Scots Grammar and Usage


Scots Grammar: Scots Grammar and Usage
David Purves (1998)
Published by the Saltire Society (Edinburgh 2002)
Edinburgh (Scotland):
Saltire Society; pp. 69;
ISBN 0-85411-068-2; UK 7.99
Reviewed by David Clement

For anyone who considers the difference between a dialect and a language to be that a language has a set of rules, and dialect does not, will be confounded by this book. In any case, Dr Purves refers throughout to the Scots language and its various dialects 'from Shetland to the Borders and from Donegal to Fife'. The author acknowledges the debt to the Shetlandic Grammar (Grammar and Usage of the Shetland Dialect compiled by John J Graham and T A Robertson, first published in 1952 by the Sheland Times.).In addition, Dr Philip Robinson is given credit for the inspiration provided by his Ulster Scots Grammar published in 1997.

I do not consider it useful to pick holes in this excellent work. Anyone who knows Scots will have many happy hours with the hundreds of examples of idioms and usage here. Many of the readers of the Scotia News will not know much Scots, or have been in Scotland recently, so I will give an account of this book's place in the development, or rather revival of Scots as a national language.

The Scottish National Dictionary was begun by Sir William Craigie in 1928 - my grandfather was among the original subscribers. As the fascicles appeared, the editors sent out queries to the subscribers - lists of words to be verified as to their usage and pronunciation. So my great-aunt, Mary Cruikshank from Twynholm, appears as one of the informants for Galloway.

David Murison, only the second editor, had the satisfaction of finishing the dictionary in 1976. Of course in a sense it never finishes - there have been various spin-offs by the editors Iseabail MacLeod and Pauline Speitel. There is a school edition, Scots-English, English-Scots, published by Chambers in Edinburgh, also a CD Rom. The office, will direct enquirers to the relevant sites or booksellers. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue - the title a red rag to all supporters of Gaelic of course! - has recently been completed. It concentrates on the language up to the death of Burns in 1796.

To return to Dr Purves's book - its function is both to describe and prescribe: to describe the riches of Contemporary Spoken Scots, but to prescribe a form of the language capable of being taught in the schools, and in courses for writers aspiring to literary Scots.

The bane of the English teacher's life - sentences like Me and my mammy wiz cummin doon the road thegither - are perfectly in accordance with the grammar used by poets at the Scottish court prior to 1603, when James VI went to London to be the king of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, though, to the best of my knowledge, that particular sentence in not attested anywhere in the courtly literature!

The fact that Latin grammar would reject the form me (an accusative pronoun as part of the subject phrase) and the singular verb is neither here nor there. Scots used (and still uses) plural verb forms after pronouns such as we or they, but not after plural nouns.

'Me and my Shadows' is perfectly natural English, as are it's me, that is me. St Peter standing at the Pearly Gates on hearing in reply to his question for the umpteenth time "It is I", is alleged to have said "Not another bloody schoolteacher!" Even the pro-Latin fanatics cannot get round "This is me" (indicating a person in a photograph.) Forms like Are these they (British) and This is she (American) leave me gasping. Sometimes the mixture of prescription, (don't do what I say, do what I say I say) and description breaks down. The use of thou does not make sense, if Dr Purves is advocating a form that relates to contemporary Scots.

Otherwise it can be said that Shetland combines some surviving Scandinavian vocabulary with modified forms of Scots. The SND decided not to include Shetland words, unless they were also found on the Scots mainland.

What purpose is served by including pseudo-Highland Scots in this grammar is not clear to the reviewer. Nostalgia for Latin paradigms is perhaps behind the nomenclature Nominative - Objective - Possessive. As well as being used as an Object, me, him, her them, etc can be used paired with a noun or another pronoun, which may be the subject, so the analysis does not work; nor does 'mynes' as Possessive. Dr Purves would be well advised to see how moi, toi, lui are treated in French grammar, or compare sentences like Det er mig ('it's me) in Danish or Norwegian .The reader is not misled, as Dr Purves gives examples of usage.

