hoor’s peroxide hair
An ahin-the-Gas Works colour
O Chastity laid doon wi its bumbee bare.
Excitin’s a burst plook,
It’s an explosion of pus
An incubus o a tint
That fell aff the back o a barra
A dog’s braith colour, yon’s yalla.
A ‘word rose’ can get you into a poem and help make it more immediately comprehensible. Once there, you can do other lexical activities: one is to make a ‘mini-thesaurus’ of the lexical items in the text and see where that leads you. Here, you might group ‘Daft Hoose, flu injection, burst plook, pus’ in a semantic field of sickness and insanity, and ‘budgie’s poop, public laavies’ with bodily waste, and ‘fried egg, margarine, butter, mustard’ rather disconcertingly joining them as foodstuffs. The poem, ostensibly about the colour yellow, seems to associate it with feeding and excrescence, illness and moral corruption (‘meenister, hoor, Chastity laid doon’). Playing around with the vocabulary, trying to predict contexts and make semantic links between items, all go beyond the mechanical activity of ‘looking things up in a dictionary.’ It also helps bring the language alive.
In my book Language and Scottish Literature I suggest doing this with a poem quite deliberately chosen as an example of very dense Scots, Kate Armstrong’s ‘This is the laund’.
This is the laund that bigs the winds; winds big the cloods;
the cloods, the weit, the weit, the grun; an antrin steer
o syle an rain. Thon frimple-frample watter rowin
frae Kenmore tae Dundee is cried the River Tay.
It’s no the Tay ava. The get o aa the oceans
fae Mexico tae Greenlaun, gift o a cloodit warld
an we wid awn it, screive it. Siccar the wather-man
ettlin tae shaw the springheid, warstles wi his isobars
an seeks tae trammel fer ae day the fricht o kennin
the yird’s sclenter. Tae whitna maitter scarts atween these banks
on loan a whilie, we sall gie particlar name. But gif
the medium be the message, raither mind hoo thocht
or scoukin haar kenna the immigration laws.
Frae muckle warld tae muckle warld, bairnie tae mither,
spicket tae seiver, onding tae quernstane,
sae Scotland’s fowk, skailt frae ae clood or ither
intil a sheuch descrives them as her ain;
sae ilka braith an ilka tear ye share, an antrin steer
o rain an syle, a thocht baith gied an taen.
It is an admittedly difficult poem to get into. The suggestion I make in the book is to compare the vocabulary in the poem with that of a nightly weatehr forecast on BBC Scotland or Scottish Television. If you do that, then you find that the vocabulary of the forecasts fall into a fairly narrow set of semantic fields: meteorological events, (wind, rain, fog) and processes (rising or falling temperatures, freshening winds, etc). One thing which strikes us about the poem is that there is a greater variety of semantic fields than are found in the weather forecasts. Some are detailed below:
Rain, wind, cloud
cloods (1,2, 16), cloodit (6)
rain (3, 19)
Geography & Topography
syle (3, 19)
warld (6, 14, 14)
yird [?] (10)
River Tay (4)
sclenter [?] (10)
the Tay (5)
steer (2, 17)
rowin [?] (2)
sclenter [?] (10)
on loan (11)
her ain (17)
gie ... name (11)
People (see also Offspring)
Scotland’s fowk (16)
thocht (12, 19)
immigration laws (13)
Channels for water (man-made)
The classification of the lexical items into sets here is more thorough than that attempted for the weather forecast – partly because the communicative purpose of a poem is harder to pin down. Parts of a weather forecast can be neglected if they are irrelevant to the needs of the viewer (who might be interested in a particular area, and who might or might not be interested in gardening, or skiing, for example). But if poetry is written and communicated for its own sake, then none of the lexical sets, large and small, noted above, can be considered inessential.
