Two Odd-ball Language bits in English Coming from Scotland and Scottish languages

There are many words in English which are the result of errors in speaking or writing (or spelling) that have worked their way into the English language. Words or phrases become associated with specific people and then the person’s name becomes a part of the language. Spoonerism is a classic example of this It is a kind of metathesis. In a metathesis to parts of a word become switched in position. This can cause words to form in a language which are not quite might be expected. The word “nuclear” is a typical example (it is correctly pronounced “new clee ur” but metathesizes into “new cue lar”). On the other hand “ask” historically was “aks” (now seen as improper).

When the exchange of sounds comes from different words in clause or sentence with a new existing word appearing it is known as a “Spoonerism” named after the Warden of New College at Oxford, Rev, William Archibald Spooner who was known to make such mistakes regularly (although many of the Spoonerisms attributed to him may not be actually his). One of the most famous is “The queer old dean” which came out instead of “The dear old queen” Another was “The lord is a shoving leopard” rather than “The Lord is a loving shepherd”.

In a further development, the word “mondegreen” appears to label the process of mishearing lyrics to songs. The word was coined by Sylvia Wright, an American writer who wrote an essay called “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”. Lady Mondegreen was created by the author of the essay mishearing the words to a Scottish ballad, “The Bonnie Earl of Moray”. She had heard the text as:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen

In fact the stanza’s last line actually is
“And laid him on the green”

And so a whole new person was created. Similar problems occurred when the American program All in the Family opened with the main characters singing “Those Were the Days” The last lines of the song were almost unintelligible and were heard as many things including:

Boy, the way Glen Miller played. Songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.
Didn't need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee I want to celebrate Those were the days.

Instead of the original

Boy, the way Glen Miller played. Songs that made the hit parade. Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.
Didn't need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.

Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

Similar problems plague the Russian emperor in Lieutenant Kije where a non-existent Lieutenant is created through a misreading (or writing) of a document
So while minor, a nice Scottish ballad is responsible for a word in English: “Mondegreen”

Languages often have “status” some are seen as more important than others. For example French has a higher status among “intellectuals” than does Swedish for example. So no properly trained academician would ever pronounces the family name of the film maker, François Trufauft as “True Foat” (as in “float” or “boat”). However they don’t bat an eye when they Anglicize the family name of Ingmar Bergman (in which the “e” should be closer to the “a” in “hat” and the “g” should be pronounced closer to a “y”. Listen here Dreyer’s film Ordet is not pronounced in Danish as it would be in English, despite commentators on Turner Classic Movies doing so.

Latin and Ancient Greek, like French are languages with status. English teachers and grammarians appear to have been so impressed with Latin that many of the rules spouted by them are rooted in Latin grammar not English. So for example Latin has 6 endings to the verbs:

Video              I see Videmus            We see
Vides              You (singular) see Videtis              You (plural) see
Videt              He, she or it sees Vident                They see

So school children had to recite all six when doing English, even though English has only two forms
I, you, we, they see
he, he, it sees

One might conceivably argue that it is “more perfect” (if one can say that) to have six forms than two. But why not then follow the pattern of Mohawk an Iroquoian language in which there are fifteen (or sometimes more than 50) forms involved. That would be even “more perfect”. (I won’t bother you with all fifteen (or 50+) , here, but suffice it to say there are four different forns for “we” and four for “they”)

So because Latin and Greek were seen as having significantly more status than Scottish Gaelic which apparently just doesn’t rate. As a result, the word “ptarmigan” which comes from the Scottish Gaelic word tarmarchan, was given status by giving it an initial “p” to make it look Greek (like pterodactyl).

There are many interesting linguistic problems that involve Scotland and the various tongues spoken there. These are just two. We have discussed some others in earlier issues, and hope to bring up more in future ones.