The last few years have been kind to the Scots Language. This statement may astonish those lovers of Scots who have seen their elderly relatives go to the grave with their beautiful Doric, or who have travelled around our country and heard and seen in some areas the ruins of a language. In view of the proximity of Scots to its Big Neighbour, English, the most pervasive and invasive language in the world at present, the erosion is not surprising. If dictionaries are the necessary weapons for a counter-offensive, these appeared in plenty in the last quarter of the twentieth century. First, the Scottish National Dictionary was finished under the editorship of the late David Murison. This in turn gave rise to the Concise Scots Dictionary, the Scots Thesaurus and the Scots Dictionary for Schools. The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue has also just been finished. Two hundred years after the Gaelic New Testament appeared, the late Professor Lorimer, an eminent Greek scholar, presented his New Testament in Scots. The Linguistic Survey of Scotland published its Scots section, chronicling the rich variety of dialect vocabulary. Finally, the Scots Resource Centre opened in Perth, bringing together manpower and publications at the service of the general and scholarly public. Necessary, but is it sufficient? The modern world with its media also gives us electronic means, such as tape and cassette recorders to conserve and perpetuate the language. Gaelic has its radio stations and its television programmes demonstrating that the language is viable, but where are the Scots equivalents? Is the status or self-confidence of the language simply too low? Is the calumny that it is simply Bad English (still heard today) really still believed? Where is the series of programmes to follow up on the brilliant success of 'Who are the Scots?' with 'What is Scots?' or even 'Where is the Scots?' I cannot tell if fine programmes are broadcast in Scots on local radio in the North East or in Shetland - I know only they are absent from television, although far more people understand Scots than Gaelic. It is a question of snobbery rather than numbers. The semi-literate elite of STV are not Scots speakers, and seem to have no affection for the language. The few programmes we do see are made by Grampian, a company with its roots in the Highlands and the North East.

Outside the North East, Billy Kay from Ayrshire seems to be the only Scots voice on the media. He fights a lone battle

What is the history of Scots? In origin, the northern variety of Old English often called Anglian or Northumbrian, it developed in the favourable atmosphere of the Scottish Court and flourished for over 300 years under the patronage of kings, until that was rudely withdrawn in 1603 when James went to London to be the first recorded king of Great Britain and Ireland. The Flemings and Scandinavians of the burghs and countryside made their contributions, as did the Dutch and Low German-speakers in the east coast ports. It has Gaelic and French elements that are presumably missing from the northern English dialects. We are still waiting for someone to write a popular or scholarly history of the language.

The Scottishness of Scots has been enhanced in recent years by the rapid disappearance of the dialects on the other side of the border. There is a striking difference between the language of the playground in say Coldstream and in the first school on the English side. The prestige of Scots, at least locally, and the absence of prestige of 'Northumbrian' has a lot to do with it.

One of the most important developments has been the opening of a Scots Language Resource Centre in Perth to coordinate work previously done by Societies like the Scots Language Society and the Saltire Society. It is entirely appropriate that one of the stalwarts of the SLS, Dr David Purves, should be the author of the Grammar of Scots, the main subject of this review. Some years ago, the Language Committee of the Scottish Literary Review identified a grammar of Scots as a major desideratum. No-one who has thought seriously about this can doubt the difficulty of the project. Any who confine themselves to recording existing speech will be aware that they are dealing in many parts of Scotland with 'the ruins of a language' (a phrase coined by the late Heinrich Wagner to describe the dialects of Irish). Of course, there are certain areas, like the north-east, where the structure if not unaffected by the erosion of time, is at least fully functional. Dr Purves makes it plain in his introduction that his book is designed as a guide for teachers and writers of Scots and will draw on past literary forms as well as modern spoken ones. Despite the enthusiasm of linguists like myself for descriptive rather than prescriptive grammars, the Scot in me wishes this book every success and perceives the vital need for such a book. This immediately brings me to my first objection (I will try to get them out of the way and turn to the many positive points): in analysing the pronouns of Scots, the author tells us that the second singular form is thou-thee-thine. might once have been, and certainly Burns wrote like that, but in the whole of present-day Scotland, only Shetland (and in the suspiciously Norwegian-looking forms dou-dee) still has a separate singular form derived from Old English thu. A case perhaps of the Shetland tail wagging the Scots dog? But how many generations since mainland Scots spoke like that? And should this REALLY be a model for Scots writers and teachers? You can imagine the reply from the class spokesperson: but we dinna talk like that, surr! Of course, distinguishing singular and plural is relatively common in Urban Scots - ye (sing) and youse (plural) - and seems to be almost universal in Northern Ireland. The mix of the imaginary (or reconstructed) and reality clash in the forms I-me-mines vs thou-thee-thine. They are clearly not of a kind. One is accurate, descriptive and contemporary, the other is exceptional, prescriptive and marginal or from a bygone age. The other major piece of grammar - the section on the irregular verbs - is well done and the literary or dialectal variants are recorded. There is quite a lot about spelling in this book. This is really not part of grammar, but essential both for those who would write the language creatively and to teach others to read and write it.

The part that will be most enjoyable to the general reader with some knowledge of Scots is not strictly speaking grammar at all. These are the adjectives, which are here under various headings such as word-formation, but in fact are the literary side of the author at last getting a free run. And they are most delightful. If for no other reason, order the book and enjoy the rich phrases of our (still) living language.