The poem shares with the weather forecasts some areas of vocabulary: Rain, wind, cloud and Geography, for example. However, other areas of meaning are prominent in the poem, notably words for Confused activity, and – perhaps less obvious when we actually read the poem – words in the lexical sets of Possession and Communication. Collecting the lexical items into sets such as these can help display prominent themes in a text, and the sets can support arguments about the interpretation of the poem: we can say, for example, that the poem is about the great natural cycle: the global transformations of earth to air to water to earth (a cycle echoed by that of mother to child). People (here ‘Scotland’s fowk’, typified by the ‘wather-man’) try to possess this terrifying process by naming it: ‘awn’ is yoked to ‘screive’ as if one is a paraphrase of the other. However, the poem’s speaker asks us to remember that natural cycles, like thought itself, cannot be pinned down by the labels and limits of humankind, and that, despite our claims of ownership, we are equally part of the great natural cycle.
This kind of activity demands the use of good Scots dictionaries, and if possible the Scots Thesaurus, which is a fascinating reference book. But again, we are not encouraged simply to look things up – the dictionary and thesaurus activities are subordinated to the making sense of a lexically dense text, but one, I would suggest, that rewards the effort.
From words I want to turn now to grammar. Teaching first-year students grammar at Glasgow University I’m frequently struck by how... innocent of formal grammatical knowledge many are when they arrive. I hope that with the new Higher examinations that innocence will gradually disappear. It’s difficult teaching grammar in an interesting way, and I can’t claim to have found a way of doing that yet, especially when you’ve got 10 short weeks and a class of 400. With smaller groups and more time, I’d be less inclined to go for the brutalism of ‘this is the lecture on the preposition phrase’ and more inclined to go with the concept of grammar as choice. We have choices in the way we combine words – grammar looks at these choices and considers the different meanings that result from those choices. To talk precisely about these choices, true, you need to know how words combine to form phrases, and how phrases function as constituents of clauses (ie as Subject, Verb, Object, Complement, Adverbial).
The importance of grammatical choices becomes clear when you have been doing what I’ve been doing most recently, and that is looking at the history of translation into Scots. I’m probably prejudiced if not obsessive about this now, but it seems clear to me that translation stands as one of the main pillars of the Scots literary tradition: from the earliest times it has fed, inspired and internationalised our literary activity. It’s extended the language we use and extended the types of literary genre we can use it in. In terms of grammar, however, interesting things happen when two or more people translate the same text, as happens for example with the Old English elegy, The Seafarer, translated into Scots by Tom Scott and Alexander Scott, and into English by Edwin Morgan (and a whole host of others, including a significantly strange version by Ezra Pound). Different translators make different choices about how they will render the source text, and these choices are particularly interesting when the source text is a West Saxon dialect, one of the ancestors of Present-Day English, and cognate to the ancestor of Present-Day Scots. The Seafarer is a tenth-century elegy, a lament by the eponymous sailor about his harsh life, that ends in Christian hope and the prospect of a final voyage, possibly to and beyond death. This is how the two Scots versions begin:
Alexander Scott, ‘Seaman’s Sang’
Anent mysel I’ll tell ye truly:
hou, stravaigin the sea in trauchlesome days,
aye tholan the dunts o time,
I’ve borne strang stounds in my breist,
kennan my ship the hame o monie cares.
Tom Scott, ‘The Seavaiger’
A suthfast sang I can sing o my life,
Vaunt o vaigins, hou I vexious tyauvin
In days o sair darg hae dreeit aften.
Bitter the breist pangs I hae abydit,
Kent abuin keels care trauchlit wonnins...
Now the basic sentence structure of English and Scots today is SVO (Subject followed by Verb followed by Object). Adverbials (ie adverbs and prepositional phrases) give extra information and they are quite mobile – they can come at the beginning or end of sentences, though seldom between Verb and Object (they can interrupt Verb and Object in other languages, which is why ‘I am meeting in the morning Richard’ is something, let’s say, a Spanish speaker might utter, but you wouldn’t normally hear it from an English-speaker). There are historical reasons for the SVO pattern in Present-Day English and Scots. When The Seafarer was written, word-order was actually more flexible because the endings of the words told the listener or reader what function the phrase was playing, whereas today these endings have been lost so we rely much more on the position in the sentence to signal the clause function. One of these two translations systematically inverts expected clause patterns: which is it?
