Language And Identity: Scots Dialect And Gaelic Language

Language is often seen as a diagnostic characteristic of a people. For indigenous people around the world maintaining their tradition languages (rather than giving up on their own and taking on the one of the incoming culture) has become a mark of identity. Unlike many overt aspects of culture like food, clothing and so on, language is something which is difficult to acquire. It also has a both a performance and interpretive aspect – that is a speaker of language must be able to understand and speak the language. This requires a certain immersion in the language for a lengthy period of time (including those born into the culture) and hence is a greater marker of identity than clothing or a fondness for native foods or music. Some cultures recognize people’s attempts at the language as an interest in the culture and an appreciation of the culture where other cultures may feel inaccurate sentence structures and mistaken pronunciations are something of an insult. In Mexico many people regard the attempts at Spanish as something positive whereas the French are known by many to reject anyone’s French which is not native as an insult and they may even refuse to understand what the person is saying.

Some Scots have evidence a similar dichotomy. People who attempt Gaelic are rarely rebuffed for their efforts, whereas attempts at Scots might be a bit more edgy. It would be interesting to see if this is actually the case, although one can see some logic to it. Since speakers of most English dialects are intelligible to one another, the decision to speak in another dialect might be puzzling and even seen as insulting, whereas an attempt to learn a different language as opposed to a different dialect could easily be seen as positive.

Since dialects differ only slightly from one another, it is easy to slip up on forms and meanings. There are some variations in Scots which do not occur across the board. Some dialects distinguish (in speaking) the words “fir” and “fur” which are almost universally pronounced the same in English dialects. There are differences within Scotland concerning the pronunciation of words like “tied” and “tide” or “side” and “sighed”. For most English speakers the two members of the pair are identical in sound, (phonetically [tayd]) whereas only “tied” is said that way in some Scots dialects. “Tide” has a different vowel, a schwa [təyd] (which is pronounced something like the “a” in “about”. “Side” [səyd] and “sighed” [sayd] go the same way. It seems that if the word is an open syllable (that is, it ends in a vowel) it is pronounced with [ay] whereas if it ends in a consonant (a closed syllable) it is pronounced [əy]. If a consonant is added to an open syllable then it remains [ay]. So “sigh” and “tie” are [say] and [tay]. When a “d” is added to form the past tense, the vowel remains the same so they become [sayd] and [tayd] respectively. But “side” and “tide” end in “d” from the start and have not had it added so they are [səyd] and [təyd] respectively.

Now this may seem something like a tempest in a tea pot, but that is the point. If the differences are so small, why bother to learn the new dialect – especially when you are likely to sound like someone speaking “Second year Scots” (as opposed to second year Gaelic)? This may account for people who speak the dialect feeling that people are making fun of them or stereotyping them in some way by “playing” with the dialect.

So how does this relate to the idea of Scottish identity through language? Here I must make a small digression. There is a famous philosophical argument in logic called the ‘No True Scotsman” and deals with a logical fallacy. The name “No True Scotsman” is thought to first appear in a book called Thinking About Thinking (1975) by Antony Flew. The original story says:
“Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the "Brighton (England) Sex Maniac Strikes Again". Hamish is shocked and declares that "No Scotsman would do such a thing". The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen (Scotland) man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: "No true Scotsman would do such a thing".”

The argument is that when encountering a counter example to a universal claim, the original definition is changed or refined to exclude the counter example.

Most logicians start the proof of their argument by saying a Scotsman is “anyone who lives in Scotland”, This seems patently false nor is it clear where such a definition comes from. Many people who live in Scotland are not Scottish and many Scotsmen don’t live in Scotland (at least if we were sure what a Scotsman was. One always needs to define one’s terms – but who gets to define them? I, for one, would not have made that definition.) Worse still, one cannot make a definition by saying “A Scotsman is a person holding Scottish citizenship” since there is no such thing as Scottish citizenship, only British citizenship. Perhaps one could define a Scotsman as someone who is culturally Scottish – whatever that may mean. But certainly there is a feeling that language has something to do with it. Is part of being Scottish speaking either Scottish Gaelic, or some form of English which is a Scottish dialect as typified by certain linguistic features?

Unfortunately, the logicians do not define the word “true” which becomes central to the argument. Consider the following “Mammals are vertebrates that have 4 chambered hearts, seven cervical vertebrae, and give birth to their young alive. The duck billed platypus is a mammal. Alas, it lays eggs. So might we say that it is not a “true mammal” or perhaps “not fully mammalian” or something like that? So once we might have a definition of a Scotsman which is not restricted to place of residence, things begin to get messy.

Now it is also well known that different individuals handle the culture differently. The anthropologist Clyde Klucjhohn who wrote in the 1930s and 40s once said “In some ways all men are like all other men; in some ways all men are like some other men; and in some ways all men are like no other men”. So he claims all people are human and share some things in common. He also claims that people from the same culture share some things with each other they do not share with people outside the culture. Finally, all people within the culture differ one from another and have their own individuality. A so definitions of cultural patterns have to allow for the idea that not everyone follows them (but they are usually aware of them as are other people in the culture).

Now anthropologists also hold that there is a “stated” culture as opposed to an “actual” culture – what people say they do or should do as opposed to what they actually do. For example in language, people may say that to make a question in English you raise your voice at the end of a sentence. This is, for some dialects, the case with sentences like “Do you want to eat now?” or “Do you want to go to Spain”. It is not true however for sentences like “Do you cook at home?” So the stated version may often be incorrect.

So now we can raise the question as to whether a Scotsman confirms to the stated or actual culture. Perhaps a “true Scotsman” follows the stated culture as closely as possible and the more one deviates, the further they are from being a “true Scotsman” So the sentence is not logically incorrect. But rather it has specified the meaning of Scotsman with no indication as how it was done and done an even worse job on the word “true”.

All of this is not meant to quibble about “The True Scotsman” fallacy. Rather it is a look at the problem of what constitutes a “Scotsman” and how language and dialect may play a role in defining a person as being a “Scotsman” or not. Wearing a kilt, listening to bagpipe music and even liking haggis may link an outsider to the culture, but these are more easily acquired attributes of the culture than language which may explain why in some ways language is the sine qua non of identity and to some degree why attempts at language are acceptable while attempts at a dialect may be less so. There is no real proof about dialects not being acceptable, and it would be nice to have some research on the subject. At the moment it remains a hypothesis based on a few examples. In addition we might wonder how much of Scottish identity is tied [təyd] in with language!