#MyrtleMondays: Talk Like a Scot!

One of the most fun and challenging parts of writing Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries Book 5, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity was crafting the dialogue of the cast of Scottish characters—many of whom speak Scots. The day we luikit this braw an’ fascinating langage o’ the Scottish fowk!

My Scottish authenticity reader, Anne Reilly, particularly liked this passage of dialogue. (Microsoft Word’s spellcheck was less impressed.)

love language.  The history, variety, and evolution of how we speak and write has fascinated and delighted me as long as I can remember. In high school, I took an independent study history course to learn more about the history of the English language, and I went on to study linguistics and linguistic anthropology in college. You may have noticed some of this fascination has rubbed off on Myrtle, too, as she notes etymologies of her favorite words in many of her footnotes!

My brother gave me this book for Christmas several (many) years ago, for no reason than he knew how fascinating I’d find it! Little did he realize…

As I sent Myrtle & Co. off to 1894 Scotland, I wanted to do justice to the setting—not just the landscape, but the people, culture, and language of the era, too. Scotland is home to three native languages: English, Scottish Gaelic, and Scots, and many Scots speak some combination of all three, especially as many place names still reflect their Gaelic and Scots roots. Gaelic words, like sgian dubh, are quite obviously not English… but Scots grew up alongside its English cousin, from a common ancestor, so Scots can sound sound tantalizingly familiar to English speakers (and vice versa).

The online Dictionaries of the Scots Language provides this “Family Tree” of Scots, showing its history and close relationship to English

For many years, Scots fell into decline, as many people—Scottish people included—considered it merely “bad English,” due to the commonalities shared by the two tongues. During the Victorian era and well into the 20th century, schools would punish students for speaking Scots, but thankfully there have always been efforts to preserve and promote Scotland’s linguistic heritage.

These Glasgow schoolchildren (1916) would have been strongly discouraged from speaking Scots at school. This is one reason I let my young Scottish characters of the 1890s use their mither tongue.

Not surprisingly, the literary world featured some of the strongest proponents of Scots. Perhaps the most famous writer of Scots is 18th century poet Robert Burns.

Scotland’s “National Poet,” Robert Burns did much to revitalize national interest in Scots. People around the world still sing his “Auld Lang Syne” on New Year’s Eve. This Scots expression means “days gone by,” although its literal translation is old long since.

Born in Ayrshire, western Scotland, in 1759, Burns wrote in a “light Scots dialect” that made the language accessible to native English readers, expanding the reach and interest of Scots throughout the British Isles. In addition to his own original poetry, Burns collected and published Scottish folk songs and stories, helping preserve another aspect of Scottish culture. His poetry is well-known around the world even today—many people find themselves quoting Scots without even knowing it!

Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
          Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
          Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
Burns’s “To a Mouse” inspired the title of a classic American novel and opens with some of the most delightful and expressive Scots ever put to pen.

Today’s Scottish kids are learning more about their native linguistic heritage (Scots Language Centre)

In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of passion for Scots, making sure that this vital part of Scottish culture continues to thrive. In 2001 the UK ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, with the aim of protecting Scots and other native languages of the UK (including Cornish, Welsh, and Gaelic), and in recent years the Scottish government has made further strides to integrate Scots into civic life. For the first time, Scotland’s 2011 census included a question about the Scots language, and nearly 2 million Scots (about 35% of the population) identified as Scots speakers.  Read more here.

The Scots Language Center is an advocacy, news, and education clearinghouse, and an incredible resource for all sorts of knowledge on Scots! The website is bilingual, with every page available in both Scots and English. In addition to their library of children’s books that are translated into Scots (#authorgoals), one of my favorite features is their Word of the Week, in which contributors offer insight into the use of uniquely Scots words. (This week it’s fleg.)
Of course, one of the best ways to learn a new language, or refresh your skills, is to immerse yourself in it through reading and hearing it! So if you’re new to Scots or it’s been a while, I hope you’ll enjoy the peek into a marvelous part of Scottish life in Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity!
And if ye find yersel ramfeezled, dinnae fret! I’ve included a handy Scots Lexicon to guide you through the Scots terms. Have fun talking like the Scots!