Alexander Scott, ‘Seaman’s Sang’
A [Anent mysel] S [I] V [’ll tell] O [ye] A [truly]:
A [hou, stravaigin the sea in trauchlesome days],
A [aye tholan the dunts o time],
S[I] V [’ve borne] O [strang stounds] A [in my breist],
A [kennan my ship the hame o monie cares].
Tom Scott, ‘The Seavaiger’
O [A suthfast sang] S [I] V [can sing] A [ o my life],
V [Vaunt] A [o vaigins], A [hou S [I] O [vexious tyauvin]
A [In days o sair darg] V [hae dreeit] A [aften].
C [Bitter] O [the breist pangs] S [I] V [hae abydit],
V [Kent] A [abuin keels] O [care trauchlit wonnins]
The Tom Scott version is grammatically much more tortuous than the Alex Scott version. If you take the Adverbials away, you basically have two SVO patterns in Alex Scott’s version, while you have OSV, SOV, and COSV patterns in Tom Scott’s version. The last line has one of those ‘Spanish’ intrusions of an Adverbial into a VO sequence. Obviously, faced with the same source material, the two translators made very different grammatical choices. Why?
Briefly, I’ve argued elsewhere that Alex Scott’s translation is intended to be much more fluent – he keeps to expected grammatical patterns because he wants to have a ‘normal’ speaking voice that seems ‘natural’ or ‘conversational’ to the reader or listener. This is a translation that hides the fact that it is a translation. Alex Scott plays down the poetic qualities of the original, subduing the alliteration and choosing vocabulary that is fairly accessible.
Tom Scott disrupts grammatical expectations, employs at times thumping alliteration, and chooses more obscure vocabulary. This is a translation that draws attention to itself, is self-consciously literary, and tries in a way to reconstruct the strangeness of the source text, by way of its archaic grammar as much as its arcane vocabulary.
Interesting comparison can be made with two English translations. Edwin Morgan adopts a more or less, conversational tone, much like Alexander Scott’s:
This verse is my voice, it is no fable,
I tell of my travelling, how in hardship
I have often suffered laborious days,
endured in my breast the bitterest cares,
explored on shipboard sorrow’s abodes,
the welter and the terror of the waves.
Ezra Pound’s notorious and celebrated translation, however, pushes further the alienating strategies of Tom Scott:
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea surge.
Again the grammatical deviations from the SVO norm make this text more self-consciously poetic, much more visible than the fluent translations of Morgan and Scott. Different grammatical choices have different effects. If these effects are to be articulated, the grammatical characteristics of the poems have to be described, precisely and accurately, and pupils have to have the tools to do this. But it’s not necessarily a mechanical operation – at best, if grammatical description can be linked to interpretation, it can be creative and expressive.
You can’t always find a set of translations like this to demonstrate to your pupils, though translations into Scots are so numerous that it shouldn’t be difficult to find English/Scots versions at least of useful texts: over the past few years there have been stage versions in Scots of Phaedra, Medea, The Three Sisters, A Government Inspector, The Hypochondriac amongst many others. There are published versions of Cyrano de Bergerac in Scots, English, and Indian English (‘Binglish’) for example, and these bear fruitful investigation about lexical and grammatical choices.
But at the very least, it is possible to make your own versions of texts: take a sonnet and rewrite it as free verse, or vice versa. Translate from Scots to English and English to Scots. Play about with the grammar and consider the consequences of doing so. The trick is to convey the potential of different grammatical choices for altering meanings...and then to go deeper into the technical mechanisms by which this is done.
I want to conclude by saying a few brief words about discourse. ‘Discourse’ technically refers to patterns of organisation above the level of the sentence, and unlike grammar it can be approached in a number of different ways. Approaches vary, for example, depending on whether you are considering spoken discourse or written text. Spontaneous conversation has its structures and constraints: the taking of turns, the shifting of topics, the give and take of evaluations and interruptions, the supporting ‘mms’ and ‘ayes’ and nods that signal you are awake and listening. Written text is more goal-oriented, has conventions that develop in accordance with the social expectations of the genre: a job application, for example, will have a certain format and register and content.
Literary texts, since they are intrinsically playful (whether or not the play is for a serious purpose) tend to disrupt our expectations about the organisation of discourse. We tend to expect texts to make sense. Sometimes, however, they don’t. Consider the opening paragraph of James Kelman’s ‘Comic Cuts’:
These things always begin in a less than unexceptional manner. It’s a case of grabbing the nettle. What else is there? What else could there be? And I stress the ‘could’. One has to accept these things; if ye were to examine every last detail, every last detail. Being speaking, I was awake, but weary, weary. I stared at the guy, having to concentrate my mind, focus, focus, abracadabra. Then came a screech. It was just the wooden chair I was sitting on. I had shifted my seated position. Another sound, barely discernible, the ticktick of a clock. Then too Vik’s breathing, regular, not snoring. My best mate, partner and mucker, he was stretched out behind the kitchen table. He had terrible bony joints and couldnay have been too comfortable.
From Kelman, James (1998) ‘Comic Cuts’ in The Good Times, (Secker and Warburg), p. 128
I’ll confine myself to a few observations about this text. First, the opening sentences work by throwing the reader in at the deep end and deliberately disorienting him or her. ‘These things’ – what things are being referred to? What’s ‘a case of grabbing the nettle’? And when the narrator asks the rhetorical questions ‘What else is there? What else could there be?’ (rhetorical questions that assume that the listener knows the answer) the reader (who is occupying the position of the listener) is completely lost. But we stick with the text, assuming that it is not nonsense, that it will make sense. In other words we work with the text to make sense of it – the coherence of a text results from an interaction between writer and reader through a text. Meaning does not reside in the text; it is actively constructed by a reader using the text, using his or her knowledge of similar texts, and using knowledge of the world. James Kelman’s short stories often work like this – teasing the reader by offering sentences that do not hang together coherently, forcing the reader to make inferences, fill the gaps, construct meanings. We do this as a matter of course with other texts, but the clues are usually more obvious.
There are ways to articulate how the discourse of this text is working: we could point to the patterns of reference (eg ‘what do “these things” refer to), the use of the definite article (‘the guy’ assumes we know who is being talked about, but we don’t yet), and we could consider the assumptions that we normally bring to bear upon a text when we are reading it (we assume that the writer is generally cooperating with us in the creation of meaning, that what he or she says is relevant, that it gives us enough information to make sense, that it is not deliberately untruthful, that it is not deliberately obscure). Fiction tends to subvert these expectations – literature tells lies, misleads, is obscure, withholds information – yet we persevere with it, hopeful of a reward by the end. By frequently denying our expectations of how discourse works, it does us the service of showing us how discourse normally works.
This has been a wide-ranging and in some respects idiosyncratic consideration of how Scots literary texts might be used practically in the classroom to shed light on the texts themselves and on the linguistic systems though which they communicate. We’ve touched on a number of the themes in the Advanced Higher guidelines: the sounds and words and grammar of textual materials, and the use of dictionaries and thesauruses in a stimulating, creative way. In the Advanced Higher in Scottish Language, the emphasis is not on literature, and in the Scottish Literature components the emphasis is not on language, but I would like to suggest that there can be useful interaction between the two.
Copyright © John Corbett 2001
Last updated 23 August 2010.